Raine had already decided I wasn’t going home that day.
I nibbled at more chocolate cookie in a vain attempt to recapture normality, as much normality as one could feel after a frank discussion of terminal violence, but we weren’t over the hump quite yet. An intimate question, an inevitable question, forced its way up and out of my mouth.
“Do you have a body count?”
Raine stopped mid-bite, lowered her own food, and spoke very softly. “You sure you wanna know?”
“Yes. I think. If you and I are going to be together, I can’t pretend not to see the real you.”
“Good point, fair enough. Well, not counting the two I may or may not have put down inside the loop?”
“For now, okay.”
She nodded for a long moment, sober and calm.
“Three and a half.”
“Three and … ?” Relief and horror fought in my chest: Raine had only killed three people. Also, Raine had killed three people. “Half?”
“The one Evee and I did together. Shared responsibility. Not my place to talk about that.”
“I can tell you all about the others though, if you really wanna hear.” Raine broke into a awkward grin. “Not exactly what I imagined for pillow talk with the cutest girl I’ve ever wrangled in my bed, though.”
I blushed, despite the topic. My first time in another girl’s bed - except for Maisie - and we were discussing homicide instead of bonking like rabbits.
“At least … the first?”
“Ahhh, that was the messiest one.” Raine leaned back on her hands and relaxed. “Happened a few days after I ran away from home, weeks before I met Evee. I was outside a train station, some half empty town in the London commuter belt.” She pointed at the big map of the UK over her desk, with the highlights and thumbtacks. “S’up there somewhere, but one of the few places I don’t remember the name. It was night, I was alone, looking for somewhere to kip, and this guy just attacked me. Grabbed me from behind. I probably looked like an easy target, fourteen year old girl wandering about by herself at night.”
“S’fine. Didn’t bother me. Didn’t even really scare me, he never had a chance. I knocked his brains out with a spanner I’d been carrying in my pocket, just in case. Left him there on the pavement, thought he was unconscious. Next day the corpse was in the news. Oops.”
“That- that definitely does sound like legitimate self-defence.” I nodded, felt my heart go out to her, to that fourteen year old Raine alone on a dark street.
But sympathy smuggled danger through my better sensibilities. Raine liked me, I wanted her; of course I was going to accept her justifications.
It was self-defence though, right?
“They’ve all been self-defence,” she said. “That first one for me, the other two for Evee. Those were later on, after we got thick as thieves, part of the power struggle after her mother’s death.”
“Bet that’s quite a story.”
“Yeah, and maybe one for another day. I think you’ve had enough excitement for the moment. You need food, rest, and probably a back rub.”
“Raine, why did you run away from home?”
She shrugged. “Parents.”
We ate for a while and I finally let talk turn to inconsequential matters. Raine sat cross-legged opposite me as I propped pillows behind my back, to take the edge off the lingering full-body ache.
I asked about the posters on her bedroom walls. Raine acted all mock-embarrassed and apologetic about the video game pinup girls, but I honestly thought they didn’t look too bad, except for the huge boobs. She told me about the thumbtacks and highlights on the map of the UK, a visual history of everywhere she’d been. The line snaked from a Suffolk town to meander through Essex and Kent, then snapped into the heart of London before swooping down across Surrey and into Sussex. Pins clustered around a post-it note which read ‘Here be Dragons’ - the Saye estate, Evelyn’s real home. Wild, unconnected excursions marked a couple of far-flung spots - Cumbria, Devon, neither of them good times according to Raine. The main route jumped halfway up the length of England - one long train journey, apparently - and finally settled in Sharrowford.
“What about you?” Raine nodded me toward the map. “Where have you been? Wanna draw your history up on there?”
I sighed and raised my eyebrows at her to cover for the small lump in my throat. “Mine would be very sparse. I’ve only ever lived in three places, and one of those was a children’s mental hospital. You know that by now.”
“Everybody’s gotta start somewhere.” Raine stood up and rummaged around on her desk. She held up a fist of highlighter pens, yellow and blue and green. “Pick a colour.”
“I’d really rather not.”
