My phone buzzed in the Skinhead’s hand. Raine calling back.
She took her eyes off me without much concern, rejected the call, and held down the off button. Perhaps she knew I couldn’t run; my knees shook, my guts roiled, my head throbbed with pain in rhythm with my heartbeat. If I moved too fast I’d double over and vomit again.
“ … g-give- give me that back,” I croaked.
She fixed me with a cold gaze again. Nothing behind her eyes. “Catch.”
I caught the phone, a miracle I didn’t fumble and drop it on the concrete. I gripped it to my chest and stared at the Skinhead.
She kept her hands free, by her sides, rather than tucked away in her raincoat pockets, or in the grey athletic top she wore underneath. Tacky tattoos peeked out from her neckline - Chinese dragons and bat-wings and tribal swirls. Older than me, maybe late twenties, or perhaps prematurely weathered by hard living and bad luck. Even through the pounding in my head and the aftertaste of bile in my throat, senses dulled in brain-math aftershock, she radiated danger.
I felt it in my gut, an animal response to the thousand subtleties of musculature and poise. A dark twin to the way Raine looked in the moments before violence.
“Don’t turn that back on,” she said softly.
“Why not?” I managed to sound a lot more brave than I felt.
She didn’t answer.
Tenny had been content to hover next to me, her tentacles waving lazily in the air, no help at all, but now she began to creep across the pitted asphalt, on a trajectory to circle around behind the Skinhead. My eyes flicked to her back.
She’d stabbed that man in the head, hadn’t she? No time to process what that feat implied, but I swallowed and prayed all the same. If she could land another distraction, maybe I could gather myself and …
And run? I needed time, to recover. I’d just fall flat on my face.
The Skinhead followed my gaze, peered around and saw nothing, then glanced back at me with a tight professional frown.
“Right,” she said, and took a step back.
Her body language blinked from passive threat to sudden motion. I flinched hard, coughed bile and blood in surprise. She reached into her raincoat and whipped out a small metal cylinder, shiny machined steel stamped with symbols that made my eyes hurt. A plug of black wax capped one end. She held it out at arm’s length, pointing into open space, and dug her thumb into the wax seal.
A gap in the air poured from the end of the cylinder, like uncorking a bottle under pressure. A scribble, a tear in paper over an abyss, expanding as it unfolded itself from inside the tiny metal prison. Twitching and shaking, it stood up. Nine feet tall, knot-faced, knife-point legs and arms waving like seaweed in an invisible current.
The Scribble-monster. The thing that had been stalking Raine on the morning we met.
No, this one was smaller, slightly.
And far more purposeful.
No orders needed, it folded itself in the middle like a length of intestine and jerked toward Tenny.
“No!” I shouted, fumbling with my left sleeve to expose the Fractal, to make the Scribble-thing go away.
I needn’t have bothered; Tenny burst open.
It was one of the most violent and disgusting things I’d ever seen a spirit do. Also incomprehensible. For a moment I thought she’d died, that the Scribble-monster had reached out with some invisible power and ruptured her like overripe fruit. But the process didn’t end, it grew and grew - and so did Tenny. Her tar-flesh boiled and bubbled over, iridescent globes growing on each other, popping and roiling, limbs and tentacles and eyes and mouths growing and dissolving at blinding speed in the protoplasmic mass. Thick chemical stench and a wave of biological heat washed over my face, made me squint and gag.
The transformation ended, quick-drying putty pulled to a new shape.
No longer a flat, lithe approximation of a human female, Tenny reared up as a chimera the size of a car, a dozen different animals melded together in tarry black imitation flesh, from snake-tail to lion-head, eagle-wings and goat-horns, a mantle of tentacles lashing above her.
Tenny and the Scribble-monster slammed into each other, slicing and biting, tentacles whipping and stabbing. It tore great slopping holes in her flesh, which closed with the slow, slick motion of cold tar. She ripped chunks from its limbs, sending them spinning and fading to ash in the air.
