Katalepsis

by

Hungry

conditions of absolute reality - 3.13

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I’d won the first real physical fight of my life - against a cultist thug in a dirty Sharrowford back alley - kicking and biting, spitting and hissing. He’d been unsure of himself, unsure of violence, and much stronger than me. In the end I had powers he didn’t understand, and an animal willingness to use them, but up until that moment we’d been the same; unevenly matched, but both human.

Zheng did not play by human rules.

She didn’t need to muffle my scream. One huge gloved hand gripped my head, another whipped out like a snake around my forearm. I hadn’t even finished recoiling in horror when she simply yanked me off my feet, so fast my stomach lurched and my shoulder popped.

I tumbled forward through the gateway, into the corridor beyond, into Zheng’s grasp.

She caught me against her front, knocked the wind out of me with the impact, held me by neck and one wrist with irresistible strength. Her dead eyes stared down at a point to the left of my head.

Reason fled. I screamed my lungs out, kicked and spat and pulled and clawed. The only rational part of my mind - a cloistered core of self-preservation - was painfully aware this was nothing like the dirty little back alley fight. No Tenny to save me, nobody to hear me screaming, Zheng’s sheer size and strength more than enough to immobilise me and hold me down or just snap my spine and leave me dead.

A pair of men stood a little way behind her in the corridor, both in long cream-coloured robes, heads exposed, middle aged and portly. One of them held a coil of rope.

“Turn her around,” one of them said.

Zheng obeyed, attempted to turn me over. I kicked and struggled, wrenched my own joints and almost choked myself on her hand around my throat. I clawed at her eyes, but missed and grabbed the scarf over her face, pulling and yanking and screaming and kicking.

She didn’t even blink. Like fighting a wall. Despair filled me, an unspeakable feeling of inevitable violation. Trapped.

One of the robed men raised his voice. “Hold her still, for God’s sake. We need to be out of here.”

Zheng got me turned around, facing away from her, looking at the dark rectangle of the gateway. Moonlight bathed the ex-drawing room on the other side; the house was right there, so close.

“Raine!” I shouted. “Raine!” Zheng pinned one arm behind my back. I winced and gasped as she twisted my shoulder. She reached over to grab my other wrist.

No rescue. Nobody was coming for me. I went limp.

Zheng’s hand closed around my wrist in the time it took me to complete the equation.

Hyperdimensional mathematics slotted into place, each principle hissing and burning on the surface of my consciousness, molten metal in my brain, so much sharper and hotter to cut through the terror and panic. My stomach clenched up and my head split with razor-sharp pain. Impossible physics blossomed open inside me, dark and dripping and muddying my soul as I gripped the levers of reality and pulled.

Out.

Nothing happened.

Well, nothing happened to Zheng.

I vomited onto the floor and almost passed out. My vision throbbed black, ice-pick pain stabbing at my head, chest seizing up. My knees gave out and I sagged in the giant zombie’s grip, gagging and coughing, nose streaming with blood.

Death-panic gripped me even through the pain as my body tried to shut down. Why hadn’t it worked? Why was Zheng still here?

“Get her tied up before she tries that again,” one of the men said, his voice dim and distant.

“You’re joking, I’m not touching her. Zheng can do it.”

“Just get it done. Toss her the rope.”

“No, not here. If the Saye girl turns up now, we’re dead. We’ll close the gate first, get clear.” He raised his voice. “Zheng, pick her up. Quickly now.”

Nothing left to give, nothing left to resist with. The gateway back to the house was a mere six feet away. Raine and Evee were both upstairs, sound asleep. Twil lay sleeping just in the next room. So close. Right there. My throat constricted, my face dripping with blood and snot and tears. I tried to scream again, but managed only to cough and snort out blood.

Zheng began to pick me up, to hoist me by the waist, to throw me over her shoulder. To take me away, down into the underworld. I could barely flop an arm against her, managed to half-twist in her grip, get a good look at her face and the two ruddy-faced men hesitating behind her.

In the pit of panic and despair, I did the only thing I could think of.

As if she was a ping-pong ball, but a thousand times larger.

I lashed out, a fumbled mess of impossible physics, so fast and so violent, so disorganised and unplanned I thought my head would explode and my eyeballs would pop from the vice of pain. I aimed vaguely at Zheng - as much as such a thing could be aimed - to push her back, to force her away. No plan. Just wanted her off me.

It hit Zheng like a wrecking ball and tore off her left arm at the shoulder.

