She of the Many Tentacles was exactly where I’d left her - just like Praem.
Out in Evelyn’s front garden, I hugged myself against the hint of winter in the air, as I walked down the cracked pathway in the lowering afternoon sunlight, to the low boundary wall. I’d slipped my shoes on but not bothered with my coat, Raine’s borrowed polo neck kept out the worst of the chill. This would only take a minute.
Nothing remained of my earlier entourage, dispersed to the winds and replaced with the usual spirit life. Scuttling ghoul-faced hounds and apish pack creatures lurked down the alleyways and mobbed in the street. Dark faces and staring eyes peered my way, but with mere fleeting curiosity, there and gone again. Back to normal.
Barnslow Drive was a desolate place. I suspect that’s why I’d come to like it so much. The house to the left of Evelyn’s was truly abandoned, windows boarded, front door chained shut. To the right lay a hundred feet of weed-choked lot before the next house, occupied but quiet and dark. The road was old tarmac, no potholes, but ridged and riven from beneath by unseen questing roots, from the trees on the far side of the street, covered with rain-matted leaves and puddles of standing water.
The Tentacled Woman still sat on the opposite pavement, in the shade of a gnarled oak tree. The tentacles from her back waved and bobbed in the air, like a human twiddling her fingers. I stared, and realised with an odd shock of recognition that she had her chin in her hands.
“That better not be an act,” I murmured.
She was staring right back at me, with those huge glassy black eyes.
I took a deep breath, looked up and down the street one last time for casual observers, then twitched my left sleeve back to expose the edge of the Fractal. One step carried me through the boundary of the open garden gate.
Many reasons should have kept me in the house - random witnesses, unseen watchers from the Cult, potential disaster, the simple cold and being alone, fear.
Fear. That was the one I wouldn’t give into anymore. That was why I’d come out here, alone and unsupported.
I wet my lips, tilted my chin up, and raised my voice.
The Tentacled Woman obeyed.
She rose to her feet in a single sinuous slide, nothing like a human standing up. I assumed no actual muscles were involved. She peered at me from deep-sea eyes set in a face of slow roiling tar, then crossed the road toward me.
I risked a quick glance left and right; no other spirits were responding to my order, which was a relief. If they had, I would have freaked out and scurried back indoors, forever regretted my lack of courage. With one - this one - the Fractal was enough. I kept the fingers of my right hand on my left sleeve cuff, the edge of the Fractal peeking out from underneath, like a gunslinger with a hand on her revolver.
What a joke.
I struggled to stand my ground. My pulse throbbed in my throat and my heart fluttered against my ribs, cold sweat broke out on my forehead and I badly wanted to sit down.
The Tentacled Woman mounted the pavement, her tentacles waving and winding through the air, tracing unseen contours above her head. The mouth in her chest sucked open, lip-less hole forming words heard as drumming echoes at the limit of perception.
“Shut up,” I snapped, then told myself to breathe and control the tone of my voice. Command. “Stop there.”
She obeyed again, the mouth pausing along with her stride, about five feet from me. A nice safe distance. She turned her head and looked away; on any human that would be a haughty pout.
Right then … now … oh.
What the hell was I doing? What was my aim here? Proof of concept? I’d mounted this experiment on a whim of courage, without a proper plan, and now I was too deep to back out.
“Why … ” I swallowed and let out a slow breath. “Why have you been following me?”
She dropped the haughty pout. The mouth in her chest resumed flapping and sucking, whispering drumbeats on the far side of nowhere. I frowned and concentrated but couldn’t make out a single word.
“We can’t actually communicate, can we?” I said.
Her chest-mouth slurped to a halt. She stared, face more inscrutable than the most stoic human mask. Praem had nothing on Miss Tentacles.
I sighed. This experiment was probably a wash. Talking to a spirit in the middle of the day, absent a crisis or real reason, was making me jittery and jumpy. What if somebody drove past, or looked out of a window, saw the crazy girl speaking to herself?
At least I could do it. Small victories, Heather, small victories.