I shrank back and swallowed a scream, wincing and squeezing my eyes shut as they rolled together, two giant creatures tearing into each other feet away from me. Long-buried primal instincts made me want to hide, probably up a tree.
The Skinhead didn’t react - even when the pneuma-somatic fight rolled straight through her. She couldn’t see them.
Wide-eyed, hands over my mouth, I watched in sickening despair as the Scribble-monster drew Tenny away. She kept trying to circle back to me, but it threatened her at every turn, herded her down one of the alleyways leading out of this secluded tangle, until I lost sight of them. Rending and ripping sounds echoed down the pathways of the concrete jungle, the only evidence they were still hacking at each other.
“That’s taken care of your little helper, hasn’t it?” the Skinhead asked, her voice too soft for her face.
Hands numb, I groped for the personal attack alarm still in my pocket. I held it up, thumb on the button. “S-somebody will hear. We’re not in the wilderness, this is the middle of Sharrowford.”
She nodded slowly, utterly unmoved.
“Let me give you a piece of advice,” she said. “I’m the gentle touch. The good cop. The carrot.”
“Your best option right now is to come with me, have a friendly little chat with the boss in a public place. Nothing else is gonna happen.” She inclined her head at the alarm in my shaking hand. “Or you press that button. You’ll get away today, sure. But he won’t be sending the gentle touch next time. You’ll get the bad cop. We know where you live, we know your daily routine. My boss will send the big stick to rip your front door off in the middle of the night, and the little chat won’t be in a nice public place. Or very friendly.”
A bluff? Even with all my faculties about me, I wouldn’t have been able to read her. I felt like hell, ready to vomit again more from fear than from the aftereffects of brain-math. I wanted to curl up around my chest and lie very still for several hours.
“I-I can zap you into another dimension,” I said. “You-”
“I know that. I’m not going to risk touching you. I’m not stupid.” She made a show of glancing about. “I see Jake’s missing. His fault for not following instructions. Shouldn’t have tried to rough you up. No hard feelings, yeah?”
“What … what happened to Twil?” I asked.
The Skinhead smiled, thin and dangerous. The expression failed to reach her eyes. “The Brinkwood werewolf? She’s not as good a hunter as she thinks. She’s not coming to help you.”
I swallowed and tried very hard not to believe her. “A … a public place?”
“Food court in the shopping centre. Public place, like I said, for a little talk.”
At the very least, I had to stall for time; Raine knew I was in trouble. She’d have a hell of a job finding me crammed in this back alley. The shopping centre was in full public view. And the more I moved around the better chance of Twil catching my scent.
I nodded and levered myself up off the wall. “O-okay. But if you try anything, I’ll grab you and-”
A wave of dizziness passed over me. I snorted back more nosebleed, coughing and spitting crimson bile onto the floor.
“Fucking hell.” The Skinhead extracted a packet of tissues from a pocket and tossed them at me. “Clean yourself up.”
She wasn’t a liar, at the very least.
The Skinhead led me back to the high street and down the road, to the glass-and-chrome entrance to Sharrowford’s only shopping centre, the unimaginatively named ‘Swanbrook Mall’. Fake marble floors and shiny open shop-fronts and - this time of day - clumps of teenagers hanging about, for want of anything else to do.
She maintained a safe distance from my side, beyond arm’s length, so I wouldn’t be able to lunge and grab her, send her spinning off into the horror of a trip Outside. Not that I could have lunged or leapt. Every scrap of my energy was consumed in putting one foot in front of the other. Adrenaline and willpower held my body upright, knees weak, head still pounding, the taste of vomit in my mouth. I’d wiped the worst of the blood from my face. Nobody gave me a second look, a depressive college girl with her arms crossed and her head down.