She dropped me and crashed backward into the cultists, her severed arm flying through the air in a welter of blood. It bounced off the wall and slopped to the floor.

I hit the ground too, winded and clenching up to vomit again, white-hot stabbing headache filling my consciousness; no energy to marvel at what I’d just done. Shattered bone and torn fabric hung in a ragged mess from Zheng’s wound, crimson stain spreading down the side of her trench coat. She sagged and hunched, silent, face lowered. The pair of cultists scrambled to their feet. One of them gaped at Zheng, eyes wide. The other took off running down the corridor.

My whole body shook as I gathered the last scraps of adrenaline to push myself to my feet. My eyes felt sticky, gummed with red. The world span.

Had to get up, had to get out of here. Zheng wasn’t dead, I hadn’t stopped her. I heaved for breath and snorted back blood and saw her move again. She stood up straight, chin level, staring ahead at nothing. Then she looked down at her severed arm. The remaining cultist swallowed and tried to speak to her, but his words were drowned out by the pounding inside my head.

“Up, up,” I tried to hiss to myself, but managed only a whine in my throat.

I failed to stand up. Failed to even get to my knees. One hand slipped.

I passed out before I hit the floor.


==


Pain stabbed me awake, sharp and throbbing, with a gasp from my closing throat.

A black shape bent low over me, indistinct and featureless, blurred through my sticky eyes and swimming vision.

No energy to scream, let alone crawl away. I was lying on my side in a pool of my own sick. My breath came in ragged gasps and hiccups, sucking down air filled with the scent of blood and stomach acid. My body was freezing through my pajamas, shaking all over, face smeared with still-wet blood and stringy bile.

Nothing happened.

Nothing moved except my racing heart.

I blinked and screwed up my eyes, managed to lift one arm to rub the sockets and scrub away the blood. I opened them again, squinting at the dark shape above me: chitin, ridged and bumped. Too many legs.

One of Evelyn’s spider-Servitors was crouched over me, a terrifying hound protecting an unconscious master. Its crystalline eyes pointed down the corridor, stingers raised in perfect stillness.

Zheng was gone, along with her severed arm. One of the robed cultists lay smeared against the wall, crumpled and ruined in a pool of his own blood, recognisable only by the cream robe and one exposed hand. I stared for a moment and felt sick somewhere deeper inside than my stomach, had to look away. A trail of blood led down the corridor, staining the brown floor, into the depths of this non-place.

I dragged myself out from under the spider, lay on a clean patch of floor, and passed out again; seconds or minutes, I couldn’t tell. I came around spluttering with adrenaline, hauled myself to my knees and fell against the wall, sat there shaking for a very long time, breathing in ragged gasps and muttering under my breath. The spider hadn’t budged an inch.

“Get up, get up,” I hissed. Stared at the gateway, at Evelyn’s workshop, the moonlight, five or six feet away. “Everyone’s just over there, okay? Get up, get up. You have to get up.” I hiccuped and sniffed and felt sick again, then pulled myself up against the wall with one hand, the other wrapped around my aching stomach. My limbs felt filled with lead.

Step by painful step, I went home.

Stumbling into the ex-drawing room on shaking knees, I crashed into a chair and almost fell over, desperate to get away from the open gate and the crawling sensation between my shoulder blades. I caught myself on the table, straightened up as best I could - not much - took a deep breath and hacked and coughed and snorted back blood before trying again.

I screamed Raine’s name at the top of my lungs.

She wasn’t first on the scene - that achievement went to Twil, who skidded into the ex-drawing room on clawed feet, full-wolf and half-awake and wide-eyed at the sight of me shaking and bloodied and the open gateway behind me - but I’d never been so glad to see Raine, fresh from sleep with her hair stuck up in all directions, switched on and alert, shiny black metal truncheon in one hand.

My energy gave out; I gave up, only dimly aware of the next couple of minutes after I collapsed into Raine’s arms. She sat me down on something but I couldn’t unclench my body, curled up around the pain in my chest, every muscle wire-tight. Cool hand on my forehead, interrupted by bewildered, snapping voices. Shaking, shivering all over. Raine murmured nearby, couldn’t make out the words. Hands on my stomach, probing, are you hurt? Who did this? Raine’s hands on my head, feeling for lumps. Who did this? Hands on my arms, hands on my hands.

“You did this?” Evelyn’s voice cut through the haze. I blinked up at her, still in her pajamas, looming over the sofa, as she held my right hand and frowned at the paint and ink all over my fingers.

