mischief and craft; plainly seen – 21.9
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

None this chapter.

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Summer heat steamed and slithered against the walls of Number 12 Barnslow Drive in an incessant standing wave. Her red brick skin turned painful to the clumsy touch, and lethal to any unwary flies. The climbing ivy, the patchy lichen, the clumps of hardy moss — all shrivelled and died back, retreating toward the loam at her skirts. Roof tiles flowed and flowered with heat haze, like invisible gas poured from a spout, rolling down her neck and shoulders. The clay-thick soil of the front garden dried out, opening in wide cracks around the baked stone of the path to the door. The grass went brown; the earth turned dusty. In her back garden the longer grasses and wild flowers drank the sunlight in great gulps of greening life — and swarmed with bugs seeking shelter in the shattered shade, insects living out entire days-long lives in the shadow of the single massive tree, where Tenny’s cocoon had once grown in quiet seclusion.

Larger wildlife turned sleepy and reclusive — rabbits hid in their warrens, birds stayed in the treetops, foxes dozed deep in their dens.

We too longed to burrow into the cool and damp earth. Or dive into dark waters and flee far from the sun.

Lucky little foxes.

I did hope the fox from the Saye Estate was doing well, wherever she’d gone since we’d last seen her.

On that peak of Northern high-summer, to open a door or a window was to invite a blast of sticky-hot humid air; to step outside was to burst into sweat, sticking to the inside of one’s clothes, blinking against the pounding sun; to linger was to invite sunburn, heatstroke, or worse. But to close all the windows would have cooked the house’s charges — us — inside a massive improvised sauna.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive simply was not built for this; the summer had over-topped her limits. She needed our help.

The first hours of the morning had not been so bad, when the sun was still just a suggestion in a cloudless blue sky. Waking up and eating breakfast in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts felt odd, but entirely acceptable, especially when I wasn’t the only one resorting to such shedding of layers. Seeing Evelyn with her hair firmly up and her shoulders exposed was more odd — but also more than acceptable. At least she was comfortable. Tenny fanning herself with her own tentacles was sweet; Lozzie walking around barefoot was obvious; Kimberly with a straw sun-hat on her head to go to work was exquisitely fashionable, but I don’t think she realised.

Raine walking around in tank-top and knickers was positively a treat.

By the time we got ready for the meeting with Harold Yuleson, the heat was only just beginning to ramp up toward its true oppressive power; the journey there in Raine’s car was sweaty, but not unbearable, certainly not with the windows down and Raine belting out punk songs at the top of her lungs — even if I couldn’t make head nor tail of the lyrics.

The meeting itself was conducted inside Yuleson’s real, proper, official office, a tiny little place near the city centre, in a converted 19th century terrace, sandwiched between a dentist on one side and an unmarked business on the other.

“Some shady shit,” said Raine. “You shoulder-to-shoulder with some mob types, Harry my lad?”

“It’s a shipping business,” Yuleson told us. “Small packages, expedited delivery, all online. Or so I’m told.”

Raine snorted at that. Evelyn looked vaguely unimpressed. Praem said nothing. Lozzie didn’t seem interested. I didn’t really get it.

But Yuleson’s office possessed that luxury only found in hotels and businesses — air conditioning. Yuleson himself was in waistcoat and jacket like normal, a little bubble of business privilege. We all rode out the tidal wave of summer heat inside those cramped little rooms, listening to Yuleson drone on for over an hour.

The meeting itself was both incredibly boring and esoteric beyond my understanding. Yuleson went over endless official documentation — mostly to do with taxation, wills, transfers of assets, establishment of Lozzie as Edward’s legal heir, and so on and so on. Some of it was real, some of it was forged — most of the latter was still in the draft stage, including a fake birth certificate for Lozzie, with ‘DRAFT’ written on it in huge red marker pen so it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for the complete piece.

Evelyn took a huge number of photographs of various documents, with the intent of showing her father. A major benefit of having a lawyer in the family, I supposed.

“No offense, Yuleson,” Evelyn said — dripping with acid sarcasm. “But I want another pair of eyes on this.”

Yuleson nodded and smiled and looked like he wanted to swallow his own fist. “As long as the evidence is deleted after the fact. We must leave no trace. Miss Lilburne here, her future security depends on it.”

“My dad does what I tell him to.”

When we emerged from the meeting, blinking like grubs who’d crawled out from under a stone, the sun had finished her stretching exercises. Now she was ready to bench-press the city of Sharrowford into trembling, panting, red-faced submission.

