pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.4
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Bodily dysphoria.

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This was not the first time Lozzie and I had been separated by a Slip gone wrong.

When Lozzie had rescued me from Wonderland, months earlier, she’d snatched me from right beneath the Eye’s gaze, albeit briefly blocked by the daring and dutiful sacrifice of one of her shining Knights. I had never forgotten the courage that must have required — courage, or madness, or a bit of both. But as we’d punched back through the membrane to our own reality, the pressure of that singular, vast attention from the Eye had ripped Lozzie and I away from each other. Perhaps her late brother’s lingering shade had helped knock us off course.

Whatever the true cause or catalyst on that fateful day, Lozzie had successfully transported herself to Number 12 Barnslow Drive, while I’d been left adrift, unconscious, spat out somewhere not of our intention or design, dredged from Outside by barbed hooks and caught by bold poachers. I’d woken up in the clutches of the nascent Eye cult; or the shattered, ragged remains of the Sharrowford cult, depending on how one saw their situation.

And here I was again. A Slip had gone wrong. No Lozzie. Alone, by myself, in a strange and unknown place.

Well, alone in a nice-looking hotel corridor. Rich green carpet and tasteful cream-coloured wallpaper, all modern and clean and tidy, welcoming and non-threatening. It was really quite nice. Even managed to overpower my usual distaste for modern interiors.

I wasn’t handcuffed to a radiator in a bare concrete room, crusted with my own blood and vomit. I wasn’t under the watchful, dead eyes of seven feet of enslaved zombie muscle. I wasn’t dazed and confused and shaking with horror at one of the worst experiences of my life, re-exposure to the Eye. I wasn’t sobbing for my lost twin.

Trauma didn’t care about any of that.

I tried to whisper, but I could barely get air through my throat. “Lozzie … ”

For a heartbeat I was back there in Glasswick tower, helpless and confined and lost. I thought I’d processed that experience. I’d won, I’d escaped and saved my friends and all that was in the past. But the echo of fresh terror clawed up my throat and roiled in the pit of my stomach. My teeth chattered. My knees threatened to give out. I started to cringe, to curl up, to listen to that urge to cram myself into a corner and strangle my sobbing, lest something out there might hear, and come looking for the prey I was always destined to be.

But only for a heartbeat.

Fight-or-flight settled firmly on an answer.

I was not the terrified, quivering girl I’d been this time last year, or even a few months back. That Heather, the older me, she rested deep in my heart, safe and sound, swaddled in cotton wool and care. She didn’t have to be afraid anymore, not of this. I had swum through the abyss, I had duelled with post-human magicians, and I had taken tea in Carcosa with the King in Yellow. I was sharp and quick and I was loved.

Abyssal instinct reared up inside me, a many-headed hydra making ready for instant violence. Adrenaline poured into my veins. Cold sweat broke out across my skin, sticking my t-shirt to my back. My bioreactor hummed hot in my belly. All six pneuma-somatic tentacles fanned out to fill the corridor from wall to wall, reaching wide and strobing bright, ready to grab the first figure to emerge from one of the hotel room doors, ready to pop limbs out and rip heads off.

This time there would be no hostage situation, no cold threats in a concrete box, no negotiation.

A hiss tore up my throat, low and threatening.

Fuck off and die! Come get me! Here I am!

I’m not usually a violent person, believe it or not, considering some of the things I’ve done. But in that moment I fully believe that I was ready to kill the next person I saw, human being or demon-host or anything else. They — whoever they were in this context, my irrational displaced fear-rage wasn’t quite sure — they had taken Lozzie, or tried to take me, they were going to burst through the very nice cream-coloured wallpaper or step out from the lift at the end of the corridor with a gun, or maybe appear behind me and call me Lavinia. My skin itched with the threat of warning colouration and bio-toxin, bubbling with pneuma-somatic potential. Another few seconds and I would have sprouted spines, plated myself with chitin armour, and probably howled like a deep-sea leviathan.

One of the cream-yellow doors halfway down the corridor swung open. Twenty feet away, perhaps. I readied myself to spring and scratch and sting.

Lucky the door wasn’t closer, in retrospect.

A young man stepped out of the hotel room. Mid-twenties perhaps, only a few years older than me, slim and tallish in an awkward sort of way. He had a scraggly little goatee on his chin, and long dark hair pulled into an absolutely awful looking ‘man-bun’ on the back of his head, as Raine later informed me was the proper name for such a hairstyle. He was in a clean shirt and pressed trousers, nothing out of the ordinary, carrying a tote bag over one shoulder. He started fussing with his key card, to lock the hotel room door behind him.

He glanced down the corridor and did a double-take in my direction. We made eye contact. Just a second, a fleeting moment.

The young man averted his eyes, swallowed with no small difficulty, and concentrated very hard on checking his door was locked.

I didn’t pounce, or hiss, or even call out to him. Instead, I felt very embarrassed indeed. Realisation was a bucket of cold water dumped on my anger and adrenaline.

He’d looked away like that because he was worried he’d just made eye contact with a crazy person.

Regular human beings couldn’t see my tentacles all flared-out and ready to fight, but you didn’t need to be a supernatural creature to see that I was caked in cold sweat, shaking with adrenaline, and bug-eyed with murderous intent. I’d just terrified some random hotel patron leaving his room. We were both very lucky his door wasn’t any closer to me, or I would have picked him up with my tentacles and slammed him against the wall the moment he’d emerged.

Mister Man-bun, bless his terrible hairstyle, patted his tote bag and hurried down the corridor toward the lift. He was very careful not to look back at the gorgon behind him. He pressed the lift call button, stood there awkwardly for about two seconds, then pressed it twice more. I saw his head twitch as he barely resisted the urge to check I wasn’t creeping toward him. Then he thought better of waiting, and hurried down the stairs instead.

