Small mention of dysphoria
Raine’s phone lay on the kitchen table like a chunk of occult meteorite, radiating waves of suffocating dread into the unseasonal gloom which pressed against the walls and windows of our home. I would not have been surprised if the wooden surface of the table had begun to smoulder and blacken under the pressure of that aching void. Silence imposed itself on us after Felicity had delivered terms — Aym’s terms, her demand, her price for the spell that might unravel the secret of Edward’s hiding place.
Outdoors, the rain started up again, heavier than the drizzle earlier in the day. Fat raindrops drummed on the roof tiles, a growing static filling the dead air.
On the other end of the phone, Felicity didn’t even seem to be breathing.
I had to bite my tongue to hold back a hiss.
All she’d said was “twenty minutes’ private conversation with Evelyn Saye”, and then fallen silent. Nothing supernatural or unnatural had happened. Nobody had cast any spells or uttered any scraps of broken Latin. Nothing half-hidden had shifted in the corner of my vision. Nothing had climbed out of the screen of the phone. The brief shared silence was probably just shock, or exasperation, or anxiety.
But abyssal instinct whispered inappropriate and nonsensical warnings, down in my brain stem — that the object on the table was a lie in plastic and metal and toughened glass, not truly a mobile phone at all, despite the cheery purple background of the call screen and the mildly insulting name which Raine had given to Felicity’s contact number. My tentacles bunched and tightened, ready to spring forward and sweep the phone onto the floor, like it was a live bomb or a toxic slug, a vile intrusion that should be removed from the presence of my pack this instant. That gut feeling I’d brought back from the endless dark, it was screaming at me that something here was wrong.
In a handful of seconds I was shaking and sweating, flushed with adrenaline.
Raine must have noticed, because when she lifted her eyes from the silent phone, she tilted her head at me with a concerned frown. She mouthed my name. ‘Heather?’
I shook my head and screwed up my eyes and swallowed hard. My throat hurt from holding back the hiss.
Was Felicity really calling us from some rotting old manor house up in Cumbria? It felt like that phone call was a pinprick hole leading to a dark and dripping void, a place full of slavering maws and lurking predators and toxic fog, somewhere not unlike the abyss, or Wonderland. But as I concentrated on that thought, the sounds from the other end of the call seemed to filter slowly back. The patter of rain on windows, the creak of beams in the wind, the soft crackle and pop of wood burning in a fireplace. I heard Felicity’s lips part with a wet click, followed by a shaking, nervous intake of breath.
Abyssal instinct eased down, no longer aching to lash out and smash the phone to pieces. That would have been very rude to Raine, after all. I forced down my own deep breath, telling myself that I was just incensed by the threat to Evelyn’s emotional and psychological well-being.
The alternative was too bizarre to consider. For practical purposes we were talking to a human being, even if she was a mage, who really did physically exist, sitting in a house about a hundred and thirty miles north of Sharrowford.
I wasn’t the important factor here. Evelyn was.
She looked about ready to break Raine’s phone as well, though she showed it differently. She had gone completely still. Her hand had turned clammy in mine, her eyes looked like cut-out holes in wet paper, and her jaw was clenched hard with suppressed disgust, or anger, or worse.
“Evee?” I whispered.
I squeezed her hand too, but she didn’t look at me. She half-nodded sideways, an acknowledgement and a dismissal in one gesture. Still staring at the phone, at Felicity. I was about to step in, perhaps by taking her face in my hand to turn her away, when she drew a deep breath and resumed negotiations.
“Define ‘private conversation’,” said Evelyn.
It wasn’t a question. She delivered her demand with all the imperious power of a warlord on her throne, a lady who was used to be obeyed in every matter, in a tone that said Felicity had already failed her.
If Evelyn had turned that tone on me, I think I would have curled up and died on the spot, like an insect exposed to an open flame.
Felicity finally inhaled again, perhaps relieved she hadn’t been instantly condemned to a slow and painful traitor’s death. On the other end of the call, I heard her swallow with a very dry throat before she stammered out a reply in her habitual half-mumble, muffled by her own scarred lips.
“E-Evelyn and Aym, alone. No— nobody else is allowed to overhear. No eavesdropping. Private conversation. That’s all she means, I think. She didn’t specify anything else, just that it had to be private. I-I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I—”
Evelyn snapped hard, drowning out the apology, lips twisting like she’d caught a foul scent. “And what does the vile shit-stain of a demon wish to discuss?”
“I … ” Felicity paused.
I blinked, a hiss trying to crawl up my throat again.
She was about to lie to us.
I couldn’t possibly have known that. The strange feeling passed as quickly as it had stolen over me. Abyssal instinct was making me paranoid; I did not possess a built-in pneuma-somatic lie detector, that was nonsense. All abyssal instinct really knew was that Felicity the mage was deeply uncomfortable at answering that specific question.
“I-I don’t know,” she said after a heartbeat, speaking too fast, her natural mumble blurring her words worse than before. “She didn’t tell me. She didn’t say. If she had said then I would let you know. You know that, don’t you? I-I would let you know, I would do— do anything to help, to—”
Raine laughed, fake-soft, a razor blade hidden in a blossom. “Quit while you’re ahead, Fliss.”
A hard swallow from the other end of the phone, followed by, “Right. Right. Of course, Raine.”
I glanced at Evee again. She was staring at the phone like it owed her an explanation.
“You don’t have to do this,” I murmured, trying to catch her eye. “Evee, you don’t have to. I can … find a way. Another way.”
But Evelyn ignored me. For Felicity, she snorted. “All right then, let’s get this nonsense over with. Put Aym on the phone.” Evee gestured to Praem with her free hand. “Praem, Heather, both of you help me up please. I’ll do it in the workshop, there’s no sense buggering about getting the kitchen door closed and having everybody else stand around in the front room.”
Praem left her post at Raine’s side and went to step around the end of the table, bustling along in her maid dress. I rose to my feet with Evee’s hand in mine, preparing to help her up by wrapping a tentacle around her shoulders and another one touching her waist. She didn’t even flinch, which worried me even more. Was she steeling herself for this? Gone numb inside?
