Katalepsis

by

Hungry

the other side of nowhere - 4.6

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Can noble intention remain untainted, no matter the method used to reach the goal?

Alexander finished his proselytising, and I knew he wasn’t lying. Too much passion in him for this be an act, to get me to drop my guard. Besides, what did I have that he couldn’t take by force? I’d rarely felt so weak and small, with Zheng towering beside me, lost in this un-place. My friends might be about to rescue me, but Alexander’s pitch wasn’t a ploy to save his own skin. He shone with confidence. If Raine and the others made it here, he was certain he could kill them.

This rotten blood-soaked ogre perched on a stool, this eater of children, he wanted to convince me he was right.

And he was.

The stocky cultist tending to Alexander’s exit wound cleared his throat. “Boss, we-”

“Shhh, shh shh shh.” Alexander hushed him with a delicately raised hand. “Lavinia is considering our offer. Let’s not interrupt her calculations, that would be so terribly rude.”

I knew Lozzie was trying to catch my eye, peeking out from behind her mass of filthy hair, from where she sat on the floor next to her brother. She had a plan, didn’t she? A sharp trick up her sleeve. Was I still part of that plan?

Alexander was right. Maisie and I had been kidnapped, stolen, torn apart, and I’d been left half-alive. Now I had a few friends who understood that, who understood me. A ragged band of fools, and we were planning to - what? We had a few vaguely sketched intentions, all of which relied on my mastery of an abyss I barely understood and which nearly killed me every time I dipped into it.

But the Sharrowford Cult? These people had trapped and bound an alien god. They tapped it for power, commanded its spawn, and built their own pocket dimension around a wound in its hide.

“You are right,” I said, so softly, barely a whisper.

Alexander broke into a grin, the most satisfied I’d ever seen a human face.

“And I’m still going to kill you,” I continued.

Can you use an evil tool, and yet remain unchanged?

Not only the dead and mutated children in the cages underground, but also the homeless people turned into zombies, each one of them was or had been somebody’s missing person, somebody else’s Maisie.

Yes, these people had bound a god. Allying with this monster might be the best chance I’d ever have of actually rescuing my sister, and I had to say no.

Alexander sighed with theatrical disappointment.

“This idiotic bravado is unbecoming of you, Lavinia. Be realistic now, you are not going to kill-”

“The end does not justify the means. The means determines the nature of the end.”

I made myself believe those words, no matter how weak my voice. When I rescued my sister, she would see me, not a self-loathing monster in my place.

Alexander rolled his eyes, as if I was wilfully ignorant, a naive and idealistic girl, an idiot on the way to self-destruction. Perhaps he was right about that too.

I felt a pinprick of real confidence, real conviction, not so slow and numb anymore. He rolled the little metal cylinder in his hand as if bored, his eyes leaving me and drifting to Zheng. I tensed up, expected her to grab me at any moment - but I forced myself to concentrate, to look down at the notebook in my hands. I flipped past a page of irrelevant mathematical notation. I knew what to look for now, I knew what to do.

In cold blood, I had to do this. Nausea crept up my throat and a spike of pain jabbed the back of my head as I hurried through the equations.

“You think I’m … ” Alexander gestured with the metal cylinder. “Bad? A cartoon villain, to-”

“You’re evil,” I said.

“Evil? Evil? Look at the world around us, Lavinia.” He stabbed with his voice, hard and angry now, the anger of a powerful man spurned. “Our world, the human world. I snuff out a few lives, yes, for an explicit purpose - knowledge, advancement, human survival. Not for the sake of my own enrichment, not for national power or personal prestige or for corporate profit, but for all of us. For a higher cause. The world is full of people far worse than I. Lavinia, look at me.”

I winced and fought to keep my eyes on the page.

“I said, look at-”

A shout echoed from somewhere below us, distorted by the winding sinus-like passageways of the corpse-castle. Was that my name I’d heard, was that Raine shouting for me?

Then, unmistakable, a gunshot. Far away.

“Boss,” the stocky cultist raised his voice in warning.

Alexander jerked a hand up to silence his underling. His eyes tightened in strangled frustration.

“Humankind is a dead end, Lavinia. Being human is a dead end. If not from climate change and resource depletion, then from the beyond. Your very way of thinking, this insistence on an archaic system of ethics and morals will serve you nothing in the long run. It will see you dead, your bones dust. What use is this way of thinking, if it leads you to failure? You cling to it only because it makes you feel good, but it ensures you cannot kill me.”

