pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.2
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

None, I think.

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Twil stomped back into the magical workshop armed for a food fight, clutching a sausage roll in each fist. A third dangled from between her teeth for a second before she scarfed it down, licking flakes of pastry off her lips. I’d never before seen somebody look so grumpy while eating; she was like a hound who’d been denied her treats. If we’d been discussing any other topic, I would have laughed.

But nobody was laughing that afternoon. Outdoors, the June sunlight burned high and bright in a clear sky of hammered blue iron, while we huddled in the shadows indoors, behind the heavy curtains of Evelyn’s magical workshop, talking about subjects that had no place in the light of day.

As Twil chewed, she stared at the piece of paper on the table, flawlessly printed and neatly creased — the letter from Edward Lilburne.

“Two?” Evelyn sighed from the far side of the table. She’d drawn herself upright, as far as her kinked spine and back problems would allow. She radiated grim confidence. “You said another sausage roll, not two. That is my fridge, you know.”

“Our fridge,” said Praem, at Evelyn’s shoulder.

Twil scoffed. She gestured at the letter with a sausage roll. “It’s a reward, right? For dealing with all this bollocks.”

Raine cracked a grin and rocked back in her own chair. “Dual-wielding to take down Eddy boy, huh? I can see it.”

“Pffft,” Twil snorted. She bit one of the sausage rolls in half, chewing thoughtfully. “Alright, I’ll bite—”

“You’re already doing that,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Yeah yeah, ha ha.” Twil jabbed the air with the intact sausage roll, like brandishing a dagger. “Why do we—”

“Crumbs,” Praem intoned, sudden and clear and sharp. She turned to stare at Twil, prim and straight-backed in her maid uniform.

“Eh?”

“Crumbs.”

I cleared my throat. “You’re getting crumbs everywhere, Twil. Praem does not approve of crumbs.”

Twil looked at the end of the sausage roll, then down at the table, where a few flakes of pastry had fallen. “Oh, er, shoot. Sorry, shit. Sorry, sorry!”

Praem took charge of the crumbs situation. She marched into the kitchen and returned with a plate, put it down on the table, then gently but insistently encouraged Twil to put her food on the plate like a sensible person. Twil blushed a bit, but she obeyed. Praem then handed her a piece of kitchen roll. A moment of embarrassed and amused silence passed as Twil wiped her hands, looking sheepish. Raine struggled not to laugh. Evelyn just sighed. I managed to smile, despite the black-hole weight of the letter on the table, sitting in the centre of the shadows and sucking up all my attention.

Twil huffed. “Sorry, sorry. Shit.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I said. “I think we all needed that, actually.”

“The floor does not require crumbs,” said Praem.

“Yeah, yeah, glad to be the fuckin’ clown around here,” Twil grumbled, she was smiling now too. She’d taken the edge off, bless her. She tossed the piece of kitchen roll onto the plate, then thought better of that and used it to pick up the other sausage roll and take a bite. She chewed thoughtfully again. “Alright, so. Evee. Evee-weavey puddin’ and pie.”

“Don’t you start talking like Lozzie as well,” said Evelyn.

Twil snorted a perfunctory laugh. “You said you want Ed afraid, right? Why do we want him afraid, instead of, you know, unsuspecting and surprised when we turn up to dome him with a crowbar? Actually, nah, forget that for a sec, reverse up even further. How is this making him afraid? Nothing in that sounded afraid to me. You know what it sounds like? Like a stuck-up arsehole who thinks he’s in charge. Why’d we even let him know any of that shit with the parasites happened? This bastard wasn’t scared of us before, when we met him at that pub. He fuckin’ should be though.”

Twil scowled at the letter as if she could see through the black print, to the face of the man who had composed the words.

That impression was so strong that a shiver went down my spine all of a sudden, a cold weight settling in my belly. I stared at the letter as well, worried that the thought might be literal. Bushy grey eyebrows and liver-spotted pate and thin, bloodless lips, framing a wide-eyed owlish stare, peering at us from behind the page.

Was that possible? Could the letter be a trap, a trojan horse? Praem had checked it and found it safe, Evelyn had kept the thing in a magic circle for an hour earlier, testing it, and she’d even held it up to the spider-servitors to see if they reacted.

They hadn’t, of course, or we would have burned the letter. I told myself I was getting paranoid and upset. Everything felt wrong. Even the womb-like embrace of the house all around us felt wrong for once, more like a smoky, dark room where horrible people discussed horrible things in secret. I wrapped myself slowly with my tentacles in a self-hug.

Evelyn raised her chin, nodded to Twil, and said, “I’m glad you asked.”

She reached out and shifted Edward’s letter, turning it so she could tap the first paragraph with a fingertip. Before she even opened her mouth, I recognised the shift in her posture, the taut composure in her face, the squaring of her twisted shoulders. Evee adopted the mantle of strategist-teacher, the magician Evelyn Saye; she had rehearsed these words, I was certain of that much.

“This letter reeks of fear,” she said. “Perhaps you can’t see it, but I can. Believe that. Informing Edward of the crisis with the parasite lets him know two things. One, we are actively hunting him. He would have assumed that already, but letting him know acts as a threat and a challenge, with no ambiguity, no beating around the bush.”

Twil raised her eyebrows and nodded along. She liked the sound of that part. So did Raine.

I felt a twitch of self-disgust.

“Two,” Evelyn continued, “it lets him know we’ve already overcome a major layer of his security. It lets him know we’re looking for his house, and we’ve figured out how to find it. As far as he’s concerned, we may already know where he is.”

“Yeah,” Twil sighed. “That’s the bit I don’t get.”

“There is a third reason.” Evelyn allowed herself one of those narrow, dangerous smiles. She was enjoying this. I shivered inside when I saw that, Evelyn in her element, hunting another mage. “Now he knows I’m not afraid of telling him this. I’ve informed him that he is being hunted. Do you understand the implication? The letter I sent to Edward Lilburne was a death threat.”