I let out a long, shuddering breath as reason dripped back, pressing a hand to my chest. I even pulled my tentacles in, though only halfway.

This was a hotel corridor. Almost a public place. I was surrounded by entirely ordinary daily noises of human habitation, soft voices and the hum of a television and even the distant rumble of traffic outdoors. Anybody might step out of one of these rooms, and none of them had anything to do with me. That random man I’d just scared might be about to tell the front desk there was some crazy girl upstairs, having a panic attack in the corridor, wearing no shoes.

The Slip had gone wrong, but I wasn’t the one who’d been snatched.

With shaking hands, I fumbled my mobile phone out of my pocket, praying as I jabbed at the contact list.

I called Lozzie and held the phone to my ear. “Please please—” hic— “please—”

Click.

“Lozzie?!” I fought to keep my voice down. “Lozzie, are you—”

“Heathy!”

Lozzie. Bright and bouncy, not terrified. The relief was too much. I almost sat down on the floor right there.

“Lozzie, what just happened? Where are you? Are you safe? Right now, where are you?”

“I’m in Jan’s room!” Lozzie chirped, like nothing was wrong. “Heathy, where are you?”

I blinked up and down the corridor, at the rows of cream-yellow doors. My head felt numb. “In a … a hotel hallway. Um.”

With a familiar squeak, a delicate thump, and a loud clack, one of the doors at the rear end of the corridor flew open, bouncing off its doorstop with a rubbery boink. I flinched and turned, tentacles flaring out wide, a hiss in my throat. I was still on edge and ready to fight, if I was wrong.

Lozzie bounced out into the corridor, sideways on one foot, carried by her own momentum, pastel poncho flapping along with her.

She lowered the phone from her ear and spread her arms. The poncho flapped upward. “There you are!”

Numb all over and shaking with an adrenaline crash, I tripped down the corridor toward her, shaking my head in confusion. She gave me a quick little hug when we met, squeezing me hard. She took one of my tentacles in hand, to gently but firmly lower it from the lingering threat-display position. She didn’t need to bother; I lashed two tentacles around her, as if she might vanish without an anchor.

“Lozzie.” I squeezed her arms as she peeled back from me. “Lozzie, what … what happened, I … I don’t … ”

“Come come!” Lozzie pulled me by the hands. “Come in, come in, Heathy. Inside Heathy, inside time, talk inside — inside!”

I allowed Lozzie to half-steer half-drag me into the hotel room, my fears and adrenaline soothed by the fact she was not lost to the tides and time of Outside, or to the devious plans of her uncle, or random chance imposed by a cold and uncaring universe. She stayed hand-in-hand with me as she scurried inside as well, past the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the room’s door handle. She got the door properly locked and closed behind us, throwing the latch and hooking the safety chain in place.

Jan was sitting on the nearest of a pair of twin beds, staring at me with wide-eyed alarm. Of course, she could see my tentacles perfectly well.

“ … hi,” I croaked.

“Heather. Hello,” she said, her delicate voice formal and tight. “My goodness, you look like you’ve just seen an entire chorus of ghosts.”

I didn’t know much about hotel rooms — all my home-away-from-home experiences were with children’s mental hospitals, and no matter how welcoming those tried to appear, they could never be home. But even I could tell that this hotel room was on the nicer side. To be fair, even the worst dump of a hotel would have been a step up from the rotten, ancient bedsit that Jan and July had been using as a temporary safe-house when we’d found them.

All cream and soft yellows on the walls and curtains, accented with cheap ply-board wood dressed up in dark colours to make it look like oak. A pair of single twin beds occupied pride of place, complete with a headboard built into the wall. The sheets on the furthest bed were smooth and tight with military precision, every wrinkle removed, the pillows gone as well. The nearest bed, where Jan currently sat cross-legged, looked like it hadn’t been made in over a week, and seemed to boast all the pillows from the other bed as well, piled up as if to seat a very fussy princess.

The room boasted a desk with a mirror, a tiny little table with a pair of functional but comfortable chairs, a miniature fridge that worried me for a moment — was it full of alcohol? — and a tiny kitchenette with two burner rings, a built-in microwave, and a toaster bolted to the worktop. Jan and July had evidently made themselves at home there, because the little bin was overflowing with food wrappers, takeaway cartons, and empty coffee cups.

The entrance had a little rectangular area of polished wooden floorboard, so you could remove your shoes without dirtying the carpet. It was currently occupied by a pair of massive boots — July’s, I assumed — and Jan’s neat little pink trainers. Very civilized, I thought. Pity Lozzie and I weren’t wearing any shoes.

An open door led off to the left, showing clean white bathroom tiles beyond. I could see the corner of one fluffy towel. A single window dominated the far wall, currently covered by heavy curtains. Bright, blazing sunlight crept around the edges. Air conditioning hummed from two overhead vents, keeping the room soft and cool while the world baked outdoors. I wasn’t used to that, not at all.

How very mage-appropriate, shutting out the sun.

Our mage friend and her athletic demon had made themselves at home in other ways too. I spotted the sword-carrying guitar case propped up by the window. Jan’s massive white coat was draped over a chair, swallowing it whole, though I could see various other practical garments on the seat of that chair, with straps and holsters and what I later realised was the corner of a military-style flak jacket. Jan’s pink tote bag lay on the desk, spilling out books and odds and ends of clothing and a small make-up pouch. A large rucksack and a massive sports bag sat on the floor near the end of the beds, doing the luggage impression of a dead animal in the process of being gutted; clothes lay about as if dragged from the bags by smaller scavengers. A laptop stood open on the little table, showing a youtube video of a cartoon horse. Other detritus lay all over the place: a phone charger cable, a couple of notebooks, an abandoned bra. They’d hooked some kind of game console up to the hotel television; I think I recognised it as one of the kind Evelyn kept saying we should get for Tenny.