I leaned in closer to Evee, about to whisper that she didn’t have to do this. As soon as we were beyond earshot of the phone, I would put a stop to this. I couldn’t live with the result if she put herself at psychological risk for my sake. Aym had been a weird thing when I’d once spoken to her alone — or rather, been spoken to by her. She had hit me with useless attempts to undermine my self-confidence, weak mockery that didn’t strike a nerve so much as just irritate. But she obviously had a ruinous and complex effect on Felicity. Every instinct in me rebelled against allowing her to be alone with Evelyn, even across the thin electromagnetic connection of a phone call.
“Um,” Felicity said, in the tone of a lowly wretch about to inform their monarch of a natural disaster. “N-no … ”
Evee froze halfway to her feet, glaring at the phone. “No?”
“Aym … Aym meant … means … in person. Face to face. Alone in a room, with you.”
Raine slumped back in her chair, a grin on her face, shaking her head. “You gotta be kidding me.”
“Unacceptable,” said Praem, crisp and clean and clear. I couldn’t have agreed more. Down by my side, Seven-Shades-of-Small-and-Shrill made a low gurgle of disapproval, showing all her teeth to the blank face of the phone.
Evelyn, on the other hand, just stared, wide eyed.
“Evee?” I murmured her name.
The colour drained from her face.
For a split-second I thought she was terrified. The tentacle around her shoulders tightened in support, while the one at her waist slipped around to hold her steady. My other tentacles twitched, aching to raise a protective cage around her. A bit redundant, as this assault was emotional rather than physical. I was halfway through turning back to the phone, about to hiss at Felicity, when Evelyn went off like a slow-fuse bomb.
“You. Fucking. Underhanded. Subhuman. Filth,” she spat at the phone, actually stepping forward and smacking her cane against the edge of the table, almost skinning her knuckles. “You think you’re going to worm your way into another visit to my home? You think I would let you within a hundred fucking meters of this building ever again?”
Felicity stammered. “I-I-I- n-no, i-it’s not me, n-not—”
“I would sooner have you flayed and gutted and stick your corpse on a stake in some Outside nightmare-dimension than spend twenty minutes alone in a room with you, you fucking waste of skin!”
“Evee, Evee!” I said, terrified at her sudden, shaking rage. She was cold and hot at the same time, utterly focused, suddenly covered in cold sweat. If Felicity had been in the room with us then, I had the distinct impression that Evelyn would have killed her — or more accurately, had her killed, without a second thought. “Evee, it’s okay, it’s okay. Evee? Evee?”
“Not me! Not me!” Felicity was saying, almost squealing like she was being tortured. I could hear tiny, hiccuping sobs and a sound like nails pulling at her own face.
“Oh, is that right?” Evelyn drooled toxic sarcasm. “You’re going to come down here and get me alone in a room with your fucking demon and then not involve yourself? Paragon of innocence, aren’t you? Always a victim, always just a tool in somebody else’s hand, never your fault! Or maybe you’re going to try to get me to visit you up there. I’m not a moron, and I’m not twelve years old anymore.”
Raine had risen to her feet as well, reaching out to Evelyn in alarm. Praem had her mother’s shoulder in one hand, but it was doing no good. Sevens peered around my side, but there was little she could do. Evelyn was ready to spit at god.
“Evee!” I said out loud. “Evee!”
Felicity was openly sobbing on the other end of the call. “I didn’t mean— I didn’t mean— mean to—”
Evelyn leaned down toward the phone. The pose was not easy for her, with her kinked spine and twisted shoulders. She grimaced in sudden pain, but forced herself through gritted teeth and bulging eyes, and said, “I will have you shot, Felicity.”
“Have you?” giggled a voice from the pit.
Aym, with her mouth so close to the phone that she made the air crackle.
Evelyn flinched back so hard that she would have gone flying if it wasn’t for me and Praem already holding onto her. She lost her balance with her walking stick, gasping for air as if Aym’s voice had been suffocation itself. Raine back-pedalled too, whipping her hand away as if the phone was suddenly a red hot coal burning through the table. On the other side of me, Sevens bared all her teeth, snapping them twice in a snicker-snack motion of agitated disgust. From the utility room I heard a low rumble — Zheng, not even joining us, but still expressing her displeasure at this strange mockery of a demon.
I turned my head and opened my mouth wide and hisssssssed at the phone.
Aym giggled. It was a terrible sound, high-pitched and scratchy, setting one’s teeth on edge, like a collection of rusty knives trying to imitate human vocal chords. Felicity was still sobbing, but more distant now, as if she’d slid out of her chair and curled up on the floor, her place usurped by the lively awfulness of Aym.
“Have Felicity shot?” Aym repeated as we were all still reeling, her metal-and-acid voice dripping with mockery. “What’s the matter, are your own fingers too weak to pull the trigger? You’ve got one working hand, my little butter-sweet confectionery, you can hold a gun and press the muzzle to her forehead. Don’t you want to smell the iron-hot blood and cordite smoke and greasy chewy brains when they go splot-splot-splot!” She made a horrible slapping noise with something that did not sound entirely like a tongue. “Or are you too squeamish for that? Let’s make it fun! Let’s make it a game! Why not come up here for a hunt? I’ll drive her out into the woods, you can wear a flat cap and carry a shotgun over your arm—”
Praem pressed Evelyn into my arms, still blinking and trying to recover. The demon maid leaned down toward the phone.
“No,” she said, crisp and clear. “Bad girl.”
Same technique as last time we’d called. Go Praem, I thought, well done.
Aym yelped like a kicked puppy. I heard a noise like the scrambling of claws against bare stone, a scrape and a hiss and a skitter. The thing on the other end of the phone was obviously not fully human right then. The sound of small bare feet pattered away at speed, sprinting off into the echoing black void that seemed to surround the other end of the phone call, leaving only Felicity’s soft panting to fill the darkness.