“I suppose we’re done-”
She whipped one of her tentacles through the air, a lash and coil of dripping black, scything for my face. I flinched and swallowed a yelp, yanked my sleeve up on the Fractal as I stumbled backward into the garden gate.
She froze. The tentacle-tip - a slick sucker-covered rope of flesh - hung in the air, pointed at me.
“W-what?” I heaved to get my breath back, right hand half-concealing the exposed Fractal on my forearm.
She wiggled the tentacle in a little circle, then pointed it back at me again.
“ … you … you want me to touch? Shake hands?”
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had with Maisie’s messenger. I raised one finger. She waited, tentacle-tip steady.
“If this is a trap, or something, I will mind-zap you into some hell dimension. Take that as a warning.”
She pulled the tentacle back and slid away from me.
“No, no, wait,” I said. “If it’s not a trap, that’s fine. I … I think I want to communicate. Please?”
The Tentacled Woman did not accept my invitation. She backed away to her own safe distance, then simply watched me.
“Ahh shoot.” Stupid, stupid Heather. You’re trying to make friends, not threaten. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just scared. You don’t understand that, do you? I’ve been scared of things like you since I was a child. Talk, please?”
I offered her my hand. She backed away, like a spooked cat.
“Heather?” Raine called from the front door. “Oh thank God, there you are.”
I turned to find Raine hurrying down the garden path, as if I was a confused old person who’d wandered off. I lowered my hand, feeling silly and oddly guilty.
“It’s fine, it’s okay, I’m fine.”
“What are you even doing out here?” Raine touched my shoulder, brow creased with concern. She looked up and down the street. “What did you see? Did something happen?”
“I’m- I’m talking to a spirit. Or, I was trying to.” I gestured at the road, at the figure Raine couldn’t see. A blush coloured my cheeks. “Everything’s fine, nothing happened. I’m sorry- I mean, I just wanted- … needed to do this.”
Raine’s face lit up. “Oooh, any success?”
“ … uh … a little, yes. I think I scared her off though.”
“Her?” Raine smirked. “You making special friends without me?”
I rolled my eyes, then cast a glance at the Tentacled Woman. She’d backed up beyond safe distance, settled down in a squat, black ichor dripping from her tentacles. “Oh don’t be silly, you have nothing to be jealous of.”
Raine insisted I come back indoors because of the cold, but I wasn’t stupid. I saw the way she watched the ends of the street like a hawk, the ready tension in her shoulders, the hard flint in her eyes. She was no good at hiding that from me, and I liked the sense I had a protector. But was that necessary here? Surely nobody would come to the house.
“Did you two make up?” I asked, once we were back inside the warm wooden womb of Evelyn’s house.
“Uh, mostly. Mostly, yeah. Gonna go with yeah.”
“ … and what does that mean?”
She spread her arms in an expansive shrug. “It’s means we’re all yelled out for the moment.”
We discovered Evelyn had fallen asleep, sat at her map in the ex-drawing room. Cheek in hand, elbow on table, eyes closed - snoring softly. Raine started to laugh but I put a finger to my lips.
“She’s exhausted,” I mouthed.
“Sleeping there’ll mess up her back worse than usual,” Raine whispered, then spoke out loud. “Wakey wakey, sleepo.”
Evelyn jerked and gasped, blinking her eyes and clearing her throat. My heart went out to her; I knew that feeling too well. She grabbed at her walking stick and directed bleary, bloodshot eyes at us.
“What?” she croaked, then rubbed her forehead. “What? I nodded off. What are you staring at? Oh God, sod this, I need coffee or something. I have so much to do.”
“No, no I don’t think you do,” I said, surprised myself.
“What?” Evelyn’s eyes emerged squinting from behind her hand.
“I’ve seen that look on my own face a thousand times. How long have you been awake?”
“Since … I don’t know. I wasn’t keeping track. Maybe four, this morning.”
“On how much sleep?”
Evelyn grumbled under her breath and averted her eyes. She rubbed at her thigh, approximately where the socket of her prosthetic attached.
“How much sleep, Evee?”