On the inside of the front door was a magic circle.

Plain black, drawn in pen, on a piece of white A3 paper, held up with sticky tape. Three circles of descending size, like ripple-rings, connected by jagged lines and surrounded by snippets of a language that I recognised after a moment, though I couldn’t read a word of it — Vietnamese. The magic didn’t stir any nausea in my gut, but the triple-circle design made me feel like I was staring into a tunnel, a tube that reached into a white void of infinite space. A whine started on the edge of my hearing.

Jan cleared her throat. The whine cut out. “Wouldn’t stare at that for too long, if I were you.” I could hear the wince in her voice. “Not that it’s dangerous. Not exactly. Just uncomfortable. You know.” She cleared her throat again. “I’m just being polite, of course, you can do whatever you want.”

Lozzie pulled me away from the door and pulled my attention away from the magic circle. I allowed her to guide me out onto the thick sea-green carpet, our socks sinking into the fabric. I held on to her hand, unwilling to let go, and kept two of my tentacles wrapped around her like a squid in a strong current, lashed to a rock. One wrapped around her shoulders, the other about her waist.

She cooed to me. “Heathy, Heathy it’s okay, it’s okaaaay.”

I shook my head, still trying to gather myself. “Lozzie, stop. Stop, please. What just happened? What was that? How did we get … separated?”

From the nearest of the two beds, Jan cleared her throat delicately, a third time. “I feel as if I should be the one asking that, seeing as this is currently my temporary home. Well, sort of. In a way. A bit.”

Jan cast her eyes up and around, at the meagre surroundings of her hotel room. She hooked her hands under her folded legs and rocked backward. She still looked extremely worried. Her eyes quickly returned to me and the threat-posture halo of my tentacles, strobing bright and screaming with warning colouration in a rainbow of toxic potential.

She was dressed as if she’d been lounging around in bed all day, or perhaps transferring herself between bed and desk, between working and napping, or watching youtube videos and napping. She had little black socks on her feet and pink shorts on her hips, leaving her slender legs bare to the conditioned air, and bare to the gaze of anybody who cared to pay attention to the just-visible tell-tale lines of doll-joints on her knees. She wore a loose lilac t-shirt beneath the most fancy dressing gown I’d ever seen — gauze-thin, probably not silk but something approximate, tie-dyed in spirals of pastel blue and pink on a background of white. It floated out whenever she moved, giving the impression of a particularly delicate butterfly thinking about taking to the air. I doubted very much that it had come from the hotel bathroom.

I could just about see the doll-joints of her wrists and elbows through the thin fabric, fully on display. Warm, soft, human-looking flesh terminated in sudden artificial joints. So much like Praem. I did my best not to stare.

Jan looked so very petite and compact, wrapped in that big dressing gown. Her messy bob of thick black hair was even messier than usual. And her pneuma-somatic eyes of storm-blue crystal were ringed with anxiety as she stared at me. She was pale all through.

I cleared my throat and did what I could to reel my tentacles in. Terrifying somebody my own size made me feel bad. I wasn’t a monster.

“Thank you,” she added quickly. “So, what was that all about? What’s going on? Do I need to prepare for men with guns to burst through the door? Because I can do that, in a pinch, but I’d rather not ruin my new clothes, and also it’ll piss off the hotel management.”

I let out a big sigh. “No, it’s not that kind of problem. Lozzie, what just happened?”

“Nothing!” Lozzie chirped, dancing forward a few steps on the carpet and patting my tentacles around her waist. She shook her head, confused but not distressed, biting her bottom lip. “Nothing happened! I got here and you were already out!”

Jan snorted delicately behind one hand. “I think we’re all out, here.”

Lozzie giggled. I shot Jan a look. “This is no time for gay jokes.”

“If there’s no emergency, then it’s always time for gay jokes. Is this seriously not an emergency? Lozzie seemed very distressed and now you seem very distressed. When powerful people get distressed, I get distressed. Please, what is happening?”

“We got … separated. During the Slip. The teleport thing we can do. That shouldn’t happen. Lozzie, what was that? Did you feel anything? Something pull us apart? Anything at all?”

Lozzie didn’t answer right away. She bit her lip and furrowed her brow, small and intense. At least she was taking this seriously rather than brushing it off. I took some basic relief from that.

“Normal,” she said eventually. “Regular. No push, no pull, no evil spooky hands. I promise, nothing touched us! It felt normal.”

I glanced around the hotel room, then back at the magic circle on the inside of the door.

Could this be Jan’s doing?

Perhaps the Slip hiccup was the result of a trap she’d laid for Lozzie and me. Maybe she’d intended to peel me off, then entrap Lozzie while she was alone and beyond my help. But her plan had failed, so Jan was acting scared to cover for her mistake. The failure would already have her terrified. I knew she was frightened of me, of us, so acting alarmed and worried wouldn’t be too much of a leap. She could draw on her real emotions to make it believable.

“Um,” Jan said when I stared at her. She raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”

“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie whined.

“Where’s July?” I asked.

Jan didn’t answer for a second. I didn’t blame her; I was standing there with my tentacles ready to whip her off the bed and slam her to the floor, though I didn’t know it myself at the time. I was bristling like a cornered animal. I’d just asked her Where’s your back-up? while looming over her, ready to inflict terrible violence.

She glanced at Lozzie. “A little help, please?”

Lozzie did a side-to-side flap with her head and her poncho, like a jolly little jellyfish adjusting her position in a column of seawater. Then she flounced across the last few steps separating her from Jan. She crawled onto the bed beside Jan and leaned into her, so that her pastel poncho and Jan’s matching dressing gown were momentarily one and the same.