I knew I could have refused, stood still and not walked another step; public place, she couldn’t do anything. But then we’d lose her, lose her ‘boss’, and they’d come for us in the middle of the night and that time I might not be fast enough or well enough or in the right place at the right time.
I snuck glances over my shoulder, hoping and praying that Twil would find me again, or Raine would come around a corner and save me, or even that Tenny would roll up, disgusting tentacle-mass and all.
We took the escalators up through the shopping centre, past clothing shops and half-empty music stores, gaudy kiosk stands and glitzy displays. I’d always hated malls. Crass, consumptive, pointless modernity. Anonymous, bland, meaningless. I could think of no better place to meet such horrible people.
We emerged onto the top floor, the food court, strangely empty for this time of day. A few tables were semi-occupied near the most popular fast food places, but most of it lay empty and open, echoing and bright beneath the huge glass skylight roof, ceiling criss-crossed with metal supports, exterior covered in bird droppings and green scum.
The Skinhead stepped past me without a word, and made for the back of the food court, a dead-end with a trio of shuttered and failed food outlets. At first I didn’t follow, so she stopped and stared at me.
“We’re almost there,” she said. “No sense in turning back now.”
I nodded and followed, and told myself I could run whenever I wanted.
A lie, I could barely walk.
The last store in the dead-end row was a fancy coffee shop, named ‘Iluskov’, according to the shiny yet unlit sign above. It was closed, metal security shutter three-quarters down, the inside mothballed and emptied and left to gather dust, chairs stacked on tables, containers and racks empty behind the counter.
The lights were on, a lone table cleared and wiped clean, chairs laid out. A single steaming cup of coffee stood at the edge of the table.
Two people waited inside.
One was the Tall Woman in the trench coat, wrapped from head to toe like before. Only her eyes showed. She lounged in a empty booth, spread out and relaxed, feet up on the table, so tall she didn’t fit properly. She didn’t bother to look at us, lost in some private place behind those dead eyes, or perhaps incapable of independent thought.
The other person met my eyes and smiled.
“Please, do come in,” he said. “There’s plenty of free seating.”
The misplaced librarian. The young man from the standoff in the underground car-park. He sat at the clean table, hands folded before him.
My unwanted Skinhead companion lifted the metal security gate up by a couple of feet, then nodded to me. “Inside. Duck under.”
I hesitated; this was rapidly becoming very much not a public place.
“There is nothing be afraid of,” the man said, pleasant and reasonable, the voice of a junior professor or a good psychiatrist. “Miss Stack should have taken the time to explain that to you. Did you not do so, Amy?”
“I did,” the Skinhead said.
“Then there is no problem. You will come in. You will sit down.”
The Skinhead - Amy Stack, he’d called her - glanced back the way we’d walked. With a spark of hope in my chest, I followed her gaze, but nobody was there. No Twil. No Raine. No Tenny.
“Best not to keep him waiting,” she muttered, so only I could hear.
I blinked at her.
“Get inside,” she said out loud.
I did as I was told, ducked down and straighted up again inside the half-empty coffee shop. The motion and effort made my head throb and my vision swim. Stack followed me and pushed the security gate back down, almost to the floor. The Librarian gestured to a seat opposite his own.
“Please. You will sit.”
Heart in my throat, hands numb, almost unable to move my feet, I walked across the coffee shop and steadied myself on the back of the chair.
“Don’t move the chair,” said Stack. “Just sit down.”
The Librarian tutted. “Amy, Amy, your concern for me is most laudable, but I hardly think it’s warranted. This is no interrogation, or unpleasant confrontation. We are merely having a nice little afternoon chat.”
“You’re not immune, sir.”
I realised what she meant - the chair intended for me was placed at the limit of lunging range, grabbing range. A safe distance from my power to send him Outside.
A battered spark of confidence sputtered to life, and forced back the fear and violation.
They were cautious of me.
They knew what I could do to them.