“Go on, pick a colour, you have to. We can fill in the rest of the map, as much as you like. Got a whole lifetime to do it in.”
My sceptical frown carried little conviction. That was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever said to me. For years I’d not really expected to reach thirty, let alone plan a future.
A future alone, without my other half, without Maisie. Now I’d been awake for a few hours, my mind bent inexorably toward her once more.
Raine climbed onto her desk chair and slapped the map with one hand. “Right, ‘fess up, where do you wanna go?”
I blinked at her, certain I’d heard those words before, recently: ‘Where do you want to go?’ Who had said that to me?
“Heather? Come on, don’t just gape at me.”
“Uh- careful, don’t fall.”
“Me, fall?” Raine cracked a grin and planted a foot on the chair’s backrest. She shifted her weight, rocked the chair so far that my heart tightened in my chest.
She winked at me, then landed the chair safely on four legs once more. “Heather, I’m dead serious. I can take you anywhere you want.”
“No, you can’t. You have responsibilities.”
Raine cleared her throat. “I mean, in the future. Come on, anywhere you like, what do you wanna see?”
“ … castles.”
Raine was blissfully unaware of the Pandora’s box she’d opened by pressing that question. Over the better part of the next hour I regaled her with a long, winding list of the all most beautiful castles I wanted to visit, from little islet keeps in Scotland to the well-known London tourist traps of The Tower and Westminster, to the great sprawling monster castles in Eastern Europe that I could never hope to scrape together enough money to see.
She lugged her laptop over to the bed and looked up each one as I went, our heads close together as we peered at stonework I’d admired for years. Every now and again Raine reached over and squeezed my thigh or rubbed my knee, and I did my best to concentrate on what I was saying.
Somewhere along the way, she made the fatal mistake of getting me started on architecture.
“I mean, that looks plenty gothic to me. Look at those towers.”
I huffed and shook my head. “Gothic is a specific style, not just a feeling. Go back to the previous page. Yes, that, that’s Gothic. The other one was just a shell keep, that’s a … R-Raine?”
A twinkle had entered her eye, a subtle smile on her lips.
“Go on!” she said. “This is the kinda Heather lore I crave.”
I tutted and blushed and managed to forge on into the differences between early Norman castles and Concentric designs. Raine nodded along, apparently fascinated by my amateur flailing. My right hand kept creeping up to rub at my sternum, the ache inside suppressed only briefly by talking.
“Good job distracting me, by the way,” I said.
“Ah, am I that obvious?”
“A little. I needed it, I guess. Better to talk about castles than … well. Everything yesterday. Uh, two days ago.” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. Lost time was biting hard.
“Everybody’s gotta decompress sometime. I think we earned it.”
“What happened, Raine? In that loop, what was that all about? Are we supposed to … run? Hide? What do we do now?”
“What do we do now?” Raine cracked a grin. “I think video games are in order, and there’s a Chinese takeaway place one street over, opens at five. If you feel like some fresh air and you’re well enough for a little walk, then we could pop down there together, or I could just call in delivery. I think we’ve got a menu downstairs in a kitchen drawer somewhere.”
I sighed, impressed by her gall but not her angle. “That’s not what I meant.”
Raine laughed in defeat. “I know, I know, but can’t we just take one day off? You need it, you’ve earned a break, we can think about serious stuff tomorrow.”
“What if we don’t have time for that? What if they’re looking for us now?”
“They’re not. Evee’s dealing with it.”
“Really really.” Raine wet her lips and let out a little sigh. “Trust me, she’s gone off on one, if you know what I mean. She’s taken this personally, big time. Whoever they were, Sharrowford Cult or not, Evee’s giving them much bigger fish to fry right now. In fact, uh, we should totally go check on her tomorrow, make sure she’s not burning her fingertips too badly.”
“Mm.” That worried me too. What I’d seen of Evelyn’s track record with magic was unfortunately terrible.
“Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll meet up with Evee. I don’t want to risk anything happening to you while you’re still feeling so rough. We’re perfectly safe here, I promise.”
I felt a fragile smile peek through. “Okay, okay. I guess I’m still frightened.”
