Katalepsis

by

Hungry

conditions of absolute reality - 3.11

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Evelyn possesses, even at the best of times, a short and bitter temper. I believed I was familiar with her anger by now, directed at myself, at Raine, at her missing leg and crippled body, at the memory of her mother, at every trespass against her; she wielded anger as a cudgel against the indignities of life, and I had begun to find it charming in an obscure and difficult way.

I had never seen her this angry before.

She stared at Twil like she wanted to commit murder.

Perhaps the stress of making those phone calls had gotten to her, or perhaps she still felt guilt for lying to us about the experiment on Tenny, or perhaps - I wondered as my chest tightened - Twil turning up on our doorstep with her mother in tow really was a terrible transgression.

Twil cringed away from the look on Evelyn’s face. She half-raised her hands as if to ward off a blow.

“Evee,” Raine said in a soft voice. “Dial it back, yeah? Let’s be rational.”

I didn’t make a sound, silence born from a deep-rooted desire to avoid Evelyn’s blinding rage.

“Look,” Twil started. “Saye-”

“Well, Raine?” Evelyn hissed through her teeth without looking away from Twil. “Be rational. Shut the door.”

“Aaaaand what if those lovely, lovely people waiting in the garden decide to not go away?”

Twil slapped a hand on the door to hold it open. “Just hear my mum out, okay? She wants to talk to you because she wants to help, and-”

“I should never have let you in here, you idiot mongrel,” Evelyn hissed.

“Hey! Knock off the pissy attitude for five minutes, okay? I’m trying to keep this all calm, right? She wants to help.”

“You don’t have the slightest comprehension of what your mother is. Raine, shut the door.”

Twil growled low. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean, huh?”

Raine did not shut the door; she tensed up. She was still in post-bath clothes, tshirt and jogging bottoms, unarmed - until she unhooked her leather jacket from beside the door.

I stepped back, mind racing, seconds to defuse this. The last thing we wanted was a scrap in front of Twil’s mother, who may or may not be some kind of terrifying magician, or worse. Evelyn’s voice rose into a shouted insult and Twil growled louder.

“She can take her help,” Evelyn snapped, “and shove it up her rotten cu-”

I scooped my shoes off the floor, one in each hand, swung them wide and slapped the soles together as hard as I could.

Bang!

The first bang served only to raise the noise level; the second drew a flicker of attention from Twil; the third made Evelyn jerk and glare at me, and the fourth finally got Raine to look away from Twil’s centre of mass. She smiled at me in confusion. I stared at the ceiling and kept going well past the point at which this had ceased to be a good idea. When I stopped, they would expect an explanation. Nine, ten, my arms were getting tired. Eleven, twelve, my hands hurt. Thirteen, fourteen - stop.

“What the hell-”

“Not the time for this-”

Twil and Evelyn rattled on, so I gave them more shoe. Bang bang bang bang bang. Raine shot me a thumbs-up and shouted “Encore!”

I stopped again, they’d gotten the message. Evelyn’s glare had simmered down from murderous blinding rage to mere smoldering irritation, whereas Twil had lost the worst of her cornered-dog expression, puzzled by my antics.

“Right, well,” I said, sniffed, and took a deep breath. “Is there any rational, sensible reason we can’t go talk to Twil’s mum? Act like the adults we are supposed to be?”

“These are dangerous people,” Raine said. She shrugged and gave me an awkward grin. “For real.”

“But they’ve come to parley. To talk, yes? They’ve even waited at the edge of the garden, where we could do, well, anything to them. I think they know they’re threatening.”

“Of course they know it,” Evelyn almost growled through her teeth. She glared at Twil. “This is intimidation. Amateurs. I could have them where they stand.”

“Oi!” Twil barked. I talked right over her, trying to control the tremor in my voice.

“Then they don’t pose a credible threat to you? To us? Is this some weird territorial thing? Or are you mad because it’s Twil?”