But they didn’t know I was spent. One defensive brain-math use was about my limit, as I was rapidly discovering from how weak and shaky I felt, how ready to curl up and sleep. I could send him Outside, but I’d probably pass out or choke on my own sick afterwards. Or his minions would carry me off. Or just kill me.
“Please. You will sit,” said the Librarian.
I lowered myself into the chair, smoothed my coat over my knees, and tried to control my breathing, control the terror. I risked a side glance at the Tall Woman in the trench coat, her huge, powerful body at rest like a predatory big cat. She’d tried to kill Raine too, but right now I felt no pressing need to confront her. Stack took up station by the security shutter, hands behind her back.
“Amy,” the Librarian said. “Where has Jake gotten himself to?”
“He got handsy with her. Was gone by the time I got there.”
“Ahhh.” The Librarian turned to me. “I shall assume he is beyond punishment?”
I nodded once, tried to make myself seem cold and uncaring. I had zero time right now to think about how I’d probably killed that man.
“I hold you no ill-will for that,” he said. “Jake was merely a first stage initiate, of little importance. My subordinates should know better than to have manhandled you.” He turned back to Amy with an indulgent smile. “You took longer than expected.”
“Ran into the werewolf. Sent her off chasing her own tail. Had to pop the Geist as well.” Amy nodded toward me. “She was protected, up-close.”
“Really now? How fascinating,” the librarian said as he looked at me. “In time I absolutely must hear all about it, all the little details, but first - coffee? I have taken the liberty of selecting a brew for you. I believe I know your tastes.”
I eyed the steaming cup on the edge of the table and folded my arms across my chest. Sitting straight was very difficult, my chest hurt so badly, but I forced myself to stay upright. “No, thank you.”
“Oh, you think we’ve drugged it. Very smart. Very sensible.”
I just stared at him.
“You do not know my name,” he said. His expression burst into a smile of genuine delight and pleasure.
His face was shiny, young, chin perfectly shaved, his head of tousled blond hair thick and recently cut. Dressed in a suit with patched elbows, waistcoat and tie; a long coat lay over the back of a nearby booth. He fussed with one of his shirt cuffs as he smiled at me. He made me feel sick. I wondered if this was what Raine would call a ‘punchable face’.
I had the distinct impression I recognised him, but I couldn’t work out why.
“Heather Lavinia Morell. Nineteen years old, almost twenty,” he said. “Born on the seventeenth of January. Parents’ names are Samantha and Gregory. Your father is a minor engineer for Network Rail. Your mother is a bank clerk. You have no siblings and no other close family to speak of, though you briefly knew your maternal grandfather before he died of a heart attack when you were six. You spent three years in and out of Cygnet Children’s Hospital in London between the ages of ten and thirteen, but you did attend school, and went on to complete your A-levels - one A and two Bs - and are now a student of English Literature, at our fine university here in Sharrowford.”
He smiled as he went, satisfied and sickly-warm. A cold hand of violation crept up my back.
“How do you know all that?” I murmured.
“Knowledge is open to any who know how to ask. Was I correct? I was, wasn’t I? I do so love to be correct, I-”
He cut off and blinked once.
He was wrong about one thing; I was not only child. I clutched Maisie to my chest, to my secret heart, and loved her all the more.
“How can I be wrong?” he demanded. His good humour crumbled into confusion. “How can I wrong about even a shred of that? Which fact was incorrect? You will tell me.”
I shook my head. “No.”
“You will tell me.”
A tug in the forefront of my brain. My mouth opened. “I have a-” I bit down and winced, blinking at him in shock.
“Ah, you resist. You would be good at that, yes. Skilled, perhaps. I have misplayed my hand.” He sat back, jovial and warm once more. “Very well, you have scored a point, and it is to my shame. My name is Alexander Lilburne, and my business is the total liberation of the human mind.”
He paused, as if expecting a response. I gave him none.