We said as much to Raine, when we got back home. She laughed harder than we expected, then asked if we needed taking upstairs and seeing to.

“Tch!” we tutted. “Raine, there’s no time for that today. We’re on a tight schedule.”

Raine blinked at us. “We are? We don’t have to be over at Geerswin ‘til six. You know, when the sun isn’t so bad? I thought that was the whole point of waiting until the evening?”

We sighed. “We’re making the call, to Mister Joking — I mean ‘Joe King’. We’re doing it today. Now.”

So Raine spent half an hour making sure the right windows were open and the wrong windows were closed, that the fans she had bought were set up just right, pushing air from the cellar into the kitchen, from the kitchen into the magical workshop, and out into the front room. Evelyn had a fan all to herself. So did Tenny and Grinny — though it was mostly for Tenny, upstairs in her and Lozzie’s bedroom, ruffling her fur and tempting her to make funny noises into the chopping air.

We all shed half our clothes once more. We downed a pint of ice-water and lemon juice, then devoured a lunch of sandwiches — courtesy of Praem, profusely thanked.

And then we ended up sitting around the kitchen table, staring at Raine’s ‘burner phone.’

We — me, myself, and I — frowned at the slip of notebook paper in our hand, on which Jan had written the only known contact number for ‘Mister Joking’. Then we stared at the phone. Then back at the paper. Then at the phone. Then the paper.

Evelyn sighed a very grumbly and tired sigh. “Heather. Heather, do we really have to do this right now?”

We lifted our eyes and pulled an apologetic smile. “You don’t have to do anything, Evee. This is my responsibility.”

Evelyn gave me a dead-eyed look which could have chilled the sunlight itself.

She was sitting on the opposite side of the kitchen table, dressed in a loose, airy white t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and nothing else, not even socks; the matte black blade structure of her prosthetic foot lay open and exposed against the floor tiles. Her hair was tied up high to keep the heat off her neck. She looked ready for an afternoon nap, so sleepy and comfy. Part of me wanted to do exactly that — go nap with Evee, forget about all this, put off my responsibility.

“Um, Evee?”

Evelyn sighed. “How are you simultaneously so resourceful, and yet also so incredibly fucking stupid?”

Raine burst out laughing; she was sat halfway between myself and Evelyn, with her chair tilted back on two legs. She refrained from putting her own bare feet up on the table, as Praem would probably voice a stern objection. Raine wore even less than Evee — a purple tank top, no bra, and a pair of exercise shorts. The heat was simply too much for any modesty. Her rich chestnut hair was wet with sweat. She looked like she needed some time in bed as well, though probably not for napping.

“Heather, Heather, hey,” Raine drawled. “Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s how Evee expresses affection. The worse the insults, the more she loves you.”

Evelyn huffed. “Yes, Raine, fine, you don’t have to spell it out for her.”

“I know,” we said. “Thank you, Evee.”

Evelyn blushed more than was healthy in such heat. She gestured at me with her maimed hand, unselfconscious of the old scar and the missing fingers. “What I mean to say, Heather, is that you are about to call a mage — the kind of mage who leaves anti-intrusion countermeasures all over the place, not unlike myself. If I get up and go watch cartoons on my laptop and let you do this alone, five minutes later we’re going to be dealing with a giant slug crawling out of the phone and spraying everything with stomach juices. So no, it’s not ‘your responsibility’. We’re all here together.”

“One for all and all for one,” Raine murmured.

We cleared our throat. “Fair point. Um. Sorry, Evee.”

Evelyn huffed again. “And we’re all bloody well exhausted. We’ve had a long day already and it’s not even two in the afternoon. That meeting with the lawyer was enough to put me to sleep. I wish I could have had Praem turn him upside down and shake him by his ankles.”

“Hey,” Raine said. “Boring is better, as far as that went.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “That bastard Yuleson better keep his word. He skims a single penny off Lozzie and I’ll have Praem … ” Evelyn trailed off and gestured at the air. “Bah.”

Praem intoned: “Yuleson will be a good boy.”

Raine laughed again. Evelyn pulled a vaguely disgusted face.

Praem was standing on the opposite side of the room, dressed as usual in her full maid uniform, complete with lace and frills and a lot of flair, once again apparently immune to the summer heat. I envied her deeply. I think we all did, that day.

We smiled at her. “He will, Praem. He knows what Outside is like now. He doesn’t want to go again.”

Praem turned her blank, milk-white eyes to stare at me, through me, past me. For a second we felt like Praem saw all of us, all the other six Heathers which inhabited my tentacles. She saw us all, and liked what she saw.