“Three hours. Give or take.”
“Three hours? Three hours. Okay. Do you need to shore up a front that’s about to collapse out there?”
“ … what? Wha-”
“Are we in imminent danger of being undermined and detonated from below? No? Is this all going to collapse if you leave it alone for a few hours?”
“Well … no, not at all, but-”
“No buts. You need a proper meal and a long sleep. You can’t fight a war exhausted.”
Raine burst out laughing. “Evee, shut the hell up. Heather’s got you on this one. You’re wiped out. I haven’t seen you this tired in years.”
I turned on Raine, hands on my hips. “And you should have said this to her earlier. She’s your friend too, Raine. You should have noticed.”
Raine blinked at me. “Ah, well, I-”
“What do we have in the fridge?”
“Food. Food! What do we have? Evee, what do you have on hand?”
Evelyn visibly attempted to rouse herself, pinching the bridge of her nose and inhaling deeply. “Not much. Not much at all. I’ve been snacking through it.”
“Right then, Raine,” I snapped back to my now slightly-taken-aback girlfriend. “There’s that corner shop about five minutes away. Go get some curry or something. And a jar of instant hot chocolate”
Raine hesitated a beat, then grinned and saluted me. “Yes ma’am.”
I blushed. “Don’t. I’m just … you two seem incapable right now. We can’t all carry guns and summon monsters. Some of us have to remain normal.” I shooed Raine toward the door. She laughed on the way out, caught my hand and kissed my fingers.
By the time Raine returned carrying a shopping bag full of comfort food, the sun had crept low to the horizon, wan late afternoon light sneaking shadows into the kitchen’s nooks and crannies. I’d herded Evelyn into a chair, just to get her out of the occult workshop she’d made of the old drawing room. She’d almost limped, heavy on her walking-stick, and winced when she sat down.
“Oh, bugger it all,” she’d muttered, rolled up her pajamas, and started to remove her leg.
I busied myself by rummaging for a snack in the cupboard, washed out my coffee mug, and checked on Praem in the front room. Three days ago I’d watched Evelyn put on her leg, but that had been at invitation, a moment of recovery and regeneration. No sordid routine of pain. She grumbled and massaged her stump, and I offered her an awkward hug.
Raine raised her eyebrows at the sight of Evelyn’s prosthetic stood up in the corner of the kitchen, but she didn’t comment, hustling and bustling and slinging microwave curries at us, clearing the table and acting like the world’s most athletic waitress. I puttered around the edges, trying to help, until Raine sat me down by the shoulders and took over.
Dinner - a little early - was chicken curry and microwave rice, followed by three packets of chocolate chip cookies, far more than I thought we could hope to put away between us. I was wrong. Evelyn picked at her food at first, and I worried she was nauseous, but she gathered speed and slowly slipped into a satisfied, full-belly slouch, half-awake as we chattered about inconsequential things, university and literature and the state of her old house.
Praem didn’t need to eat. I asked about that and got a very clear answer.
“Raine told me you were having trouble with the pneuma-somatic life on your way here.”
I shrugged, mouth full of chocolate chip cookie. The sun bled orange dusk through the window, and we’d long ago turned the kitchen lights on, our empty plates pushed toward the middle of the table.
“Seems a little academic now,” I said. “I think I got rid of them.”
“Did the Fractal drive them off?”
“You should have seen her,” Raine said. “If she’d threatened me like that, I’d have run away too.”
I blushed a little and shook my head.
“Well, there you go then,” said Evelyn. “Nothing else to do, unless you want to live inside a sealing circle all the … time … ” She drifted away on a private train of thought, sucking her teeth. “There’s an idea.”
Raine cleared her throat and put her elbows on the table. “Maybe we should lay low.”
Evee snapped back in an instant, eyes narrowed and hard, though dogged by a full stomach and shared warmth.
Still, I needed to head this off.
“No arguing.” I raised my voice. “Be civil.”
Evelyn held Raine’s gaze for a moment, then sighed and shrugged. “Let’s hear it then.”