Praem straightened up and smoothed her skirt over her hips. I allowed my hiss to die down, my heart still pounding like a caged bird; I tried to roll my eyes, play it all off as exasperation, but abyssal instinct was churning in my gut at that horrible voice from Aym. Sevens helped, going “Bleh,” and sticking her tongue out.
Raine breathed a big sigh and nodded a thanks to Praem. Evelyn clung to me with one hand, swallowing and gritting her teeth, looking deeply humiliated.
“Weirdo,” said Sevens. “Also, not actually gone.”
“What?” Raine’s attention snapped to Sevens, then back to the phone. “Seriously?”
“Excuse me, Sevens?” I said.
“Sneaky little bitch,” Sevens said. “Come out.”
“Bad girl,” Praem repeated — but this time it sounded like an afterthought.
“Heh heh heh,” said Aym, pronouncing the laugh like a response to a poor joke. Her voice was a softer scratch than before, still coming from the phone on the table. “How did you know I didn’t really leave? Who is that, there? I don’t know you, but you’ve got a lot of teeth and you smell like blood.”
Sevens responded by clacking her teeth together again. It reminded me of a cat chattering at a bird it couldn’t reach. Sevens’ hadn’t adjusted her posture at all, peering over the top of the table at the phone, but the set of her musculature seemed somehow different — predatory, tense, focused. I suddenly wondered what might unfold if we managed to get Aym and Sevens in the same room.
But we didn’t need to. We already had the dominant demon: Praem leaned toward the phone again.
As if she could somehow see Praem, Aym hissed like a bundle of blood-slick knives being dragged across a rusty metal plate. “Ahh-ahhh! No need for that, no need! Stop! Stop! I’ll stop for a moment, okay? Okay? I’ll be nice, I’ll be polite, I’ll be sweet. Promise! Let’s negotiate, please? I can’t well negotiate if you keep whipping me.”
Praem straightened up. “Very rude,” she said.
“She’s got your number there,” said Raine, low and serious. “You are a right little shit.”
“Puuuwwwaaahh!” Aym made a sound like an angry poodle made of industrial run-off. “Well I’ve got her number, too! Dressed up like a maid? You were a dancing star of chaos, now you serve a woman who can’t even admit she needs serving. What does it feel like to know that if she went down, you would follow her? Because you would. Down, down, down, and you couldn’t stop her! And you’d trot on after because you need her respect, you need her, you need mummy! Oh, what’s that? Too hard to think for yourself? Can’t wrap your tiny brain around making decisions?” Aym’s voice rose back into a scratchy giggle. “Oh, but you don’t have one, do you? It’s just wood between your ears, so mummy makes all the choices for you, there’s a good little maid, totter off and dust the fucking mantelpiece!” Aym shrieked a laugh.
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. I was just frowning — that was hardly the barrage of sharp-tongued undermining that one might have expected from an expert in psychological torture. Raine just shook her head, grinning.
Praem leaned toward the phone. Aym didn’t make a sound, but I swear I could somehow feel her bracing on the other end of the call.
“You are going the right way for a spanking,” said Praem.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Aym purred in a voice like bending metal. She sounded quite confident.
Praem straightened up and said no more.
A moment of awkward silence fell over the kitchen. Nobody seemed to know what to say — what value was there in negotiating with Aym? Evelyn had recovered from both her anger and her shock, but she just clung to me, one hand gripping my sleeve. Raine spread her arms and glanced about, but nobody had anything to add. Raindrop static filled the air, drumming against the roof above our heads. The house itself seemed to be crouching, hunching up tight against the unnatural chill. On the other end of the phone, Felicity had stopped sobbing and whimpering, but I could hear Aym breathing in strange little rasps.
Raine nodded to Evelyn. Evelyn grimaced and hesitated. I spoke up in her place.
“Aym,” I said. “Remember me? Heather?”
“Nature’s ultimate bottom,” she said — but she didn’t sound very amused. Like the taunting was just automatic.
Still I sighed and felt a little blush creep into my cheeks. I knew exactly what she meant by ‘bottom’ in that context. I’d learned from Raine. “Aym, what is there to negotiate with you?”
“Why, twenty minutes’ access of course. I thought Flissy was very clear about that.” Aym seemed to get some of her confidence back as she spoke on, voice scratching at the inside of my ears. “Unless you’re trying to be a clever girl and talk around me? Lead me into a trap? Do you want to try? It’s been a while since somebody could. But if you lose, you might get sore! Haha!”
Evelyn pulled herself up as straight as she could stand and finally put her weight back on her walking stick. “You know I won’t allow Felicity in this house. What do you expect to gain by this?”
I whispered to her, “Evee, you don’t have to. I can deal with her, I can try!”
“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed back from the corner of her mouth.
“It’s no trick, sweet pea,” said Aym. “Let me in and let’s talk. Then I’ll give you your spell. We can even make a deal! A proper deal, like magicians and demons are meant to make, with signatures in blood and a circle for me to stand in—”
“Of course it’s a trick,” Evelyn said. “What do you really want?”
Aym burst into bubbly giggles, a sound like boiling tar. “Twenty minutes’ talk! Why is it so hard to believe me? Flissy can wait out in her car and then we’ll stay in a hotel or something. She’s not important here! She’s not even human. This is between me and you, my sweet butterscotch bread roll.”
Evelyn opened her mouth to reply — and hesitated.
In that moment I realised what was going on. Felicity made Evelyn angry, but Aym terrified her.
Aym’s bizarre voice and the constant barrage of her insults had distracted me long enough to miss the change at first. Perhaps that was intentional on Aym’s part, a distraction and deflection. Abyssal instinct whispered that I was watching a hunting strategy in action. Evelyn was hiding it well, probably riding out the previous high of indignant anger — but the prospect of being alone in a room with Aym for twenty minutes was leaving her terrified and shaken. I could feel it in the tensing of her muscles beneath the two tentacles I had around her shoulders and waist. I could see it in the grey doom slowly filling her complexion. But most of all I could see it in her determination, her dedication to overcome this obstacle. She was going to do this.