Evelyn hesitated, shoulders sagging. Twil spread her arms in a what-did-I-do gesture.

“Do they pose a credible threat to us?” I repeated.

“ … no. Not here. Not on home ground. Unless the car is a bomb, or something equally stupid.”

“Twil,” I said, turning as politely as I could to her. “Is the car a bomb?”

“ … what are you on-”

“Yes or no. Please, Twil.”

“No.” Twil grimaced, offended and outraged. “It’s not a sodding trap.”

“I’d say I have pretty good reason to trust Twil’s word,” I said. “It can’t hurt to find out what her mother wants.”

“Twil wouldn’t be in on it,” Evelyn grumbled.

“No,” Raine mused. “No, she would have to be.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Twil is almost definitely the most dangerous thing they’ve brought with them, and I don’t think she’s capable of faking being our friend. She’d have to be in on any plan they have.”

“Yeah, just talk about me like I’m not here, sure.” Twil rolled her eyes.

“You’ve sort of earned it this time,” I said to her. “I’m going outside to meet to your mum. Raine, will you come with me?”

“Yes ma’am. Right away, ma’am.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn grumbled. She looked ready to spit. Instead she called into the depths of the house as she struggled into her shoes. “Praem! Here! Now!”

Praem took only seconds to appear, gliding on light footsteps. One or Two, I couldn’t tell. She was still in the same clothes as when she’d rescued me. Evelyn tapped Praem’s leg with her walking stick.

“Stay by me.”

Evelyn did not wait. She drew herself up to her full height, stood as straight as she could force her spine, and strode right out the front door. Twil scrambled aside then hurried to follow. Evelyn’s walking stick slammed down before her with each step.

Raine raised her eyebrows at me and mouthed a silent ‘well done’ as she shrugged her jacket on and patted the pockets. I shrugged, brief burst of confidence dissipating now Evee had taken charge. I felt embarrassed and silly with my shoes in my hands. I quickly slipped them on, light-headed and unsteady.

“Are you … ” I looked Raine up and down quickly. She was the only one of us three in a fit state to receive visitors right now. Evelyn and I were both members of the daytime pajama club today. “Are you armed?” I whispered.

She answered with a noncommittal turn of her head, halfway out the door.

“Really,” I said. “Maybe … leave it behind?”

“Not on your life, Heather. Literally.”

No time left to argue for caution and diplomacy; Twil and Evee were already halfway down the garden path. Raine offered me her hand, I took it, and she pulled the door ajar behind us as we stepped outside. Tenny brought up the rear, padding along in silence to find out what all the fuss was about.

I whispered to Raine from the corner of my mouth. “We need to have a word with Evee about her thing for Twil.”

“ … you’re joking?”

“Just a hunch.”

Evelyn halted at a careful distance from our two visitors, head held high, eyes unreadable, walking stick jutted forward a few inches like a weapon on display. Praem stood ready by her side, staring at a point in the far distance, hands folded as if demure and gentle. Twil looked ready to vibrate to pieces, opened her mouth but then thought better of speaking. Raine and I hurried to catch up before any of them put spark to tinder.

Twil’s cousin and mother did seem threatening, to my sensibilities, but I was biased after my experience with Alexander and the Cult.

The cousin was rather imposing, I’ll admit. Six feet of badly dressed muscle shown off in short sleeves, hairy forearms crossed over his chest. He must have been freezing without a jacket or jumper on. The rest of us were all wearing layers against the cold seeping down from the dark clouds. Performative macho stuff, I suppose. He had one of those soft doughy faces that couldn’t quite grow a beard, but the fuzz on his chin put up a good fight all the same.

Twil’s mother, on the other hand, was positively inviting. She wore a long patterned skirt and a shawl draped over her shoulders. Family resemblance shone through; she and Twil shared the same short, compact stature, the same sharp features and dark hair - shot through with long streaks of grey. That surprised me. So rare to see an older woman with undyed hair, age on display. Heavy crow’s feet crinkled the corners of her eyes from too much smiling.