Then she said: “Naughty Yuleson goes to the time-out castle.”

We giggled at that, we couldn’t help it. “Praem!”

Raine leaned back with a nasty grin. Evelyn muttered, “Can we get back on topic, please?” I suppressed the giggles and cleared my throat.

“Fuck me, though,” Raine said, staring up at the ceiling. “Eight million quid. Eight. Million. Quid. She could do anything with that.”

Evelyn gave her a sidelong glance. “You keep your lips tight, Raine.”

Raine pulled a grin. “Since when do I go boasting about stuff like that?”

Evelyn snorted and rolled her eyes. “Heather, can’t we leave this until tomorrow? I told you to give me a week to finish the Invisus Oculus. You have plenty of time.”

We shook our head, pulling another apologetic smile; four of us joined in — our tentacles, waving from side to side, strobing slowly in the overheated air. Evelyn found it difficult to maintain her craggy disapproval in the face of that display. She tutted and looked away.

“We can’t,” we said. “Evee, I can’t procrastinate. I can’t tell myself I’ll do it tomorrow. I have to do this now. Sevens made it clear to me. No stalling. Anything else would not be doing right by Maisie.”

Raine reached over and rubbed my shoulder. “Right you are. Where is Sevens, anyway? Haven’t seen her all day.”

“With Aym,” we said gently. “Felicity won’t be staying much longer, so … ”

“Ahhhh,” went Raine. “Hmm.”

“Hmm, indeed,” we said. A problem for another day.

Evelyn gestured helplessly with both hands. “I still haven’t finished digesting that manuscript you brought back. We haven’t even begun discussing the implications of this bitch — Heart, and frankly I don’t want to. We’ve possibly got a very difficult evening ahead of us with those cultists. And I … I need to … ” Evelyn trailed off, frowning hard, chewing the inside of her mouth. Raine raised her eyebrows, waiting. Eventually Evelyn spat the words: “And I need to make sure Twil is actually okay, alright? I want to spend some time … anyway! And you want to fit in this phone call, to a mage? Heather, this might turn into a whole crisis. Very easily.”

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes briefly. “That’s why I’m going to do it myself.”

“Let Praem—”

“Praem can’t do brain-math,” we said softly. “If Joking — gosh, I hate that name — if ‘Joe King’ has countermeasures in place, then I am best suited to disarm them. Praem would still be in danger. She’s not perfect.”

“Wrong,” said Praem.

We almost laughed. We reached out with one tentacle and bobbed it in Praem’s general direction. “My apologies, Praem. Of course you are.”

“Maids are perfect. I am a maid.” Praem did a whole-body sideways tilt, like a puppet making a silly pose. Her skirt floffed out on one side. She put her hands together and winked with one eye. “Perfection.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, but I could see the deep affection in her face. Raine gave Praem a little round of applause. Praem straightened back up and curtseyed.

“Nevertheless,” I went on, trying to be serious once again. “I’m going to make the call myself. I think it’s the right option.”

Evelyn sighed again. “Everyone’s dispersed right now, Heather. Can’t we at least wait until the evening, after the meet with the cultists, when everyone is—”

“I want to do it now,” we said. “If there are safety measures we should take, I’ll take them. But no more stalling. I want to be ready for Maisie, the moment we can make the attempt. If … Joseph King has any information on the Eye, I want to know.” We pulled our tentacles in tighter, wrapping them about ourselves. “ … I do wish Zheng would come home though. Still no … ?”

Raine shook her head. “Not answering her phone either. Assuming it has power.” She shrugged. “Big Zed always does this when you’re out of action for a bit, Heather. She’ll be home.”

“Mmm,” I grumbled. “I hope she’s not sulking for some reason. I don’t want to have to go hunt her down, too.”

Evelyn slapped the table. “One thing at a time! Bloody hell, Heather. You want to get this done? Then focus!”

I steeled myself and picked up the phone, then frowned. “Why is it called a ‘burner phone’, anyway?”

Raine said: “Burn after reading.”

We pulled a face. “You shouldn’t burn plastic. That’s bad for the environment. It’s bad for you!” Raine snorted. Evelyn chuckled too. We blinked at both of them. “Sorry? What is it?”

Raine reached over and rubbed my shoulder, her thumb working at the tension-knots in my back. “It’s a metaphor. You don’t actually burn the phone, physically. You take out the sim card and snap it, or maybe remove any physical storage media, then run a magnet over it. Voila, untraceable contact. I bought it with cash, too, no name on file.”