Evee was going to subject herself to Aym — whatever that meant — in order to find Edward Lilburne, to recover the book we needed, to go save my twin sister.
For Maisie’s sake — which really meant for my sake — Evelyn was willing to face a literal demon from her own past, whom she was utterly terrified of, for reasons I didn’t understand.
I knew who and what Felicity was to Evelyn, the role she had played in Evee’s past, to some extent. An old associate of Evelyn’s mother, Felicity was not quite a doctor, having never completed medical school. Or so she said. She was the illegal surgeon who had performed the amputation on Evelyn’s leg. From what she and Evelyn had admitted, she was obsessed with Evee, with the need for redemption and a forgiveness that Evelyn could not give. Evelyn hated her. And after all, she was a mage.
But I had no idea what Aym meant to Evee.
Evelyn wet her lips with a little flicker of her tongue, pulling all her courage together. I could feel it, flowing through her like the dregs from the bottom of a cup of tea.
Did I have the right to step in? I didn’t care. Abyssal instinct was screaming that Evee needed protection. I could no more let her do this than let her step in front of a train.
“Aym,” I said before Evee could speak. “What if I’m in the room when you and Evelyn have your private conversation?”
Aym snorted. “Then it’s not a private conversation, is it?”
“Heather,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth. “I can—”
“Answer the question, Aym. Yes, or no?”
“No,” Aym said. “Alone. Me and ickle Evees.”
“Then there’s no deal to make.”
Aym giggled. “Then you won’t get your spell, will you?”
“Yes I will,” I said.
I felt Aym freeze up. I stared at the phone, staring her down. Could she see me? Could she see the plan forming inside my head? I gently cleared my throat and continued.
“You get twenty minutes’ conversation with Evelyn, with me in the room. In return, we get the solution to the magical problem.”
Aym didn’t reply. Evelyn poked me in shoulder with a fingertip. “Heather!” she hissed. Raine held up a hand to stall her, nodding to me. She could sense that I was onto something.
“I know what I’m doing,” I whispered back.
“No! You don’t!” Evelyn whispered through clenched teeth. “Aym is … she … she will run rings around you, Heather!”
“Hhhhhnnnnnn … ” Aym purred from the phone’s speaker, an amused noise. “Interesting. Not what I want, though.”
“Additionally,” I said. “I would like to speak with you alone right now, over the phone.”
“We are speaking!” Aym laughed. “You want some privacy with me? Want to confess your feelings? That I’ve got into your head and you can’t stop thinking about me? Need to say something that you can’t say in front of your friends, you … little … ” Aym trailed off, as if she was trying to puzzle out bad handwriting. “Squid? What? Eh?”
“No,” I said. “I am trying to spare your dignity.”
I heard Aym shift, a noise like metal scales slithering across tidal rock pools. She sighed with throaty, bubbly, wet amusement. “Well, I can’t move from this spot. Our phone is so old it has a dial. So anything you want to say, Flissy will overhear it. She’s not in a state to move right now. Are you, Flissy-poos?”
“Mm,” Felicity grunted from somewhere beyond the phone.
“That’s fine with me,” I said. I gestured at Raine, one hand out for the phone, as I gently handed Evee back to Praem. “I’m going to take the phone and step into the other room now.”
“Take your time, you little freak,” Aym purred.
“Heather!” Evelyn was hissing, even as Raine was handing me the phone. “Heather, do not do this alone! At least have me with you, for fuck’s sake!”
“I’ve spoken with Aym before,” I whispered back. “She’s not so scary. I’ll be fine. Please, Evee. Let me try.”
In truth, I was shuddering inside. I swallowed hard, trying not to hiccup and give the game away. Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me.
“Please, Evee,” I repeated. “We have to stop being reactive. I have to do this!”
Evelyn fumed in silence. Raine nodded her confidence in me. Sevens watched curiously, tilting her head from side to side. Praem stayed by Evelyn as I stepped away. I felt terribly guilty, but I needed to deploy things that I couldn’t do in front of Raine and Evelyn, things that maybe I couldn’t do in front of anybody.
Alone with a direct line to a dark place, I stepped away from the table and into the magical workshop, and then shut the door behind me.
I leaned my back against the cold wood of the door, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. Then, on an instinct I didn’t quite comprehend, I reached out with a tentacle and flicked the lights off, plunging the room into a twilight gloom of thick shadows and static grey. With the cloudy, rainy, dark day outdoors, and the heavy curtains covering the workshop windows, the room became a cave-grotto at the bottom of an ocean trench, filled with the sound of raindrops against the roof and the windows.
My squid-skull mask was sitting on the table, staring at me with empty eye sockets across the dark. Had I left it there, pointed at the door like that?
I pushed off from the door with my tentacles, floating into the centre of the room. For a moment it seemed as if my feet weren’t touching the ground — and then they truly weren’t. I balanced on three tentacles instead, using the others to grip the table and a nearby chair.
Suspended in quiet darkness. A bubble of imitation abyss in the womb of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.
Going to need your help for this one, I told the house. Make me feel like I’m back there. Make me feel whole.
I chased away all the lingering abyssal dysphoria that had been lurking in the back of my mind since the conversation with Badger. I wasn’t truly alone; the spider-servitors were up in their usual corner, with Marmite hanging out below them, but they didn’t mind the darkness. I held my eyes open on shadow and static and made myself believe I was floating in the oceanic void.
I was sharp and quick and had many teeth.
I thumbed off the speaker function and raised the mobile phone to my ear.
“Aym,” I said. “It’s just me now. Let’s talk.”
“Hmmmmmmmm.” Aym purred like a cat made of burning sulphur. It made my skin crawl and my spine tingle, in the bad kind of way. As she spoke, her voice dropped more and more into the truly inhuman sound of gurgling and scraping. “Out-talking a demon, very bold. So very bold. But aren’t you just a little thing, Heather? You don’t know if you’re coming or going, even if big strong Raine decides for you. What are you going to achieve, threatening me?”
“You’re a bit out of date,” I said. “I have three girlfriends now.”