“Hey, nothing wrong with that. I was scared too.”
“I even dreamed about one of them. One of the cultists, I mean.”
“Oh yeah?” Raine stretched her legs out and hooked one of her ankles over mine.
“Briefly, before I woke up. I think it was about the girl in the skull mask. Do you remember her too?”
“Yeah, that was weird, wasn’t it? I gave Evee descriptions of all of them over the phone, best I could, but she didn’t recognise any. That girl could have been anybody.” Raine chewed her way slowly through a cookie as she spoke. “Heather? Was it a bad dream?”
“Hm?” I looked up, realised I’d been frowning to myself. “Oh, no. She didn’t have much to say, I think. I don’t really recall the details, it’s all slipped away … ”
“I’ll take your mind off your dreams.”
Raine cleared her throat and wiped the smirk off her face. “I think you should stay here tonight. Take it easy. Rest up. Have some nice food. Nobody’s getting through me. Tomorrow, we can get back to to some kind of normal routine-”
“Oh! I’ve missed class.” The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I put a hand to my mouth. “Oh, God. Oh.”
“It’ll be fine.” Raine laughed and raised her hands. “You were ill, I was looking after you. Don’t sweat it. Damn, Heather, people miss class all the time, and with much crappier excuses than yours.”
“If you say so.” I had sudden visions of disappointed professors. There was little worse than the disapproval of those you looked up to intellectually.
“Don’t mind another night in my bed, do you?” Raine cracked a grin.
That snapped me back to the present, back to sharing a bedroom with the girl I’d been crushing on hard for weeks now, the girl I’d made out with two days ago. I opened my mouth but no words came out. Raine raised her eyebrows. I swallowed and forced myself to take a nice deep breath.
Maybe serious magic nonsense could wait a day.
“Please tell me this house has a shower.”
“Sure does. You wanna … ?” Raine gestured between me and her.
I blushed heavily. Embarrassment beat temptation. “Raine, I’m filthy, I stink like a pig. I-I just need to shower … thank you for the offer. Just shower.”
The rest of the day was a gift. I half-expected the spirit life to show up and ruin everything, creeping down the corridor or lurking in the bathroom, but apparently my message earlier had gotten through to them. I caught sight of a few in the street, but oddly enough they left the house alone.
I showered and changed into the spare clothes Raine had fetched from my flat. She took me downstairs to the dilapidated sitting room, where threadbare sofas squatted before a game console hooked up to a stolen telly, where I spent a very pleasant few hours curled up on the sofa, a blanket around my shoulders, while Raine sat cross-legged on the floor so she could show me a video game she was playing. Something about alchemists. The characters were all cute girls, so I wasn’t entirely out of my depth, but there was a lot of dialogue and running about. I barely paid attention, more intent on Raine’s reactions, delighted to be shown something she enjoyed.
And intent on the house.
The place was pretty run down, and not in a charming way like Evelyn’s house. Badly scuffed door frames and thin partition walls, ancient floral wallpaper peeling and cracked, carpets worn down to almost nothing. Clean, but poorly maintained.
“So, where are we exactly? I didn’t recognise the street when I looked outside.”
Raine glanced up from the game. “I’d be worried if you did. We’re off Dereham Road.”
I frowned and pursed my lips, cleared my throat gently. “I don’t actually know where that is.”
“Past the south end of the student quarter.”
“ … oh, next to the council estate, yes?”
“Ex-council estate,” Raine said as she clicked through the game menus. “Wouldn’t be so bad if not for the ex part. It’s not like, stab-happy land out there, but it’s not great either.”
“But hey, you can’t beat free.”
“ … free?” I blinked, lost.
“I … don’t understand? Zero rent? How?”
Raine turned a grin on me, unaccountably smug. “It’s a student squat. Abandoned property. Bunch of us did the place up and put locks on the doors. You’re on stolen land, Heather. How’s that feel?”
Raine’s housemates turned up later in the evening, after darkness began to creep down the streets. I felt terribly self-conscious but none of them paid me much attention, or seemed to care that Raine was monopolising the television.