“Maybe it makes mutual sense,” Raine said. She spread her hands. “Maybe Heather and I managed to scare them off. We nailed their hired thugs, we duelled their assassins or kidnappers or whatever, and we got away, then you’ve started picking at the edges of their project. Maybe they want to lay low too. Maybe we back off, let things calm down, don’t push our luck.”
Evelyn shook her head slowly.
“They had a firearm,” Raine continued. “They had hired local muscle. If you keep pushing it they might come for the house.”
“Thats-” I started, then swallowed as they both turned to look at me. A cold feeling crept up my back, a violation of all the safety of this afternoon. “That’s a good point, actually. The … zombie woman, the tall one, whatever she was, what if they just send her here?”
“I’ll gut and skin her before I’d let her touch a hair on your head,” Raine said. It wasn’t a joke. “Either of you.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Well, there you go then. What are you bellyaching about? You can just play the big strong protector and we’re all good.”
“I’d rather not take the risk in the first place.”
“A serious, practical answer to your question, Heather,” Evelyn said, ignoring Raine “Is that this house is a deathtrap for anything opposing me, opposing the Saye family. Those Spiders are not for show. The Cult’s zombie, golem, whatever that was, this place would take her apart. I don’t care if she’s an emissary from Hell itself, she won’t last five minutes.”
“I thought you said the spiders were senile?”
Evelyn waved my concern away.
“Alright, so, we’re gonna do this?” Raine said. She put both hands flat on the table. “We’re really gonna do this, this is what you want, Evee?”
Evelyn fixed her with a tired gaze, but behind her eyes lay a steely determination. “Yes. Sharrowford is mine, people like this have to be kept under control. It’s just me, my mother and grandmother are gone.”
“It’s not just you,” I said. “It’s us too.”
“I- yes, yes, Heather. It is. I-”
“What about getting some outside help?” Raine said.
Evelyn directed a blast of contempt at her. Raine laughed and spread her arms.
“Come on, Evee, if this is for real, you may as well ask for help. How about calling Aaron? He’s alright, isn’t he? Or Fliss, if you can stomach her for five minutes?”
“No.” Evelyn’s mouth twisted. “No other mages. Not here. Not in Sharrowford. This is my territory. Mine.”
She spoke softly and quietly, but with all the conviction of a fist slammed on the table. I began, in that moment, to understand what the Cult’s intrusion meant to Evelyn. An ideology lurked behind her words, one which worried me so much more than the worst shouting match.
“That doesn’t sound healthy,” I said, and expected to regret my words, but Evelyn just shrugged..
“It’s no big shame to ask for help.” Raine sighed, apparently surrendering at last.
“No, no of course it isn’t,” Evelyn agreed. “That’s why I want you to move back in.”
Raine paused - a real, long, frozen pause, rare and unfamiliar to her. She opened her mouth, closed it again, and broke into a confused grin, gesturing helplessly. “I … Evee.”
“Heather too,” Evelyn said, and I blinked.
“For safety. In many ways, this house is the safest place in the city. Maybe in the whole north of England.”
“And rapidly filling up with monsters,” Raine said, then laughed and shook her head. She glanced at me, genuine discomfort in her eyes. “I guess, if they’re after Heather?”
“No. That closed loop was a strike aimed at me,” said Evelyn. “It was planned and executed to kill a mage. You won out because they didn’t expect a violent lunatic, and nobody could account for Heather.”
“Bit of the old ultraviolence works wonders,” Raine murmured through a smirk.
“I’d love to live here,” I said before I had time to really think. “That … ” Living with friends? With Raine? In this wonderful - if slightly spooky - old house? It was a longer walk from campus, but it would be miles better than my anonymous concrete box. To live with people, to be together. I felt myself lighting up inside - and then dimming again. “Oh, I’d have to explain to my parents. I mean, they pay my rent, but we’d only need one bedroom and- oh!” I froze and looked up at Evee.
She rolled her eyes. “Told you so, didn’t I? It’s always that way, with Raine.”
“Told her what?” Raine asked. I shot an embarrassed frown at her, but for once she seemed genuinely innocent of the implied meaning.