“You’ll get your twenty minutes with Evee, with me in the room. Then you give me the spell. You’re going to agree to this deal.”
Aym laughed. It was like tearing metal. “And what if I say no?”
I summoned all my darkest instincts, all the worst self-justifications I’d ever made. I scooped my squid-skull mask off the workshop table and slipped it on over my head. I puffed myself up and spread my tentacles wide. I gritted my teeth and felt my throat shift into an inhuman configuration. I started to sweat and pant and felt my eyes itching, my gums aching, my fingernails creaking inside my flesh. Power had not corrupted me — but refusal to face choice almost had. Power would not corrupt, as long as I kept foremost in mind why I was doing this, and chose to do so.
I thought of Maisie, lost and alone in Wonderland.
Sharp and quick and lethal. An angel from the deep.
“Then I will come to your house and rip the information out of your mind,” I said, in a voice that wasn’t remotely human. “I don’t care about the damage it does or if the procedure kills you, I will have what I need from you, Aym, either willingly or by force. You’re not the only one who can threaten and intimidate — but I’m not intimidating you. That’s a promise.”
I barely knew what I was saying. I mostly tried to think of what Raine might say.
To my amazement, it mostly worked.
“I don’t remember this,” said Aym, amused but fascinated. “What did I miss? You don’t sound like a little thing at all.”
“When we first met, that was before I took a trip elsewhere. I’m different now. Or I was always different but didn’t know it. I can rip whatever I want out of you, Aym. And I will eat your corpse once I’m done.”
Wow! I thought. Where did that come from? Down girl, down.
“Hmmmm-mmmmm, if you can catch me!” she cackled. “I can just choose not to be here when you arrive, you know?”
“I will level the house and the surroundings. I will teleport them Outside to somewhere you can’t survive. I will kill Felicity if I have to — and I suspect you don’t want that. Not really. Do you?”
Aym fell silent. I could feel her sulking, cornered, grumpy now. In the privacy of my own mind, I apologised to Felicity for threatening her; I could hear her panting softly somewhere further off from the phone. When I’d spoken, she’d paused and let out a shuddering whimper. I was only bluffing, but I didn’t want to admit that out loud or this entire plan would collapse.
Aym opened her mouth with a wet click.
“Twenty minutes with Evee and you?” she asked. So petulant. Like a stroppy child.
“Yes. And no threatening Evelyn. No twisting her around or mocking her like you did a few minutes ago. I will enforce that. I mean it. You will be polite and respectful.”
Aym made a fussy little huff. “That rather defeats the point, then, doesn’t it? Where’s the fun if I have to behave? Besides, why do you care, Heathy-poos? I thought you were with Raine and … ”
I felt Aym light up. If the expressions on her face were even a little bit human right then, she was grinning from ear to ear. Perhaps literally.
“Oh. My. God.” She said it like a stereotypical valley girl from some terrible American movie. “You’re in love with Evee! Evee, the little screwed-up scrap of self-hate and broken thoughts, can’t even look at her own body in a mirror, let alone be honest with herself! And you, you little weird moron, you want to shove your face into her cu—”
I hissed down the phone, angry and spitting. The squid-skull mask amplified and funnelled the noise into an otherworldly screech of rage.
On the other end of the call, Aym shrieked and fell off something with a loud thump. A clatter of wood followed — probably a chair falling over. She hissed back, but it was a half-hearted effort, more scared than defiant.
Like a pair of angry cats who’d blundered into each other. We probably sounded very silly. Or terrifying. I wasn’t sure which.
I think the spiders flinched and Marmite scuttled behind the sofa.
A knock — loud and insistent — hammered at the door to the magical workshop. I jumped out of my skin and whirled around on my tentacles, almost overbalancing and crashing into a chair.
“Heather?” Raine called from just the other side of the door. “Heather, you alright in there?”
I ripped the squid-skull mask off my face, panting and flushed, swallowing several times to squeeze my throat back into a human shape. “I’m fine!” I called back, hoarse and rough. “Just … just disciplining Aym. That’s all.”
Evelyn shouted from the kitchen. “This is absurd! She’s alone in there with that thing, for fuck’s sake!”
“And I’m winning!” I shouted. “It’s okay, Evee. I’m winning.”
“Shout if you need bailing out!” Raine called.
The static of the rain moved into the silence she left behind. The darkness pressed back on my senses, cool and soft against my eyes. I raised the phone to my ear again.
“Are you still there?” I asked.
A moment of sulky silence, then, “Maybe.”
“You’re right, Aym,” I said. “I do love Evelyn. I am in love with her. Whether it’s romantic or platonic or sisterly or anything else simply does not matter. You cannot make that into a secret, filthy thing, because it’s beautiful. If you try to hurt her, I’ll pull you apart and eat your organs. Do you understand? Do you understand that I can do that?”
Could I do that? I had no idea. Strictly speaking, I probably could, though I wouldn’t want to. But I still had no idea what Aym really was. She wasn’t a demon like Praem or Zheng, she was something altogether different. Still, I was angry enough to make the claim. Hopefully Aym bought it.
“Direct violence doesn’t really agree with me.” Aym sighed, making a big show of it, her voice dialling down toward something distinctly more human. She started to sound a bit less like a machine made of sharp objects and a bit more like a young girl. “Ahhhhhhhhh. Such a bore. Such a boring, silly way of thinking. But, fine. Never mind. Can’t be helped. If you really need it that badly, I’ll give Felicity the last parts for the spell. But I still want my twenty minutes.”
She sighed again, like a young woman in a romance novel, dying of boredom before a vanity mirror.
I’d made my point. She was trying to recover her dignity.
“With me present,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” Aym said in the exact tone one uses while rolling one’s eyes. “Anything you say, little miss scary pants. Listen though, I am tethered to Flissy, in a very real way. She is going to have to come as far as your front door, or something. She can probably wait in the car.” I heard her turn away from the phone. “You’re going to need safe passage so Evee doesn’t make her bull-dyke execute you. What would you do without me, dear?”