After Raine’s sneaky revelation about this house being a student squat, I expected druggies and drop-outs and dangerous people, the sort of people Raine could deflect with practised ease, but would put the wind up me like nothing else.
My prejudices ashamed me. Two of the other occupants turned out to be a pair of extremely flamboyant gay men - a couple? I asked Raine and she shrugged. The third was a tiny redhead law student who talked about vegan cooking and high-fived Raine when I was introduced as a ‘girlfriend’, and the fourth was the law student’s very tall boyfriend, who was studying environmental science. He hung out with us for an unexpected hour to discuss the finer points of Raine’s video game.
Raine ordered the promised Chinese food and we sat around on the sofas and old chairs, eating straight out of the plastic takeaway boxes. I had to use a fork like a normal person but Raine showed off with a pair of chopsticks.
It all felt so different, to my life. Normal.
I could almost imagine the events of two days ago hadn’t happened. Almost convince myself, for the span of one evening, that Maisie’s tshirt was not crammed into a bag in my coat pocket.
Night came, and so did the inevitable.
I’d started to nod off in the sitting room, so Raine had pressed a fresh toothbrush into my hand and steered me upstairs to the bathroom. She’d asked if I wanted a change of pajamas and I’d said no, I’d only showered a few hours ago. I felt clean enough, through very groggy and slow, the ache in my chest still sending its slow throb through my diaphragm with every breath. Raine had excused herself and left me to finish up. I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, and made my way back to Raine’s bedroom.
She was waiting for me half under the bedcovers with the lights off, on her side, the sheets turned down to invite me in.
Thankfully, she was still dressed. Otherwise I would have died right there.
“Oh, oh Raine no, I don’t t-think I can handle that. I-I just- I just- I don’t know if I- if I-” I stammered and swallowed, red as a tomato, hands out as if to ward her off.
Raine laughed and sat up. “Woah, Heather, Heather, slow down, slow down. It’s fine, it’s cool, it’s just me. It’s just getting in bed together.” She held out a hand. “I don’t bite, I promise.”
I let out a huge breath and managed to shut the door properly, my hands clammy and shaking, plunging us into the comfortable shadows. I stepped closer but I absolutely could not take Raine’s hand. Part of me wanted to. Part of me wanted to do a comedy dive into the bed and shove my face into her chest, but that part of me was very small and easily vetoed, by the executive council of sensible Heather, repressed Heather, and nervous Heather.
“Raine, I- uh … I don’t know.” I had no idea what to do with my hands, wringing my fingers together. “I don’t know. We- we barely- we’ve barely been properly together for three days. I’ve been unconscious for most of that time. I- … ”
To my surprise, Raine stopped laughing. She nodded and sat up properly, knees tenting the covers. “Heather, I am inviting you to cuddle in bed. Nothing more.”
“It’s your bed! With you! We haven’t even … even … ”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there supposed to be some step between kissing and … and sharing a bed?”
“Maybe. Does it matter?”
I didn’t know. My mouth was dry and my heart was fluttering like an escaped bird. I shrugged.
“We don’t have to take each traditional step one by one,” Raine said. “There’s no proper order. Do what feels good with each other. If you want to come cuddle, come cuddle. Otherwise, I can sleep on floor again, I really don’t mind doing that.”
“Just … just cuddling?”
“I promise.” Raine’s smile crept back. “I’m not going to rub you off under the covers unless you very specifically ask for it.”
“Raine!” I blushed harder than I’d thought possible, could have sworn steam shot from my ears. She laughed again and held up both hands.
“My hands stay above your waist,” she said.
I was shaking, my knees ready to give way. I was certain this kind of stress was not good for me after breaking my brain with hyperdimensional math, but my goodness did I want this.
“Okay,” I whispered.
Tentative, my hands freezing cold and my heart in my throat, I slipped into bed next to Raine, on my side, sliding my legs down into the warm cocoon of the covers until our bare feet found each other. Raine tucked an ankle between mine, pulled the covers over our shoulders, and wrapped an arm around my waist. She purred and shifted her entire body against me, close, soft. I shivered at the feeling of her breath on my neck and her hand on my stomach.