She used one on us, a warm smile.

“Oh, four of you?” she said. “That’s more than I was expecting. I suppose I don’t need to guess which of you is miss Saye. I’m Christine Hopton, Twil’s mother, though I don’t doubt she’s already told you that. Shall we shake hands?”

Christine’s voice was soft and resonant; nothing like her daughter’s. She offered Evelyn her hand.

Evelyn stared at her, then down at the proffered hand. In the corner of my eye I noticed Raine reach inside her jacket - the cousin noticed too, watching her. He unfolded his arms. My heart clambered into my mouth, pulse hard in my throat.

“She’s not gonna trick you with a handshake,” Twil said through gritted teeth. “Come on, Saye, this is my mum.”

“Twil, dear, please?” Christine said.

Surely they all knew we couldn’t have a fight here, in the street outside a suburban house, no matter how run-down and empty the road was.

Why had I encouraged this? A stubborn belief in non-violent solutions? That hadn’t survived the coffee shop encounter. If Alexander had turned up in Evelyn’s garden I would have happily sicced Praem on him.

No, we were out here because almost a week after I had been nearly snatched off the street in broad daylight, we had done nothing. We had gotten nowhere. We hadn’t retaliated, we hadn’t made ourselves safer except by caution, we hadn’t even found the people responsible. I was being stalked and harassed and we were hiding away, stuck, waiting for the Cult to make their move. We’d ceded the initiative.

We needed help.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead, or send a message with my daughter,” Christine was saying. “I assumed I would be rebuffed, for all the wrong reasons, so I thought it better to simply turn up, to show good faith. Please, miss Saye, may I call you Evelyn?”

“What are you doing in my city?” Evelyn hissed. She barely moved her lips.

“Your city?” Twil’s cousin rumbled.

“Ben,” Christine warned, ice running underneath her gentle voice. He shrugged.

“Leave,” Evelyn said. “Get out of-”

I jumped in, forced a smile I didn’t feel, and grabbed Christine Hopton’s hand. My body seemed to have forgotten how to do a handshake. “Hello! I’m Heather, and yes, you’re right, this is Evelyn. That’s Raine, she’s my girlfriend, and uh, that is a demon bound inside a wooden mannequin. We call her Praem. Also Tenny is wandering around over there, but none of you can see her.”

Christine stared for a heartbeat, then caught up and followed my lead, her smile very warm indeed. “Hello, Heather, a delight to meet you. Always nice to meet Twil’s friends.”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed.

“What? What? I am being polite. It’s normal.”

“You are giving away every advantage we have.”

I stood up to Evelyn’s withering look, and reminded myself she was my friend. “Evee, I think if these people were here to assassinate you, they wouldn’t do it in full view from the front garden.”

Ben snorted a laugh and rubbed his chin. Raine made a thinking face. “Probably right,” she muttered.

“Indeed, we are at quite a disadvantage here,” Christine said. She raised her eyes to the front door we’d left ajar. “It is much like being before the maw of an unknown beast, deep in the jungle.”

“Right,” Ben grunted. “Said we shouldn’t be here.”

“Ben,” Christine warned. “I will make you wait in the car. I will. I will go in there alone.”

Ben cleared his throat and turned away,

“Better. So, Heather, and Raine, was it? I’ve heard about you from Twil. And this is … Praem?” Christine pursed her lips. “Yes, I can see now. She’s not really here, is she? She’s blue, as well. How strange I didn’t notice. And, Tenny?” She cast about a little and then looked to me for guidance. “Should I greet her too or is she … ?”

“I don’t think she pays much attention.”

“That’s quite alright, dear.” Christine smiled at us and gestured at Twil’s cousin. “This is Ben, my nephew, he’s just here to look after me. I’m sorry about his behaviour. And in the interests of full disclosure, we have a manifestation with us too, for safety, considering the state of Sharrowford right now. Though I do not know where it is exactly. I don’t share your gift, Heather.”

