loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.8
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Drug use
Discussion of gaslighting
Mention of suicide as a metaphor

[collapse]

Kimberly — fragile, underfed, vulnerable Kimberly Kemp, a woman more than five years my senior who I couldn’t help but think of as younger than me, with a permanent shiver in her heart and a haunted look etched into the lenses of her eyes — descended into the house to join the other mages.

She was right to ask for support: Kim spent the entire journey leaning on my arm. I even wrapped a tentacle around her waist to help hold her steady. I asked permission and warned her first, made absolutely certain she understood what I was offering, and indicated the exact spot where my invisible appendage would make contact with her garish purple hoodie. She had extracted the garment from a pile of half-clean laundry, revealing a wrap-around illustration of an elegant, gauzy, glamorous lady elf inhaling a huge lungful of green smoke from a ‘bong’ shaped like a tree. Not exactly a suitable aesthetic for a real-life magician, but I respected Kimberly’s desire to armour herself with her personal tastes, no matter how fanciful those tastes may be. She still flinched when I touched a tentacle to her waist.

Emotional time dilation stretched out that journey to the point of impossibility. I was too much in sync with Kimberly.

From the upstairs hallway to the door of the magical workshop, a distance I walked multiple times every day, the same route I shuffled and stumbled every morning on my way to breakfast, seemed to expand into a fifteen or twenty minute trudge. It was as if we picked our way through a jumbled maze of corridors and empty rooms, swaddled by the warm enclosing darkness of the house, made quiet and secret by the drizzle of rain on the roof tiles. Kimberly took the stairs down with shaking legs and trembling feet. Adrenaline, the cannabis in her bloodstream, or the impending submersion in something she’d spent months running away from — or all three of those at once. I was not going to rush her.

She paused at the foot of the stairs to look at the stout wood of the front door for a very long moment. Maybe she was thinking of leaving. I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my place to convince her otherwise. But then Kimberly forced down a deep, shuddering breath, and pulled me onward to the kitchen, and the magical workshop beyond.

Sevens had trailed in our wake for a while, dragging her yellow robes along the floor and whispering down the steps, but I wasn’t surprised to find her gone when I looked back. Aym had vanished somewhere too; I didn’t really care where, as long as she wasn’t setting up an ambush for Evelyn.

Raised voices floated from the workshop, filling the grey light in the kitchen.

“We’re cutting,” Evelyn snapped. “Not building. Don’t make me repeat the principle a third time. Do I need to have Praem fetch a pair of scissors to illustrate?”

“Scissors, exactly,” Felicity said in her natural mumble, half her voice trapped behind the fused corner of her lips. “Scissors, that’s perfect.”

Evelyn’s reply oozed sarcasm. “Oh, yes, use a metaphor. I instantly understand what you’re talking about.”

Felicity’s voice shook; she still couldn’t stand up to Evelyn’s anger. “Scissors are a device with which to cut. But they have to be built.”

A sharp huff of breath. Raine, laughing to defuse the situation. A liquid acid giggle — Aym, enjoying the pre-fireworks show.

“Oh no,” I hissed to myself as I helped Kimberly toward the magical workshop door. “They’re already arguing. Kim, I’m sorry, I don’t think you want to step into that. Wait at the table, I’ll see what I can do.”

But Kimberly dragged me onward with a surprising burst of energy. She paused on the threshold of the magical workshop, leaning on my arm, the toes of her fluffy socks not quite touching the junction between kitchen flagstones and ex-drawing room floorboards. The argument on the other side of the threshold died, like a small animal shocked by the arrival of monsoon rains. Three pairs of eyes turned toward Kimberly in surprise — Evelyn, Felicity, and Raine. Praem stared at nothing. Raine met my eyes with a silent question. I shook my head ever so slightly, willing her not to intervene. Aym deliquesced into a glob of darkness which swallowed itself, leaving nothing behind.

Kimberly stood there, hanging on me, breathing unsteadily, eyes roving over the magical workshop, over the notes and sketched circles and open tomes on the table, down to the gateway mandala at the far end of the room, the vast and unique wonderwork of membrane-breaching that she had helped create. She hadn’t been in the workshop since then.

Evelyn spoke with a gentleness which surprised me. “Kimberly? Are you lost?”

Felicity cleared her throat. “Er, yeah. Kim? I thought you—”

Evelyn shot Felicity a dark stab of the eyes, but for once Felicity didn’t seem to care. Kimberly mattered more.

Kim swallowed so hard I thought she would choke on her own saliva. Her arm tightened on mine, a woman wrapping herself around a piece of driftwood in a storm. She murmured so softly that I suspected even I wasn’t meant to hear: “Oh, I need another hit. I need to be baked out of my mind for this.”

I whispered back. “I can go fetch your ‘spliff’ for you, if you want?”

Kimberly couldn’t have looked more embarrassed if I’d offered to wipe her bottom for her. I blushed too, in empathetic horror. She shook her head. “No, not you, Heather. Please don’t.”

“Oh … kay. Okay.”

Kim finally let go of my arm and shuffled sideways, bumbling into the door frame before righting herself: treading water over the yawning void of a dark ocean. She drew herself up, not so very tall, but for a moment she seemed as tall as Raine.

“I’m sure … ” she tried once, then faltered. Felicity caught her eye and nodded. Kimberly rebooted, though she couldn’t look directly at anybody as she spoke on. “I’m sure both of you are very knowledgeable and capable magicians. Well, no, I know that for a fact. Sorry. But you’re like professors without any graduate students to do all the actual work.”

“Oooooooh,” went Raine with a big silly wince. “Burn.”

“What would you know about graduate students?” Evelyn asked.

I tutted. “Evee.”

Kimberly balked. “M-maybe that wasn’t the best metaphor. Um, I mean, you’re not great at … at … ”

“That was wrong of me to say,” Evelyn snapped, colouring in the cheeks a little. “I apologise. Explain, please.”

Kimberly screwed up her eyes, like she had a headache. “Neither of you are very good at all this grunt work. Experimenting, yes. Genius, yes. Not the slow stuff. Procedural stuff.”

“You want to help,” Felicity said. She made it sound like You want to ascend the scaffold and tie the noose.

Want is maybe a strong word.”

“But earlier … ”

Kim and Felicity both looked so terribly morbid. But then Kim smiled. It was bruised and pale, but it transformed her face from strung-out victim to Wiccan weed pixie. She almost laughed. “I meant everything I said. I just changed my mind. I can do that, I think.”

“Kimberly,” Evelyn said with a sharp sigh. “You don’t have to martyr yourself. You don’t owe us anything, I keep telling you this, and you didn’t have a debt in the first place. Even if you did, you’ve already done more than enough. I owe you, you do not owe me shit. Go back upstairs. Actually, better idea, wait for Twil and then have her take you out for dinner or something. Go out, forget about us for a few hours.”