Evelyn smiled even wider. She almost laughed, shoulders slumping again beneath her cream sweater.

Twil frowned, pulling a face. She popped the last piece of sausage roll in her mouth and chewed slowly. “Okay, so, yeah, we all know you can be kind of intimidating when you wanna be. But this guy already knew we were gonna try to take him out, right? I still don’t get how his reply means he’s afraid of us.”

Raine clacked her chair back down onto all four legs. “I can kinda see it. Think I get it. The way he totally deflects instead of having a gloat. And he tries to insult Evee, too.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Trying to rattle me in return.”

“That’s how you can tell,” I said with a sigh. My words felt bland and empty, not really what I wanted to say. “I agree with Evee about that part. I think the news about the parasite really shook him. He really wants to turn it around and accuse Evee. Make her angry. Reverse offender and victim, all that sort of stuff.”

“Exactly,” Raine said. She shot me a wink, then reached over to squeeze my shoulder. “Old bastards like him are always the same.”

Twil puffed out a dismissive breath. “We don’t even know this fuckin’ guy. We don’t know how he’s reacting, what he’s thinking. Maybe that’s the kind of thing he says when he feels in control?”

Raine shook her head. I shrugged, though I disagreed. I could practically feel the man himself leeching through the paper, like oil or fat leaving stains on the fingertips. I didn’t even want to touch it.

Evelyn was staring down at the letter, dark and intense. I wanted to reach out and grab her shoulders, but she was on the other side of the table. A tentacle crept outward from my side, but I couldn’t cross the gap. I’d put her in this position in the first place, hadn’t I?

“I may not know Edward Lilburne the man,” she said. “But I know exactly what he is. I know that kind of response, I recognise it. Maybe ‘afraid’ is not the right word, fine, whatever. But he’s upset. Angry, afraid, the specifics don’t matter. As long as he knows we’re close.”

Twil visibly swallowed, staring down at Evee. Then she cleared her throat. “So what, all this is bluster, he’s trying to fuck with us?”

“Trying to fuck with me,” Evelyn said.

She raised her eyes from the letter and the dark spell over her countenance broke like a summer storm, into clear skies and clear eyes. She took a deep breath and glanced around at the rest of us. Her gaze stopped on me for a split second. Maybe she saw the guilt, I wasn’t sure.

“He doesn’t seriously expect me to believe a word of this,” she added. “It’s an attempt to irritate. A show of power and contempt. But it is aimed squarely at me, and that’s important.”

Twil laughed and thumped down in a chair, kicking her legs up and stretching. “Bloody hell, Evee. You’re good, sure, but you’re so full of yourself sometimes. You know that, right?”

Raine leaned forward in her chair, frowning at Evee, then turning her head to re-read the letter Evelyn had sent to Edward. She was fascinated by something all of a sudden. “No, hold up a sec. Evee’s on to something here.”

Evelyn nodded. “Mirror imaging,” she said. Raine whistled low, genuinely impressed.

“Errrrr,” went Twil.

I made eyes at Evee, both politely interested and seeking to prompt her from slipping too deeply into rehearsed responses.

“Mirror imaging,” she repeated with a nod at me, awkwardly clearing her throat. “It’s a kind of cognitive bias. It means you assume that the thing or person you’re trying to analyse must think in the same ways that you do. How much do you know about the Vietnam War?”

Twil and I looked at each other, both equally out of our depth. Raine laughed and shook her head, leaning back and blowing out a long breath, as if Evelyn had just performed some impressive trick shot.

“Er,” Twil said. “Not … a lot?”

“Evee,” I sighed. “I appreciate the illustration, but this is a bit esoteric.”

“Esoteric,” Praem said. I think she was agreeing with me.

“Sometimes esoteric is useful,” Evelyn huffed. “During the Vietnam War, the Americans kept searching for a hypothetical ‘bamboo Pentagon’ in the jungle, mostly in Cambodia, because they assumed the Vietnamese had the same kinds of power structures as they did. So there had to be some kind of secret command centre that they could blow up, kill all the commanders, the planners, the strategists, and the rest of it would just fall apart without the head of the system.” Evelyn made a ‘pffft’ sound. “Mirror imaging. Assuming your opponent thinks like you.”

“Projection?” Twil suggested.

“Kind of.”

“You could have just said projection.”

Evee gave her a pinched look. She tapped the letter she’d sent to Edward then pointed at us with her maimed hand. “In my message to him, I mentioned you, I mentioned Raine, and Heather. Zheng as well. I phrased it as being from all of us. In his reply, it’s all me.” Twil turned her head to re-read the letter as Evee went on. “Edward Lilburne is an old and powerful mage. There’s probably a grain of truth in his claim of respect for me, though I don’t think it would stop him from killing me, or worse. But I’m the only one he bothered to address directly. Mage-to-mage, appealing to my pride and vanity, all that guff. He may consider me to be like him, and all the rest of us as just … followers. Mirror imaging. I wanted to see if he would do it, and he did. Well, either that or he’s done a fantastic job of faking.”

“Could be trying to throw us off,” Raine suggested.

“Mm. Could be, yes. But it also may indicate a very serious blind spot for him.”

We all stared at the letter for a long moment.

“So, uh.” Twil cleared her throat. “You never explained why we want him to be afraid.”

Evelyn took a deep breath and raised her chin again. Proud, in control, focused and obsessed. “Because I want him to start expending his energy. I want him calling up extra security right now, demons or muscle or whatever he’s got. I want him expending resources, the sooner the better. That house will already be fortified as much as possible, more warning won’t make any difference to that. But I want him on edge. I want him thinking that we’re almost on him. I want him struggling to sleep and jumping at every shadow. I want him to get sloppy.”

My stomach turned over.

“Seems pretty fuckin’ optimistic,” said Twil.

I sighed. My mouth was dry. “It’s all we’ve got right now,” I said. “Good … good plan, Evee. I think it’s good.”