“Now, if you would be so kind,” Alexander continued. “Please inform me as to which aspect of your life I have catalogued incorrectly? I am so maddened by inconsistency, you see. We cannot get down to business before such matters are cleared up and I have you placed firmly in your correct context.”
“Stuff your context,” I managed.
He smiled and laughed, a soft, blubbery sound. “Now now, there is no need for that. I am not going to do anything nefarious with your secrets. I have no need for blackmail, and you have nothing worth taking. I-”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I hissed. “I’m not an only child. I have a twin. And you can’t have her name.”
Alexander frowned, deeply puzzled. “You do not. A lie. Why lie to me?”
“It’s not a lie!” I almost shouted. I wanted to hit him. I’d never wanted to hit anybody before.
“ … no, no, I can see that, it is merely a truth you believe. But the records do not attest to a sister, let alone a twin.” He sighed and spread his hands. “I do so detest dealing with the mentally ill.”
“I’m not ill. Go to hell.”
“I probably shall, but not for many years yet. Let us agree that you believe you have a sister, and leave it at that.”
I glowered at him, my fear almost overrun with hate, almost able to forget how much danger I was in. He’d dredged up the one thing I’d protect above all others.
“Now, let us move to far more intriguing personal matters. Lavinia. Lavinia.” He rolled his tongue over my middle name, savoured the sound. My skin crawled. “Do you ever go by your middle name, Lavinia? You should consider doing so. It is a saint’s name, among what passes for the world of secret truths. The name of a saint and martyr, though ancient history now, and completely unrelated to you or us. I wonder if your parents knew. Doubtful, of course.”
I had to keep stalling, but every word he spoke deepened my detest. He liked the sound of his own voice. I swallowed and forced myself not to grit my teeth.
“What do you want?” My voice came out tighter and harder than I’d intended.
Alexander laughed again, that deep, rubbery sound. “Oh, but that is not the question, that is not the question at all, Lavinia. The question is, what do you want?”
He opened a hand toward me and waited, invited an answer.
A rhetorical trap.
I could take an educated guess at his thought process, and it made me angry. He sat there assured that he knew everything, in a secluded private place with a naive and terrified nineteen year old girl he was about to browbeat and talk over. My next line was obvious: ‘I want you to leave me alone, I want to go home’, so and and so on. I refused to snatch the bait.
“A million pounds,” I hissed.
Alexander blinked, then smiled that sickening smile an inch wider. “Is that your price, Lavinia? Do not undervalue yourself. On the other hand, if that is a serious answer, I believe we can come to an agreement of cash payment.”
“ … what do you mean?” I frowned at him, off-balance.
“You see, you are a unique thing.” He spread his hands. “Or at least very close to unique. I personally know of only one other person in the entire world capable of doing as you do, of operating reality with your mind, but she is unfortunately far beyond the event horizon of her own sanity. Quite apart from your potential value to my organisation, I wish to understand, in every part and every way, how do you what do you. We are willing to pay any price, fulfil any desire, to have you join us. Name it, please. Name your price, Lavinia.”
“Another … another person capable of … ” Another person who could do what I do? Another brain-math savant? Another victim of the Eye? I opened my mouth, but I would not speak Maisie’s name to this man.
“Please, Lavinia, don’t concern yourself with that. My younger sister is much like you, but not with your clarity of mind and-”
He went on talking. Not Maisie. Nothing to do with Maisie.
“- and I am serious when I say name your price. Let us open negotiations, see what we can do for you.”
He disgusted me.
“You people tried to kill Raine.” I glanced at Stack.
Alexander raised his eyebrows in polite interest. “Who?”
“My … ”
“Saye’s minion,” Stack supplied quietly.
“Ah, yes, the Saye family. You’ve been spending your time with the daughter, associating with her in public, visiting that sad old house. Learning from her too, no doubt. Evelyn is her name, I believe, but that is a fact not worth knowing. Now, her mother, I knew her mother very briefly. Brilliant woman. Her death was a terrible loss to our world.”