We all looked around, but of course I was the only one who could see the thing. Nothing on the street or behind the car; I thought she was bluffing - then I looked up.

Almost invisible against the background of dark grey cloud, size difficult to gauge, it bobbed in the air about twenty feet up, a mass of translucent spheres like soap bubbles, constantly sliding over each other in an endless process of rearrangement. As I watched, I realised that’s how it moved - it tracked itself through the air by moving each individual part over the other bubbles.

The motion was remarkably disgusting; watching made me feel queasy.

“Heather, what does it look like?” Evelyn asked

I told her, best I could make sense of the creature. “Nothing like any other spirits or Servitors.”

“Oh, it’s not a construct. None of us know how to do that.” Christine’s smile widened. “It’s a bud, or an angel, if you like, sent from our god.”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes, then looked slowly up and down the street.

“They’re alone,” Raine said. “I already checked.”

“Where’s your father, then?” Evelyn said to Twil. “You don’t expect me to believe this is it? Your mum and one dumb slab of muscle?”

Twil squinted a frown at her. “At work, duh. It’s the middle of the afternoon. We can’t all live like students.”

“Mm.”

“Now we’ve all been introduced,” Christine said, “please, miss Saye, hear me out?”

“What do you want?” Evelyn grunted.

Christine’s expression softened into a look I could only think of as motherly. “My daughter has informed me you are fighting a war. Alone.”

“None of your business. I don’t need charity.”

“Nevertheless, what happens in Sharrowford affects us in the Church of Hringewindla too. I’ve come to offer help, yes, but think of it as self-interest on our part, if you prefer.”

Church of what? I frowned, wanted to interrupt, ask her to repeat that word. I’d read Beowulf, swore that word sounded like Old English.

Evelyn stared at her for a long moment. I glanced at Raine but she just shrugged with her eyebrows, deferring to our mage, still unwilling to remove her hand from inside her jacket - on her gun? I swallowed, forced myself to reach out and take Evelyn’s free hand, and earned a sidelong glare for my trouble.

“We do need help,” I said.

“We-”

“Are you any closer to a solution?”

Evelyn said nothing and turned back to Christine. She let her eyes rove over the pair of them, over the car, down the street. “What does your tentacled friend think of them?”

“You mean Tenny?”

“Mm, good judge of danger, at least to you, isn’t she?”

Tenny was prowling along the edge of the garden wall, looking up at the floating bubble-monster as her tentacles stroked the grass and bricks and stray leaves. She seemed entirely unconcerned by Christine and Ben, these members of the Brinkwood Cult.

“I think she’s okay with them.”

Evelyn grunted, stared at Christine. “You touch nothing. You leave your phones in your pockets. You step out of line for even a second and my security will eat you alive.”

She extracted her hand from mine, turned on her heel, and marched back up the garden path with Praem in tow. I gaped after her.

“Well. Quite a young lady,” Christine said.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Please, um, do come inside.”

Twil grumbled in the back of her throat. “Total bitch, more like.”

“Twil. Language,” her mother said.

“Ahhhh, it’s fine.” Raine ruffled Twil’s hair. Twil squeaked and jerked away in surprise. “She’s not wrong, sometimes.”

Ben gestured for Christine to go first. She nodded a thank you and got a few paces down the garden path before he moved to follow. Raine stepped in front of him and held out a hand.

“Sorry mate, I think you’re staying in the car.”

“’Scuse me?” he said, unlimbering his hands. He towered over her, over all of us.

“What, you wanna square up?” Raine began to grin. My heart leapt into my throat.

“Raine!”

“Ben,” Christine said, measured and gentle. “There’s no need for that.”

Ben shook his head and let out a disbelieving laugh. “And what, you’re gonna go in there alone? No way.” He turned back to Raine. “Saye said-”

“I have a veto,” Raine said. “You ain’t coming in, mate.”