Evee smiled at me. Oh, she liked that. She liked it when I told her she was doing good.

Coward, a little voice whispered inside my head.

I was a coward for not breaking her out of this cycle all week. Down in Hringewindla’s shell, she’d shouted something to me, and all week I’d been pretending I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Because that would be Evee, my best friend, maybe more. But right now I needed her to be the strategist. I needed Evelyn Saye, mage, territorial and devious, so I’d been allowing her to sink deeper all week long. And now she was planning terror and murder, for my benefit.

I had to change the subject, anything, anywhere other than this. “Evee, um, may I ask, why did you ask him about Amy Stack?”

Evelyn nodded, a twinkle in her eye. “To confirm that he has no idea where she is.”

I frowned, then turned my head to read Edward’s reply again.

Your inquiry as to the whereabouts of Miss Stack is equally puzzling. Furthermore, it inclines me to believe that you have inherited not only your late mother’s reckless pursuit of power, but also her sadism. We both know what has happened to Amy Stack. I will not dignify the question with an answer.

“Does he think we killed her?” I asked.

Evelyn shook her head. “He’s hedging his bets.”

“Lettin’ us fill in the blanks,” Twil said. A grin spread across her face. She nodded along with Evelyn.

“He has no idea where Stack is,” Evelyn said. “I hope that scares him too.”

“Bloody well should do,” said Twil. “Fuckin’ skinhead whack-job runnin’ around out there.” She paused and frowned. “Wait, do we know where she is?”

“Not exactly,” Raine supplied. “But I called her last week, regular check-in, make sure she’s still breathing. I let her know all about the parasite stuff, what happened with Nicky. Gave her the same range where Evee’s looking for the house.” Raine nodded at the Ordnance Survey map with the potential range of Nicole’s fugue-state wander marked out in red. “She’s out there doing the same thing as us, in her own way. Kind of.”

“If they kill each other,” said Evelyn, “it’ll be less work for us in the long run.”

Twil shook herself, a bit like a wet dog. She looked horribly uncomfortable at the mention of Amy Stack. “Fuck. I hate that she’s out there.”

“She’s been warned off killing any of the Eye Cult,” I said. “We’re … still going to, well, try to help them. I think.”

“She’s our tool,” Evelyn said. “For now.”

Twil puffed out a big sigh. All her sausage rolls were gone. “You’re gonna share all this stuff with my parents, right?”

Evelyn waved a hand over Edward’s letter. “There’s nothing in here of use to them.”

Twil suddenly growled Evelyn’s name — a real growl, a canine rumble deep in her chest. The sound reached down into my brain-stem and poked the part of me that was descended from savannah apes, who’d spent their lives running from large predators with sharp teeth. I flinched hard, almost scrambling out of my chair, tentacles whirling to knock Twil away from me, hiccuping twice. It was a minor miracle I didn’t slap her right across the face. Instead I just sort of punched her in the ribs.

“Ow!” Twil yelped, grabbing her side.

Marmite flinched too. He’d been perfectly content to slip back into a semi-doze earlier, after Praem had soothed him, but Twil’s growl woke him like a fire alarm. He scuttled back and halfway up the wall, taking shelter between the two spider-servitors, tentacles bristling and black membranes wrapping him in shadowy camouflage.

Raine had too much practice and self-control to lose herself to a flinch, but she still jerked, hand halfway to where her knife lay on the table, safely sheathed.

Evelyn flinched almost as bad as me, accompanied by a sharp gasp through her teeth, going white in the face.

“Twil!” she snapped.

“Bad dog,” said Praem.

“Ow, Heather!” Twil looked at me like I’d slapped her with a fish. She didn’t need to guess who had delivered the invisible punch to her ribs.

“I-I’m sorry!” I blurted out, mortified. I hiccuped again, then hissed in frustration with my own body. “Twil, you were growling! Really growling!”

“Bad dog,” Praem repeated.

“Hey, I’m not actually a dog!” Twil spread her arms at Praem, as if ready to throw down for a fight.

“Bad wolf,” Praem corrected. “But not big.”

Twil tutted. “Oi. And hey, I can’t help being angry! I thought we were supposed to be on the same side now, us and my parents, right? They need to know this shit too, if you’re winding Edward up on purpose! He even mentioned them, you think that part is a lie? You think he’s going to go after them, huh?!”

I tried saying her name. “Twil—”

“They have the protection of their god,” Evelyn replied. “And the glasses I’ve made for them. Twil, I am not worried about your family.”

“Then fucking share information with them!” Twil snapped.

“Alright!” Evelyn shouted back, throwing her hands up. “Fine!”

“Hey, heeeeey,” Raine said, standing up and raising her hands up to lower the sudden spike in temperature. “Ease down, girls, ease down. What have you been putting in the water, Evee?”

“Indoor voices,” said Praem.

“Yes,” I said, one hand to my heart, feeling it flutter and race beneath my ribs. “Oh my goodness, you two. Where is this coming from all of a sudden? Evee, Twil is technically right, we did agree to share information. But Twil, you growled. That was frightening. Please, don’t.”

Twil gritted her teeth and ducked her head, embarrassed and ashamed. She put a hand to her own forehead, hiding behind it. “I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t mean to get angry.”

Evelyn and I shared a confused look. She shrugged. I pulled my battered nerves together and sat back down in the chair next to Twil, trying to peer at her face. “Twil?” Gently, I touched her shoulder. “Twil, what’s wrong?”

Twil peered out at me from behind her hand. She glanced away, then back again, then gestured at Edward Lilburne’s letter.

“I’m angry about this, okay?” she grumbled under her breath. “All the stuff in it about … about Lozzie. It’s setting me off.” She sniffed, though I didn’t spy any tears gathering in her eyes. She nodded awkwardly to Evelyn. “Sorry Evee. Not really mad at you. Just this shit’s setting me off. I don’t like the way he talks about Lozzie.”

Twil hunched in her chair. I patted her shoulder.