Kimberly took a step over the threshold of the magical workshop. I let my tentacle slither out from around her waist. She stood free.

“It’s not for you, Evelyn,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Welcome,” said Praem. Kimberly flinched at that, then nodded awkwardly at the demon maid.

Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Heather, is this your doing?”

I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m just respecting Kim’s wishes.”

“Big respect,” said Raine, raising a fist as if for a bump. “Yo.” Kimberly mimicked the motion, awkward and uncertain, looking as if she’d never made a fist in her life, let alone raised it to anybody.

“Look,” Evelyn went on, working herself up into a lather. “Kim, I understand you want to assist, but what could you possibly do here? You don’t even comprehend what we’re working on. I doubt Heather could have explained it to you — no offense — and there’s already two mages working on this. It’s already utterly unprecedented. I don’t think we need more. This is only going to hurt you.”

Kimberly nodded at the table. “That draft for a circle, the one by your elbow, I can tell it’s wrong from here.”

“What?” Evelyn frowned in disbelief, then glanced at the sketched magic circle on an open notebook page, then back at Kimberly.

“The inner ring is too busy, you’re putting all the weight of action on one part of the design. You should be using something other than Latin for the ignition. And I don’t know what you’re doing with the outer ring, all the proportions are wrong. The letters are too far apart. If you’re trying to ‘cut’ another spell, like you said, then you’re cutting with a blunt spoon.” Kimberly let out a weird little laugh. “Makes a poor knife.”

I had no idea what Kimberly was talking about. The magic circle at Evee’s elbow meant less than nothing to me — I could barely look at any of the designs scattered across the table without a spike of pain going through my optic nerve and into the back of my skull. But Kimberly spoke with the most confidence I’d heard from her in months. She didn’t waver or stutter. She just rattled it off.

Evelyn frowned at the circle. Felicity turned her head to judge too, and said, “She’s right. I think. I don’t know enough about the construction principles, only the underlyings, but, well, she’s got a point.”

“That,” Evelyn said, somewhat tense, “is why we’re refining.”

“It’s why you’re stuck,” Kim said. Then she seemed to remember who she was and who she was speaking to. “S-sorry, I don’t mean to criticise.”

“Critique is growth,” said Praem. Raine nodded sagely. Felicity sighed and nodded too.

Evelyn cleared her throat and looked horribly embarrassed for a moment. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes, and now she couldn’t look at Kimberly either. “You don’t even know what this spell is for, Kim. You don’t want to be involved in this, trust me. You can hardly help refine it if you don’t know the purpose.”

“We could tell her?” Raine suggested.

“Do I want to know?” Kimberly asked, resigned and beaten down. I longed to step forward and give the poor woman a hug, but this was her choice and her courage. I dared not undermine that.

Evelyn turned cold and hard. “This spell is intended to break the concealment on the hidden home of Edward Lilburne. Once that is achieved we’re going to either kill him, or drive him off, then steal back the book we need, to complete the magic to hide us from the Eye.”

Kimberly froze, then swallowed dry. I reached out for her hand, but held off, embarrassed, uncertain — ultimately it was my sake that all this was happening, even if Kim was taking this step for her own motivations.

“See?” Evelyn said, gone gentle again. “You don’t want to know. Go back upstairs and—”

“I only needed to know the first part.” Kimberly walked over to the table, legs wobbling only a little bit. She fell down into a chair and looked like she wanted to pass out, then dragged the unfinished circles toward her. “I’d rather not think about the rest. All I need is the mechanical purpose.”

Raine chuckled, then said in a sing-song voice, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?”

Evelyn turned her head like a stone statue come to life and gave Raine a look that could have frozen a lava flow. Raine actually paused mid-grin.

“Raine,” Evelyn said, teeth iced over with cold intent, “I do not care how long you and I have known each other, if you compare Kimberly helping us to a fucking Nazi rocket scientist, I will have Praem tie you to a rocket and fire you into the sun.”

Raine laughed in embarrassment and put her hands up. “Didn’t mean it like that, hey.”

“You of all people should know better. Moron.”

Raine pulled a goofy grimace and bowed to Kimberly. “My apologies, o’ glorious and gossamer magical one. Instead I shall compare thee to a fairy mistress, gracing us from the forest realm. Such a visitation! Such ephemeral delights! How may we serve?”

Kimberly went terribly red in the face. Felicity stayed carefully composed, because like me she could follow what Raine was really doing. Evelyn huffed and swiped at Raine’s shins with her walking stick, a blow that was easily dodged.

Raine had made a stupid, vaguely offensive comparison on purpose. Now the mages had a mutual foe, Evelyn’s ire had been redirected, and Kimberly was more focused on being compared with a fairy than on the magic she was about to subject herself to. As Raine laughed and hopped out of the room, I grabbed her in a quick hug. She was too good at this. Even in a room full of mages and magic, working on a problem that neither of us could even begin to grasp, she knew exactly the right thing to say.

“Well done,” I whispered in her ear.

She winked, kissed me on the forehead, and went to make more tea.

The mages got down to work.

I’d seen Evelyn working on magic before, plenty of times, from improvised blood horrors to the gruelling process of research, the mental strain of grappling with principles smuggled from Outside, cutting oneself on the sharp hidden edges of reality-denying knowledge, exhausted in ways the human mind was not meant to approach. I’d even seen her and Kimberly briefly work together once, to finish the first iteration of the gateway to Outside; they had shared the burden, spread the load, made it easier on both of them.

But this triumvirate of magecraft was a transformation, more than simply three being a bigger number than two. It was obvious even as little as twenty minutes later. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly became greater than the sum of their parts.

One might not have noticed it if one wasn’t intimately familiar with at least one of the participants. A casual observer might have assumed that these three had known each other for years, a well-oiled intellectual machine, swapping hypotheses and designs and additions at high speed, discarding ideas that didn’t work, re-using each others’ suggestions without a second thought. The three mages were not identical in their functions, obviously — Evelyn supplied the focus, the dive for specificity, the edge of the blade; Felicity had her head in the clouds, on concepts and generalisations and pure thought; Kimberly consolidated their work and turned it into concrete function, checking that everything actually joined up and fitted together and wasn’t about to fly apart as soon as they hit the metaphorical on-switch.

A couple of times in that first hour they did actual magic. Felicity and Kimberly had to stand up and back away as Evelyn put some minor part of the spell into practice, running some tiny sub-circle of the ultimate design, making sure it didn’t short-circuit or explode in her hands, figuratively speaking, I hope. Spitting Latin, feeling the room go flash-cold, thanking Praem for wiping the spittle from her lips, Evee was in her element.