“Raine is not Evelyn’s minion,” I said. “She’s her friend. And my girlfriend.”
I glanced again at Amy Stack, let her see what was written beneath my face. If being scared was useless, I may as well hate. She frowned every so slightly, as if she’d begun to work out what I meant.
“You should hardly be wasting your incredible potential on the Saye girl,” Alexander continued. “However pitiful and sympathetic her condition has rendered her, she can do nothing for you. She is at best a dabbler, running a - what did my uncle call it, Amy? He used such a colourful phrase.”
“A Mickey Mouse operation, sir.”
“Yes!” Alexander slapped his knee in delight, as if this was a hilarious joke. “A Mickey Mouse operation, indeed. The old man has it in him yet, not quite all spent. Unlike Miss Evelyn Saye.”
“Stop-” I bit back, as much from the throbbing pain in my chest as from fear. Alexander waited for me to continue. I had to take a deep breath. “Stop insulting my friends.”
“Insulting?” He frowned gently, pursed his lips as if talking to a naughty child, and shook his head. “You misunderstand. I am merely offering objective critique of her situation - and by extension, yours. Saye can offer you what exactly? A bed under her dubious roof. Some musty old books. I, on the other hand, am here to offer you and your unique talent a place in an organisation with a future, with human liberation at its core. I, my uncle, and a few other like minded sages, have embarked on the greatest project in human history. I need brilliant minds and shining talents, and I am asking you to name your price, Lavinia.”
“Stop calling me that,” I snapped. He smiled and opened a hand toward me, so very reasonable.
“Everybody has a price, secret desires even I cannot divine. You must tell me. See what we can do for you. Money? We have money, more than you can imagine what to do with, I’d think. Enough to solve any lifelong problem. We can give you power, of various sorts. Knowledge of magic, magic itself. Sex? I take it you are some kind of … sexual deviant.” He smiled a horrible rubbery smile. “A willing, pliant partner, multiples of such, if-”
“The only thing I want is my sister back.”
Alexander sighed. His smile collapsed into dull unimpressed boredom. “An impossibility. You never had a sister-”
“Be reasonable now. Try to understand the magnitude of the offer I am making. We can do almost anything to satisfy your desires, and this is not an offer we extend to many. Ask Amy there. Amy, do tell Lavinia why you are with us, what we offered you?”
Stack - the ice-cold Skinhead - hesitated. “Sir, do you really-”
“You will tell her.”
She sighed. “Purpose. That’s all they gave me.”
“All we gave you,” Alexander echoed. Behind his amused smile lay power offended. “Indeed. So you see, Lavinia, we offer you so much more.”
A strong suspicion entered my mind: I was not getting out of here, he would not take no for an answer. I’d never before encountered a person so comfortable in the position and appearance of power, but I knew exactly what he was, because I’d encountered plenty of things like him that weren’t people.
This was exactly like being Outside, like a Slip. I had to stall and hide, wait with my breath held in perfect stillness, behind a outcropping of rock, for the gaze of some vast intelligence to grow bored and turn away from me.
I drew myself up in my seat and raised my chin, put on all the airs and mannerisms of Evelyn at her most offended and self-righteous. The effort was staggering, to ignore the creaking aches and pains in my wracked body, the swimming vision, the throbbing head. I unfolded my arms, opened up that last line of physical defence. I tapped my knee with one hand as I let the other wander to my chin, an ostentatious display of thought.
How I pulled it off, I don’t know. Fear, adrenaline, the needs of the moment. Or perhaps my friends had rubbed off on me enough that I felt the tiniest sliver of what I pretended.
“Who is we?” I asked.
Alexander raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth, but I had to really sell this, put on a show.
“I’m being offered a job, basically?” I spoke before he could, and kept most of the quiver out of my voice, screaming inside. “I’d like to know who I’d be working for. You’re cultists, right? The Sharrowford Cult.”