“A lot better, probably,” Felicity murmured. I hadn’t expected that — defiance. I thought she was terrified of Aym. I didn’t expect Aym to cackle either, a scratchy, awful laugh, ugly and smug.
“So, squid-girl,” Aym said to me. “Safe passage?”
“I guarantee safe passage for Felicity,” I said.
“Hmmm. Interesting! But is that yours to give?”
There it was. This whole time, Aym hadn’t seemed to understand how to get to me, where my weakness lied, what buttons to push. I had underestimated this little demon, her mockery and her knowledge.
Was that safe passage mine to give? So imperious, so assuming of me, but as I kept telling myself, I was no queen, no messiah, no god. I was at best a flawed angel, fixing my own prior mistakes, and planning a raid on heaven itself. How perverse, to compare Wonderland with heaven.
“I guarantee safe passage for Felicity. And yes,” I lied, “that is mine to give.”
That evening I went to see Evee.
What a strange way to express such a commonplace event: ‘going to see’ somebody who I lived with, who I saw every single day — more now that the university term had ended for the summer holidays. Raine and Evelyn and myself, we practically lived in each others’ pockets. Raine was trying to pick up some more shifts at the student union bar, which didn’t close over the holidays, but Evelyn didn’t need summer work; I could see her all day, every day, without even trying. If I wanted to talk to her or see what she was up to, all I had to do was cross the upstairs corridor and poke my head around the corner of her bedroom door. Or knock, if it was closed.
But that’s how it felt in the aftermath of the phone call with Felicity and Aym. I had to make a formal approach.
After I’d exited the magical workshop and explained the nature of the deal, still riding high on abyssal instinct and a touch of my own power, Evelyn had gone from angry concern to emotional shut-down. She had retreated upstairs, stomping all the way, banging the steps with her walking stick on purpose. I would have gone after her that very instant — I wasn’t going to allow this to fester. I never again wanted to leave her to cry all by herself, like that time so many months ago when I’d discovered her after a sleepless night of self-inflicted pain and trauma, hunched over papers in her study, red-eyed and ready to scream at me.
But Praem went with her. She wasn’t alone. Raine needed somebody to help her make plans for tomorrow, for Felicity and Aym’s arrival. Zheng wanted to hug me. And just as Praem had followed Evelyn out of the kitchen and upstairs, she had turned and nodded to me.
Give her a little time to calm down, that’s what I’d thought Praem was trying to communicate.
Only several hours later did it strike me that she might have meant the opposite: follow us right away, Evee is going to need help.
But in truth, that was an excuse I fed myself to keep the gnawing guilt at bay. Unlike the me of several months ago — or even the me of a few days earlier — I couldn’t pretend I didn’t feel guilty. And I certainly couldn’t pretend this wasn’t my fault. By the time the rain finally trailed off and the clouds cleared, to reveal a dark, brooding night sky beyond the light pollution and the cold, dripping, unseasonal wet of Sharrowford, I was ready to claw through my own stomach with anxiety. I should have followed Evelyn hours ago.
Part of me wanted to curl up in bed, go to sleep early, and pretend nothing was wrong. But when Raine went to take a shower and Sevens was curled up and dozing in an armchair, I uncoiled from my seat at the desk where I’d been pretending to read, and padded out into the upstairs corridor on silent, sock-clad feet.
Evelyn’s bedroom was only a few paces away across the shadowed hallway, but I felt like I was crossing no-man’s land. Out of the window to my right the city was draped in dripping darkness, as if the storm hadn’t cleared, as if instead it had sunk into the concrete and brick and asphalt, staining Sharrowford with a promise of what we had invited to join us tomorrow.
Evelyn’s bedroom door was shut. A faint light came from beneath.
My six tentacles coiled tight around my core. One of them looped around the base of my chest, like a heart monitor, reading the racing of my pulse. My mouth was dry. My hands were clammy. I suddenly wished I’d changed into jeans and a nice blouse, instead of wearing my pajama bottoms with the strawberry print, beneath a shapeless black jumper borrowed from Raine.
I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d hurt Evee and then just left her to her own devices. That was not the act of an angel. It was the exact sort of thing I was trying to avoid.
I couldn’t move my hands, they were locked together, so I knocked with a tentacle, a little tap-tap-tap on the door.
“It’s me … ” I murmured, far too softly for anybody to hear.
Cowardly Heather, trying to go unnoticed. Did I want to apologise and explain myself, or not?
“Who goes there?”
I jumped like a startled cat, heart racing, a gasp in my throat. Praem had spoken from deep inside the room, but her tone was crisp and clear, a challenge.
“It— it’s only me,” I said out loud, suddenly feeling very awkward standing by myself in the darkened corridor. “Just Heather. Little old me … ”
“Speak the password,” said Praem.
“Um … the password?”
“Correct,” said Praem. “You may enter.”
I blinked several times before the joke filtered through my skull. “Oh. Oh, tch,” I tutted. “That is so silly. Praem, really?”
Evelyn called out. “Stop buggering about and come in already.”
Her voice made my heart leap and my voice catch in my throat. I took a deep breath and opened the door. “Hi, hello. Hi, Evee, it really is just me, I … oh.”
As I peered around the edge of the door frame and then tentatively stepped into the room, I discovered that since her grumpy, sulky, and justifiably angry exit earlier on, Evelyn had entered maximum comfy mode.
She was enthroned at the head of her bed, leaning back on several lilac pillows and surrounded by several more. She was even hugging one in her lap, like a plush toy or a teddy bear — something I’d never seen Evee do before. The sheets were tugged up around her waist and her legs were stretched out before her. Her right leg ended mid-thigh, of course. I spotted her prosthetic standing up next to the bed, neat and tidy, with the large stump-sock tucked into the end.
Evee’s laptop was perched halfway down the bed, standing on a large hardback book. I would have tutted at that — books were not meant to be used as trays — but right then I was hardly going to critique her choice of set-up. The laptop screen showed that one cartoon about pastel-coloured horses, currently paused.