This was not exactly relaxing.
“Good, huh?” she murmured.
“Very,” I managed.
Minutes later - a few or two dozen, warm and together - Raine’s breathing had softened, quietened.
“Are you awake?” I whispered into the warm darkness.
“Maybe … maybe do that thing you said.” My chest tightened up. Breathless. Heart racing.
“Hmm? Thing I said?”
I would have rolled my eyes in exasperation if we’d been facing each other. My throat almost closed up on the words. “The thing you said you wouldn’t do unless I specifically asked for it.”
A long, long pause. Raine’s hand moved against my stomach.
“You sure?” she purred.
“ … so then the bear exploded! It just keeled over and boom! Blood and guts, everywhere, all up the walls, on the ceiling, the silly little benches, the podium thing, everything. Isn’t that amazing?!”
Lozzie rocked back in her chair, howling with laughter and kicking her legs in the air. She was laughing so hard she started to cry. I was laughing too, giggling with a hand over my mouth. Her story was just so funny, so ridiculous, I couldn’t believe it had really happened to her. I-
I stopped laughing
Lucidity washed over me like a wave of Arctic seawater, dousing me with sudden sober clarity. A heartbeat passed and I couldn’t remember the story Lozzie had been telling, couldn’t remember how we’d gotten here, couldn’t remember a thing.
Lozzie wiped tears of laughter off her mushroom pale, elfin face. I stared for another heartbeat, then turned, and saw.
A wave of vertigo punched the breath from my lungs. I would have fallen over, if I hadn’t been sat down nice and safe in this ancient wooden armchair.
We sat atop the battlements of a truly titanic castle. Snow-capped mountains to awe any romantic reared up on either side of us, the castle itself wedged into the valley between, walls marching away in giant stone blocks to meet the mountainsides. Towers rose in solid, square vaults to our rear, stone and painted wood, wind-whipped by freezing air and linked by covered walkways. Distant figures passed here and there, some armoured in strange uniforms. I heard the crack of leather wings, distant and heavy, the bellow of creatures that might live in a place like this. Snow whirled in the valley beyond, coating a landscape hundreds of feet below.
Lozzie and I sheltered under a stonework overhang held up by pillars, sat on chairs and bundled up in comfy layers and huge fur hoods. Between us lay a small but merry fire burning in a grate, next to a pitcher of dark liquid and two glasses.
Tears welled in my eyes. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.
“Is this a real place?” I whispered.
“Yeah, of course it is.” Lozzie smiled at me in the afterglow of her laughter. “What did you think it was?”
“Isn’t this a dream?” I turned to her, barely able to tear my eyes away from the castle which surrounded us.
“Duh.” She rolled her eyes. “But it’s gotta be a real place, right? Belo-whatsit. I forget what it’s called. Who cares! You love castles, right?”
“I do. I-” My blood froze, all my lovestruck awe turned to venom in an instant. “Wait. How do you know that? Were you listening? Were you spying on us, on me and Raine?”
“You told me! You told me all about it. We were having so much fun, don’t get moody now. Anyway, I wasn’t finished. So the bear is dead, right, and the priest turns to me and-”
“I’m not going to remember this, am I?” I muttered to myself and ran a mittened hand over my face. “It’s a dream, of course you know I love castles, you’re a dream.”
“What? … Heather?” Lozzie looked crestfallen. “What do you mean, you won’t remember it?”
I stood up from the chair and cast about. “Of course dreams aren’t real,” I snapped, to myself, not Lozzie. “You’re schizophrenic, Heather, you-”
I slammed to a halt. I wasn’t crazy, not anymore. I blinked and swallowed and reminded myself of that, hard as I could, reminded myself of the last few weeks of my life, of Raine and Evelyn and Maisie and magic and demons.
Lozzie stood up too, almost bouncing to her feet, face worried and panicky. “Heather, Heather don’t go again, we were having so much fun! Please!”
I screwed my eyes shut, held them hard, clamped down and tensed every muscle and grit my teeth.
And woke up.
Darkness - but not silence, and not cold. I lay in Raine’s arms, on the edge of awareness, listening to her breathing. Another bad dream? The details drifted away.