“Evee, hey,” Raine said. “Let her-”

“Heather, you opened the gate? You completed it? How?” Evelyn demanded. She looked pale, green with nausea.

“I-I don’t- it was the zombie- I don’t-”

How?” Evelyn snapped.

“I don’t know,” I whined, flinching back.

“Evee-”

“You must know,” Evelyn said, casting a hand behind her toward the open gateway and the dozens of adjustments and additions to her magic mandala. Praem stood nearby now, on guard, as Twil peered through into the corridor beyond. “That’s your work, Heather, it’s on your hands, how did-”

“A dream!” I screamed in her face, hysteria ripping from my raw throat. “I did it in a dream! I sleepwalked and woke up and it was done and- and-” I hiccuped and felt myself begin to hyperventilate. Raine was on me again, murmuring words that didn’t matter. Evelyn turned to the gate, ordered Praem inside, and began shouting Latin at the spider-Servitor.

Raine pulled me to my feet and half-carried half-dragged me into the kitchen. She slapped the lights on and I blinked sensitive stinging eyes. She lowered me into a chair and made sure I wasn’t going to slide to the floor. I sniffed and clung to her with one hand.

“Don’t-” I hiccuped. “Don’t go.”

A hand on my filthy hair. “Heather, I’m going to get you a glass of water and clean you up. Okay? I’m not even going five feet from you. Promise.”

I nodded weakly.

Raine had this down to an art by now. Warm water and a sacrificial kitchen towel to wipe the blood and bile from my face and hair, a glass of water pressed into my shaking grip - which I drank with much spluttering and coughing - and the constant presence and pressure of her hands, reassuring, stroking, telling me it was going to be okay. I stared at her through slack vision.

Shouted Latin echoed from the drawing room for a while, then trailed off. My mind kept replaying Zheng over and over again, the unspeakable feeling of being grabbed and immobilised, of struggling against unbreakable strength. I blinked and gritted my teeth, looking down at my hands smeared with ink and paint. I’d woken up from a sleepwalker’s dream, just before the gate had opened, just at the right moment, because in the dream-

I’d had help.

“Heather? Heather?” Raine was saying. I blinked up at her. “Who did this to you?”

I shook my head and swallowed. My voice came out thick and clotted. “Need to think.”

“You said it was the zombie. Zheng?”

“She was there on the other side, when it opened. She didn’t … ” I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut. “I can’t remember. It was in a dream.”

Evelyn bustled into the kitchen, followed by a bewildered looking Twil. She stared at me, frowning and confused, carrying the scrimshawed thighbone under one arm.

“Hey,” Raine said, straightening up. She kept one hand on my shoulder. “Is it closed?”

Evelyn frowned at her. “No, of course not. Don’t be absurd.”

Raine cracked a grin. “Evee, you go back in there and you close that fucking gate or I swear I’ll spank you ‘till your arse glows in the dark.”

“Absolutely not. This is our chance. I seriously doubt I’ll be able to get it open again. I don’t even understand half of the … modifications. Heather, how did you do that?”

I shook my head, still staring at my hands.

“More like why did she do that?” Twil asked. “It’s the middle of the bloody night. Is this what she does?”

“Evee, there is a direct line to cultist fun-land in the middle of the house,” Raine said. “Heather just got attacked by a giant zombie.”

“Praem One and the Spider are both guarding it,” Evelyn grumbled. “Two’s on her way home right now. I’m not throwing this opportunity away, Raine. Don’t be such a dullard.”

“I’m about ten seconds away from grabbing a mop and a bottle of bleach to scrub that wall clean myself.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ey,” Twil said.

“No,” I almost spat, jerking upright in my seat. “No, you can’t. You can’t close it.” Everyone looked at me. I shook my head, struggling for words, breathing too hard. “We have to go in there. I have to go in there. I-I have to help … I-” I frowned, confused at these half-memories, broken impressions.

I had to help? Who? Who did I have to help? Where had that come from?

“Heather, it’s okay, it’s over now.” Raine ran her hand across my sweat-soaked back.

“No! I have to- Raine, I woke up and it was already happening, already opening. Sleepwalking, something, I don’t know.” I held out my hands, ink and paint still visible despite Raine’s ministrations. The Fractal stood out bold and stark on my left arm, my protection, my shield, unblemished and complete. “But it wasn’t me. I had help. Somebody helped me.”

Raine stiffened. “Inside the house?”

“No, no, inside my dream, inside the sleepwalking. Guiding my hands.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know!” I felt a hysterical scream catch in my throat. My heart ached for this lost memory, this piece of myself.