Praem was sitting on the opposite side of the bed, on the chair dragged over from the desk, so she could watch the cartoon as well. She was still wearing her full maid outfit, hands folded in her lap. She stared right at me, unreadable milk-coloured eyes greeting me in silence.
Evee stared at me too, with eyes like battlements loaded with boiling oil.
“Heather,” she grunted. “Evening. What is it?”
Her hair was down in a loose mane of golden blonde, which she didn’t tend to do that often. The lamp next to the bed flooded her profile from behind, picking out her little nose and the puppy-fat in her cheeks. She was wrapped in a big cream-coloured sweater that invited one to just sink into the fabric. All of a sudden I wanted to do nothing more than cross the room and flop face-first onto her belly.
She was, however, far too sulky for that. It would be like approaching a growling dog. I had no right.
Instead, I lowered my eyes in shame and apology, swallowed so hard it hurt, and closed the door, shutting us alone together.
“Evee,” I said, my voice shaking a tiny bit, talking more to her prosthetic leg on the floor than to her face. “I’m sorry for interrupting your cartoon, but I have to say this. I’m sorry. I apologise.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
I looked up, blinking. “I-I’m sorry?”
Evelyn gestured at the screen, at her paused cartoon, at the pastel-coloured horses. “It’s not like I haven’t seen it before. You’re hardly interrupting.”
I stared for a moment, open-mouthed, then pulled myself back together. “No, no, I mean about earlier! About the phone call.”
Evelyn stared at me with dead fish eyes. “Ah.”
“I took control,” I said, blurting it all out at once. I needed Evee’s approval, her forgiveness, her acceptance. “I didn’t know if I should, but I did it anyway. If I don’t say this now then it’ll sit in my mind and go unsaid and turn sour and … I’m not … I don’t have the right to make decisions for you. I’m sorry, because that’s what I did, when I made that agreement with Aym.”
“Mmhmm.” Evee stared, unrelenting. Behind her, Praem stared too.
“When they arrive tomorrow,” I said, managing to stare back at Evelyn, “Felicity doesn’t have to come anywhere near this house. And … ”
Evelyn waited, eyebrows climbing slowly. “Yes?”
“And if you don’t want to speak with Aym, then you don’t have to.”
Evelyn blinked once. “Heather, stop being a moron. Of course I do.”
“No!” I almost snapped at her, then reeled myself back in and undermined all my words with a huge hiccup. “No, you don’t. I didn’t have the right to use you like a bargaining chip. If we need knowledge, then I can just take it from Aym.”
“From Aym?” Evelyn huffed one sad little puff of laughter. “As if I would let you try. You’d hurt yourself.”
“I made a choice,” I said. “It’s my responsibility. Evee, I made this decision. I’ve lured Aym here. If you don’t want to speak with her, then I will deal with the entire situation, the whole thing, myself. You can stay in here all day and I’ll sort it out, I’ll take it from Aym’s mind and—”
“Heather, do shut up,” Evelyn said. She sighed, looking deeply unimpressed. Then she wormed one hand out from hugging her pillow and patted the bed next to her. “Stop being a moron. Sit with me.”
I just stared, frozen, my apology dribbling off like a storm that never broke. “Uh … but I … Evee, I—”
“Sit,” said Praem. “Or you will be made to sit.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, thank you Praem, that’s just what we need, impromptu dog training. Please, Heather, just sit down. Stop standing there like you’ve been a naughty child or something. It’s weird and I can’t deal with it.”
Feeling exceptionally awkward and blushing like an idiot, I obeyed. I crossed to Evee’s overstuffed bed and crawled over to join her, easing myself back against the fortress of lilac pillows and turning to meet her level, unimpressed look. She was tucked up all cosy against the strange cold and here I was, joining her. For a long moment she said nothing, like she was judging me. I dared not touch her.
“Evee, I’m sorry,” I said again. I couldn’t help myself. “I took charge when I—”
To my everlasting and eternal surprise, Evelyn reached up and put her hand over my mouth, which shut me up completely. She didn’t have the strength to actually hold me still, but I was too shocked to complain.
“Mmmm!” I went, eyes gone wide.
“Heather, shut up.”
“Mmm-mmm.” I obeyed.
Evelyn sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and then opened them again to glare at me, but not without affection. “Heather, I was all prepared to speak with Aym. I was already making that deal. If you apologise again I will slap you. Understand?”
I nodded. Evelyn removed her hand. I could taste her skin on my lips. Her palm was so soft and cool.
“But,” I said, then raised a hand when Evelyn’s frown grew sharp. “But you were terrified.”
“I’m still terrified,” she said.
“I’ll get over it,” she grunted.
“I’ll be with you! She’s not going to speak with you alone.”
“Yes, well.” Evelyn looked away. “Point is, I was all prepared to do it anyway. You didn’t use me as a bargaining chip.” She turned back and shot me a look. “Don’t be weird about this.”
I pulled a very awkward smile. “Seems like I can’t help it sometimes, especially when it comes to you. I was worried I’d used you.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. Was she blushing slightly? I couldn’t tell. “Well. Well. Thank you for apologising then, even if it was completely unnecessary.” She reached down and awkwardly patted my hand.
“So … um … ” I took a deep breath and looked around the room, acknowledged Praem, then settled on the brightly-coloured cartoon horses, paused on the laptop screen. “Why did you stomp off earlier, then? If you weren’t offended by what I did?”
Evelyn stared at me like I was a very dull student. “Because I don’t like the idea of you speaking with that monster all by yourself.”
“Same to you!”
“I’ve had experience with her.”
“So have I. Sort of. For all of about five minutes. She wasn’t very effective.”
“The better she knows you the worse it gets,” Evelyn grunted. “I should know. You’re not to be alone with that thing either, understand?”
I nodded with great enthusiasm. “Okay. I promise. It’s only fair in return. Yes.”
Evelyn sighed. “Heather, please calm down. I can’t deal with you like this. Don’t be a bloody self-flagellating penitent. Just be you.”
“It’s kind of hard. I’m really afraid of hurting you.”
“Well, you haven’t. So stop worrying.”