I found the right lines of mathematics and swallowed hard. The correct re-purposed dregs of the Eye’s lessons, separate scraps I was going to weld together with my mind; my stomach clenched up.

Alexander was speaking again. I interrupted him with the first words I could think of.

“Why not get into that machine yourself then?”

“Machine?” He paused. “The mind-interface device? I did! I have. It didn’t work on me. I am loathe to admit so, but it gave me nothing. Is that not right, sister? Did it work on me?” In my peripheral vision, I saw Lozzie shake her head. “You think I would sacrifice your precious innocents before myself? Lavinia, you are only trying to convince yourself to do what you know you cannot - you cannot kill me without convincing yourself I am a monster.”

Noises echoed through the gallery behind me now, shouting and crashes, a ripping sound, a scream; but I couldn’t just wait for rescue. I’d never forgive myself.

I had to prove Alexander wrong.

“If you admit it now, I will let your friends live,” he said, voice a touch softer, a smugness returning to his lips as he spread his hands in mock mercy. “If you persist in this nonsense, I will set Zheng on them when they arrive, and if by some miracle they survive that, I will do it myself.” He pointed vaguely at the ceiling. “Do you forget what I can command?”

My eyes tripped along the next line of equation and I felt the beginning of a white-hot burning inside my skull. My breath jerked, harder and sharper. The hyperdimensional mathematics began to slot into place, irresistible and unstoppable now, held tight in my mind. I grit my teeth, felt a nosebleed start, and finally looked up at Alexander.

“Shit, she’s doing it. For fuck’s sake,” the stocky cultist said. He dropped the bloody towel he’d been holding, but hesitated as Alexander showed no fear.

“You can’t kill me, Lavinia. You simply won’t do it.”

“Lozzie,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Move. Aside.”

Lozzie half-rose, unsure and skittish, her eyes darting between her brother and I. The stocky cultist frowned at her. I kept my focus on Alexander, felt the levers of reality slick and burning under my hands. He sighed and rolled his eyes, glanced at his nervous underling at last. “She can’t hurt you. Settle down.”

“Yes, I can.”

I could barely speak. My head felt like it was going to explode and my eyes ached with fire, but I held on even as I trembled and struggled to stay standing, as I felt blood drip from my nose and leak from the corners of my eyes; I pushed the equation further, complicated it, added layers. Bullets wouldn’t kill him, this needed to be final.

“No, you can’t,” Alexander snapped, the last word spat in rage. He rose to his feet and pointed at me. “Because you won’t, because you are tied to a moral system which admits no legitimate breaking of human boundaries. This is a farce.” He grinned and threw up his hands. “Here, I will make your surrender even easier. I will let your friends live regardless of the choice you make. You will all walk free. There, I have taken away even that excuse to kill me. You have no enlightened self-defence, no principles to stand on but simple moral outrage. You cannot kill me, because you refuse to become anything other than a human be-”

The stocky cultist lunged to tackle me.

Lozzie leapt to her feet, yanked the hidden scalpel out of her sleeve, and landed on the cultist like a mad pixie. I think she got the knife into his throat, but it all happened too fast for me to react. They went down in a tangle of limbs and slippery spurting blood. I flinched and shied away so hard I almost tripped over my own feet.

Alexander sighed. He snapped three words in some angular, painful non-human language, a command at Zheng.

With almost superhuman effort, through blood clogging my nose and dimming vision, I interrupted him - by pulling the glow stick out of my hoodie’s pocket and hurling it at his face. I missed, badly. It sailed past him, but distracted him just enough, made him trip over a syllable.

“You will not!” Alexander screamed at the last second.

Then I let go.

This was no reflex, no scramble of self-defence, no fumbling in the ineffable dark. I lashed out with hyperdimensional mathematics fully conscious of what I was doing, after almost a minute and a half of painstaking, bleeding, brain-burning work. I made a decision, eyes wide open, and I followed it through.

Heat, light, and a god-awful tearing noise - perhaps a hiss of superheated air, I never figured it out. A backwash of oven-heat, a millisecond of sharp blue glow.

It hit Alexander like a train.

I barely understood that moment of destruction. It was so fast, too fast, and my vision was already throbbing and edged with black.

A terrible sound deafened me - the instant shattering of every bone in a human body, the floor around Alexander cracking into a million shards, the stool he’d been sitting on splintered to nothing, the table next to him smashed aside. A wrecking ball of invisible force flung a pulped bloody wreck against the back wall of the throne room, smashed the wall itself open, and carried what was left of Alexander Lilburne out into the grey fog and down over the side of the castle.