I’d never seen her like this before. I’d never seen her doing magic and it just flowing.

To be fair, I’d never seen Kimberly like this before either. Or Felicity. The research and application was taking a toll, but the toll was so much less than any one of them would have suffered alone. Praem wafted in and out on silent skirts, bringing tea, supplying biscuits, ensuring adequate hydration. Evelyn muttered to herself, producing designs and sub-designs and variations and corrections at high speed. Kimberly once held Felicity’s hand under the table, surprising the older mage; they thought nobody else noticed, but I did. Raine and I were totally surplus to requirements. Twil was going to be bored out of her mind once she arrived at last, unless she wanted to go play video games with Lozzie and Tenny.

And there was nothing magical about this. It wasn’t about the magic, it was about the mages.

Aym threatened to ruin the whole thing.

The abrasive little madam had been gone for nearly an hour, nowhere to be found. I even popped upstairs to check on Lozzie and Tenny and Marmite — Tenny was playing the same farming game that Kimberly had, but on her console instead of a PC, with the tarantula-squid-friend half in her lap, watching the screen. I briefly went looking for Zheng too, only to find her huge and asleep in our bed, lying on her back with her hands on her chest, the room unlit beneath the rain pattering on the roof and the window. She rumbled in acknowledgement when I stroked her hair.

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked.

“I am lying in ambush,” she rumbled without opening her eyes.

“For Aym?”

“For the shape-shifting coward, yes.”

“Well. Good luck, I suppose. Love you.”

“Shaman.”

Aym returned like a blotch of black mould growing on the fabric of reality, secret and hidden until it was too wet and deep-rooted to scrub out.

Kimberly was in the middle of offering an opinion on a diagram of a circle: “Too slender. The connections are all too slender. You’re putting too much strain on the mind of the mage casting this — yourself, Evelyn, I’m sorry. You’ll lose a pint of blood, for what? Double it, strengthen the core.”

“I suppose,” Evelyn grumbled, sour and quiet. “I could take it if I had to, I could deal with that. We should really try not to draw this out too mu—”

“Alllllllllways with the self-sacrifice,” purred a voice like boiling tar poured over dry ice. It was the first thing Aym had said since she’d vanished. “Anybody would think you’re a masochist, sweet bun. Get it out of your system, have Heather tie you up and tickle you unconscious or something. Don’t let it ruin your craft.”

Aym oozed out of nowhere, right onto the chair at the far end of the magical workshop table, grinning like a skull.

I flinched, because I was quite close to the unsettling visual effect; it was only when she spoke that I realised she’d been slowly materialising there for several long minutes, starting as a point of dripping shadow in one’s peripheral vision, then expanding like damp-fed spores, until she was large enough to sluice away from the air and slap down into the chair.

The poor spider-servitor behind the chair skittered backward, spike-tipped stingers raised and quivering. The poor things were terrified of Aym, like she was a rarely encountered natural predator. Why they didn’t fling themselves at her and tear her to pieces, I had no idea.

“Hey, yo,” said Raine, who had contrived to appear in the kitchen doorway at the sound of Aym’s voice. “Don’t make me go get Zheng. You keep that mouth shut around these three, they’re working hard.”

Aym flapped the lace ends of her sleeves and pulled a dubious smile at Raine. “As if you or that giant lumbering fool could make me do anything. Besides!” She slapped the table lightly with her fingertips. “I’m helping. I’m offering a useful suggestion.”

“You’re interrupting,” Evelyn grunted. She pointedly did not look at Aym. “That’s what you’re doing.”

“I’m checking on my investment,” Aym said, feigning seriousness. She met my eyes and winked. I stared her down, still angry about earlier, angry about how she’d hurt Kimberly, but unwilling to disrupt and derail everything by having it out with her right then.

“This isn’t the time, Aym,” I said. “You’re lucky these three are busy. Go away.”

“Tch! It’s always the time. And where else can I go? I’m here, I’m near, and you better get used to it.”

Felicity swallowed hard and raised her eyes to meet Aym. “Actually I agree with Heather,” she said in her usual half-mumble. “We’re trying to get this finished. The longer we take, the … longer … ”

Her words died under Aym’s light and breezy stare. Not for the first time, I wondered what terrible hold Aym’s amusement had over Felicity.

“Fuck off.”

It took me a moment of dull shock to realise who had sworn with such a blunt and bland tone: Kimberly. She was staring at Aym with all the mildly frustrated ire with which one held for the local disruptive stray cat, stealing things off windowsills and defecating in flower-boxes.

“Go Kim,” Raine laughed. “Yeah, fuck off with you, Aym. Go play with Sevens or something.”

Aym stared back at Kimberly, a little surprised, ignoring Raine — then slowly grinned. “Hoping for an in, are we?” she purred like rotten wood writhing with maggots.

Kimberly hesitated. “I told you to fu—”

“A shared session of dark secrets and self-torture, something horrible in common, and you’ll bat your eyelashes and flex your brain-meats,” Aym laughed. She trailed a corner of lace across the tabletop, then hopped to her feet, taking slow steps toward the mages. “And then she’ll fall for you, sweep you off your feet and all that. As if she hasn’t already. As if she wouldn’t tongue-fuck a disease-ridden horse if it showed her the slightest bit of affection.”

Kimberly had gone dark red up to her ears. She clattered to unsteady feet. “That’s not why I’m doing this!” she cried. Felicity had gone white in the face, staring down at the open tome in front of her, not breathing.

“Aym,” I snapped. “That is … is … terribly rude and uncalled for.”

“Bad girl,” Praem said, taking a step forward — but unlike previously, Aym only flinched a little, without slowing down.

“You’re both vile,” Aym said. “And you’re sick in the head if you think I’m going to let it happen.”

Aym took another step. Evelyn was glaring at her in the same way she might look at Twil trailing mud in across the kitchen floor. I saw her reach for her scrimshawed bone wand on the table. Praem moved forward too; for a dizzying moment I thought she was going to scoop Aym up in her arms like a naughty child being carried off to get locked in her bedroom. But Aym ignored the motion, grinning at Kimberly’s quivering denial, and in that moment I knew Aym would simply vanish into a puff of black smoke the moment Praem touched her.

“Sick, sick, sick,” Aym said, enjoying this way too much — and then stopped.

A tiny, long-nailed hand crawled out from under the table to tangle itself in the lace of Aym’s little black dress. Aym flinched and spluttered, blinking and recoiling as our own terrible little gremlin emerged from hiding.