“Me neither,” I said.

“Perfectly understandable,” Evelyn said, clear and formal. “No need for an apology.”

“Mm,” Twil grunted.

Praem stepped away from her habitual position at Evelyn’s shoulder. She walked around the table, bustled over to the doorway, skirts rustling, and then flicked the light switch. We all sat there blinking for a second, casting weirdly guilty looks at each other, shadows banished to the corners. Marmite stood out on the wall like a splotch of ink.

“Not a big fan of that shit either,” Raine said after a moment, putting her hands on her hips. She leaned over to examine the letter again, as if she had to reread to remember. “Nope, not in the slightest. Doesn’t change anything from the other letter though, the one in the library. Not a nice reminder though, hey.”

I didn’t need to remind myself of what it said about Lozzie. Praem had read the words out loud. Even the sing-song beauty of her voice hadn’t robbed Edward’s words of their toxic poison.

He really, really wanted Lozzie. His niece. His property. The thought made my skin crawl.

“Why?” I whispered. I hadn’t meant to whisper, but the word came out as a choke.

Evelyn shrugged. “Her unique powers, I assume. Her nature. Edward and Alexander spent years, maybe decades, trying to tap into that dying star beneath the castle. Lozzie upended all that, learned more from it than they ever could. But she wasn’t easy to exploit.”

Twil was scowling at the letter like she wanted to sink her teeth into it. “Then why didn’t he, you know, brain-rip her or whatever, back when they had her in captivity?”

“ … maybe,” I started to say. The words stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to even suggest this. But everyone glanced at me. “Maybe her brother protected her from their uncle.”

Twil squinted at me like I was mad. “That fuck? Protect her?”

I shrugged, feeling intensely awkward. “He was … evil and abusive, yes. But it’s not impossible. It doesn’t make him good or anything. It doesn’t redeem him. It’s just a theory, anyway. It’s not like we can ever ask the man himself.”

Twil snorted. “Fingers crossed.”

“Hey, hey,” Evelyn said, tapping the table to get our attention. “Do not tempt fate when it comes to the mortality of mages.”

I couldn’t help but notice that her hand was shaking. She quickly made a fist to hide the tremor.

“Evee, he’s never coming back,” I said. “He’s gone.”

“And I pray you are correct,” she said, without any hint of mockery.

Silence fell on that dour note. Evelyn sighed and rubbed her eyes. I had to take several deep breaths — I may have put the mage to rest at long last, but the memory of Alexander Lilburne and the weight of his murder still lay across my shoulders, even if the King in Yellow had helped settle that burden more comfortably. Raine must have seen it written on my face, because she stepped over to give me a hug, rub my shoulders, and squeeze the back of my neck, working out the tension. I almost purred. I also wrapped a tentacle around her leg without thinking, which made her jump slightly, but only slightly — she was getting used to my invisible touches.

Twil pulled an awkward grimace and looked up at the ceiling. “Could always ask Loz’ herself, I guess.”

“She doesn’t really like to talk about her brother,” I said softly.

“Can hardly blame her for that,” said Raine.

Twil just kept staring at the ceiling, as if she could see right through the wood and plaster, into Lozzie’s bedroom upstairs. She gritted her teeth and swallowed. She was terrible at hiding her emotions.

“Twil?” I murmured her name. Evelyn grunted as well, curious or concerned.

“There’s no question about it, right?” Twil said through her teeth. “There’s no way we would trade Lozzie for that book. Right? There’s no way we’d give her up, for … ”

Twil looked away from the ceiling as she spoke. She tried to conceal what she was really thinking, but she was never any good at that. Her eyes flickered across Evelyn and Praem, and met Raine’s serious look, but her question wasn’t addressed to them, not really. As she trailed off, she left the truth unsaid, staring at me.

“No,” said Praem.

“How is that even a question?” Evelyn spat. “Under no circumstances.”

“Yeah, Twil,” Raine said with a little chuckle. “Hell, I’m almost offended.”

But Twil waited for me.

A cold ball of rotten meat settled in my belly. Abyssal ruthlessness reared out of the dark of my mind, a thing of blade-sharp claw and absolute survival. I’d already been ruthless this week, I’d channelled cowardice into getting what I needed from Evelyn, telling myself it was respect. What was one more betrayal? A larger betrayal, certainly, but it was far from impossible. Instinct whispered.

I took that idea and turned it over in my mind, consciously, with both eyes open.

“ … Heather?” Twil was frowning at me.

I took a deep breath, looking right back at her, and said, “Twil, I will never trade Lozzie for Maisie.”

Twil’s teeth-gritting tension morphed into a mortified grimace. “H-hey, I wasn’t saying that! I wasn’t saying that!”

“It’s what you were thinking,” I said, forcing the words up a closing throat. “And it’s a fair question.”

Twil put her hands up to ward me off. “I didn’t mean—” She slammed to a halt. “Wait, what?”

“And the answer will always be no.” I blinked a distant threat of tears out of my eyes. “I’m not going to pretend the concept has not occurred to me. I … would be the only one capable of it, I think. Of … trapping her.” I shook my head and blew out a shaking breath, then hiccuped. “But I reject it. I reject the decision. There would be no point in getting my twin sister back if I have to become a monster to do it. She wouldn’t want that.”

“I-I really didn’t mean—”

“So it was a fair question,” I said, my voice dying.

We all slipped into embarrassed silence. Raine squeezed my shoulders, but I nearly pushed her off me. Twil nodded and hung her head. “Sorry Heather,” she murmured under her breath. I felt disgusting. Abyssal ruthlessness withered inside me.

Evelyn opened her mouth with a soft, wet click of her tongue. “True integrity doesn’t come from never having the evil thought in the first place. It comes from having the evil thought and rejecting it.” I stared at her. She shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “You can’t resist temptation if you’re never tempted in the first place, all that. You know what I mean.”

I nodded, wiping my eyes. “Thank you, I … thank you, Evee.”