Wish I’d heard the splat.

I blacked out before I’d even begun to fall over.

In that last moment of shock and release, with the throne room spinning around me and my head splitting open with white-hot fire, with vomit forcing its way up my throat to choke me, I had only one thought.

I win.


==


I was out cold when my friends burst into the room, but I’m told it was suitably dramatic.


==


Pain rolled in the pit of my stomach, torturing me back to consciousness. My eyes were gummed shut. My mouth tasted of iron and bile.

I was collapsed forward against a warm, firm surface, my neck lolling, legs dangling, something digging into the underside of my thighs. I was jerked to one side then the other, the sensation of motion, stopping, moving again. No energy to roll sideways, no energy to even moan. Muffled voices trickled through my dulled senses. Angry shouting, a huge clang of metal, a grunt.

The reason I didn’t panic is because I could smell Raine.

Her sweat, mostly. Realisation filtered through the brain-fog; she was carrying me on her back.

“That’s enough. That’ll do for them.” Evelyn, snapping, nearby.

“One more!” Twil, shouting through too many sharp teeth.

A loud twisting tear of metal, nails down a blackboard.

I fought the aching muscles and the crust of blood around my eyes. Cracked my eyelids a millimetre or two, vision painful and blurry. Thick grey fog and copied Sharrowford buildings swirled and swam.

We were outside the castle, beyond the cult’s barrier of occult bollards. A dozen of the squat metal poles had been ripped out of the ground and strewn about. A wolfish form was busy uprooting another one. Twil. She ripped it from the ground and hurled it at indistinct figures in the fog.

I tried to move my eyes and suffered a wave of nausea for my efforts. I don’t know if it’s possible for an optic nerve to hurt, but mine did. I stared at what I’m pretty sure was Praem. She held a smaller figure in a double arm-lock.

“Twil, come on,” Raine said, right next to my head.

Parted my lips. Throat was so raw.

“ … -one … okay?”

“Heather?” Raine turned her head, but she couldn’t meet my eyes at this angle. Her profile was so clear through the haze. “Heeey, you’re awake. She awake? Lozzie, her eyes open?”

A small elfin face bobbed into my vision. I stared, half dead inside, unable to muster a reaction.

“Uh huh! Hey Heather!” Lozzie said. I managed to blink, once.

“ … okay?” I hissed again.

“Yeah. That would be a yes,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Nobody’s dead. It’s okay, we’re all gonna be okay. We’ll be out of here in no time, I promise.”

“Yaaaay,” I murmured.

I closed my eyes again. I think I may have been delirious.

I was certain I’d passed out, but I felt Raine moving, hurrying, the sound of many footsteps and the clipped anger of a short, tense argument. Voice I didn’t recognise.

A static crackle; a breath of cold against my face; a change of light behind my eyelids - a sudden blossom of soft warm orange.

“Goddammit all to hell, I don’t know how to close the blasted thing,” Evelyn snapped.

“Break the wall, break the wall, knock it down!” That was Lozzie.

“Right on,” Raine said. “Fuck that wall right up.”

“Me? Ugh, fine,” Twil grunted.

A crack of shattering brick. Somebody let out a huge heartfelt sigh, followed by soft swearing. For a long moment I heard only distant birdsong and the thrum of far-off traffic.

“I trust we’re all in one piece?” Evelyn asked eventually. “Excepting the obvious.”

“Yes ma’am. Present and correct,” Raine said, a grin in her voice.

“Here!” Lozzie chirped.

Twil growled. “Broke my fucking hand. Fuck, that hurts. Urgh.”

Blacked out again for a handful of seconds. Next thing I knew was Raine setting me down, sitting me upright on a cold wooden surface. I groaned and tried my best to cling to her, arms too weak. Couldn’t force my hands to grip. Raine steadied me by the shoulders, brushing my sweat-soaked hair out of my face, touching me to bring me back. I tried to open my eyes again, painful and stinging against the light.

“Hey, Heather, it’s okay, it’s okay. We’re out, we made it out.”

Raine smiled down at me. Her face was side-lit by the apricot and peach light of sunrise, as were the trees behind her and the beautiful arc of the sky and the silken morning clouds. Raine was sweaty and dirty and her hair was a mess and she had a smear of blood - mine - drying on her neck and all down the shoulder of her leather jacket.

“ … best thing … seen all day … ” I managed. Speaking hurt.

Raine actually laughed, half in disbelief, shaking her head. “You are invincible, Heather. Have I been rubbing off on you?”