“Okay, okay, it’s okay, I believe you,” Raine murmured. Evelyn was staring at me, brows knitted.

“Somebody told me to wake up, before the gate opened, before Zheng got me. They saved me. And they asked for help too. Whoever it is needs- needs us to- me to-” I squeezed my eyes shut and forced a deep breath. “I can’t recall properly, but this was a trap, and somebody sabotaged it so I could escape. And now they need help too.” I looked up at Raine. “Please?”

Raine hesitated, then sighed and grinned. “Guess you know better than anybody that dreams can be real, huh?”

“Oh yeah, just bite down on this huge bait worm, right, cool.” Twil threw her arms up. “What’s if it’s just the cult messing with Heather’s head?”

“No,” Evelyn murmured. “This house is a fortress. That applies to our minds too. Something like the Eye could certainly brute force its way in, but not the Sharrowford Cult, no matter what they’ve got into. They’d need something like … well, like you, Heather.”

“Good point,” Raine said. “If they could break in here, why not, you know, just murder us all?”

“The sister,” I said, blinking up at my friends as a light went on in my head. “The sister!”

“The what?” Raine frowned.

“Ah,” Evelyn said.

“When he tried to kidnap me, Alexander Lilburne, he mentioned a sister like me, remember? What if … ” I trailed off and shrugged, still shaking all over.

Rained sighed and nodded, a resigned smile on her face. Evelyn scraped a chair back with her walking stick and sat down, placing the scrimshawed thighbone in front of her. “Start from the beginning,” she said. “You woke up in front of the gate. Step by step. This is important.”

I nodded, did my best to gather myself, and told everyone what happened.


==


“You were terrified,” Raine said. “You’re only human.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.” I coughed and winced, pain shooting up inside my chest. “I did the brain-math perfectly, it made me sick, it almost made me pass out, but it didn’t work on her. That’s why I had to do the ping-pong trick, but a hundred times bigger. Thousand times bigger.” I trailed off, feeling vaguely sick as I recalled the moment of violence. “And like I said, it cut her arm off. She dropped me, one of the men ran away, and then I passed out. You know the rest.”

Raine nodded as she rubbed my back through the borrowed hoodie. She’d managed to coax me into a warmer change of clothes, distraught and worried by my shivering. “You’re only human,” she repeated.

Evelyn watched me with her chin in her hand. Twil glanced between all of us in turn with a look like she wanted to be far away from here. I couldn’t blame her. I curled up tighter in my chair.

“Ping-pong trick,” Twil echoed quietly. “So you uh, knocked the big bitch’s arm off and um … pulped … that guy in there?”

“Wait, hold up,” Raine said. “There’s a dead guy?”

“You didn’t see?” Twil grimaced. “Past the gate. Totally minced.”

Evelyn swallowed and looked rather green. “Can you please refrain from being disgusting?”

“Was kinda busy with more important things.” Raine nodded sideways at me.

“No, no, that wasn’t me,” I shook my head and sniffed, trying not to picture the gruesome state of the corpse. “He was still standing when I passed out.”

“So like, the zombie killed him?” Twil frowned.

“The Cult may control her through a full-body binding of some kind,” Evelyn said in a quiet murmur. “Tattoo perhaps, like yours.”

“Ugh.” Twil pulled a face. She rolled her shoulders and leaned back, self-conscious of the way her tattoo showed through the thin white tshirt, now she looked fully human again.

“Remove an arm and part of the binding is broken,” Evelyn continued, nodding to herself. “They may have lost control of her. Lost control of their trump card. Well done, Heather.”

I gave her such a glare, born of pain and exhaustion. She cleared her throat, inclined her head to me, and stood up, clutching her walking stick in one hand.

“Nevertheless, the gate is open,” Evelyn said. “Finally. If I’m right about the changes you made to my work, it should indeed lead us into the heart of their stronghold in the south of the city. I do believe it’s time to get rid of the Sharrowford Cult.”

“Why stalk me and then just try to kidnap me like that?” I murmured. “What was the point?”

“Smart money says internal power struggle,” Raine said. She shrugged. “Right hand not talking to the left, all that.”

“They appear to have no plan B,” Evelyn said. Her lips kinked with the beginning of a devious smile. “They haven’t sent anything through the gate, it’s a clear shot. I’m clearing them out, tonight. Or,” she glanced at the kitchen clock, “this morning, I suppose. Before sunrise, in any case.”