Sevens stood up from beneath the workshop table. She was still in the blood-goblin mask but she’d shed her — my — yellow robes. In greasy black tank-top and loose black shorts, claw-like bare feet and bony exposed shoulders, she was about the same height as Aym, and sort of the same build, if more like a hungry hound than a pampered aristocrat.

Black-red eyes bored into Aym. The coal-sprite stared back, frowning in confusion. She looked past Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-Showing-Up, as if she might find a hidden trapdoor under the table.

Ruuuuurrrrgggg,” went Sevens. “Dish it out good enough, but you can’t take it.”

Aym squinted at her. “Unhand me, leech-thing. I don’t know how you … how you … ”

Sevens waited, fingers tangled in a fistful of lace, nails snagging loose threads. Aym’s eyes went wide, then her whole outline shuddered and shivered, as if she was trying to blur herself out of reality, but couldn’t take a step. Outdoors the storm suddenly intensified in a burst of rain slamming down on the roof, a single gust spent in a moment.

“Yeah?” Sevens rasped. “Did you really think I was just some little bloodsucker they keep around like a pet?”

Raine laughed from her belly. “Ah, yes. Meet Sevens. Or have you two met before?”

“Nah, not before,” said Sevens. Aym was too busy looking like an animal which had just discovered it was not the top of its local food chain.

I sighed, “You probably shouldn’t have mocked the prospect of a budding lesbian relationship. Or threatened to block it from happening. Sevens, is that why you’re here? Are you okay?”

“Mmmmmmmm. Maybe?” Sevens sounded genuinely conflicted. She looked away from Aym to meet my eyes and Aym shivered and shuddered again, a weasel in a trap, trying to wriggle free.

“As long as you’re not straining yourself in the wrong direction,” I said. “We can deal with Aym, if you’re … getting risky.”

“Nah I think this is the right direction,” said Sevens, then turned back to Aym. “Good use of talents. You reckon so too?”

Aym turned only her eyes, as if any movement might get her eaten alive, and looked right at Felicity. “Help,” she whispered.

Until that moment, Felicity had looked vaguely amused, if a little confused. At Aym’s plaintive, genuine fear, she sat up straight. Her hands came together, left threatening to remove the glove on the right. I recalled with the dim memories formed by a very stressful set of events that Felicity had extensive magical tattoos beneath that glove, a sheathe of them crawling up the skin of her unburnt arm. Last time she’d visited our house she’d used the spell etched into her flesh to diagnose what was wrong with Evelyn. She’d called the arm-tattoos a kind of magical sixth sense, but she had also explained that wasn’t quite accurate. She’d said we wouldn’t understand. The way she reached for her own hand now was more like reaching for a weapon.

But she paused and said, “Is Aym actually in danger? Please don’t. Please don’t hurt her. I know, but don’t hurt her.”

I said, “No,” at the exact same moment Evelyn said, “Yes.” We looked at each other. Evelyn blinked, embarrassed; she still struggled to hold my gaze since the unfair trick with the fade stone. I smiled, but it felt like cringing.

Sevens clacked her needle-teeth together. Raine laughed. Praem stepped back, yielding the capture to Sevens.

“I’m serious,” Felicity said.

“Help meeeeee,” Aym whined. She was crying now, slow tears running down her cheeks and making little wet patches in the dark lace around her throat.

“M’not gonna hurt your friend,” Sevens rasped for Felicity. She even glanced back with a blood-eyed smile. “She can sit quiet. Or we can play a game. Her choice.”

“Game? W-what game?” Aym asked.

Sevens clacked her teeth again. “Chess. With wagers.”

“ … I’ll … I’ll sit quiet,” Aym said. “I promise.”

“Yaaaaaay,” Sevens deadpanned. She led Aym over to the sofa. The diminutive lace-and-mould demon followed her like a girl caught on a fishing hook, drawn along by Sevens’ fist in the multi-layered fabric of her dress. Seven-Shades-of-Unsought-Escort pulled her prey down onto the sofa. Aym was forced to sit, straight-backed and very proper, as Sevens the greasy-looking blood-goblin curled up beside her, placed her head in Aym’s lap, closed her eyes, and fell instantly asleep — or at least pretended to. But for Sevens, pretending was doing.

Aym sat there, frozen, deliciously uncomfortable, with an expression like a chicken which found itself adopted by a fox. I had to bite my lips to stop from laughing.

“What,” said Aym.

“Reaping,” Praem intoned. Evelyn snorted and shook her head, turning away.

“Well,” Raine said, dusting off her hands. “Guess that settles that.”

Aym spoke in a tiny voice. “This … I … Fliss. Fliss, help me.”

Sevens let out a little snore: “Gurrrrk.” Aym flinched so hard her toes pattered on the floor.

Felicity was frowning in academic interest now, seemingly insensible to Aym’s plea. She turned her head to address me without actually taking her eyes off the scene. “What is she?”

“Bigger than me!” Aym hissed, unamused.

“You called her ‘Sevens’?” Felicity pressed.

I sighed. “You really don’t want to know.”

Evelyn said, “Wouldn’t believe it, anyway. She’s an Outsider.”

Felicity did a double-take, but not out of fear. She clearly didn’t believe Evelyn. “If you say so.”

“Felicity,” Aym said, voice high and scratchy, like metal points tentative and gentle on flakes of rust. “Fliss. Fliss. Fliss.”

Felicity looked vaguely uncomfortable, trapped between two sides.

“Ooooh,” went Raine, affecting a fake frown and tutting in that professional way that said something was broken and would require expensive parts and a team of four to fix it. “I wouldn’t mess with Sevens while she’s sleeping, not if I were you. Big, scary Outsider. She’ll take both your hands off and curse you so you can’t ever take a shit again.”

I frowned at Raine, mouthing, “That’s disgusting.” But the colourful nonsense gave Felicity a boost of confidence.

“Well, if our hosts say so,” she said, not quite meeting Aym’s eyes. “I’m hardly going to tangle with an … Outsider for the sake of your dignity, Aym. She’s not … actually hurting you?”

“This thing has me pinned,” Aym said, voice a thin quiver. But she wasn’t crying anymore.

“Are you being hurt?”

“Morally.”

“Spiritually?”

Aym pressed her lips together.

Felicity said, “If she actually hurts you, I’ll give every last drop of blood in my body. If she’s just playing, then play along.”

“Play along!?” Aym squeaked. Sevens snored again and Aym flinched as if hit with a cattle prod.

“Play nice,” said Praem.

==

The rest of that long, dreary, work-filled afternoon played out without further demonic incident. Or abyssal incident, to give Aym the benefit of her real dignity: her ambiguity.

Seven-Shades-of-Softly-Snoring kept Aym safely contained on the sofa while the mages worked, much to everybody’s amusement, though the novelty wore off quite quickly. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly returned to drafting and revising magic circles, discussing “correct resonance with the existing waveforms”, “expected countermeasures already woven into the spell”, and “what if he’s posted zombies — or worse? — to quash any source of interference?”