I did a tiny shrug and wrapped my numb, weak arms around the pain in my belly and diaphragm. My head lolled, couldn’t keep my neck straight.

“Hey, hey, hold still for me, love. I need to look at that bruise on your head,” Raine said, soft and coaxing, hands gentle and intimate on my face and forehead.

“Bruise?” I muttered.

Lozzie wriggled onto the bench next to me, warm and close, hands on my back and head against my shoulder.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “Wasn’t fast enough to catch you when you went down. Crack, bang, wallop. I’m sorry, Raine, I’m sorry I hurt your girl. Really, I’m sorry, please-”

“Hey, you stabbed a dude in the throat for her. You’re cool with me, pixie dust.”

Lozzie giggled.

I grunted as Raine gently probed my forehead. I felt for it too, despite her warning, and winced when my questing hand found a bruise the size of an egg. “Ow.”

“Looks worse than it is.” Raine sighed with relief. “Was worried for a minute you’d fractured your skull, but you haven’t. Here.”

Raine rummaged in her jacket pockets and I took a deep breath, forcing it down my raw throat. I struggled to sit up enough to look around, to take in the aftermath of our journey to nowhere. Numb, empty, exhausted, I felt like the living dead.

We were in a park, at dawn, next to a dilapidated children’s play area, with a couple of sad looking plastic slides and a rusty climbing frame. A wall for ball games lay half-toppled into the thin grass, fragments of strange symbols still visible on some larger pieces of shattered brick. Orange dawn glow suffused the line of sheltering trees and the distant rooftops beyond. A few spirits went about their unknowable business, waving tentacles and undulating lizard-skin, stalking through the trees and clambering over the roofs. None of them paid us the slightest attention.

I’d never been so happy to see Sharrowford, or to feel the sun on my face.

Twil lay on her back, spread-eagle on the grass, scuffed and spattered with other people’s blood. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, savouring the air. Evelyn steadied herself against the opposite park bench to the one I was sat on, sagging over her walking stick, but she was smiling with grim satisfaction. Praem stood a few feet away, expressionless and prim and straight-backed despite her battered and bruised look, clothes torn and filthy - and there was only one of her. The second body was gone.

She had a young woman restrained in a double arm-lock, the zombie-conductor cultist from the castle, the scrawny woman Raine had shot at and missed. She was wiry and terrified, watching us all, her face bloodied from a punch, cream-coloured robes half twisted off to show jeans and a thin tshirt beneath.

“Here, Heather, try to eat some of this, okay?” Raine said, as she pressed an unwrapped chocolate bar into my numb hands. “Emergency rations, in case you needed to get your jazz on.”

“Good thinking,” Evelyn grunted, though she was staring at Lozzie with a curious frown.

“Hey, I plan for everything. Only thing I’m any good at.” Raine allowed herself a little grin and a wink. I managed a tiny nibble of chocolate. Nodded the smallest thank you. Raine crouched down and peered at my eyes, marvelling at me.

“How are you even conscious right now?” she asked.

“Maybe … adapting?” I croaked.

“Turning away a bullet required much more complex physics,” Evelyn said. “This time she just hit somebody. Very hard.”

“We won,” I hissed.

“That we did,” Raine said, and her smile lit up my soul.

“That’s right, fuckers!” Twil yelled up at the sky. “You swing at the king, you best not miss.” She trailed off, then heaved herself up into a sitting position. “Anyone recognise where we are? That portal could have come out anywhere.”

“Park,” I croaked. Twil puffed out a token laugh. Lozzie giggled and hugged me tighter, cheek pressed against my own. I didn’t have the energy or heart to tell her that hurt, and the shared body heat felt nice.

“Maybe we’re not even in Sharrowford,” said Twil. “Or in England. How screwed up would that be?”

Evelyn just sighed.

“You okay?” Raine asked me softly. I nodded more with my eyes than with my head, and Raine straighted up, though she kept one firm hand on my shoulder as she produced her mobile phone. “Let’s ask. Hey Google, where are we?” She waited a beat, then raised her eyes at the map on her phone’s screen. “Oak grove park, apparently, almost out of the city, right on the southern edge. Never been down here myself. Home is … ” She looked up, oriented herself, and pointed over the trees. “A long walk that way. That over there, I think that’s the old brickworks. And oh, what luck, there’s a police station about five minutes away.” She flashed a smile around. “We really want to run into a bobby on his morning beat right now, yeah?”

“Shit,” Twil said, glancing at the still-terrified cultist woman in Praem’s unyielding grip. “What do we do with surrender monkey here?”