I kept a tentacle wrapped firmly around Lozzie’s waist, like a life-line. Jan eyed it with open anxiety.

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Lozzie purred to her. “Mmhmm, mmhmm!”

“If you say so.” Jan swallowed hard. “If you must know, July is currently in the hotel pool. Downstairs. She likes to swim. Doesn’t get much opportunity, so she’s been doing it every day we’re here.” She wet her lips with a delicate flicker of pink tongue. “Excuse me, Heather, but you are scaring the shit out of me. Please stop.”

I turned my head to look back at the little wooden entrance area. I stared at July’s boots for a couple of seconds, then back to Jan again.

Then I hiccuped, loudly and painfully, because I could barely keep this up. I wasn’t good at intimidation.

Jan disagreed. She hurried to explain. “July owns more than one pair of shoes. You’ve seen her in different shoes, I’m almost certain of that. Don’t beat me up over misplaced shoes.”

“Heathy,” Lozzie added in a whine. “It’s okay! It’s Jan!”

But I couldn’t let it go, not yet. “What about your pockets?”

Jan tilted her head very slightly, giving me a you-can’t-be-serious sort of look. “I can’t prove a negative. July is downstairs. She’s not in one of my pockets.”

As if to demonstrate her point, Jan reached out with her left hand and dragged her fingertips through the air. They vanished for a split second, swallowed by the invisible curtain of exotic matter, and returned holding a pink ball, just smaller than Jan’s fist. I almost flinched, because I assumed she was going to throw it at me. But then she squeezed the ball, compressing it in one hand as she blew out a long breath.

“A stress ball?” I asked.

Jan smiled, sweet and curdled. I got the impression she very much wanted to throw the ball at me.

Adrenaline and anxiety and abyssal instinct were making me paranoid. Jan was terrified of us, terrified of me. She wouldn’t have tried something like this. I blew out a deep breath as well, finally letting go of Lozzie and forcing my tentacles in. I flexed both my hands, trying to fight down the adrenaline.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Jan. I … I don’t know what just happened, that’s all. It’s upsetting me.” I gestured back at the magic circle on the inside of the door. “What is that magic circle? Or, no, don’t answer that, I’m sorry. I’m not a mage, I wouldn’t understand. What does it do, in simple terms?”

Jan put her hands up. “It’s a basic ward to keep out servitors and the like. Look, I had nothing to do with this.”

“Jan can’t stop me!” Lozzie chirped from her side, nodding so hard she bounced on the bed. Jan looked mildly jarred by this. “Or you!”

“Too right,” Jan added. “And I wouldn’t seek to, either. You lot can come and go as you please, that’s your business. I certainly couldn’t stand in your way.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “I don’t even really understand how Lozzie comes and goes.”

I put one hand on my abdomen, through the fabric of my pink hoodie, feeling the fading heat of my bioreactor.

“Lozzie, when I arrived out there in the corridor, my reactor was going crazy. Like I was fighting off an infection, or an attack, or something. I don’t know what, but something happened that wasn’t done by us.”

“Reactor?” Jan echoed, frowning like I’d said loose tarantula.

“Um, never mind. I have extra organs, it’s a long story.”

“Okaaaay then. Okay.”

Lozzie was biting her lower lip again. She looked sort of sheepish, like she wanted to duck behind Jan. “I think I did a whoopsie,” she said in a small voice. “Heathy Heathy, it must have been all me! I went too fast and I was too happy to get here so I didn’t pay attention and it must have been me. I’m sorry. Okay? Okay.”

Jan shrugged, adjusting her tie-dye pastel dressing gown around her shoulders. “Makes sense to me. People sometimes trip when walking, don’t they?”

I shook my head. “Lozzie, let’s not Slip home. We don’t know what that was.” I fumbled with my mobile phone, trying to navigate to Raine’s number with clammy fingers. “I’ll call Raine, she can drive over in the car, pick us up instead. Jan, where are we, where is this?”

“Heather!” Lozzie puffed her cheeks out.

“Jan?” I repeated.

Jan glanced uncomfortably between me and Lozzie. She kneaded the stress ball in both hands. “Please don’t put me in the middle.”

“Heathy, it’s fine!" Lozzie chirped, rocking on the bed. “We’re fine! All I did was make a mistake! Look, watch, I’ll do it right now and it’ll all be fiiiiine!”

Before I could gather my wits and my muscles to launch myself at her, Lozzie bounced to her feet on the bed, hopped back from Jan, and leaped into the air.

She vanished.

“Lozzie!” I almost screamed. Jan had to duck and cover to avoid my whirling tentacles, whipping through the air where Lozzie had vanished, as if I could pluck her from the membrane. “ … Lozzie? Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”

But of course, Lozzie wasn’t there to answer. Just me and Jan, alone in a hotel room.

Jan cleared her throat and pulled an incredibly awkward smile. I squeezed my own ribcage with both arms, terrified that Lozzie wasn’t going to come back.

After a long, uncomfortable moment, Jan said, “She is irrepressible, isn’t she?”

I heard the affection in her tone, but couldn’t process the meaning. I just stared at her, head going numb, then hiccuped loudly. “Sorry?”

“Lozzie, I mean. It’s quite endearing, but living with her must be a handful.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “If she’s gotten lost or kidnapped again … ”

Again?”

“That’s another long story. She hasn’t told you?”

Jan shook her head, trying to look casual, but I could tell she was burning up inside with curiosity. “She’s told me some things about herself, her life. Her brother and all that, I assume? She never used the word kidnapping, though.”

“It’s not my place to say.” I squeezed the words out through a closing throat. Lozzie had been gone for thirty seconds, longer than I expected, longer than I could stand. I looked down at my phone again, fumbling for Raine’s number. “Lozzie, Lozzie you idiot, you irresponsible—”

“Boo!” went Lozzie.