That last question was answered by Raine: “Hi. Thanks. I’ll be here all week.”

“We have Zheng,” Evelyn grunted. “And Twil. She’s the equal of any zombie.” She looked up after that one. “Do not repeat that to her. Do not tell her I said that. I don’t want her being any more reckless than she already is. Where is she, anyway? I thought she was meant to be here by now.”

“Buying us all dinner,” I said. “Taking her time about it.”

Twil quashed our worries for her safety shortly later by turning up carrying a truly staggering amount of food. She’d walked the entire width of Sharrowford to purchase a very specific kind of apple pie which one could apparently only acquire at Marks and Spencer, but then stopped on the way to load up with several frozen pizzas, ingredients for a vegetarian curry, cake, crisps, dips, and enough biscuits to feed an army. She’d even bought some steaming, fresh, crumbly pastries. She was carrying so many bags that if she’d been anybody else I would have worried for her muscles.

“We’re not having a bloody party here,” Evelyn called from the magical workshop as Twil bounced in and dumped the whole lot on the kitchen table, a huge grin on her face.

“We are now!” Twil laughed in return.

I peered through the bags, bug-eyed. “Didn’t this … cost you a lot?” She’d even brought a bag of coffee grounds; I suspected that would be much more relevant to the coming night. “Twil, we owe you for this, I’m serious. How much was all this?”

“Naaaaaah,” said Twil, hands on her hips. She even tossed her head back, springy dark curls going anywhere. She looked exactly like a wolf trapped in human skin, brimming with energy, despite the rainy drizzle all over the hood and back of her lime-and-blue coat. “Mum gave me the cash for it. I said you lot were starting on the magic to fuck up that Edward bastard. She wanted to chip in.”

Evelyn drawled from the workshop, to nobody in particular, “Check it for poison.”

Twil bristled. “Hey!”

“I was joking, you dog-brained fool. Praem, please remind me later to send a thank you to the High Priestess of Hringewindla.”

It didn’t take long for Twil to hand out the pastries, making sure everybody got one, even Lozzie and Tenny upstairs, even Zheng. She’d purchased extra, just in case. Praem let her do that part herself. We could all tell she wanted to help.

“Bloody hell,” she said in the magical workshop, when she first spied the trio of mages working together. “You weren’t kidding. Full party, hey?”

“Three DPS, no healer,” said Raine.

“Bloody right,” Twil laughed. “Who’s in charge?”

I got the joke this time, clearing my throat after a mouthful of pastry. “I can be the healer. Or Lozzie can.”

“Felicity, right?” Twil said, offering Fliss a pastry too. “I remember you, yeah. Bacon or veggie?”

“ … vegetable, please. I recall you, also.”

Twil actually jumped when she saw Aym — not because Aym was doing anything other than sitting there, slightly pained, with a cup of tea and book next to her. I’d provided the book, but Aym had read two pages and then looked slightly ill. Twil jumped because Aym was so quiet.

“Er, who’s the little goth?” Twil asked, suddenly serious. “Is she … actually thirteen years old, or … ?”

“God no,” Evelyn snapped. “You think I would do magic with an actual thirteen year old in the room? She’s not human. Don’t touch her. Don’t talk to her. Pretend she does not exist and never think about her again.”

“Oh,” Aym said, voice small and measured, as if normal volume would risk waking the sleeping yellow tiger in her lap. “I am to be denied even conversation, now?”

“Demon?” Twil asked Aym. “Outsider? Something else?” Aym just shook her head. “What are you, then?”

“Trapped.”

Despite Twil’s best efforts and the generous donation from the Church of Hringewindla, we didn’t quite manage to cultivate a party atmosphere. The mages spurned a proper dinner and ate while they worked. Crafting the spell to open Edward’s fortress for a siege drew on into the late afternoon and claimed the evening too. Outdoors, the storm finally dribbled away to nothing more than a chill wind and a clinging damp, perhaps as pinned as Aym’s physical body was, but the magical workshop remained soaked in deep, lamp-lit shadow, filled by the scratching of pencils and the muttering of magicians. It was as if the shadow over Sharrowford had contracted, compressed, and concentrated itself on the work, on the spell, on the mages themselves.

Perhaps it had, perhaps that was Aym’s doing, though I wasn’t sure if Aym was capable of doing much of anything while Sevens dozed in her lap. She spent the entire time glued to the old sofa, looking like a very nasty girl subjected to a very unpleasant punishment. The spider-servitors crawled back to their usual spots in the corner, though they watched her with great caution, stingers held ready. Marmite stayed sensibly upstairs.

We didn’t totally neglect Aym, of course. Irritating and irascible and borderline abusive she may be, but Aym was still a person and we didn’t know enough to condemn her totally. Praem brought her tea like everybody else — peppermint, strong and dark. She was included in the sharing out of food, though she ate like a bird and left most of her portions untouched, except for the pizza with pineapple on it. She ate both slices of that and politely requested more.

“As expected,” Raine commented.

“There is nothing wrong,” said Aym, in a voice like acid going through meat, “with pineapple on pizza.”

“I agree with that part,” said Kimberly. “Um, sorry.”

Sevens woke up for food but never broke contact with the coal-sprite demon. She swung her legs over Aym’s lap, ate, then returned to her cat-like nap without conversing. By the time true darkness fell outdoors, Aym seemed a touch less like an animal attempting to avoid being eaten and more like a bored teenager forced to endure a tiresome family friend.

The mages didn’t work that whole time without a break, just not a properly organised one. Kimberly grew less and less focused as the hours wore on, until she was visibly twitchy and nervous, until Felicity reached across the table and touched her hand. That seemed to act as some kind of permission, because Kim then went upstairs to smoke more cannabis, returning calm enough to carry on. I wasn’t sure what to think of that. At least Felicity didn’t follow her to join in. Felicity barely left the table, but she did fall asleep in her chair once, sitting up with her arms crossed. She looked no more relaxed asleep than she did awake, the burned half of her face twitching with some unpleasant dream. Evelyn took a break as well, a short lie down, enforced by Praem; she took her bone wand with her but left the fade stone behind on the table, which was a strange experience because I kept losing track of the thing, certain it had moved or forgetting that Evelyn had not carried it upstairs in her hand.

While she was out of the room and nobody else was looking, I scooped the thing up with the end of one tentacle, pressing pale pneuma-somatic flesh against warm quartz. Nothing happened. The world did not flash grey-and-black as I stepped into some negative space behind reality. The others in the room didn’t look up as I vanished. The stone wasn’t a machine, after all. One had to be a mage to make it work, one had to think the right thoughts; one probably had to be Evelyn Saye.