“Don’t-” the woman stammered, her eyes darting back and forth. “Don’t kill me. Please. Please don’t. You don’t want to.”

Evelyn rounded on the captured cultist, still unsteady on her walking stick. “Give me a good reason not to. Making zombies, in my city. I should put you in the ground.”

“I never killed anybody, I never killed anyone.” The cultist shook her head, eyes wide. “I swear, they just trained me and brought me bodies to work with. I never killed anybody. Lauren?” The cultist glanced at Lozzie. “Lauren, tell them, I’m not a murderer. Lauren, please … please, please.”

Lozzie looked away.

“Is she telling the truth?” Evelyn asked Lozzie.

“Um … ” Lozzie bit her lip, returned Evelyn’s sudden scrutiny with upturned eyes. “You’re Evelyn, right?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

Lozzie turned her head one way and then the other, the picture of a crazy person distracted by a cacophony of thought - or at least, that’s how she must have appeared to the others. I saw something quite different. She was glancing at the spirit life in the park, at a pair of canine shapes pacing along the edge of the trees, at squirmy little creatures edging up the children’s climbing frame, at a translucent floating squid-thing bobbing through the air.

More spirits than a minute or two earlier.

“Lozzie?” I croaked. “Are these-”

“It’s okay, it’s okay, they’re my friends. My friends,” Lozzie whispered for me, and squeezed me again. Then she spoke up, to Evelyn. “I don’t care if Flowsie lives or dies, but I don’t think she ever killed people.”

“See? See? You all heard that, right? You all heard that,” the cultist said.

“’Flowsie’?” Raine asked with a smirk.

“I-it’s not my real name.”

“I should still put you in the ground,” Evelyn said.

“Uh, hello?” Twil stood up and spread her arms wide. “We’re in a park in the suburbs? We gonna leave a corpse here?”

“Yeah, yeah, l-listen to her.”

“I can’t kill her, Evee,” Raine said. “She did surrender. She had zombies left and all, she could have kept fighting, and she led us out. I’m not going to break the Geneva Convention in a Sharrowford Park.”

Evelyn let out a slow sigh. “Fine. I still have to do something with her though. We can’t just let her go.”

“Mmm, fair point.” Raine nodded. The cultist woman shuddered as Raine turned to consider her.

“Yeah,” Twil said. “Let’s just argue about it until a morning jogger comes along, sees six girls covered in bruises and blood. Great plan.”

“ … you have a life?”

Everyone glanced at me, including the cultist.

“Do you have a life?” I repeated, my voice broken, throat raw, mouth still thick with the taste of blood. I stared at her with exhausted, heavy eyes. I wanted so badly to sleep. She gulped and stammered, glanced around at the others.

“Don’t look at me,” Raine told her. “The lady of the hour asked you a question, I’d answer if I were you. She’s probably your best chance right now.”

“W-what do you mean?” the cultist stammered at me.

“Other than the cult. A life.”

“T-the brotherhood, you mean?”

Brotherhood?” Twil snorted. “You’re not even a man, dumb ass.”

“I-it’s a figure of speech.”

“I will shove this walking stick up your arse,” Evelyn grumbled. “How’s that for a figure of speech?”

“A life?” I repeated.

“No. Not … not really.” She gulped and averted her eyes, sagging in Praem’s grip. “I don’t have … anybody important, if that’s what you mean. I’m not important. I’m a nobody.”

“ … real name?”

She blinked at me. Mid-twenties, older? Mousy and scrawny. A little like myself.

“Kimberly,” she muttered.

“Job? Home?”

“I work at Poundland,” she said very quietly.

Raine laughed. “The Poundland Necromancer. Wow. I love it.”

“Go home. Be normal,” I croaked. “Make trouble - I’ll find you, send you Outside. I already killed your boss. You know I can do it to you.”

“Heather?” Raine said my name very softly, but I didn’t look at her.

The cultist - no, Kimberly, a young lady with a poorly paid job and little to live for - stared at me from behind bruises and blood. If I’d been more awake, less exhausted, the look in her eyes would have made me shiver.

Fear and reverence.

She glanced round at all the scary people, Raine and Twil and Evelyn, all people who could kill her, then settled back on me. She nodded. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Thank you. I won’t- I promise I won’t go against you.”

Evelyn sighed and shrugged. “Alright, alright. We don’t need the whole sob-story. One last thing. The big zombie, she didn’t stop moving with your other ones. Why?”

“W-what? I don’t … I don’t understand.”