“N-nothing,” I muttered. “It doesn’t matter.”
“You are wearing Raine’s jumper. I am aware of that.”
Raine lit up and started laughing. I couldn’t keep the blush from my face, stammering out a terrible excuse even as I smiled like an idiot.
“And you’re going to need a safe workspace,” Evelyn continued right over us. “Somewhere you can concentrate, somewhere close to me in case of emergencies, close to Raine, simply for comfort. A place you can pass out, ruin the floorboards if you need to.”
My self-indulgent embarrassment slammed to a halt. A ball of lead settled in my gut.
“Heather?” Raine murmured my name.
“I … yes, of course. I’d managed to … almost forget, you know?”
Evelyn nodded, sober and serious. “I understand. I was there too, once.”
I shook my head. “No, no, you never had a sister to rescue. I have to start on it, don’t I? Self-implementing-”
“- hyperdimensional mathematics,” Evelyn and I finished together.
Lozzie giggled and slid another blunt plastic knife into the board game.
“Your turn! Heather, it’s your turn! You have to put a knife in.”
“ … do I? I don’t think I really want to play this.”
On every side the dream landscape unrolled in desert dunes, ochre and cinnamon, terminated by a line of mountains so large they were impossible under earth gravity. I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut, considered for the millionth time the need to wake up.
Lozzie pouted. She wound loops of her long blonde hair around her hand and chewed on the ends. “Don’t be like that. We’re having fun, aren’t we?”
We sat in the shade of a clutch of bulbous, creaking trees, on beautiful carved wooden chairs. I rummaged through half-remembered dream impressions that Lozzie had summoned them from somewhere, along with the dozens of board games abandoned in the sand around us. Dice and chess pieces lay on the ground, counters and chips had rolled away, boards and manuals dumped off the spindly table between us.
Lozzie had hung onto a chess piece, the white Queen. She fiddled with it as I pondered where to put the little plastic knife for the board game, or if I should simply give up playing altogether.
“You picked the game,” she said. “Don’t be sore now because you lost at chess.”
“I’ve never been good at games. Chess is too difficult. Too strategic. Also, I’m not sore.” I looked up and offered her a smile. It was easy. After all, this was a dream. I may as well enjoy the company, even if she was a bit erratic and difficult to deal with.
I’d noticed things about Lozzie as the dreams had recurred: the freckles, the crooked front teeth, the way she bit at her fingernails. She cocked her head at my reply and slowly broke into a fascinated smile, eyes widening.
“You’re different,” she said. “Oh wow, Heather, oh wow, you’ve been fucking, haven’t you!?”
I just blinked at her. “Uh … I … I did lose my virginity. To- to a girl.”
Lozzie bounced out of her chair, took me by both hands, and dragged me to my feet, the board game forgotten as we knocked the table over. Laughing and whirling, she spun us both around, kicking at the sand, hugging me, swinging my hands back and forth until we both fell over onto our backsides. I let myself flop onto the sand as Lozzie sat up. Shade cooled my face, sun warmed my feet. Dreaming wasn’t so bad, even if I never remembered these ones.
“That’s awesome. You’re so cool. I wish I could do that,” Lozzie said. She produced the white Queen chess piece from somewhere, turned it over in one hand and stared at it. “But you’re going to have to learn strategy, you know? Can’t be all cuddles and shagging.”
“What? Learn strategy? Why?”
“He’s after you now. He doesn’t always get what he wants, but he’s going to try. He didn’t know about you before, I didn’t tell him. Please don’t think it was me.” Lozzie met my eyes, a little sad, a lot worried. “He knows because you did that thing with the bullet, because you escaped. He’s working it out, he’s going to work it out.”
“What?” I sat up and stared at her. “Lozzie, what are you talking about? Who’s after me?”
“Your-” I swallowed and took a deep breath, reminded myself where I was. “You’re a dream, Lozzie. You’re kinda cute, but you’re a dream. Stop scaring me.”
“You should kill him if you can,” she whispered. “Kill him.”