When I put the stone back down, I realised Aym was watching me, sulky and bored and curious. I held her gaze, but she said nothing.

Twil discovered that mages making spells was actually quite boring to watch. Eventually she ended up playing video games with Tenny. Praem hovered at Evee’s shoulder, tireless and devoted. Raine and I stuck close to the ‘action’ — a word I use under duress — just in case Evee should need us, but there really was almost nothing for us to actually do.

“Don’t give yourself a migraine by looking at the circles,” Evee said to me when I decided to peer over her shoulder at the half-finished designs laid out across the table. She didn’t meet my eyes when she said it, casting half-back toward me but not quite getting there.

“I thought I might be able to help,” I said to the back of her head, past a surprising lump in my throat. “This is going to take more than just today, isn’t it? Maybe if I could use brain-math … ”

That made Evelyn meet my eyes at last. She sighed, irritation and exasperation covering a deep affection. I almost blushed. “Heather, this is magic, not brain-math. You’re not built for the former. It’ll hurt you. Stop trying.”

“I thought I might speed things up.”

Evelyn stared at me, fake-impassive. “If you start hurting yourself I won’t be able to concentrate. It’s not like I’m doing this alone.” She gestured at Kimberly and Felicity. Kim looked up with a painfully awkward smile, the kind of smile one wears when the hosts of a dinner party start a domestic argument in front of their guests. “Go play video games with Twil and Tenny. Go read a book to Aym. Go have sex with Raine.”

“E-Evee—”

“Woo,” Raine deadpanned.

Evee carried on, not even blushing. “I’ll need you later, I’m sure. Let me concentrate.”

I didn’t try again. After that particular exchange I retreated to the kitchen with Raine, to chew on cold pizza dipped in HP sauce and gaze out of the window at the gloaming over the garden. The big old tree out there was heavy with rain, the wooden fences soaked through, the ground sodden and mushy. Both of us pretended that we weren’t monitoring the mages in the workshop, just beyond earshot. Once or twice, Praem appeared in the doorway, a blank-eyed look silently reassuring us that all was going well.

“This isn’t something mages do, is it?” I asked Raine as we sat side by side at the kitchen table. She had coaxed me to put my legs up over her lap and was busy rubbing the tension out of my calf muscles, one hand up the left leg of my pajama bottoms.

“Yeah,” Raine said with a twinkle in her eyes. “It’s like small children.”

I blinked. That wasn’t what I’d meant at all. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s not when they’re being noisy that you gotta worry. It’s when they go quiet. Means that something’s up.” Raine flashed me a wink and a beaming grin, enjoying her own joke a little too much. I rolled my eyes, but I was smiling.

“I mean working together,” I said. “Evee has always implied this doesn’t happen. Like it’s not meant to happen. Like they should all be turning each other to frogs or setting their demons on each other, like Pokemon trainers but more violent.”

Raine’s turn to laugh. “Wouldn’t that make you the champion, by default?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve got Zheng.”

“Tch! Raine. Zheng is her own person. And she’s not my demon, I didn’t create her.”

Raine shrugged with a grin on her lips. Praem chose that moment to appear in the doorway again, maid dress swishing in her wake. She gave Raine one very long and pointed stare. Raine raised one hand in surrender. Praem moved on.

“And yes,” I added, “Praem beats Zheng. We’ve tested that. At least when arm wrestling.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a real test,” Raine muttered, but then she snapped back to the subject at hand. I was a tiny bit disappointed; she always looked so dashing and exciting when she started talking about that kind of thing, her passion for measured violence. She leaned closer to me, as if worried about being overheard, a cheeky smile playing on her lips. “Our mages are behaving because they’ve got a pecking order. That’s my theory, anyway. Evee is in charge. Kim’s under her wing. Felicity is grudgingly tolerated. There’s no territorial bullshit, no risk of betrayal, no hidden motives. Well, maybe Fliss on that last point, but her hidden motive isn’t steal all the books and kill everybody before leaving, so everything stays nice and calm.”

I chewed this over while chewing another mouthful of pizza. Raine rubbed my leg, working the knots out. “Is that really it? Pecking order? Hierarchy? That can’t be the whole story here. That can’t be the solution. You of all people can’t believe that, Raine.”

“It’s not hierarchy, it’s just lack of ambiguity. They all know exactly where they stand and exactly what each other wants.”

I chewed my lip and frowned into the open door of the magical workshop, then out into the gathering twilight over Sharrowford. I wasn’t sure if I liked the notion. “Evee deserves better than that.”

“Believe it or not,” Raine said, “when it comes to magic, this is the best I’ve seen her in years.”

I blinked at her, but Raine wasn’t joking. She wore a rare and sober look on her face, nodding along to her own words.

“She’s incredibly stressed by this,” I said. “And I don’t blame her. They’re going up against another mage. Raine, how is that the best of anything?”

Raine took a deep breath, leaning back in her chair and running her hand downward until she was rubbing my foot, the ball of her thumb slowly working at the muscles of my arch. I struggled to concentrate and not to make little noises of relaxation. She was very good at that. She sighed in thought and ran a hand through her thick chestnut-coloured hair, making it stand up in little waves. Eventually she spoke again.

“Reminds me of how she was after her mother died. Right after. Long before we left Sussex for university.” Raine lapsed into a moment of silence, but I was frozen in attention. “There was just so much for her to get done. Too much for a kid. Her dad handled all the legal stuff, did the cover-up, all that. But the magic, that was all Evee. That house was floor-to-ceiling with grade-A mage dung.” Raine caught my eye, grinning. “And I don’t just mean her mother’s old zombies. When you visited the place, it was quiet. But it wasn’t always like that.”

“I can only imagine,” I said. I couldn’t.

“Wards to crack, constructs to put down, circles to destroy. There was even a booby-trapped book. A taxidermied stag’s head we had to burn. The whole thing with the hidden wall — ask me about that sometime, but not right now, long story, that took us weeks and I nearly got stabbed. And the dog in the cellars.”

“The dog in the cellars? I haven’t heard that one.”

“Oh, right.” Raine grinned, but even I could see the beaming confidence plastered over something vile. “Well, there was a dog, in the cellars.”

“Raine,” I sighed.

“It was a German Shepard. Possessed. Evee’s mum’d used it for something messy. The demon inside that dog wanted out, but it couldn’t get out. It was … ” Raine paused. “It was strapped to a wall in the cellar. Gruesome shit. And hey, that’s coming from me.” She brightened again, by force of will. “Point is, Evee had to go deal with it, and a dozen other magical projects that needed unravelling. Picking through her mother’s notes. And she just did it. Pushed through it all.”