“Zheng?” I croaked, frowning as I realised. The giant zombie woman wasn’t here with us. Of course she wasn’t.

“She jumped straight out that hole you made,” Lozzie said. “Right after my brother.”

“Ah. Thank you.” Evelyn nodded somewhat awkwardly at Lozzie, then turned to the cultist again. “Why did she do that? The others gave up when you did, but we saw her leaving through the fog, going somewhere else. Were you lying to us?”

Kimberly shook her head, shaking against Praem’s arm-lock. “Zheng’s not mine. S-she’s way too much for that, I couldn’t make something like her. I-I should be flattered, but- no, we inherited her.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow to Lozzie in silent question. Lozzie nodded. “She came from my parents. They got her somewhere else. Zheng’s real old.”

“High time we let her go, Evee,” said Raine. She was busy rearranging her handgun and knife inside her jacket for proper concealment. “We are in public now, technically. Twil’s right.”

Evelyn’s jaw tightened. “I’m still not happy about this. I need insurance.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Raine said, grinning to herself and shaking her head. She stepped away from me and up to the cultist.

Kimberly cringed and tried to pull away, to shrink back from Raine, but Praem held her firm. What had she seen Raine do in that castle, to react like that? She started to shake.

“Hey there,” Raine said, still smiling. “I don’t even have to say it, do I?”

“No, no no, I won’t- I won’t-”

“I need your address. Phone number. Whatever you got. Hey, don’t worry, I mean you did surrender, right? That was serious, you meant it. Yeah?”

“Yes, yes, yes I swear.”

“Then we’re cool. You and I. We’re cool. Unless you want me to have to find your address by myself. Kind of a bother, you know?”

Kimberly stammered out an address. Raine put it into her phone. Twil crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, muttered ‘psycho’ under her breath.

When it was done, Raine nodded to Evelyn, who sighed again, then then tapped Praem on the leg with her walking stick. Praem let the girl drop.

Kimberly didn’t linger. It probably took every ounce of her courage not to run away from us. She scurried off toward the edge of the park, after stripping off her robe. She balled it up and shoved it into a nearby public bin. She glanced back twice. We watched her go, until she was out of sight.

Twil broke the tension first. She stretched both arms over her head and yawned like a bear. “Well, what do we do now? I’m wiped the fuck out.”

“Dunno about you,” said Raine. “But I could murder some breakfast. I think we’re all in a fine state to go hit up the Aardvark, right?” Evelyn rolled her eyes and Raine relented, grinning. “Okay, serious, it’s time to go home and have a bath.”

“Several baths,” I croaked.

“Are we actually … you know … in the clear?” asked Twil. “Is it over?”

Evelyn shrugged at the pile of shattered bricks, the exit point from the cult’s exit gateway. “We’ve wrecked their containment, ruined their fortification, killed all their stockpiled zombies, and Heather apparently blew up their leader. So, maybe.”

“Easier than the first time we killed a mage, right?” Raine cracked a grin. Evelyn shot her a look that could have frozen a lava flow.

I opened my mouth. I needed to tell them all about what I’d seen below ground, about the star in the abyss, about the cages and the corpses, but I was too tired to confront all that right now. “Um … ”

“Heather saw more,” Lozzie said.

Slowly, gently, after hugging me softly, Lozzie climbed to her feet. I tried to hold on as her hands slipped away. Didn’t want her body heat to part from mine. Perhaps I knew, deep down, what she was thinking.

With clumsy but heartfelt formality, she bowed her head to all my friends. “Thank you, thank you, for coming for me.”

Raine lit up with the kind of smile she usually reserved for me, and to my surprise she reached out and ruffled Lozzie’s filthy hair. “S’what I do. Any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine.”

Lozzie beamed back at her.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Yes, certainly. This has been quite the enigma. Heather?”

I made a grumbling noise in my throat. Evelyn didn’t seriously expect me to explain all this right now, did she? She fixed me with a pinched frown, then seemed to get the message, shrugging to herself.

“Hold up a sec.” Twil said. “Who exactly the hell is this?”

“I’m Lozzie! Hi!” She beamed at Twil. “You’re the werewolf, right? That’s so cool!”

“Oh, uh, thanks.” Twil couldn’t keep a smirk off her face.

“Long story,” I mumbled.

“Yeah, I figured,” said Twil.

“One I think we all need to hear,” Evelyn said, her voice a little tighter than I could deal with right now. “At home, not here in a bloody park.”