Her words washed away the filth. But why had I gone there in the first place? Why would I even acknowledge the temptation? Something was eating me inside.

“Of course,” Evelyn said, “it’s possible he doesn’t really want Lozzie at all.”

Twil squinted at her. “Eh?”

Raine laughed softly. “Seriously, Evee? You second-guessing yourself now?”

“It’s not a second guess. It’s merely possible.”

“Why?” I asked, shaking my head. “Why would he lie about that, why would he pretend?”

“To make us angry,” Evelyn said. “To rile us up. Potentially, to divide us against each other.” She gestured at Twil and me. Twil grimaced. I bit my lip. “If I’m correct and he is committing the error of mirror-imaging, then his repeated demand for Lozzie makes perfect sense. I’m the mage, he’s negotiating with me for control of a resource, so on and so on. But if I’m wrong — and I have been wrong in the past—”

Twil snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Evelyn shot her a poisonous look. “If I’m wrong, and he’s only pretending to be mirror-imaging, then he must know the demand for Lozzie would make us very angry. He’s an arrogant and powerful old bastard, yes, and he probably does want Lozzie. But is he smarter than he is arrogant?” Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“No way to know that, yeah,” Raine said with a sigh.

Twil swore softly. “I mean, damn, it kinda worked, right?” She glanced at me. “Sorry again, Heather.”

“Apology accepted. Please don’t worry about it.”

“Do we … ” Twil bit her lip and glanced around. “Do we like, know anybody who would give Lozzie up, for some kind of reward? Not that book we need, but like, something else? Money?”

“The five of us in here, absolutely not,” Evelyn said. “I trust all of you completely.” Evelyn’s composure held for a couple of seconds, but then she cleared her throat and turned away. A faint blush crept up her cheeks. Praem crossed the room again and put one hand on Evelyn’s shoulder.

“Zheng as well,” I said, covering for Evee’s embarrassment. “Zheng loves Lozzie like family. And she really hates mages.”

“Can Sevens be bought?” Raine asked.

I shook my head. “Not unless Edward kidnaps me or something. And she’d probably suggest something else, first.”

Twil laughed awkwardly. “Obviously Tenny is cool.”

“Oh, of course.” I nodded along, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. If Edward intended to turn us against each other, isn’t this exactly what he would want us to discuss?

“I think my family’s good, too,” said Twil. She huffed. “Though I would say that, yeah.”

“No, I agree, you’re right,” I said. “Their god … likes her, a lot. He wouldn’t demand otherwise of them. I think.”

“ … Kim?” Twil ventured, grimacing.

Evelyn shrugged. “At gunpoint, perhaps. But otherwise, no.”

“Badger and Sarika are risks,” Raine said softly. “We should keep them away from her.”

“I really don’t think either of them are a risk anymore,” I said.

Raine redoubled her efforts to rub my shoulders. “Hey, just in case. That’s all I mean.”

“Nicky’s not gonna flip, right?” Twil asked.

Raine laughed. “What, the one good cop from the Sharrowford Police? The one cop good enough to get the fuck out of the force? Nah. Nicky’s incorruptible.”

“Stack?” I asked.

“Not while her boy is under my protection,” Evelyn said.

We all shared an increasingly awkward look. We were avoiding the obvious.

“But … hey,” Twil said, clearing her throat. “Lozzie can Slip now, right? Free and everything? We don’t even know if she’s upstairs right now. She might be off somewhere Outside, making out with a giant lizard or something. Right?”

Evelyn shook her head. “They confined her once before, in that castle. Edward could find a way to do so again. Perhaps he already has a way.”

“Aw come on, Evee,” Twil huffed. “Just a second ago you were saying he might be faking it.”

Evelyn sighed heavily, the weight of the world on her chest. “Both. Both are possible. We must account for both. My point is that confining Lozzie, stopping her ability to step sideways, it would require time, research, a mage of considerable power and creativity … ”

She trailed off. Swallowed hard. Twil looked away and scratched her head. Raine pulled a performatively awkward expression.

“Jan,” I said.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Well … ”

“Nah, nah,” Twil said. “Jan was, like, cool, yeah?”

“She really likes Lozzie,” said Raine. “To put it lightly.”

“We’re all thinking it,” I said, then I sighed. “Refusing to voice it isn’t going to make us feel any better.”

Evelyn opened a hand toward me. “Lozzie’s been to see her twice this last week, correct?”

“Yes,” I said. “Twice. And we don’t know where she’s staying now.”

“What?” Twil asked. “Like, does Lozzie teleport over there?”

“She does.”

“Shit.” Twil snorted. “Wish I could do that. Would save me some time.”

Evelyn clucked her tongue. “Jan has had plenty of opportunity to entrap Lozzie.”

“Yeah, sure.” Twil sounded suddenly doubtful. She sprawled back in her chair, grumpy teenager style. “But what if Ed-fuck decides to offer her a new opportunity, like? We don’t really know her, do we? She’s a con-artist who does mercenary work for the highest bidder. No standards, no morals, right? What if he offers her like a million quid to trap Lozzie for him?”

Evelyn took a deep breath and closed her eyes briefly. “I’ve decided we can trust Jan.”

“Yeah well maybe I don’t.”

“Lozzie clearly does. Twil, I want to trust her.”

Twil pulled a face at Evelyn. “Since when do you trust anybody?”

“Since it became expedient to do so.”

“Hey now,” Raine said. “I think we left an impression on Jan, but Twil’s got a point. We can’t totally trust her. Cute as a button, but maybe a snake, right?”

Evelyn swept her hand across the bare table, as if sweeping away a mess. “We can’t just tell Lozzie to stop visiting her.”

“We could try!” said Twil.

I cleared my throat. “I’ll speak with Lozzie.” Evee and Twil both looked at me. I couldn’t meet their eyes, so I looked at where my squid-skull mask sat on the workshop table, idly stroking it with one tentacle and then picking it up, as if I was planning on going somewhere I might need to wear it. “For the record, I trust Jan as well. And I can’t promise anything. But I’ll speak with Lozzie.”