“And you’re going to stop me?”

Raine just grinned wider.

“Don’t-” I squeaked. “Please don’t give her an excuse. She’s not joking. She will, she really will.”

Ben frowned at me, then visibly relaxed and backed off, somehow without stepping away.

“Raine, stop playing guard dog,” Evelyn called from the doorway. “He comes in too.”

“But-”

“I want him where I can see him. Hurry up, before I change my mind.”


==


“This is such a lovely house, not at all what I was led to believe. And you three girls are living here together?”

“Trust me, mum, it gets plenty weird if you set a foot wrong.”

Twil’s judgement earned her a reproachful frown.

“Twil’s right,” Evelyn snapped.

The ex-drawing room was strictly off-limits, not only as Evelyn’s workshop but also due to the massive killer spider currently locked inside. The abandoned sitting room was full of dust and chicken-blood paint and probably esoteric trade secrets right now, so we all gathered in the kitchen, with the lights on full and mugs of tea all round, supplied by Raine’s quick thinking.

Evelyn and Christine sat opposite each other. I took a third chair, but scooted it back clear of the firing line. Ben stayed standing by the door, so Raine did the same, sipping her tea by the counter. Twil hovered near her mum. Praem took up station to one side of Evelyn, the very picture of a right-hand-woman. Tenny had floated back in, but she quickly lost interest.

Thankfully, the disgusting bubble-Servitor had stayed outside, contenting itself with floating over the house.

Evelyn stared across the table with all the stubborn, sullen power of a feudal ruler in the heart of her realm. She was, if nothing else, exceptionally well-protected in here.

I listened with rapt fascination, teetering on the edge of a world I still knew so little about.

“Led to believe?” Evelyn said. “By who?”

“By my late father-in-law, mostly,” Christine answered. “I think he had some contact with your grandmother, several decades ago?” Evelyn grunted, noncommittal. “This house - the Saye house - it’s been somewhat of a bogey man for us in the Church, for a long time. Bigger on the inside than outside, full of gates to other places, under the eye of monstrous guards, that sort of silly thing.”

“The last one is true.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is.” Christine glanced at Praem.

“You’re right to be afraid of me,” Evelyn said, level and emotionless. “Afraid of this house. Afraid of my family. Why take the risk to come here?”

Christine put down her tea and folded her hands together on the tabletop. “Because we took a vote, after Twil told us about what was happening, and I volunteered for the task of contacting you.”

Evelyn laughed softly. “Vote? Your cult votes?”

Cult?” Ben spoke up.

Christine closed her eyes briefly. “It’s just a word, Ben. Be quiet.”

“What does that mean though,” he rumbled. “Cult?”

Christine shot him a stern look; he shrugged and went back to his tea.

“We vote, yes, on certain matters. There are less than thirty of us, it’s more of an extended family than an open organisation. In this case, the vote was held between me, my sister, and my husband - our leading triumvirate. This isn’t the bad old days anymore, miss Saye. We’re not blood-soaked witches dancing in the woods and kidnapping children at the behest of an abusive old man.”

“Mum,” Twil hissed. “Don’t.”

“You were not there, dear. Hush now.”

“Why volunteer?” Evelyn asked. “Wanted to see the freak show for yourself?”

“No, not at all. Not only because this had to be done, but for personal reasons as well. The vote carried two to one. The one against was my husband. He thought it too dangerous, any contact with the Saye family too dangerous. I know a little of your family history, I know your mother is gone, you have no guidance, no gods, no outside help, and now you are fighting a war by yourself, against some very dangerous people.”

“Which I will win,” Evelyn said.

“Good. We in the Church would very much prefer you do win.”

She paused - a bait pause, for Evelyn to ask the follow up question, to begin a real dialogue. Damn, she was good at this. I could learn a thing or two.

It even worked. Evelyn raised a silent eyebrow.