“Thank you for doing this in the first place. Really.”
Evelyn slapped me on the arm, but not with much force. “Don’t bloody well thank me. As if I wouldn’t. We’re going to do this, Heather. You and the rest of us. We’re going to get that book from Edward and use it. We’re going to get your sister back. Even if I didn’t owe you my … ” Evelyn halted and took a deep breath. “I don’t care about the circumstances, I would still help you. That’s all. So stop apologising or thanking me.”
My smile felt a touch less awkward. I finally felt myself settle back into the pillows for real. I allowed my leg to touch Evee’s through the blankets. Snuggling up together against the chill outdoors.
“Evee … you don’t have to answer this, I mean that, but … what did Aym do to you?”
Evelyn grunted and looked to Praem. Praem stared back. I suddenly wondered if she knew as well, or if this would be news to her.
“Felicity, she knew my mother,” Evelyn said eventually, speaking slowly and carefully, with a hollow space in her voice. “You know that already. She didn’t spend a lot of time at the estate, but when she did, Aym came with her. Aym is bound, but … loosely. I don’t understand her exact parameters or her purpose, but she enjoys taunting people, especially those close to the edge of … well, change. Usually negative change.”
“I did get that impression.”
“When I was a child, long before I met Raine, I knew Aym as a sort of recurring nightmare.” Evelyn swallowed. “She never hurt me. Never touched me. Never attacked me. Understand? She would just appear and … talk. That’s all.”
Evelyn fell silent. Without asking, Praem reached over and touched her mother’s arm. I squeezed Evee’s hand. Evee sighed, looking deeply uncomfortable.
“It paled in comparison to everything else, anything else from that period of my life. Really. She’s nothing.”
“Nothing can still be scary,” I said.
“I will belt scary with my walking stick. I hope she’s ready for a bloody good hiding.” Evelyn snorted, and that was all she had to say on the subject.
I finally relaxed fully, appreciating that once again I was lying in bed — or on bed, at least — next to Evelyn. We weren’t truly alone, of course, because Praem was right there. This was no time for clandestine kisses or final and lasting declarations of true love. Especially not if Evelyn was as emotionally vulnerable as I suspected she was right then. Now was time for comfort. I snuggled a little closer, worming a tentacle over her shoulders. She flinched a little before she realised it was only me.
“Sooooo,” I said, looking at the paused cartoon on the laptop screen. “This is the one with the horses, isn’t it? You wanted me to watch this one, didn’t you?”
“Ponies,” said Praem.
Evelyn sighed. “Ponies, yes. They’re ponies, not horses.”
“Is that an important distinction?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Praem. “Ponies.”
“Very well then.” I almost laughed. “We did keep getting interrupted last time we tried to watch cartoons together. Do you want to show me the rest of this one? I’m right here already, after all.”
Evelyn frowned, suddenly uncomfortable in a whole new way. “You won’t understand a thing if I just unpause this episode. We’ll have to start from the beginning. The characters won’t make any sense to you.”
“Okay then. I’m up for trying it, if you are. Please.”
Evelyn leaned forward to fiddle with the laptop, apparently blushing a bit. Was she really that self-conscious about her choice of cartoons?
“Where’s Raine, anyway?” she asked without looking round. “She going to interrupt us too?”
“She’s in the shower right now, but Raine can wait, for once,” I said, feeling a little smug. “She can play video games for a couple of hours. Or box Zheng or something. You and I are going to watch cartoon horses.”
“Ponies,” said Praem.
“Ponies,” I agreed. “Quite.”
Evelyn leaned back again, a new video file full-screen on the laptop. I took her hand in mine. She cleared her throat and looked very awkward.
What would change right now, if I said “I love you”? Probably nothing.
“I love you, Evee.”
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes and nodded. “Yes, Heather, I love you too.”
And it was true.
Praem, pointedly, said nothing, staring at me like she was willing me to grow wings and fly. I frowned back at her, trying not to let Evee see. Had I done something wrong? Clearly I needed to have a private word with Praem to figure out her opinion on all this. I made a mental note about that.
“Ready?” Evelyn asked. “Praem can unpause it for us, when you are.”
“Yes,” I said, settling back. “I just … you know, the last time I sat in your room like this, it was the night before we went to Carcosa.”
“Don’t jinx us,” Evelyn snapped. “It’s not going to be like that. I’ve got Praem and I’ve got you. We’ll be fine. And we’re not going anywhere. Just talking to a difficult bitch.”
I smiled and nodded, holding Evee’s hand as Praem leaned over to start the cartoon on the laptop.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about that knife-scratch voice from the phone, about Aym perched on Evee’s childhood bed, spinning nightmares of trauma and failure. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how we didn’t even really know what Aym was.
Or what she really wanted with Evee.
Is Aym biting off more than she can chew? She doesn't seem to understand what Heather is now, or that Heather would gladly turn her into atomic dust if she tried to hurt Evelyn. But she seems to understand so much else, how can she possibly be missing this? Maybe she's up to something else entirely. Well, at least Evee and Heather got to watch some pony cartoons at last. That'll keep Evelyn's spirits up.
No Patreon link this week! Partly because it's the first of the month, but also ...
Katalepsis Volume I is out on Tuesday! On the 4th! I think it comes out at midnight? I'm not actually sure! In addition to the Amazon ebook, there's also a Smashwords release now, for people who would like the ebook but don't want to give money to Amazon! Also, if you want the audiobook but don't want to pay the full price, you can sign up for the Audible free trial and select Katalepsis as your free audiobook; very sneaky, but totally legit!
There's also an official sample of the first five minutes of the audiobook! I've put it here. Give it a listen if you're curious!
Normally I would put the TopWebFiction link here anyway, but, book! Book! I don't know what I'm doing, I'm extremely nervous about this release, but I hope it all goes well! Go vote on TopWebFiction for some other deserving story, there are so many others which deserve all the attention and support you wonderful readers have given me too. Thank you all so very much.
Next week, Aym's sneaky and underhanded plan continues to get worse ...