“Right you are.” Raine put her hands on her hips. “We gonna walk home, or … hmm.” She cocked an eyebrow, took in our bloody, battered little group. Lozzie and Praem were the worst, splattered with drying blood, and Twil wasn’t far off. God alone knows how bad I looked. Besides, there’s no way I could walk, and Evelyn looked pretty unsteady too. “Guess not, huh? I could call a taxi, make some poor driver’s week when he sees us rocking up.”

Lozzie was glancing back and forth between Raine and myself and the others, her mouth hanging open a little, eyes still heavy-lidded but widened in some private realisation. Evelyn noticed, nodded toward her.

“She doesn’t have anywhere to go. Does she?”

“Sure she does,” Raine countered, smiling at Lozzie. “You’re coming with us, no question about it. You are five hundred percent welcome. Right, Evee?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Right.”

Lozzie stepped away from the bench and onto the grass, leaving petite little footprints in the morning dew. She turned, looked over all of us, chewing on her lower lip and then gnawing on a ragged fingernail.

“Oh, oh … I didn’t … I didn’t think … ”

“ … what’s wrong?” I managed.

She scampered back to me and threw her arms around my shoulders. She hugged me tight enough to hurt a little, and I did my best to return the embrace, my arms still weak and shaky.

Lozzie sniffed into my shoulder, and I realised she was holding back tears.

She pulled away and planted a quick, hesitant kiss on my cheek. Not a romantic kiss, nothing erotic about it at all. A fleeting touch of intimacy.

“I have to go,” she said.

“ … what?”

“Aren’t you coming with me, Heather?” I heard the catch in her throat. She tried to smile but only got halfway there, a strange melancholy fighting with her natural twitchy energy.

Slowly, dull and half-dead, I shook my head, wishing I didn’t understand. But I knew exactly what she meant, all too well.

She slid out of my arms, stood up and stepped back, still trying to smile. She curled her bare toes into the grass.

“I have to go,” she repeated louder, then took a deep breath and smiled up at the sky. “I think. Yeah, yeah I think do need to. You killed my brother, and … thank you, Heather. Thank you, all of you. I’m free now. Thank you.” She sniffed and wiped brimming tears on the back of her hand, and looked round as the spirit life began to approach her.

Lozzie smiled at the warped hound-things which padded out of the tree line, trotting across the grass to sit at her heels. She held out a hand to the half-dozen squirming, wriggling bundles of chitin and claw that scaled her pajama legs and up her back to perch on her shoulders. She turned to welcome the bobbing jellyfish crowding around her head. She murmured soft little words to them all, but the picture was incomplete without the goat skull mask over her face.

The others glanced between her and I, by turns confused or tense, because of course they couldn’t see what I was seeing. Twil pulled a face like this was crazy, but I think Evelyn and Raine had some idea what was happening.

“Go? Where?” Evelyn asked, frowning sharply.

“Yeah, hey, what’s going on here?” Twil asked.

“You mean Outside, don’t you?” said Raine.

Lozzie and I both nodded.

“Beyond!” Lozzie lit up with this huge beaming smile which failed to cover the sadness beneath. “Are you sure you don’t want to come? Heather?”

I opened my mouth and couldn’t answer. No, no, of course I didn’t want to - but deep down inside, I understood the desire. After so many dreams together, so many wondrous places, I got it.

“Why? Why not stay here?” Evelyn asked. I saw her fingering the carved thighbone in one hand. Raine tilted her chin, waiting patiently.

“Because I’m not really meant to be here,” Lozzie said. She took a deep breath, filled her lungs as she looked up and around, at the beautiful morning glow breaking over Sharrowford. Her long, shuddering sigh and the melancholy of her forced smile cut me right to the quick, even through the exhaustion. “It’s so lovely, it really is, but … I’m like a deep sea fish too close to the surface.”

“No. Lozzie, no,” I managed to croak at her. She looked at me, then around at the others again, and I could feel her wavering.

“Besides,” she shrugged. “My uncle will be after me now. I couldn’t bear to be caged again. I need to fly.”

“Uncle?” Evelyn growled softly.

“Mmhmm,” Lozzie nodded, distracted by the spirits clustered to her, her idle hand trailing down to rub the head of one of the nightmare hounds at her feet. “The rest of the brotherhood will go to him now, probably. The followers, you know. He probably took control of Zheng, too, that’s why she didn’t … couldn’t, follow me.” She swallowed, shook her head gently, holding back tears.

“There’s another mage?” Evelyn asked through gritted teeth.

“Evee,” I managed, waving a mute hand at her to shut up. Lozzie blinked at her.