She jumped out from behind the bathroom door, flapping her poncho out wide like a bird doing a mating display.

“Ah!” Jan lit up. She did a little round of applause. “Well done!”

Lozzie took a bow, then did a curtsey, then performed a sort of wiggly tumble over toward the bed. I was so overpowered by relief that I had to sit down. I barely recalled Lozzie flapping over and pulling out one of the plastic chairs for me, or the feeling of thumping down into it, or her brief but heartfelt hug. She danced back again, smiling with pride, a little bit smug.

“See?! Slippery-slips all lickey-split, not a problem within sight! All I did was make a mistake, Heathy! Please don’t make a big deal about it! Even Lozzies mess up sometimes.”

She trailed off and bit her lip. I nodded along and muttered an apology. Lozzie had Slipped, gone there and back, and everything was fine. If somebody — Edward — was trying to kidnap her, then they would have taken her while she was alone, ricocheting off the membrane like a pink-and-blue pinball. Nobody was trying to snatch Lozzie during a Slip; nobody could except me, anyway. As far as I knew, there was nobody else like us. I took deep breaths and massaged my forehead, feeling the tension flow out of my muscles.

Edward wanted Lozzie, but he hadn’t tried to snatch her just now. My mistake. My paranoia.

But one hand strayed to my abdomen. I gnawed on the memory of that burning sensation, of my bioreactor running hot. What had caused that? It was quiet again now, back to normal. But I’d felt that. The reality of my body could not be denied.

Lozzie perched on the edge of the bed and flopped backward, lying down next to Jan, amid the jumble of covers. Jan gave me an awkward smile. “Well, this certainly wasn’t the afternoon I had planned. This makes the second time you’ve burst into my room and threatened me, you know that?”

“I’m sorry,” I sighed. “I’m … protective, of Lozzie. We all are.”

“Mm. No hard feelings, not for that. Um … yes.” Jan cleared her throat, awkward in a very different way.

When I looked up, I found that Lozzie had draped one lazy arm and part of her poncho over Jan’s hip and thigh. Her slender, pale hand rested on Jan’s bare knee, directly on the doll-joint. Jan met my eyes, blushing faintly, trying not to acknowledge her position. I studied Jan for a moment, her petite form beneath her gauzy dressing gown, the faintly visible doll-joints on her arms and legs, her fluffy hair and delicate facial features. Quite a form to choose, if one had the opportunity to engineer and design one’s own body. I watched the colour growing in her cheeks, and the shift of her eyes with their infinite blue depth, like watching a shining sea from orbit.

Jan wet her lips with a dart of pink tongue. “Oh dear,” she said. “Am I about to get scolded?”

I took a moment to gather my thoughts, but found I had misplaced several of them. “ … uh, scolded?”

Jan pulled that self-consciously oily smile she’d used a few times before, the look of the con-woman who’d been rumbled, and knew that her mark was onto her. “You never got to tell me off for pressuring your house-mate to share her weed with us. Kimberly, wasn’t it? I did pay, above market rate. And it was very good stuff.”

“Oh, that.” I shook my head. “Well, it didn’t do any harm in the end, but you were sort of the responsible adult.”

“We had fun!” Lozzie chirped from the far side of Jan’s hip. She looked like she was about to bite Jan’s flank. “It was giggly!”

Jan’s smile got more awkward and a lot more toothy. “Sorry.”

I sighed and waved the idea away. “We were in the middle of an emergency, but it wasn’t your fault. Check with us next time though, please?”

Jan bobbed her head. “I really didn’t know. And um … ”

She glanced down at Lozzie, just a flicker. I suppressed another sigh. She’d had a chance to get high and emotionally involved with somebody she was very interested in, and she’d taken the opening. I could hardly fault her for that part.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Besides, I don’t know if I can really scold somebody so much older than me. You seem so much more … adult, compared to when we first met you.”

Jan’s smile relaxed. She spread her hands in a self-deprecating shrug. “Well, I’ve shed most of my camouflage. It’s why I’ve moved, too. Why stay in that awful dump when I’m on good terms with all the local players? You and Evelyn, the rest of the silly cultist people, the local whack-jobs out in the woods — there’s always a few of those in every place, you know?” Jan’s smile creaked. She was leaving somebody out, and we both knew it. She gestured at the room with a flick of her wrist, still holding the stress ball in one hand. “To answer your earlier question, we’re in the Sharrowford Metro. Metropolitan hotel, that is. Better than a travelodge, but not so much better that it breaks the bank. Also the staff are paid terribly, so they’re easy to bribe.”

Lozzie snorted a giggle. She scooted over further so she was curled around Jan’s hips and backside, like a living, pastel-coloured pillow for Jan’s lower back, head on one side of Jan, legs on the other. Jan stiffened, eyes widening slightly, trying to hide her reaction, like a cat who wasn’t certain about being petted. With a visible deep breath, she forced herself to relax.

“I need to ask you a question,” I said. Then I hiccuped and sighed.

“Ah,” said Jan.

“Ah?” went Lozzie, half sitting-up.

I didn’t want to do this, and I really didn’t want to do this in front of Lozzie, but there was no better opportunity.

“Jan,” I said, trying to play the words forward in my head before I spoke them. “I apologise in advance, but I have to ask this question. I realise the answer is probably no, and we … well, Evelyn, mostly, has already decided to trust you. But I have to ask you, if only as a warning.”

“Yeeeeees?” Jan looked very alarmed again. Lozzie had gone quiet.

“Edward Lilburne, the mage we’re in conflict with, he’s Lozzie’s uncle,” I said.

At the sound of his name, Lozzie buried her face in the covers.

Jan’s alarm faded, replaced with quiet caution. I half expected her to place a hand on Lozzie’s shoulder, but she didn’t touch her. She just said, “I am aware of that.”