That seemed to do the trick and lower the temperature in the room again. Evelyn nodded to me with exaggerated polite intention. Twil huffed and puffed and shrugged and muttered, “Fair enough.” I tried very hard not to sigh with exasperation.

They were more on edge about this than I was. I suppose I couldn’t blame them; Edward’s letter was a vile thing. The way he spoke about Lozzie made my skin crawl. There was no question, of course we would protect her. But Evelyn, my genius Evee, she didn’t know what to think — was Edward Lilburne an arrogant monster, or was he an arrogant monster smart enough to hoodwink us? And Twil was fond of Lozzie, she’d said as much to me. Back last year when we’d rescued Lozzie from Alexander, Twil had thrown herself into the raid on the castle almost without question. For a friend, a companion, a member of her pack, Twil would always stand up and fight. But we had nothing to fight, not yet. So I would talk to Lozzie.

Though I hadn’t said what I would talk to her about. I kept that part to myself.

Gosh, I thought, Evelyn’s deviousness is rubbing off on me.

Raine stepped back from my chair and pointed a finger-gun at an imaginary target on the wall. “None of this matters if we take him out first.” She lowered her thumb like the hammer on a revolver. “Bang.”

Low, confident, utterly serious. Her pose was playground make-believe, but her tone could make me believe anything.

Evelyn didn’t quite agree. She sighed sharply and drew a hand over her face. “What have I told you about mages and bullets? How many times?”

Raine raised her finger-gun to her lips and blew away an imaginary plume of gun smoke. “Maybe this time it’ll be different. He is pretty old, after all.”

“Alexander shrugged off a bullet to the chest,” she snapped, then gestured at me. “You remember what Heather told us. He was prying the thing out of his own flesh, didn’t give a damn.”

“Yeah,” Twil agreed. “That shit was spooky.”

Evelyn gave her a pinched look.

Twil shrugged at her. “What?”

“You’re also immune to bullets, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Twil tutted and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I mean, I probably can. I’ve never been shot or nothing. Don’t really wanna confirm it, thanks.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said as she ‘cocked’ her imaginary revolver again, drawing her thumb back like a hammer. “You’re the one who told me to shoot him.”

“It was a desperate gamble, yes,” Evelyn said.

“Maybe, next time, we go bigger.” Raine lifted her own pair of modified glasses from the table and snapped them open with a flourish. “Maybe, next time, we should use … ” She lowered the glasses over her face and cracked a grin. “More bullets.”

Twil spluttered with laughter. “You fuckin’ goof.”

I blushed faintly. “Stop being so silly, Raine.” She was being absurd. The pose might have worked with sunglasses, but the modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses were just plain black with non-prescription lenses.

“More bullets,” said Praem.

“Yeeeeeeeah.” Raine pointed at her. “Praem knows what she’s about.”

Evelyn was not impressed. She put her face in one hand and sighed.

But I was very impressed. Not by Raine’s absurd show-boating, but by the way she’d dragged the tension down and strangled it to death. Between Twil’s laughter and Evelyn’s exasperation, the built-up horror and anxiety of Edward’s letter had finally been banished. Raine’s real talents ran deeper than violence and intimidation. I loved her for that too.

“More bullets,” Praem echoed.

“Woo!” went Raine

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “I’ll take the suggestion into consider … ”

Raine lowered her imaginary guns and raised an eyebrow instead. Twil perked up. Evelyn glanced up at Praem and met deadly serious milk-white eyes.

“Eyyyyy,” went Raine, grinning. “Did I just stumble on gold?”

“More bullets,” Evelyn echoed. She shrugged, sucking on her teeth and frowning to herself. “Even a very old mage is still a human being, if he’s here, on Earth. He’s still flesh. So yes, Raine. Enough bullets, enough physical damage would … disable him, at least. In theory.” She shook her head. “But we don’t have access to that kind of fire-power, not even illegally. Not on the scale I mean. Not on the kind of scale that would have stopped my mother.”

Twil’s eyebrows climbed at those words, but she managed to keep her head and clear her throat. “Haven’t we still got Stack’s gun?”

“The Sten, yeah,” Raine said with a melancholy sigh. She took the glasses back off. “She’s a beauty of weapon, but she’s not aged well. It’s a miracle Stack kept that thing from jamming up in her hands. Plus it takes nine millimetre rounds, which I think is a bit smaller than what Evee is talking about?”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Unless somebody is willing to sneak into a police armoury and spirit away an automatic shotgun, I don’t think firearms are going to be much of a solution to a mage problem.”

“ … what about Lozzie?” Twil asked.

We all shared a very awkward look.

“I’ll talk to her?” I suggested, wincing. “I don’t think she’d like that though.”

“Frankly, magic will serve us better,” Evelyn said. “Less likely to get us arrested, too.”

“I hear you on that one,” Raine said. “Still. A riot shotgun? Wouldn’t say no.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said, feeling horribly awkward. I was already planning to ask Lozzie some uncomfortable questions; requesting she filch a gun for us might be a step too far. “I’m half afraid she’d hop Outside for a month and not come back, if I asked her that. She really doesn’t like to think about violence.”

I tried to laugh, but I couldn’t hide the nerves. Raine nodded, serious again, and squeezed my shoulder.

Twil gestured at the Ordnance Survey map and the photos of houses pinned on the board behind Evelyn. “None of that’ll matter if we catch him first, right? What’s the hold up with finding the house?”

Evelyn cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder at the photographs. “We — that is Nicole and myself — have almost finished confirming the owners or occupiers of every house she could possibly have reached during her fugue state.” Evelyn cleared her throat again and sucked on her teeth, staring at the photos.

“But … you said you were like, having trouble or something? You’re almost done, so it’s gotta be one of them that’s left, yeah?” Twil laughed. “Shit, I’ll go run around the woods myself if it’ll help.”