An image of a younger, barely-teenage Evelyn floated out of the formless deep of my imagination, probably very incorrect. Scrawny and exhausted and terrified, not used to her prosthetic leg, suppressing the guilt and pain of murdering her own mother, so she could focus on defusing a dozen magical bombs, unpicking her mother’s work like trying to guess the right wire to cut.

“Evee … ” I murmured.

“I did help hold her up,” Raine said. “And she paid me back a dozen times over. Got me back into education, got me into Sharrowford uni. She was dealing with physical rehab at the time, too. Spinning so many plates. It’s no wonder she stumbled once we were here. You know?”

I nodded, then leaned over and hugged Raine. She put her arms around me and fell silent for a few moments.

“But hey, look at her now.” Raine winked down at me. “Collaborating. In her element. Magic fucked her up — it still fucks her up. But she’s bested it yet again.”

I pulled back and nodded. “This is what she needed. Other mages. Community.” I sighed. “Even if it is just Fliss and Kim.”

Raine cracked a terrible grin. “Should we call Jan over too? Make it a foursome?”

“I haven’t had much time to get to know Jan, but I’m pretty sure if we invited her, she’d stop returning our calls and move to the other side of the planet. So, no.” Then I added, “Not yet, anyway.”

==

It was past eleven at night by the time the clockwork began to run down.

Kimberly bowed out on the grounds that she had work tomorrow, she didn’t want to call in sick, and she wanted to unwind before bed; nobody likes to dream about magic. She cast a nervous glance at Aym before leaving, but the black-lace monster was still firmly in Sevens’ soft grip. Felicity followed a while later, saying she wanted to speak with Kimberly about a few things. Raine cleverly and covertly made sure they weren’t going to be totally alone, courtesy of Lozzie, but I doubted that precaution was entirely necessary anymore. Still, better safe than sorry.

Sevens and Aym vanished together while nobody was looking. Tenny had been tucked up in bed, sound asleep. Praem went upstairs without Evelyn, either to check on Kim or poke Zheng in the eyes, I wasn’t quite sure which.

My own concentration hung by a thread; I hadn’t helped directly, but I was exhausted for some reason, drained by the awkwardness, by the effort of watching, as if the mages had sucked willpower right out of the air. Eventually, unaware of how exactly I’d drifted there, I found myself back in the magical workshop, peering through the tiniest crack in the curtains at the darkness of the back garden.

Two petite figures stood beneath the dripping behemoth of the old tree, both of them dressed in shadows, one in lace and the other tinted yellow, talking softly in the muffled night air.

“I wonder what they’re discussing,” I murmured to myself.

Behind me, the others didn’t hear. Evelyn was still sitting at the table, eyes dull in a brittle face. Twil was a few seats further down, feet up in Praem’s absence, munching her way through the final — and very cold — pastry. Raine blew out a big theatrical sigh at something I had heard but not processed; I was too engrossed in the hidden show between Aym and Sevens, out in the private dark beneath the open black skies.

“If Praem’s not here to put you to bed,” Raine was saying, “then I will.”

“Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Evelyn grumbled, out of energy. “I’m done for the night. This can’t be finished in one day, even with three of us working on it. However much I’d like to. However much I want Felicity out of this house.”

“She not staying the night?” Twil asked around a mouthful of food. The spluttering sound that followed made me turn away from the crack in the curtains, if only to examine the sheer withering displeasure on Evee’s face. Twil put her hands up. “Hey, hey, I just meant like, where’s she laying her head, that’s all.”

Raine pulled a serious frown. “I think we can trust her not to burn the house down or anything.”

“Trust has nothing to do with it,” Evelyn spat. “She’s welcome to talk to Kimberly all she wants, but she’s not sleeping in this building.”

“I’ll make sure of that, then,” Raine said slowly. “We’ll see her out.”

Evelyn waved one hand, as if a little embarrassed. “Praem already said she was on it. I trust her tact.”

I spoke up without thinking, my mind lost in a whimsical wander, still outdoors with Sevens and Aym. “Night Praem would remove Felicity, if she tried to stay.”

The other three all looked at me, Twil with a frown, Raine with a wink, and Evee with a sigh.

“I still don’t understand this ‘Night Praem’ business,” Evelyn said.

“You’re better off that way,” Raine said with a grin and another wink. “Some things humans were simply not meant to know.”

Twil chewed on her tongue and said, “It’s just Praem in her goth gear, right?”

Raine clicked her tongue and changed the subject, covering for my embarrassment at saying something silly. “Fliss is gonna have to come back tomorrow, yeah? Can she rock up whenever, or do we need to do the thing with the phones again, verify it’s her and all that?”

“Verify, yes,” Evelyn said. “Full procedure. Don’t let her in unannounced.”

“Is she going to be safe?” I asked. “Staying in some hotel or something, by herself?”

Evelyn frowned, but she didn’t meet my eyes. Raine pulled a thinking face and said, “Ah.”

“She can come stay with me,” Twil offered.

“No,” Evelyn and I both said in unison. We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. Evee explained: “Aym follows her everywhere, she’ll torment a member of your family.”

“Ask Jan to look after her?” Raine suggested, but the look on her face said she knew that was a non-starter.

“Jan would run,” I added, then wandered over to the table, trying to look at the sketches of magic circles without my eyeballs rebelling and trying to crawl back into my skull. “Is this magic really that complex?”

Evelyn rolled her neck from side to side before she answered, popping vertebrae and sighing with release. She placed a hand on the table — inches from the white quartz lump of the fade stone. “Well, no,” she said, then made a grumbling sound. “It’s not the most complex. That is the most complex.” She gestured toward the gateway at the far end of the room. “But this spell would take … months, maybe years, to construct by oneself. And you’d have no way of telling if it works or not. You’d have to go out there, do the spell, then try to find the house again. With three of us we can prop parts of it up, keep them running, confirm the breach.” She frowned harder and harder as she spoke. “If Edward Lilburne built this containment by himself … ”

“Met your match, hey?” Raine said, not unkindly.

Evelyn snorted. “Not yet.”

“Errrr,” went Twil. “Is this gonna be like, some seriously spooky nonsense? When this thing goes off?”

Evelyn roused herself and shook her head. “Not unless your Church is hiding something in the same way — which, no, they’re not. We’re essentially going to be breaking a barrier, but we won’t see anything, won’t know about the effect. Not unless Edward has rigged countermeasures. Which he probably has.”

“Zombies?” Twil lit up.

“Probs,” said Raine.

“Yeeeeeeeah.” Twil grinned, swung her feet to the floor, and licked pastry grease off her fingers with an explosive pop. “Let me at ‘em! Better than sitting around like this!”