“Has he approached you?”

“No.”

Instant. No hesitation. Was that a good sign?

“We suspect that he might make an approach, if he’s aware of you. He may offer you money, in exchange for helping him to kidnap Lozzie.”

Lozzie whined into the covers. I wrapped my arms around my own belly, feeling awful, but I had to say this. She had to hear this too. I had to make her aware of the possibility.

Jan watched my face, searching me with those eyes like blue fire trapped behind glass. I stared back into those eyes, right into her pneuma-somatic core, trying to read her thoughts from the surface of her soul. A failure, unfortunately. Mind-reading is not within the scope of hyperdimensional mathematics, not without reducing a human being to their mathematical description, and even then I’d never tried to read surface thoughts or deep intent, only history, components, what made up a person.

Jan stared at me. I stared at Jan. Like a pair of small, fluffy, domestic cats, trying to judge if it was time for the claws to come out.

I struck first.

“If Edward Lilburne approaches you,” I said, “would you take the money? Yes or no?”

Lozzie reared up from the bed like a snake hidden behind a log, red in the face, wiping her wispy blonde hair away from her forehead, eyes blazing. She far outmatched us oversized house cats; Jan and I both flinched before Lozzie even opened her mouth.

“Heathy!” she yelled at me. “Why— why— why would you ask that it’s not fair it’s not fair to her or to me either why would you ask that she wouldn’t she won’t don’t make it sour and—”

I shrank from her, trying to get a word in edgeways. “L-Lozzie, I’m sorry, I have to—”

Lozzie actually stood up on the bed as she went on, flapping her poncho up and down. I thought she was about to leap at me.

Jan cleared her throat. “It’s a perfectly fair question,” she said.

Lozzie stopped mid-word, looking down at Jan, who was simply staring at me again.

“It’s not … ” Lozzie said.

Jan shrugged, watching me. “And the answer is most definitely no.”

I nodded, slowly. “I’m sorry. I did have to ask.”

Jan returned my nod. Lozzie glanced between the two of us, frowning like she was having trouble following the exchange. Jan reached up and patted her awkwardly on the hip, and then said to me, “Now, yes, I would say the exact same thing either way, wouldn’t I? If I was planning to help a terrible old man carry out a kidnapping, I would hardly let you know my intention ahead of time.”

“Um … I was trying to avoid that implication.”

Jan rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve implied it regardless, well done. I am very mercenary, indeed I am. I make no secret of it, but even I have some limits. You think I’m just a con woman, that I have no values or beliefs, but I do. I’ve only been in Lozzie’s life for a couple of weeks—”

“Week and a half,” Lozzie corrected with a pout. “Almost.”

“Has it really been less than two weeks?” Jan smiled up at Lozzie. “Feels like longer.”

“Mm-mmmmm.” Lozzie bobbed from side to side on the bed, which momentarily made Jan look like she was on a ship in a storm, and slightly queasy. Lozzie eventually steadied herself by putting two hands on Jan’s head, buried in that fluffy black hair. Jan blushed faintly and blinked rapidly.

“Be gentle, Lozzie,” I said.

“I am!”

“As I was saying,” Jan continued. “I’ve known Lozzie for less than two weeks, but there are certain kinds of people you can betray, and certain others you can’t betray without betraying yourself.”

“Well said,” I muttered, feeling suitably ashamed of myself.

“You could pay me a small fortune to betray a favourable client, certainly. Another mage? Absolutely, no question. No honour amongst thieves and all that. And I understand perfectly well that basic solidarity can count for very little between beings like us.” A hint of deep melancholy passed behind those storm-tossed blue eyes. She leaned forward on the bed. “I know what you see when you look at me. You don’t have to pretend otherwise.”

“Janny … ” Lozzie murmured, slowly running her fingers through Jan’s hair.

I frowned, blinking, feeling like I’d wandered onto the court of an unfamiliar game. “What am I supposed to see when I look at you?”

Jan laughed, once, not really amused. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” She gestured at her own body, one wave of her wrist from fluffy crown to her toes tucked away in her little black socks. “This is what I want you to see. But you already know better.”

“Jan, no no. Jan no,” Lozzie chirped. She tutted, then placed her hands on either side of Jan’s head, as if trying to squeeze the bad vibes out of her brain.

Jan had left me behind about three sentences ago. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but this is getting a bit esoteric for me. What do you think I see when I look at you?”

Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical, and said, “A mage.”

“Oh.”

“My exterior often says ‘teenage girl’, and that’s intentional. Just a teenager, passing through, don’t pay me any attention — except a respectful glance because I’m so cute.” Jan allowed herself a little smile, but it didn’t last, not even with Lozzie making sad little whining noises above her. “And in a way that’s not a lie; in a very real way I’m stuck in a forever puberty. I don’t think I would survive the leap to another body, and I’ve come to terms with that, I’ve accepted it. I like this body, it’s me. But you and I both know that I am not a harmless teenager. I am an old and powerful thing. And you have enough experience to know that things like me are dangerous. So I don’t blame you for your caution. I would do the same, in your position.”

“Not a thing!” Lozzie chirped. Jan reached up and patted Lozzie’s hand, but she stayed staring at me.

“Lozzie’s right, you shouldn’t call yourself a thing,” I agreed.

Jan smiled. “You know what I mean.”

“Words have power,” I said. “We are what we pretend to be.”

We are what we pretend to be. The advice given to me by The King in Yellow. I said the words before I realised who I was echoing.

And Jan did the last thing I expected — she started crying.