“Cult? What a quaint word. I’m afraid Miss Evelyn Saye has been reading too much of Mister Lovecraft. The real world does not offer us such simple and neat definitions. Are we a cult, Amy?”
“Most certainly, sir.”
“Well, there you have it, we are a cult. From the horse’s mouth. I much prefer to think of us as an sort of practical research group, plumbing unseen depths.”
Stack cleared her throat gently. “Brotherhood of the New Sun.”
Alexander’s amusement vanished in a dash of cold water. He almost rolled his eyes, but appeared to catch himself at the last moment. “On second thought, perhaps we should refrain from using the old man’s terminology too much, yes? Lavinia, please, think of us as a brotherhood of like-minded explorers in secret matters.”
I committed his every word to memory, because I was going to help Evelyn kill this man.
Keep hiding, keep hiding.
“Hasn’t Evelyn been giving you a run for your money?” I said. “She’s been messing up your closed loop spaces and invading your shadowside city. She’s going to stamp you out soon enough. She’s set on killing you all. I think she will.”
Alexander chuckled ans waved a hand in dismissal. “Saye has been making her problems our problems, I will admit. It’s such a parasitic way to live. But no, her efforts have been totally useless. Nibbling away at the edges, really? She has no idea of the kind of work we’re doing and she’s not even close to disrupting us.”
“And what is it you’ve been doing in Sharrowford, with these … closed loop spaces?”
“Ah. Ahhhh.” Alex smiled broad and warm, waved a finger and tutted. I didn’t like the look of that at all. My stomach clenched up. “I see what you are up to, Lavinia. Very clever, very clever, but you are dealing with an adult here. You have to make a commitment before such details can be shared.”
“And if you are that eager, perhaps a one-way tour of our work is in order. There are such sights, waiting just on the other side of the air itself.” He waved a slow hand above the table, then gestured to Stack. “Amy, I do believe our guest is going to come with us. Prepare the entryway, if you would be so kind. And make sure that thing is awake.” He nodded at the Tall Woman in the trench coat and then smiled at me again. “We have been building quite a project. You are going to have contributions to make.”
I’d gone too far.
Time to leave.
Time to Slip.
My heart hammered in my throat and my stomach rebelled at the mere thought, but it was the only option I had left; I’d been preparing myself this entire time, in the back of my mind where I didn’t have to look at what I had to do. A gamble, yes, that I’d be spat out somewhere I could be safely unconscious in a pool of my own blood and sick for hours - but Slipping on purpose was better than being kidnapped by insane cultists led by a cut-rate Patrick Bateman wannabe.
The first layer of impossible math slid into place in my mind. I winced.
A black tarry figure stepped into my peripheral vision, in front of the coffee shop - and then straight through the metal security gate.
My heart lit up. I slammed the math to a halt.
I forced myself not to look at her, not to give the game away as she stepped across the half-empty coffee shop, around the stacked chairs, tentacles waving in the air like a halo of tar. She was back to normal size, vaguely humanoid once more.
Nobody else could see her, but if she could just-
The Tall Woman sat bolt upright and stared right at Tenny.
“Zheng?” Alexander snapped. “What is it?”
‘Zheng’ did not answer. She stared like a pointer dog, then turned with robotic slowness, to regard Alexander with her dead eyes.
Stack backed up from the security shutter, suddenly alert and tense. “It’s her Geist again, I think. Ours couldn’t do for it.”
“T-there’s nothing there,” I said. I made a show of glancing around, but my carefully constructed front fell away at the prospect of help. My hands were shaking, my throat tight.
Tenny was not whole; the fight with the Servitor had taken great chunks out of her tar-flesh, rough wounds, the edges reaching toward each other in a struggling effort to close. Several tentacles had been torn off or severed, stumps waggling in the air and dripping ichor. She stared at me and stalked closer.