Twil snorted. “It’s a stonking great trap, anybody could see that. Come on, Saye. What are you going to do, walk in there by yourself and challenge them to a punch up?”

Evelyn gave Twil a dark smile of growing certainty. “I have a bound demon in two bodies, robust and obedient, either of them capable of outfighting anything the cult have left to throw at me. They’ve run out of monsters, they don’t have anything. I have a dozen hidden trump cards. I have my magic, I have my mother’s goddamn legacy at my fingertips,” she reached forward and tapped the scrimshawed thighbone. “I have … ” she paused, glanced at me. “You want to help this mysterious benefactor of yours, Heather?”

I nodded. “Yes, absolutely.”

Evelyn turned back to Twil. “I have my friends. I have Raine. Heather’s already disabled their greatest weapon, and very likely set it among them like a fox in a hen-house. Do we have you, Twil? Are you in or out?”

“In,” I said, then coughed and wheezed at the pain in my chest. Twil stared at Evelyn, lost for words.

“Relax, Heather, come on, relax,” Raine murmured.

“Are you in or are you out?” Evelyn repeated. “Are you with your family, or us?”

Twil blinked in surprise, then scowled, dark and hurt. “That’s not a fair choice, Saye. Fuck you.”

“It is, however, a practical question, and we are now on a time limit, before they regroup or discover what’s happened. Us, or not?”

“You, then,” Twil grunted and folded her arms. Evelyn smiled that smug, devious smile again.

Raine looked at all of us in turn, a resigned look on her face as she finally turned to me. “I don’t even need to say it, do I? I really don’t like this. We’re talking about walking straight in there.”

“I have to go, I have to.”

“I believe you. But, Heather, love, you can barely stand right now.”

“I can stand just fine,” I lied, and forced myself to my feet, hands gripping the edge of the table. Deep breaths, in and out. Raine caught me by the elbow and helped me stand straight. My knees shook, weak and unsteady. My chest ached as if every single muscle had been pulled, from collarbone to abdomen.

“No you bloody well can’t,” Twil said.

“I feel a lot better than I have in the past,” I said, and held my head high. “I’m getting better at this.”

Raine couldn’t keep the dubious look off her face; I knew her too well by now, saw right through to the deep concern and worry underneath, the fear that fragile little Heather would get hurt, that she’d lose me. It was entirely justified; but if I acknowledged it, I’d give in to the fear.

“Then carry me,” I blurted out. My calm veneer slipped and I screwed up my eyes, banging my own skull with one fist. “It’s right there, Raine. I can feel it, I just can’t remember the details. I have to help, and I have to know, there’s a piece of my mind missing and I can’t stand it. I’m serious, Raine. Carry me if you must. You want me to stay here you’ll have to tie me up.”

Raine took a deep breath. No grin. She met my eyes head-on and nodded once. “Alright. I’m with you.”

I opened my mouth to thank her, to tell her I knew, I understood, to tell her I’d follow all her instructions, that this mattered and thank you, but she put a finger to my lips.

“If we’re gonna do this, we do it properly,” she said. “My way.”


==


We suited up.

I stayed in Raine’s hoodie, wrapped in big comfortable protection. She made me prove I could walk upstairs, then helped me tug on a pair of jeans. She held my hand for support on the way back down, loaded me up with co-codamol and ibuprofen and a couple of little tablets from Evelyn’s unlabelled collection, which seemed to settle my shakes. She dug out one of Evelyn’s spare walking sticks for me, not a lovely warm piece of polished oak, but a metal and plastic NHS-issue crutch, with a pad for under the shoulder. I found a window and tried to catch a glimpse of Tenny wandering in the garden, but it was too dark and rain-soaked to see her.

“We’ll be back later,” I muttered to the cold glass.

Twil dragged her clothes out of the dryer and shrugged them on. She rolled her sleeves up, exposed hands making and unmaking those ghostly wolf-claws, as if limbering up a spiritual muscle.

Raine found her jacket and filled it with death.

She checked the handgun, made sure the safety was on, and slipped it into an inside pocket. She found her truncheon and laid it on the table, sized up a few kitchen knives, then hopped upstairs and returned with the most terrifying blade I’d ever seen - a combat knife. Eight or nine inches of matte-black metal, slid into a clean leather sheath. She tucked it away and shot me a sheepish grin as she pulled on a pair of black leather gloves.

“Insurance,” she said.

“Sure you got enough pointy things there?” Twil asked.