“What happens in Sharrowford affects us too,” Christine continued. “Affects all of us in the Church. All who have been touched by Hringewindla. We cannot decamp to another place, flee to another part of the country if Sharrowford ends up under control of a hostile power. Hringewindla cannot be moved. We will be forced to defend ourselves, and will we likely lose.”

“Who-” I started, so excited and jittery I didn’t catch myself in time. Both women turned to look at me and I felt my cheeks flush. “May I ask a question?”

“ … you never have to ask me for permission,” Evelyn said.

“Right, well. Mrs Hopton-”

“Call me Christine, please. We’re not in school, dear.”

“Christine, then. That word you keep using, that’s Old English, right?”

She blinked at me several times in delighted surprise. “Why yes, it is. A very attentive mind on you, dear. Hringewindla is a self-chosen name, in simply the first human language our god encountered. Its own language is … difficult, for the human soul to bear.”

“It’s their name for their crippled Outsider,” Evelyn said.

“Hringewindla is not a cripple,” Christine said, in tone of gentle warning.

“It’s also not a god,” Evelyn snapped back.

Ben visibly bristled. I suppressed a flinch. He seemed far too big in this kitchen. He directed a dark frown at Evelyn, and failed to notice the way Raine’s body language had shifted into a threat response, her eyes flicking between his hands, the centre of his chest, and a point between his eyes. She flexed her fingers.

“If you have been touched by Hringewindla, as we have,” Christine said, “you cannot for a moment doubt the plain divinity of intent and form. It is a transcendent experience. If you choose not to respect that, well, I ask merely that you respect our religion, as you would any other.”

“Ha!” Evelyn barked. Christine took a deep, calming breath, and to my surprise Twil looked terribly embarrassed, grimacing and studying the view through the kitchen window. I suppose anybody would, hearing their own mother talk like that.

“Be that as it may, let’s not get too far into the weeds just yet. We too had a run in with the Sharrowford ‘Cult’.” Christine pronounced the word with great and exaggerated care. “Brotherhood of the New Sun, they called themselves. Quite an inventive name.”

“That’s right,” I said, nodding. “I remember that- that’s what … yes.”

“Twil told me what happened to you, dear. I’m so sorry for you.”

I shrugged. “I’m … fine now.”

She graced me with a smile, then turned back to Evelyn. “My sister, Twil’s aunt, is our most advanced … practitioner. Of all our family, she has spent the most time learning from our god. She visited Sharrowford by herself about three weeks ago. She was approached, aggressively so, and drawn into a similar situation as Heather here was. She escaped, but since then we have seen at least two suspect people in Brinkwood itself. We are being watched.”

I frowned. “Um, if you had trouble, why was Twil in the city?”

Christine sighed and adopted that unique mixture of disappointment, exasperation, and helpless acceptance that only the parent of a teenager could express. She glanced at her daughter. Twil shrugged, utterly mystified.

“Twil did not inform me where she was going. Twil believed herself immune to harm.”

“But I am,” said Twil.

“All teenagers think they’re invincible, dear.”

“I am though.”

“She did save me,” I said.

“Yes, and I’m very proud of her for that. She has a wonderful heart, especially for her age.”

“Mum!” Twil blushed terribly, then turned away and busied herself drinking her as-yet-untouched mug of tea.

“My daughter also informed me that what progress you are making against the ‘Cult’ is either slow, or running into troubles. That is why we wish to offer help. Why I want to offer help. It is much, much better for us, our Church, our god, if Sharrowford is held by friendly hands, or at least neutral hands, rather than the kind of people who openly engage in kidnapping, murder, and worse.”

Evelyn stared at her for a long time, with a perfect poker face.

“I don’t trust you, and I don’t like you,” she said eventually.

Christine smiled and frowned at the same time. “You don’t even know me, miss Saye. But we don’t have to be strangers.”

“You gave up your own daughter to a mage’s experiment. That’s everything I need to know about you.”