“We’ve already had Zheng do a bit of that,” I said. I couldn’t make it sound confident, not at all. Twil looked at me, increasingly worried. “It didn’t help,” I added. “I think she’s out there now, actually.”

Evelyn examined the heavy curtains which still hid the creeping sunlight, as if she could find answers in the glow. “None of the remaining residences seem likely. I’ve begun to suspect that Edward Lilburne’s house may be … concealed.”

“Concealed?” Twil echoed, eyebrows up. She looked at me and Raine. I smiled even more awkwardly. Raine shrugged.

“Concealed, yes,” Evelyn repeated.

“Hiddeny,” said Praem.

Twil just blinked at her. “Like … what … what do you mean? Evee? What does that mean, hey?”

Evelyn rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, then swept a hand across the red-marked Ordnance Survey map. “It means that either I am completely wrong and all this has been a waste of time — unlikely, mind you,” she added with a snap. “Or, Edward Lilburne is so paranoid and obsessed with security that not only did he hide the location of his house from attempts to find it via official documents and records, but also from trying to find it on foot.”

Twil stared at her, a bit blank.

“What Evee is trying to say,” I explained. “Is that it might be tucked away in some kind of pocket space.”

Evelyn raised a finger and pulled a tight-jawed face. “I don’t think it’s the cult’s pocket dimensions and loop spaces. Those were collapsed when we broke their hold over the castle. The entire system folded in on itself. It’s gone. His house is not in a pocket dimension.”

“Then where the hell is it?” Twil asked. “Is it fuckin’ invisible?”

Evelyn sat up straight again, then rubbed at her nose, adjusted the position of her empty mug of tea, and half-turned to Praem. Then she thought better of it and turned back, looked at me, looked at Raine, and rubbed her hip.

Apparently, Twil wasn’t the only one incapable of hiding her emotions.

“Evee?” I asked, surprised.

She was wracked with anxiety.

She looked up and met my eyes. But then Twil leaned into her field of vision. “Yoooo, earth to Evee?”

Evelyn clenched a fist, she looked like she wanted to thump the table. “I have … only a very basic understanding of the kind of magical principles and practices that would allow one to conceal a building like this. Twist perception and space so you can’t walk up to it or stumble across it. I … can’t figure this out.”

“Evee?” I repeated. “Evee, there’s nothing wrong with not understanding something. We can find a way. I might be able to find the house via brain-math. If it’s hidden, that might even make it easier somehow.”

The guilt flowed out of me, finally relieved. It was my time to step up now. Evelyn could drop the mask, ease back off the throttle. Maybe I could even talk to her about other things so far left unsaid.

But Evelyn didn’t answer. She stared at the curtain.

Raine cleared her throat with exaggerated delicacy. “We do know somebody else who’s real good at keeping their house hidden. Don’t we, Evee?”

Evelyn gritted her teeth so hard I heard them squeak.

Raine continued. “She might be able to tell us how this works. Share some insight, all that. Or even find it for us, if she’s feeling so inclined. And hey, Evee, I’m pretty sure if you make the request, she’ll do anything you—”

Evelyn snapped around and fixed Raine with a glare like a barrage of railway spikes. “The last thing we need to introduce to this situation is more fucking mages. No, Raine. No.”

“‘Scuse me,” Twil said with exaggerated offense. “Who the hell are you two talking about?”

“Yes, quite,” I added. “Please, you two, I’m having trouble following this.”

Evelyn and Raine stared each other down, Evelyn visibly disgusted and bristling on the far side of the table, Raine with her hands on her hips, wearing that sort of ironic told-you-so smile. Eventually Raine broke eye contact and looked away, but it wasn’t because she’d lost.

“Remember Felicity?” she asked.

“Oh.” My heart sank. I glanced at Evelyn. She did not look very happy.

Twil frowned. “The mage who fixed Evee that one time? She was kinda whack. We never heard back from her, right?”

“Good,” Evelyn spat.

I recalled Felicity all too well. Felicity Amber Hackett, the eccentric, twitchy, damaged mage who had known Evelyn’s late and unlamented mother; the not-quite-a-doctor who had long ago performed the amputation of Evelyn’s leg; the mumbling, broken, haunted woman who had pointed a shotgun at us and then done magic so bizarre it seemed entirely out of our wheelhouse. Evelyn had described her as a demonophile psychopath, and worse. I’d briefly met — though not seen in the flesh — her bizarre semi-spiritual parasite, ‘Aym’, who had sounded like a cross between a young girl and a serial killer’s soul, a creature not quite like any other demon I’d encountered.

But Felicity had dropped everything and came running when I’d called, when I’d told her Evelyn needed help. After the Eye Cult had raided our home and left us scattered, Felicity had helped purge the demonic infestation from Evelyn’s body. The last I’d seen of her had been outside that awful house where the Eye Cult had come to ruin. She’d had her demon friend-slash-parasite in the back seat, injured on some level by exposure to the Eye’s attention. I’d told to her leave. Didn’t have time to deal with her right then.

I wasn’t sure if Evelyn was correct about Felicity, not completely. But I was absolutely certain that Evelyn still hated her.

Raine smiled and spread her arms in a placating shrug. “She’s got experience with this, Evee. You know she has. Her house is like a needle in a haystack, right? She might know how this shit works. And she’ll do anything you ask.”

Evelyn looked ready to bite the head off a small animal. Praem had her gently by the shoulders, but that didn’t seem to be helping. She opened her mouth to spit a justified rejection — and I agreed with her. Even if she was wrong about Felicity, it would be the height of insensitivity and unkindness for us to expect her to have polite and reasonable relations with the woman her mother had used to cut off her leg.

But then a cold feeling bubbled up my throat.

“Exploit her if you must.”

It took a second to realise I’d spoken. Everyone was looking at me. Cold-blooded thoughts coiled in the back of my head.

Ruthlessness.