Raine shifted against me and murmured in her sleep. My goodness, this did feel good. I still ached a little, in new and interesting ways.
Closed my eyes, went back to sleep.
Maybe I’d dream about castles.
We both had class the next morning. Raine decided it was best we try to have a normal day before we visited Evelyn.
How could anything ever be normal again?
“Heather? What are you grinning about?”
“Nothing, nothing! Just … I feel good.”
Goofy smiles kept sneaking onto my face all morning, as we woke up and ate breakfast and got dressed. I had sex last night, with a girl! I felt like a dopey teenager. I wanted to do it again.
From the moment I woke up in Raine’s arms the whole world felt different - and yet also the same. Raine and I shared constant touches, now imbued with secret meaning: the way she steadied me when I struggled out of my socks, the hesitant way I put my hand to her elbow, the gentle scratch of her fingers through my hair.
She got changed in front of me; I nearly lost my mind, hid behind my hands and peered out through my fingers, blushing terribly - then marvelling over her.
“You have abs.”
“Sure do,” Raine said. “Didn’t you feel them last night?”
“I wasn’t really paying much attention to your stomach.”
I thought I was going to have actual heart palpitations. I screwed up my courage and did what I must. I had the most unaccountable, uncouth urge to honk her boobs.
“I-I’m going to blow a gasket, Raine. Please, please, put some clothes on.”
Raine was the most smug I’d ever seen her. She relented and finished getting dressed while I swung my feet back and forth on her bed.
“Did that-” I stopped, afraid of sounding silly.
“ … did that count as having sex?”
Raine raised an amused, puzzled eyebrow at me. “What else would it be?”
“I-I don’t know.” Another goofy grin took over my face and I had to hide it behind my sleeve.
Happy did not last the length of the road.
My own clothes seemed insufficient after last night, like squeezing back into shed skin. I didn’t say as much to Raine, concerned she might take that sentiment a little too seriously - but she saw the hesitation in my eyes as I picked up my own jumper. She offered me one of her polo necks, ever so slightly too large for me, and I felt the sweetest comfort as I pulled it on over my head and snuggled my face against her scent in the fabric. Swapping clothes carried a strange, unbounded intimacy I’d never thought possible before. I was wearing Raine’s things, in public.
We left the house together and once again I balked at the condition of the street: large untreated potholes and discarded cigarette ends, moss between the pavement slabs and empty beer cans in the gutter. The quiet of early morning rendered this place as placid as a wilderness.
Except for the spirit life.
As soon as we’d stepped from the front door and down the stubby little garden path - not much of a garden, scraggly untended weeds - twisted creatures had begun peering around corners and over brick walls, staring at me. I avoided eye contact with the tree-legged thing leaning over the opposite row of houses, ignored the trio of headless armless women floating in the next-door garden, turned my face away from the ape-like raw-red hooting ghouls gathering at the end of the road.
Raine must have seen the look on my face. “You holding up okay? We don’t have to walk if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“I’m fine, it’s not the ache.” I shook my head, one hand drifting unconsciously to my sternum. “How would we not walk, anyway?”
Raine gestured to one of the beaten-up old cars parked by the side of the road.
I frowned at her. “You’re suggesting stealing a car?”
“What?” She smirked and laughed. “No, what do you take me for? That’s mine.”
“Oh,” I managed, distracted by a clutch of pneuma-somatic tentacles waving from a nearby garden. “I didn’t know you could drive.”
“We can, if-”
“No. I need to walk.”
I would not be intimidated.
The spirit life did at least keep a respectable distance, as Raine and I walked hand-in-hand along the route to campus. The Fractal still worked. But apparently now I was the focus of utter fascination, in a way I had not been for almost a decade. All manner of unspeakable things paused and turned to watch us pass.
A few broke off from their ineffable routines, to follow.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” I wasn’t. I was seething with growing frustration, my earlier happiness turning to lead in my stomach.
“It’s the ghoolies, isn’t it?”