“Um … kind of. He’s not like my brother. My brother was the brains but my uncle was the organiser. He always found the recruits, the bodies, the … the kids,” she whispered, then tried to smile. “He’ll be after me now, and he’s already seen all of you once, when he tracked Maisie’s messenger. If I stay here … ”

I opened my mouth to say a dozen different things.

“Where can I find him?” Evelyn said, hard and cold.

“Ahh?” Lozzie blinked. “You’ve all seen him before. In that parking garage.” She turned her head to pay attention to another little spirit on her shoulder, a cross between a squirrel and a bat, tiny teeth bared as she tweaked its nose.

Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Great. Fucking great.”

“Evee,” Raine said softly.

“Where is he?” Evelyn demanded. “Is he in Sharrowford?”

“I don’t know. I think so. His name’s Edward, a Lilburne like me. He never cared about my brother’s stupid project.” Lozzie shrugged. “He’s good at finding things, finding people, but now I can go to places he can’t follow. Tell him the truth, when he finds you. He’ll leave you alone.”

She was trying to convince herself. I could hear the struggle in her voice - I suspected all this stuff about her uncle was mere justification.

Part of her wanted to go, part of her wanted to stay. Two natures in one body.

“We can protect you,” Raine said, not missing a beat. “Take a moment, look at us - or hell, just at me. It’s what I do. Like I said, any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine.”

“Yeah, like to see this fucker try,” Twil said, cracking her knuckles.

“Damn straight,” said Raine.

Evelyn grunted.

But Lozzie shook her head. She backed up another step across the damp grass, forcing herself away from us with the spirits trailing in her wake.

“Thank you. I know. I know you could. But I still have to go. I don’t belong here.” She pulled a weak smile, then seemed to hesitate for a moment.

“ … only just found you,” I whispered.

Lozzie met my eyes - and lit up, a real smile, with a spark of joy underneath. She raised her arms to encompass the whole world, sending spirits scattering and scampering.

“Heather, I can help you now! I can go everywhere! Anywhere! You helped me, you freed me, and now I’m going to help you and Maisie.”

I shook my head.

“But I want to!” she continued. “There’s places I can go that you don’t even know about, Heather, places in the beyond. Outside. Places I can’t take anybody else, not even Zheng, because I’m not really human anymore, you know? I haven’t been since that thing used my head as a life raft. There’s things I can talk to, questions I can ask, help I can enlist, for you. Please? Please Heather, please let me help.”

If I’d been whole and well-rested, I would have stopped her, stood up and grabbed her and held on tight. Lozzie was a very special kind of friend, and I didn’t want her to go alone into dark places.

But in that moment, listening to all her justifications and reasons and excuses to leave humanity behind and go Outside, through my exhaustion and the echoing pain and the melancholy of her leaving so soon, I saw a vision of myself.

Was I going to end up like that? Torn between being human and - not?

She took my hesitation for agreement. How like her brother, in some ways.

“Oh, Heather.” Her face fell and she shook off her retinue of spirits to run back and hug me one more time. She clung on hard and buried her face in my shoulder. “It’s not like I’m leaving forever or something. Just until it’s safe, until … until I can help you. I’ll be back, I’ll come back to visit, I promise. Sooner than you think.”

I nodded. Hated myself for it, but I nodded.

Lozzie stood up and danced back into her little crowd of spirits. She turned to us and bowed her head. “Thank you.”

“Stay one day, at least,” Raine said. “You need a bath, a change of clothes. Have dinner with us. Come on, one day won’t hurt.”

“I don’t need any of those things,” Lozzie said, an odd smile on her face, refilled with that twitchy energy.

Twil was just completely lost for words, but to my incredible surprise, Praem had turned to watch as well. She’d bowed her head every so slightly in response to Lozzie’s gesture. I don’t think anybody else noticed, and I only saw it because I was so numb.

“We’ll kill your uncle too,” Evelyn said.

“Please don’t get hurt. I couldn’t bear it if he hurt any of you. Please, please.”

“I’m the one that does the hurting round here,” Raine said. She shot Lozzie a wink. “We’ll be fine. You change your mind in five minutes, tomorrow, next week, you know where to find us.”

Spirit life climbed back onto Lozzie’s shoulders, crowded around her legs, touching her with two dozen pseudopods and feelers and claws and muzzles. She waved to us.

“Bye bye for now. See you later.”

“See you,” I managed.

And then, she simply wasn’t there. The spirits vanished with her. Outside.

All she left was footprints.

I was too numb to cry.

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