She resisted it well, holding my gaze for several long, awkward seconds as her crystal-blue eyes scrunched up and filled with tears, as her mouth curled and she had to bite her lips, as she turned red in the cheeks, but then finally failed. She was a very delicate crier, sniffing and wiping her eyes on the thin sleeve of her dressing gown, swallowing through a thick and heavy throat. It wasn’t a full-on weeping session, just the threat of vulnerability nibbling at her emotions.

“Janny,” Lozzie whispered. She went down on her knees and hugged Jan around the shoulders.

“Oh, damn you, Heather,” Jan said, though not unkindly. “It’s been a long time since somebody made me cry my own tears.”

“I-I’m sorry,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. “I hadn’t intended that to be so cutting. Do you, um, want a tissue?”

“Please,” Jan croaked softly. I pulled two tissues from a box on the desk, then thought better of it and simply handed Jan the whole box. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, flapping tissues about, her dressing gown sleeves billowing. “Oh, damn you. Here I was trying to be all appropriately spooky and you just … tch.”

Lozzie giggled. “Heathy’s good at that.”

“We are what we pretend to be,” Jan echoed me again. “So, what do you think I am pretending to be, Heather?”

“You’re a mage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be Lozzie’s friend. Um. Or whatever you are to each other.”

She nodded, still dabbing at her eyes, and laughed softly. “What I was trying to get at in the first place is that you’re right to be suspicious of me. If you were any less protective of Lozzie then I’d be the one growing suspicious, with good reason. You know what I am, you have some idea of what I’m capable of.” She tugged at the pastel fabric of her dressing gown with one hand. “This could be so much protective colouration, for all you know, but it’s real. Solidarity is … ”

Jan trailed off as she recognised the confusion on my face.

“I don’t think I follow,” I said. “Protective colouration?”

Jan frowned at me, then frowned at her own shoulder — at Lozzie, still wrapped around her in a hug. “Am I getting the wrong end of the stick here? Heather is aware, yes?”

“Excuse me?” I said. “Aware of what?”

Lozzie tilted her head side-to-side, suddenly rather puppy-like. She didn’t follow either. Jan cleared her throat and glanced back and forth between Lozzie and me, suddenly deeply uncomfortable again, no longer crying but caught in the middle of something which wasn’t her business. I could almost see the cogs turning in her head, as she tried to think of a way to back out from what she’d been in the middle of saying.

“Oh!” I caught on all of a sudden, second-hand embarrassed for Jan’s sake. My mind had been on mages and magic and monsters, not something so mundane. “You mean Lozzie’s trans flag poncho, and you’re wearing … um … ” I gestured at Jan’s matching tie-dye dressing gown, in swirls of blue, pink, and white. “Of course I know about Lozzie. I thought that was just a given.”

Jan nodded, clearing her throat, silently thankful that I’d taken the leap in her place. “Well, what I meant to say is that as far as you’re concerned, this—” she straightened the dressing gown, “—could be just so much deception.”

“But it’s not. It actually quite suits you, though it does look a bit on the thin side.”

Jan brightened, almost preening as she sat up a bit straighter. “Then it’s perfect for the summer weather, isn’t it?”

Lozzie let out a giggle-snort. Jan blinked at her.

I sighed. “I can tell you’re not from the North. Don’t expect the heat to last. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not a local either.”

Jan nodded graciously. “I take great pride in never being a local.”

“Where are you from, anyway?”

Jan winked and tapped the side of her nose.

Lozzie giggled again. “I know! But I’m not telling!”

Jan looked momentarily discomforted, then cleared her throat and adopted an intentionally serious expression again. “We are what we pretend to be. I like that idea. As I said, there is precious little basic solidarity in our world. So I pretend, and I make it real.” She patted the corner of Lozzie’s poncho. “And furthermore, Heather, you’ve given this girl a family. A home. You, Tenny, Evelyn and Raine by the sounds of it too. Twil. Praem. All of you. You’ve given this girl a real family. I’ve heard about her biological relations—”

Lozzie made a soft, uncomfortable whine.

“—and they all ceased being real family to her, a long time ago. I’m not going to betray that. If I’d had something like that, maybe I would have had a better time of it. Besides,” she sighed, “you’re all absolutely terrifying, to be frank. Betraying something like you would be suicidal nonsense.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

“So, now,” Jan carried on, back in full flow, her half-mask of attitude firmly back in place. “If this mister Edward Lilburne approached me with a big sack of money—”

“I understand, I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

“I would accept the money—”

A shock of sudden cold, deep in my belly. Only Lozzie’s giggle kept me in my chair. “What.”

Jan carried right on. “—and then inform you wonderful and trustworthy people exactly where he is, so you can throw him into the wild beyond, or have him shot in the back of the head, or whatever it is you have planned for him. Don’t tell me, by the way. Plausible deniability is so much more comfortable.”

I blew out a breath in unamused relief. Lozzie had disengaged her hug and briefly put her hands over her ears. I think Jan was a tiny bit relieved by that.

“I think I mentioned it earlier,” I said. “But Evelyn has chosen to trust you. Which means a lot, coming from her.”

“I’m sure it does,” Jan said. “We mages are a paranoid bunch. Usually.”

“I’ll choose to do the same.”

Jan bowed her head, formal and stiff, almost a little sarcastic, though I wasn’t sure that undertone was intentional. “I’ll do my best to be worthy of such regard.”

Lozzie giggled at that and hugged Jan from behind again, snaking her arms out of her pastel poncho. Jan cleared her throat and looked a bit embarrassed. I decided she wasn’t used to Lozzie’s normal level of platonic physical affection.

I needed to ask the obvious question, but my mind hit several speed-bumps of embarrassment too.

“So,” I said, glancing around the hotel room. “I take it you and July have decided to stay in Sharrowford for a bit? At least until the stuff with the cult is resolved?”

Jan shrugged eloquently. “It’s a delightful little city.”

I couldn’t help it, I frowned in disbelief. Lozzie wrinkled her nose.