“Zheng,” Alexander repeated, harsh and angry, going red in the face. “Answer me.”
Zheng just stared. He snapped off a series of hard, guttural words, some ear-aching non-human language.
“Small. Unimportant,” Zheng said from behind the scarf wrapped around her face. Her voice was like granite.
“Get rid of it then.” Alexander made a shooing motion with one hand. “Throw it outside.”
Zheng rose to her feet, mechanical and slow. A horrible sight, to watch so much muscle and tendon in motion. She was a giant, she could pull a human limb from limb, and I didn’t need to see a demonstration to know that. To be so close was to be in the presence of death. She didn’t need to expose more than her eyes to prove that. Stack shrank back too, impossible to resist the intimidation.
“But-” I said.
Zheng rounded on Tenny and grabbed her by the throat, living flesh touching pneuma-somatic life.
“No!” I cried out.
Tenny writhed and jerked, as surprised as I was, kicking as Zheng lifted her bodily off the floor. Her tentacles lashed, battering at Zheng’s head and shoulders, rearing back to strike - and bouncing off. Tenny made no sound but Zheng rumbled like a rock slide in her throat. Laugher or a growl, I couldn’t tell.
“Throw it outside, Zheng, don’t play with your food,” Alexander said.
“No, you can’t! You-”
“Found you,” came a whisper of snowflakes on winter wind.
All eyes - except perhaps Tenny’s - snapped to the front of the coffee shop.
Praem stood in front of the metal security shutter.
Praem One or Two, I couldn’t tell, because Evelyn had changed her clothes again, into a practical windbreaker and a pair of jeans, ice-blue hair tucked up out of the way in a ponytail. She stared straight ahead with those blank white eyes.
“Naughty puppies,” she said.
My heart leapt.
“What is that? Who is that?” Alexander said, standing up, and raising a curious eyebrow at Evelyn’s wooden demon-host. Zheng had half-lowered Tenny, who was still scratching and flailing at her side.
Praem continued her perfect refrain. “Huff and puff and blow your house down.”
She wrapped one hand worth of ice-blue fingers around the security shutter.
“It’s locked,” Stack said to her. “You can’t get in. Go away, this is a private-”
Praem pulled upward. Metal snapped and bent and the locking mechanism gave way with a tortured screech. The security shutter rolled upward.
I hurtled out of my chair so fast I thought I’d snapped a rib, my chest wrenched so badly inside, heaving with the effort of pushing my shaking carcass at sudden speed. I slipped and skidded and cracked my hip off a table. Amy reached for me, braced for a tackle. I stuck out a hand toward her, my intent plain, enough to make her hesitate. Praem took a step inside the coffee shop, coming to meet me halfway.
“Zheng, hold her still,” Alexander said in a bored drawl.
Zheng dropped Tenny and came for me.
One second of being chased by that giant of a woman almost made me lose control of my bowels. A screaming animal fear gripped every cell in my body. I stumbled back and tripped over a chair, sprawled and cracked my head off the ground, scrambling away and choking down a scream.
She was too big as she loomed closer, too fast as she leapt a table, too strong as she rounded on me. Praem was strong, she was a demon, she was under Evelyn’s remote command, but this, this monster was beyond anything I’d seen this side of reality. She reached down toward me with one gloved hand. Why wasn’t Praem helping? I cringed back, following an instinct to make myself small, curl up into a ball, hide, go away, go away!
Zheng’s head snapped up. She snatched her hand back. Jerked away.
Wolves are generally not ambush predators, but Twil made it work.
From her hiding place just around the corner of the coffee shop entrance, Twil exploded like a cannonball. She kicked Zheng in the face with enough force to shatter steel. The giant zombie-woman went flying, crashed into tables and tumbled over the back of a booth. She landed with a splinter of breaking wood, in a tangle of limbs and chairs, face down.
“How you like that payback, huh?” Twil shouted. “That’s what you get, bitch!”