Evelyn had turned her bitter frown on me instead, demanding an explanation. I cleared my throat and tried to justify that cold-blooded impulse, to work it back into my sense of self.

“I know you hate her,” I said, throat turning thick. Evelyn nodded, once. “And I didn’t think much of her either, even if she did … help us. But Raine is right, she came running when you needed help. Why not exploit that?”

“Heather.” Evelyn sounded very unimpressed with me. “Because—”

“You don’t have to do it yourself,” I said, holding her gaze. I had to pause to hiccup. My courage may have been cold-blooded, but I was still myself. “I’ll do it. I’ll call her. I’ll tell her it’s for you. And I’ll tell her the truth, that you don’t want to speak to her. All of it goes through me. You never have to speak with her. Let me do it, Evee. Let me do it for you. Otherwise … ” I trailed off and stared down at the map, hugging my squid-skull to my stomach like a favourite plush toy. “We could lose him again. Lose the book. Lose the opportunity. And then what? We spend another three or four weeks doing this? How much is left of my sister?”

My words came out clipped and sharp. I hadn’t intended that, but I was breaking.

“Hey,” Raine murmured gently, reaching for my shoulder. “Hey, Heather. It’s gonna be okay.”

But I caught her wrist with one of my tentacles, hard and harsh. She almost flinched, held fast. I felt terrible, but there was no turning back now. My cold-blooded impulse had curdled into frustration.

“I’m serious,” I hissed, rising up out of my chair, half with my legs, half with tentacles against the floor. I stared at Evelyn across the table. She didn’t deserve this, but the words poured out of me. “If we have to wait much longer, I may as well go by myself. Throw myself at the Eye and hope for the best. I don’t even know how to fight the thing. Fight?” I scoffed. “Fight, talk, dazzle it with a glitter-bomb, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be planning for, Evee! I still don’t know! I spoke to an Outsider god last weekend and I still don’t know!”

Raine had slipped on her pneuma-somatic glasses back on, so she could see my tentacles twitching and writhing like a furious squid. Furious at myself. My cowardice.

“Heather,” she murmured. “We’re going to figure it out.”

“Are we?” I hissed through a closing throat.

Evelyn stared back at me, frowning hard as if deep in thought. Did she even care? She’d spent all week only thinking about how to outmanoeuvre Edward Lilburne, her new rival, her territorial target, her tangled problem of professional dominance and paranoia.

A lump grew in my throat. Shame, mostly. Of course Evelyn cared, I didn’t even need to ask that. I’d turned self-doubt and Outsider fears into outward-facing spikes. I looked down, let go of Raine’s wrist, and felt all the determination flow out of me.

“I’m sorr—”

“Fine,” Evelyn said.

“A-ah?” I looked back up to find her nodding at me.

“Fine. We’ll use Felicity. We should try your brain-math, too. Anything we can use. You’re right, I think we have him cornered here. If he’s not running already, then this house must be his final refuge, the one place he doesn’t want to abandon. So yes, we might take a long time to find him. Let’s cut that short.” Evelyn gestured at Praem with her fingers. “My mobile phone, it’s on the kitchen table. Please.”

Praem turned and marched into the kitchen.

“You sure about this?” Raine asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “I’m never sure about anything, despite appearances. Don’t ask the impossible. Unless it’s … ehhh.” Her eyes flickered to me as she waved the notion away.

“E-Evee,” I tried to say, stammering over half my words. “T-this isn’t fair of me, I’m just so afraid, you don’t deserve to have to put up with my—”

“I can’t help you with the Eye directly,” she said. “I don’t know how. You’re going to have to talk with the gods to figure that out. Literally.” She sighed, ironically, and Twil snorted a little too. “But I can help you with this part. I will get that book and finish the Invisus Oculus, and you will stand in Wonderland unseen by the Eye. I will get you to the finish line, Heather. I can’t tell you how to cross it, but I will get you there.”

I almost couldn’t meet the fire in her eyes, burning cold and hungry.

Praem stepped back into the workshop with Evelyn’s phone, but Evelyn held up a hand and gestured to me.

“Give it to her,” she said.

“Ah?” I blinked as Praem pressed Evee’s phone into my palm. “I don’t follow.”

Raine shot me a wink. “You did say you’d do the talking.”

Evelyn gestured at the phone. “Her number is in the list of blocked contacts. Should be obvious. The name I’ve given her is rude enough.”

Twil stood up and peered over my shoulder as I opened the block list. My eyes went wide. Twil snorted with laughter. Raine chuckled and said, “Evee, didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Praem helped with that one.”

We all stared at Praem. She stared back at us with milk-white eyes, hiding unknowable thoughts.

Twil laughed. “Hard to imagine you coming up with something so … er … scatological.”

“Poop,” said Praem.

“Now?” I asked. “Should I call her now?”

“No time like the present,” said Evelyn. “You’re up, Heather. Besides, you’re far better at dealing with mages than I am.”

Twil laughed again. “Maybe that’s why she’s so good with … you … er. Ahem.” Twil trailed off, clearing her throat awkwardly when I shot her a frown. “Yeah. Right.”

Evelyn looked away, blushing faintly.

“Here goes nothing, I suppose,” I said. I unblocked the contact, briefly considered renaming it to just ‘Felicity’, then sighed and decided that would probably count as defacing art. So I pressed the call button, held the phone up to my ear, and said, “More mages, takeaway delivery style, coming right up.”

Announcement

A strategy meeting or a guilt-trip session, Heather doesn't know which way to turn. Evee's got plans for Edward, but is she thinking circles around him, or is he one step ahead of her already? Getting in too deep, with too many different mages, and now there's even more of the blasted things being thrown into the mix. Heather's got a point though, time is running short. They have to move on him, and soon.

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Next week, did Felicity ever make it home, all those months ago? Probably. Mages, mages, mages, they're coming out of the walls, crawling up from the basement, clawing at the windows. Heather needs to start dealing with them.

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