Evelyn was staring at the circles, and then at the fade stone, unmoved by Twil’s lust for something to punch. She muttered under her breath. “Felicity will want to help.”

“Maybe we should let her,” I said quietly. “Evee, maybe we should let her help.”

Evelyn glanced up at me, a pinched frown on her brow, a biting retort on her lips. But then she hesitated. Perhaps my expression gave it away. I didn’t really care one way or the other if we let Felicity help or not. Some inner impish irritability had provoked me to say something to inflame Evee’s ire, to make her look at me and focus on me, to make her face me properly.

She stared at me for a second, lips parted, then glanced at the fade stone on the table again, inches from her fingertips.

When she reached for that lump of quartz I almost knocked her out of her chair.

I didn’t touch her, of course; if I’d pushed Evee’s chair over or blundered into her I would never have forgiven myself. Even my tentacles acting independently and my worst moments of pure abyssal instinct could never willingly harm Evelyn Saye. All the other three saw was me flinch toward Evee and then stumble to catch myself. They didn’t see the whirling mass of tentacles, the pair of lashing limbs reaching for the stone, or me grabbing the table and floor to halt myself mid-lunge.

The pair of spider-servitors flinched. Raine froze, eyebrows raised at me. Twil cocked her head. Evee blinked up at me, the stone cupped in one hand.

“Heather? Hey?” Raine said.

“I’m fine,” I lied.

“Here,” Evelyn said — and held the stone out to me. My eyes went wide. I shook my head, blushing like crazy.

“Evee, no, no, I don’t—”

“Hold it for me, Heather. Hold it for me or I’ll throw it through the window and break the glass. And then we’ll have to get the window repaired, and that’ll slow everything down even further.”

I accepted the stone, still warm with Evelyn’s body heat. Evelyn let out a huge sigh and leaned back in her chair, visibly uncomfortable, shoulders tense, mouth a pressed line.

Twil was showing her teeth in a pained grimace. “Ohhhhhh-kay then. Did I miss something? Are you two fighting?”

Raine put her hand on Twil’s shoulder. “Give ‘em a sec.”

This didn’t help. Twil looked how I felt. “Do we like, need to leave the room?”

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not hiding from this.”

“Evee,” I sighed. “You … you kind of betrayed my trust, but you don’t have to make a show of it.”

“I had to use the stone, Heather,” she said, talking to the far wall instead of to my face. “I was not leaving you alone with Aym. I don’t care that you turned out to be right and I was wrong.”

“You could have told me,” I said, chest aching all of a sudden. “How many other times have you done it? Used the stone around me — or any of us — without saying?”

“Never before.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Not even for a sneaky naked trip to the bathroom? You ain’t lived until you’ve sat on the throne in the nude.”

Evelyn gave Raine a look to crack granite. Twil looked like she wanted to shrivel up and die. I shot Raine a frown too, but apparently she was immune to criticism right then.

“Not even for shoplifting?” she carried on. “Missing a trick there, Evee.”

“Raine, I love you,” I said, voice quivering, “but do be quiet.”

Raine shrugged and cracked a grin. I knew exactly what she was doing and it was working perfectly, but I still resented it a little bit.

Evelyn turned back to me, eyes blazing, finally looking at my face. She was like a banked fire. “I get to protect you too, Heather. I disagreed with your decision to speak with Aym alone. In this case, the ends justify the means. Even if I was wrong.”

“Don’t say that. The ends never justify the means, Evee.”

“It does when your safety is involved.”

“Bloody right,” Raine added, sotto voce.

“You could have insisted!” I squeaked to Evee. “You could have said ‘I insist’ but you didn’t, you wouldn’t, I was waiting for it!”

“Would you have listened to me?” Evelyn demanded.

“Yes.”

Evelyn paused. Something inside her turned soggy and then disintegrated. She swallowed and turned away. “Oh hell. I still don’t understand you. Your honesty puts me to shame, Heather. I’m … I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to gaslight you.”

“And I forgive you,” I said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“It’s my choice, not yours.”

Evelyn sighed. She still couldn’t look at me, like my face was a fire burning too hot and she might catch alight if she came too close. “Keep the stone, Heather. Hold onto it for me. You don’t deserve to wonder and worry if I’m pulling the wool over your eyes. Keep it until—”

“Evee, I’m giving the stone back to you.”

I said it simply, politely, and quickly, but it was a lot harder than I made it sound. My tentacles wanted to wrap the stone up tight, embed the thing in my flesh, swallow it and have it live in my guts, so it could never again slip out of my sight, never again remove Evelyn from my world. But that wouldn’t heal this sudden and shocking rift.

I held the fade stone out to Evee. She stabbed it with her eyes, huffed a great sigh, and looked me in the face. “Heather, for fuck’s sake, I’m trying to—”

“Take the stone.”

“No, I—”

“I trust you with it.”

“Maybe I’m not to be trusted!” she snapped, throwing her hands in the air.

“I trust you regardless. Take it before I change my mind, please.”

“No, you—”

“I insist,” I said.

Evelyn rammed to a stop. She clenched her jaw so hard that her teeth creaked. Then she scooped the stone out of my hands and clacked it back on the table in front of her. Slightly red, exasperated beyond words, she glared at me — but not without affection.

“I trust you with it,” I repeated. “Please don’t do that again.”

“I won’t make that promise, Heather. I can’t. If you do something I think is dangerous—”

“Insist, and I shall stop.”

“She really will,” Raine added. “Believe it.”

Evelyn looked like she wanted to curl up into a ball and shut us all out. I eased the situation back down out of the heights of awkwardness by giving her a very gentle, very careful, very well-signposted hug. She accepted it even more awkwardly, huffing through her nose and patting me on the shoulder like I was a very muddy dog. “Love you,” I murmured as we disengaged. She nodded, but didn’t repeat it back to me.

Instead, Evelyn said to all of us: “Well, you better get ready for us all to do some very dangerous and stupid things. Because this—” she gestured at the magic on the table, gathering itself like a coiled spring of paper and pencil. “This is one of the most stupid and dangerous things we’re ever going to do.”

“High bar to clear,” said Twil. “We’ve been Outside. How is this worse?”

“This spell,” Evelyn said, “is the first shot in an open war against a mage. And I don’t think it’ll be a long war.”

Announcement

Mage war! Well, at least they have three mages now, that has to count for something, right? It's just a little war. A skirmish. A border situation. And hey, Heather really hates that lump of rock. Weird, huh? Maybe there's a reason she's barely recalled it since almost the beginning of story. At least Evelyn and her made up, sort of, mostly.

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Next week, new arc! It's time for spooky mages to do dangerous things, mostly trying to murder each other. Fun!

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