Oh.

Oh.

I winced, inside and out.

“That was a long time ago,” Christine said, measured and tight. “And Twil was unharmed.”

“Fuck you, Saye!” Twil barked.

“Twil!” Her mother barked much louder at her. “Language.”

“I think I’ve heard enough,” Evelyn grunted. She began to gesture a command at Praem.

I grabbed her hand, and hopped up onto shaking feet.

“Evee! Evee, I must talk to you outside in the corridor. Um, front room, I mean. In private. Sorry, sorry everybody,” I stammered and flustered, dragging Evelyn to her feet by sheer force of bluster and bluff. “Raine, entertain our guests for a moment. Won’t be a minute! Promise, right back! Yes!”

I didn’t wait for a response, pulling Evelyn along into the front room, past where Tenny lurked. Evelyn offered no complaint when I finally drew us to a halt, just inside the abandoned sitting room, well beyond of earshot. I wet my lips and found I was shaking; did I have the courage to say this?

“You could have been more forceful. Don’t show these people any fear,” Evelyn said, then sighed and smiled. “You could also have just whispered your council to me. Go on, out with it.”

“First off, she’s not your mother.”

We both froze, Evelyn with shock, I with fear.

“What-” she almost spat, then lowered her voice and squinted at me. “Heather, what?”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my cool. “It doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out what you’re projecting here. Whatever Twil’s mother did to her is not the same as how your mother treated you.”

“I’m … I’m not … I … ” Evelyn frowned hard.

“She’s not your mother. Don’t take that out on her.”

Evelyn huffed and gritted her teeth. “All right, okay, maybe I was … I don’t know. But that doesn’t make a lick of difference. I don’t want those people in this house a moment longer than necessary. That woman in there is barely human, Heather. She’s a walking agent for an Outsider.”

“And she’s offering to help us. The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

Evelyn made a derisive snort. “We’re being baited.”

“What about Twil? Has she just been a ploy all along? I don’t think she’s capable of that. She’s sweet, but not the smartest.”

“Twil is sane and her soul is her own because she’s a werewolf, not in spite of it - it’s kept her out of the worst, because she’s dangerous. They probably keep her well away from their god. I may have to rethink her grandfather’s motives.”

“She’s … still offering us help, Evee.”

“We don’t need help.”

“You do need help!” I snapped, and finally all the pieces came tumbling into place in my mind. “Fine. Screw those people in there. Screw Twil.” Evelyn blinked at me in surprise. I put a hand to my mouth. “Goodness, I can’t believe I said that. Look, you do need help, from me and Raine. Between now and this morning, I’ve realised what you’re doing - you’re trying to do it all yourself. You said it this morning, you’re making no progress, you’re stuck, you can’t break the Cult’s extra-dimensional thingy. Forgive my lack of my proper terminology.”

“You … you don’t even know how to help.” Evelyn said, a little softer. “And Raine couldn’t do magic to save her life.”

“That’s not the only kind of help,” I hissed, and risked a glance back into the front room. Nobody had come looking for us yet. “Three heads are better than one. Let us in, Evee. Literally, let us in the drawing room, let us at the plan. Let Raine at the map, let me at the door-gate-portal thing, maybe I can do maths at it, I don’t know. It’s better than this. Let me help you.”

Evelyn swallowed, looked away and back again, struggling with words. “This isn’t your fight.”

“It so is,” I said. “I was kidnapped in the street. They tried to snatch me, in broad daylight. They’re stalking me everywhere I go. I killed a person, Evee. It is my fight now.”

“You- you shouldn’t-”

“And even if none of that had happened, you’re my friend. That means something. I’m still trying to figure that out, but I’m pretty sure that means this is my fight too.”

Evelyn really struggled. She pushed hard on all those psychological stumbling blocks her mother’s abuse had baked into her, the fight plain on her face. She managed a small, tight nod, then a deeper one, and then it all came out at once in a huge release of held breath.