“ … yes. Since … since I spoke to that spirit on the roundabout, when we chased the Messenger, they’ve been … I don’t know. More curious than before. There’s a small crowd following us. Following me.”
I whispered the words, afraid any random passer-by would think me mad. Likely nobody cared. Not about me or Raine, or the fact we were holding hands, and certainly not whatever I muttered under my breath, but I couldn’t shake that decade-old injunction to not appear like a madwoman.
Raine stopped and looked over her shoulder, as if she could see them too.
“Off with you,” she said out loud.
“Raine!” I hissed.
She winked at me. “It’s the only way they’ll learn.”
“They won’t listen to- oh, for goodness sake.” I grit my teeth and stopped halfway down Barner’s street, between an Indian grocer’s and a shuttered hardware store. I turned around slowly.
My unwanted entourage had grown to five strong.
None of the really big ones. I wondered if that was related to mobility, or perhaps level of intelligence, then reminded myself they weren’t even biological. They didn’t have brains. Or did they? I knew nothing about pneuma-somatic life, how they worked, how they thought, what they were for. Evelyn didn’t know, so what chance did I have?
Two wolf-like things with lizard hindquarters and shaggy snouts formed the core, flanked by a big lumbering anteater-analogue made of crystal and nails. In the rear lurked a floating gas-bag, like a jellyfish, trailing venomous looking tentacles in a rainbow of sickly colours.
They had a leader, up front.
She - I instantly thought of it as a she, despite the absence of visible breasts or hips - was slender and poised like a dancer, humanoid figure cast in pitch-black flesh made from slick protoplasmic tar, bubbling and roiling, faintly luminous. A mass of thick tentacles rose from her back, waving in the air, tipped with pincers and stingers, sucking orifices and coiling fingers.
She had no facial features except for huge black eyes. Deep-sea fish eyes.
I squeezed Raine’s hand and fought to stare back.
“Is there anybody around?” I hissed. Raine glanced up and down the street.
“Couple of blokes down the road. Not close enough to give a toss.”
I summoned every ounce of acting power I had, not much. Tilted my chin up, like Evelyn in her worst - or best - moments. Slid one foot out, widened my stance. Straightened my back, attempted to channel Raine’s confidence via sexual osmosis, as imperious as I could.
“Leave me alone.” I raised my voice. “Tell your friends to do the same.”
It worked. The spirit life dispersed. The wolf-things loped away under the pressure of my disapproval, while the gas-bag jellyfish just dissolved into thin air. The anteater monster lumbered away and slumped against a nearby traffic bollard. The Leader stared longer than her fellows, with those pelagic eyes, then seemed to incline her head and slink back off the way she’d came.
I breathed out and almost fell down, my knees shaking. Raine rubbed my back and asked if they were gone.
We went to class.
When her own seminar was finished, Raine waited for me outside two separate lecture halls for most of the morning, walking me between them, eating overcooked chips together in the too-bright, too-clean campus canteen. I made my apologies to bored professors for missing classes. They didn’t care. The university knew my medical history.
We went to see Evelyn, and my entourage returned.
Not the same spirits as before. Stilt-stalking watchers and pustulant bears and skittering balls of chitin, a crowd behind Raine and I as we took the route to Evelyn’s house. I kept my backward glances to a minimum, hid my growing nerves and my bitter, biting frustration.
“They’re back, aren’t they?” Raine murmured softly.
“ … you can tell?” I sighed. “I’m sorry, I wanted to relax with you. I felt so good this morning, best in years. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, Heather, it’s not your fault. Why not wave the warding sign at them?”
“I-I don’t know, Evee told me to keep it covered and I-”
Raine’s mobile phone rang and she fished it out of her jacket pocket. “Huh, speak of the devil.” She answered the call. “Hey Evee, we’re almost there.”
I sneaked a backward glance.
The Leader was back. She of the many tentacles and the roiling black protoplasmic tar-flesh. Staring at me. A mouth slopped open in what on a human would be her chest. No teeth. No lips. Just a hole. It wavered and wobbled and began to form silent words.
“Uh, Raine?” I tugged at her hand.