“It’s … functional,” I said.

“Okay, alright,” Jan admitted with a laugh. “It’s rotting from the inside out, yes, and that’s just for the normals. It’s also absolutely lethal. The walls between reality and other places are very thin here, even I can feel that, and I’m not the most powerful mage going. No wonder so many different people are so eager to hang onto this place. I’ve got reasons to stay for now, though I usually make it a policy not to stop for long in places where mage-on-mage conflict is about to break out.”

I felt a tug of curiosity, though it was distracting me further from my real intent. “Mage-on-mage conflict,” I echoed. “Have you seen quite a bit of that?”

“From a distance. I’d rather not be involved when you deal with Edward. Or whatever happens afterward. Though I would happily give sanctuary to some.” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Lozzie. “Wait, what am I saying? You can teleport wherever you want, can’t you?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped. “Aaaaanywhere!”

“Well. Why am I staying in Sharrowford?” Jan laughed softly. “July and I could head to more familiar climes. You could come visit down Tru—” Jan caught herself, cleared her throat, and glanced at me. “Is there a reason I need to stay in the city, if Lozzie can bring people along?”

“Lozzie’s Slips are very rough for passengers,” I said.

Something in my tone must have communicated the awful, jarring truth behind such a bland statement. Jan swallowed and nodded. She understood the look in my eyes. “Well then. I’m here for a little longer, at least. I suppose.”

“Reasons to stay,” I echoed, glancing between Lozzie and Jan.

Lozzie seemed so very comfortable, hugging Jan from behind. She and Jan could not possibly have been any more different, one so neat and delicate and devious, one so free and floaty and uninhibited. Lozzie met my eyes and winked.

“Jan, there is something else I want to ask you,” I said, and managed to sound casual enough not to cause a second panic.

“Mm?”

“Here we goooooo,” went Lozzie. She giggled.

“Are you and Lozzie in a … romantic … situation?” I sighed, sudden and sharp. “Oh wow, I really made that sound precise, didn’t I?”

Jan blinked three times and blushed like a tomato. I hadn’t expected that.

Lozzie giggled like crazy. “Heathy!” she squeaked.

“I … um … we—” Jan struggled. “We haven’t … kissed. Or anything like that! I don’t—”

“We’ve snuggled!” Lozzie told me. “Jan’s a good snuggler!”

Jan was mortified.

I put my hands up, blushing too. This situation was obviously far, far from what I had worried about. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me everything. Or even anything. I just needed to check. For Lozzie. I mean, not that it’s any of my business!”

“Oh for … ” Jan huffed, fighting through her embarrassment. “Well maybe it’s a tiny bit romantic. Quasi-romantic? Is that a thing?”

“Mmhmm-mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded sagely. She was enjoying this far too much.

“But just because we’re both trans girls doesn’t mean we’re in a relationship,” Jan tutted at me.

Lozzie peered around her side and made eye contact. “Doesn’t it?”

Jan was rendered speechless. I had to turn away, deeply regretting that I’d ever asked. Whatever Jan and Lozzie were up to, I think I knew who was in charge. Apparently there wasn’t anything sexual about it either. And even if there was, it was none of my business. Lozzie was an adult. In some ways, Lozzie was a mother. She was her own person, and I didn’t need to wrap her in cotton wool.

And I decided to trust Jan.

I examined myself carefully, for jealous feelings. I found none. Lozzie was my friend, practically family, and if she was happy, then I was happy. That was a relief.

“Jan, um,” I said, trying to bring some normality back to the situation. I cleared my throat. “We do have a lot to talk about. Technical matters, magical matters, that sort of thing. Now seems like as good a time as any.”

Lozzie took the hint. She let go of Jan and bounced to her feet, skipping across the room to fiddle with the video game console plugged into the television. It was like she’d had her setting switched from ‘cuddle’ to ‘distracted’. Sometimes I forgot how astute Lozzie could be, beneath her playful exterior.

Jan looked like a steam boiler on a cooling cycle. She nodded along, trying to compose herself. “Yes. Um. Indeed.”

“And I should probably call home,” I said, gesturing with my mobile phone. “We did say where we were going, but we left in kind of a rush. Raine and the others might be worrying about me.”

“Look,” Jan said with a sigh. “Before we move on, thank you for understanding. I will admit, I wasn’t expecting this. Whatever … um … develops between myself and Lozzie, I don’t intend it to be romantic.”

“Awww!” went Lozzie, but she was giggling behind a sleeve. Teasing Jan like crazy.

Jan cleared her throat again. I caught her eye. We both understood how Lozzie tended to be. “Though,” she added, “if things go that way … well. Ahem. Yes.” Jan blew out a huff. “I did not expect tolerance as a mage. Though I suppose you can hardly talk, Heather. You’re far from normal yourself — and I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Your tentacles are extremely impressive. I must ask you more about them, some time.” Jan laughed. “Besides, you’re romantically entangled with a mage too.”

I blinked. “What.”

“What?” Jan echoed me.

Lozzie giggle-snorted, flapping out her poncho. “Oopsie! Heathy doesn’t like to acknowledge that she and Evee-weevey love each other very much.”

Announcement

Imagine just being a regular guy, stepping out of your hotel room, and then you see a girl halfway down the corridor who looks ready to rip your eyeballs out of your head (and you can't even see her tentacles). Heather really didn't have anything to be scared of; she's the scary one now. But did Lozzie really make a mistake? Who knows. Slipping seems fine now! And Jan is very talkative. And Lozzie is very sneaky indeed. Whoops, looks like she cornered Heather in a whole new way.

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Next week, Heather can't avoid talking about Evelyn, not unless she makes like Lozzie and Slips on out. And she did need to discuss some serious things with Jan, anyway ...

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