“All right. Dammit, you’re completely right. I’ve been an idiot. Okay. Okay, Heather, okay. I get it. I get it.”

I smiled, and we shared an awkward hug. A very Evelyn hug, as I was coming to think of these, odd-angled and hampered by her twisted spine, but no less real.

She covertly wiped her eyes after we let go, and said, “So, what do we do about bright-eyed and enthusiastic in the kitchen?”

“Honestly, she doesn’t seem too bad? Apart from the weird god stuff.”

“Mm, exactly. You’ve really no idea what she’s trying to pull, do you? You can’t even guess?”

I shrugged. “Convert us?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Evelyn smiled a thin smile. “I can guarantee what this is all leading up to - she’s going to suggest I come talk to their Outsider, to solve my magical problem, and hope I’m stupid enough to do it.”

“So it can … ?” I frowned.

“It just wants more human minds to ride along with. You probably have to open up to it willingly, that’s why their cult is so small and stable. Subverting me would be quite the coup.”

I bit my bottom lip. “Okay, maybe you’re right, but also maybe you’re wrong.”

“It’s not worth the risk.”

“I’m not suggesting we risk going to their … thing.” I waved a hand. “I’m suggesting we hear them out. She might not be trying to bait you at all. Between Raine, Praem, your spiders, and, well, me, you’re incredibly well protected in here. Just listening to them isn’t putting you at risk, right? Correct me if I’m wrong. Can she do some weird mind-magic at you?”

Evelyn frowned and sighed. “No. No, she wouldn’t be able to do that. Keep a watch for their Servitor though, that might be dangerous.”

I nodded. “It didn’t come inside with them.”

“Mm. Hear them out?”

“If you let Christine into the drawing room, show her the map and the door, would any of that be dangerous?”

“No. Worst thing they could do is finish my own work.” Evelyn shrugged. “Get into the shadowside themselves. Which would help me, regardless if they get killed or not. If I show her the map, eh, I guess they could avoid them most dangerous parts of the city.”

“No harm in that, is there? Helping them avoid dangerous places?”

Evelyn frowned. “I suppose not. How about we make a bet, Heather?” Evelyn leaned toward me with a funny little smile on her lips, hunched over her walking stick. “She brings up talking to their god, I win. She doesn’t, you win.”

I smiled back, despite the gravity of the diplomacy. “You like gambling, don’t you?”

“A little, I admit. My father bets on horse racing. Doesn’t do very well.”

“We’ll have to make it fair though. Promise not to lead Christine into the idea of talking to her Outsider.”

“Promise. Fair and square.” Evelyn nodded seriously. “If you win, I’ll give you … five hundred pounds.”

My eyes popped out of my head. “What?!” I caught myself and glanced into the front room, then lowered my voice. “Evee, no, that’s so much money.”

“I can afford it.”

“I can’t. I-I’m sorry.”

“I’m not expecting you to. If I win, I’ll buy you an animal onesie, a … cat, I think, and you have to wear it for a whole day, on a weekday, to class and everything.”

I boggled at her, not sure if I was hearing this right. “E-Evee?”

“I’m deadly serious, Heather. I will hold you to it.”

“I-I’m not sure I can-”

“Put your money where your mouth is.” Her lips quirked with a concealed, dark amusement. “If you don’t want to, I can just shoo Christine and her muscle out the door.”

I sighed and frowned at her. “You have unexpected depths, Evelyn Saye.”

“This is what you have to deal with if you want to be my friend.” She shrugged, then broke into a smile - a real, big smile, one of the first and most genuine I’d seen on her.

“Oh all right. I’ll dress up as a cat for you, if that’s what you want. You’re not trying to make Raine jealous or something, are you?”

She laughed. “No, I suspect she’ll enjoy it much more than I will.”

I blushed. “Evee.”

“Right then, if we’re agreed, it’s time to go save Raine from having to play host.”

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