“I’d prefer a shotgun and a riot shield, but hey, you make do with the tools you’ve got.”

Praem Two returned via the back door, somewhere during our preparations, and silently took up station in the ex-drawing room next to her body double.

Evelyn finally reappeared from upstairs, fully dressed, in boots and a coat for once instead of a comfy sweater, her pockets laden down with a trio of notebooks, a collection of little bottles sealed with wax, and that awful carved thighbone.

She had another notebook tucked under one arm - mine. She handed it to me with a nod. I tucked the notebook into the hoodie’s front pocket.

“You going to be all right?” she murmured, while the other two were occupied.

“I think so. Thank you, Evee.”

She nodded. “I hope we find your mystery helper.”

We gathered in the ex-drawing room, among the magical detritus of Evelyn’s workshop. Raine hovered by my side as I hobbled along on the crutch, taking deep breaths as I went. I did keep up; it wasn’t that difficult. I really was handling the aftermath of the Eye’s impossible equations better than ever before.

In that moment, I didn’t have time to stop and consider what that meant about me.

I’d expected the open gateway to glow, or give off some kind of inner light. A magical gateway through space, to a place that shouldn’t exist. Surely the surface should wobble or shine or pulse? Instead it showed that brown institutional corridor, as if through a perfectly normal open door.

Praem One and Two stood nearby, along with the spider-Servitor, now backed up from the inexplicable intrusion into its years-long routine. Evelyn took a deep breath and muttered something to one of the Praems. Twil flexed her hands into wolf-claws. Raine glanced at me.

“You do exactly as I say, okay?”

I nodded.

“We’ll be fine,” Evelyn announced. “This is a simple mopping up. They couldn’t even muster a few people to come through this gate. Most likely we won’t have to do a thing except chase off a few sad old men. Let Praem take the lead, find out what they were doing, and bring the place down on our way back. Don’t show any fear.”

“That means you too,” Raine stage-whispered and elbowed Twil in the ribs.

“Oi!”

I suppressed the smallest laugh, winced at the pain in my chest, then smiled at Raine.

My heart could not decide between paralysed terror and shaky confidence. On one hand, who on earth did we think we were, doing this? Four young students, all girls, on half a night’s sleep, with a old handgun and a knife between us, Evelyn and I both barely able to keep up if we had to run. And we were going to put down an organised supernatural mafia group.

On the other hand, who were we really? A mage, a virtuous psychopath, an indestructible werewolf, and whatever the hell I was becoming. We a demon at our disposal, in two bodies strong enough to break limbs and bend steel. We had magic and monsters of our very own. We had each other.

We were pretty damn scary ourselves.

“Right,” Evelyn started. “Praem, if you please, go first. Bring the-”

“Wait,” I said. “Wait, do we have string. A ball of string?”

Evelyn frowned at me. Raine blinked, curious and bright.

“ … you didn’t think to bring string?” I asked.

“What are you going on about?” said Evelyn.

“Theseus? The Minotaur?” I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Nobody reads anymore. Where would you lot be without me?”

Raine nodded slowly, a grin spreading across her face. “A maze. Evee, what if we get turned around in there, or can’t find our way back out? Heather’s got a point.”

Evelyn shrugged. “Then we’ll come out somewhere else in Sharrowford. A walk home.”

“You’ll get a sore hip again,” I said, then turned back to the kitchen. “String, or a ball of yarn, surely you have something around here.”

She did. Raine found an old ball of string after a little digging in the cupboards, and put it in my hand. My responsibility. I hobbled out into the front room and tied it to the sturdiest thing we had - the house itself. I looped the string around the banister on the stairs and tied a tight little knot, then unwound the ball behind me as I walked back to the ex-drawing room.

“There. Our way back.”

Praem went first, her twin identical bodies stepping through the gate one after the other. Twil followed behind them, shoulders hunched, eyes probing. Evelyn stomped ahead, radiating stubborn confidence.

My feet hesitated regardless of my heart. I felt a catch of breath in my throat and the crutch digging into my shoulder, as I leaned on it with all my weight. What if Zheng wasn’t the worst threat waiting for us? What if I wasn’t strong enough, what if I weakened and collapsed and slowed everyone down? What if there hadn’t been a mysterious helper in my dream, and this was all trap?

What if I was wrong?

A hand slipped into mine and squeezed. I looked up to find Raine - not grinning, for once.

“I’m with you, Heather. I promise.”

I nodded. Squeezed back.

We stepped through the gate together, as the others waited for us, just across the threshold to the underworld.

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