“Heather? Wait a sec, Evee, she’s- yeah, yeah okay, bye.” Raine killed the call and frowned down at me, concern written on her face. “Heather, uh, I don’t really understand this, but Evee- … Heather, what’s wrong?”
“Just walk faster.” I did my best not to look back.
“Heather, they can’t hurt you. Not with the warding sign on you. Not with me here.”
“You can’t even touch them,” I hissed.
I looked back. The Tentacled woman had pulled ahead of the crowd, closing the distance between us. The mouth in her chest sucked and slapped, speaking at me.
“Quick, before we get to Evee’s,” Raine said. “She said to tell to be careful about spiders. She wasn’t really very clear, but said you’d made her promise to warn you?”
“What?” I blinked at her, trying not to look behind us. “Oh, uh, r-right-”
The Tentacled Woman reached out toward me with one of those sucker-covered tentacles.
“Walk- walk faster,” I hissed.
“ … we can run, if you like?” Raine said.
I shook my head, set my lips in a tight line. “No. No more running. I refuse to run.”
By the time we reached Evelyn’s front gate, I was panting and out of breath, the ache in my chest throbbing like a migraine in my diaphragm. Raine kept trying to get me to either slow down or run the rest of the way, and even offered to just pick me up and carry me. That last prospect was painfully tempting, but I would not run from this thing, or any other spirit, ever again.
I’d made no resolution, couldn’t pinpoint the moment my attitude had changed, surprised even myself.
Behind the apparently safe barrier of Evelyn’s low garden wall, bent over with my hands on my knees, I watched the Tentacled Woman walk right up to the boundary, staring at me and mouthing unwords from the dripping hole in her chest.
Other spirits clustered behind her, flapping pseudopods against the wall, yawning their drooling maws at me, snapping beaks shut on the air, until a crowd of pneuma-somatic life roiled and rioted.
I’d give them something worth seeing. Oh yes. Yes I would.
“Heather, woah, take a deep breath, okay?” Raine wedged her arm under my shoulders to help me stand straight. I nodded my thanks but didn’t look away from the spirit, the leader, whatever on earth she was. “What is it? Heather, talk to me, tell me about it.”
I told her. She followed my gaze.
“And what’s it doing?” she asked.
“Let’s go inside, we can get Evee to-”
I pushed away from Raine, gently peeled myself off her and forced my spine straight. I walked back down the garden path. I’d like to say I walked right up to within arm’s reach, but I didn’t. I stopped a nice safe distance away from the Tentacled Woman and my crowd of abhorrent admirers. Raine shadowed me the whole way, ready to catch me if my weakened knees gave out.
I rolled up my left sleeve and held out the Fractal.
The crowd recoiled as one. The Tentacled Woman backed up a step. The mouth in her chest continued flapping.
“Shut up!” I snapped.
The mouth stopped.
I took a deep breath, teetering on the verge of hysteria. Hadn’t wanted to snap like that, needed to be calm, contained, careful.
“Don’t follow me,” I said, my voice rising. Anybody who saw me could go file a complaint. “Don’t watch me. Don’t haunt me. Leave me alone. Or I shall begin to consider ways to hurt you.” I paused, had to ignore the pounding of my heart. “I don’t know if I can teleport you Outside, but I will find a way to try. I got laid! Go away!”
With Raine’s hand on my shoulder and the brooding hulk of Evelyn’s house at my back, standing in the weak grey autumn sunlight dappling the street, I waited as the crowd of pneuma-somatic life finally got the message. They loped and flopped and skittered and hurried away, scattering wide across the street and into the shadows and down the alleyways. I told myself I was defiant and powerful, protected and untouchable, but I just felt scared and confused.
The Tentacled Woman did not leave. She crossed to the far side of the road and sat down.
If she’d been a human, I’d have sworn she was sulking.
“Good enough,” I muttered. “They’re gone.”
Raine smirked. “You got laid, huh? That’s your big scary anti-demon weapon?”
I turned a mortified blush to Raine. “I’m sorry, I just- it slipped out- it seemed- It made sense in the moment.”
“Done wonders for your self-confidence.”
I sighed. “I think I need a hug.”