We stared at the phone again. It did feel particularly flimsy, like the black plastic case might crack if exposed to direct sunlight.

“But … why?” we said.

Raine shrugged. “In case GCHQ are listening in. Or the CIA.”

I boggled at her. “Why would GCHQ be listening to us?”

Praem intoned: “For fun.”

Evelyn sighed and pulled a surprisingly sly little smile. “Raine is overcompensating for Stack critiquing our operational security. She’s trying to impress the monster.”

Raine raised both her hands in a gesture of mock-innocence. “Hey, come on, I’m just being sensible. It’s a sensible precaution.”

Evelyn’s smirk got worse. “And who would be listening to us now, hmm? Edward’s done. Forget bolting the barn door after the horse has fled, the horse has been turned into glue and used for arts and crafts. This is pure preening for your frankly disturbing obsession with Amy Stack. You think if you wave enough opsec in her face she’ll sit on yours?”

“Evee!” I squeaked, blushing in shock.

Raine laughed, shook her head — and looked away, almost embarrassed. I’d never seen Raine embarrassed like that before.

“You know I’m right,” said Evee. “Heather, I don’t know why on earth you’re alright with this. I’m not judging whatever tangled polycule you want to be part of—” She paused, cleared her throat, and recovered from the accidental self-damage. “But I am judging any romantic interest in a goddamn professional mercenary. You said it yourself, Raine, she was a baby-killer. And she’s straight! She’s married! She has a child. She’s easily twenty years older than you. Give up, Raine. This is a pathetic target, even for you.”

I frowned. “Evee. Excuse me.”

Evelyn squinted — and then understood what she’d said. She went red in the face and waved the insult away. “Not you, Heather! God, present company excluded.”

“Still,” we said, tutting.

Raine raised her chin. “I am not doing opsec to get Amy Stack to sit on my face. I’m doing it to get her to squeal like a good little doggy.”

We threw up both hands, all six tentacles, and our voice. “Oh, my gosh, you two. Stop! Please. Stop. What is this? What are you doing?!”

Evelyn looked away, suitably chastised. Raine laughed and shook her head and said: “I’m winding you up.”

“Salty,” said Praem.

Evelyn barked a laugh and slapped the table. “Bloody right. Salty because she said your opsec was shit.”

Raine raised her hands in surrender and lowered her head. “Guilty. Guilty. Sentence me to hard, hard, hard labour. With Stack.”

“Raine,” we warned.

Raine cleared her throat and bowed her head to me. “As you wish, my squidling lady.”

That made us blush a little — and almost made us discount the question of whether Raine really was joking or not, about wanting to have intimate relations with Amy Stack.

She had, however, stolen all my tension. Well done, Raine.

Evelyn leaned back in her chair and grunted, rolling her uneven shoulders and working out the kinks in her joints. “I would like to remind you — both of you — that Amy Stack is now beyond our control. Seriously. I do not recommend having any more contact with her than absolutely necessary.”

“Ah?” I blinked at Evee.

She gave me a look like I was considerably slower than she’d expected. “With Edward gone, there’s no threat to her little boy. I don’t hold her leash anymore. Nobody does. Not even if I keep protecting the child. Which, yes, I will anyway.”

“Ah,” we said. “Well … she’s got no reason to go against us, right?”

Raine said: “Nicky’s been hanging out with her.”

Evelyn frowned like she’d just been presented with a piece of completely carbonised toast. “She— the detective— excuse me, what?”

Raine shrugged. “Didn’t think it was important. Apparently they’ve been talking some. Kim told me that Nicky told her.”

“Oh,” Evelyn huffed. “This is some game of telephone nonsense. I don’t have the time to think about this. Fine, whatever!”

But we were chewing on this concept. One tentacle tied itself in a loose knot trying to imagine the scene. We said: “How does one ‘hang out’ with Stack?”

Raine smirked. “Very carefully. Or in my case—”

“Raine!” we said quickly. “Stop! We don’t want to think about that.”

“Sure you do. You can’t stop grinning, Heather.”

“I’m not ‘grinning’! It’s just a smile.”

Evelyn put her face in one hand. “Please stop. That or go to your room, both of you. I thought you wanted to make this phone call, Heather? You know what, forget it. Why don’t you two go upstairs and spend the afternoon on each other—”

“—in each other—” Raine murmured, sotto voce.

I went to bap her with a tentacle — but ended up slowly wrapping it around Raine’s arm instead. She grabbed the tentacle in return, tugging on it gently, showing me all her teeth in a suddenly very Zheng-like grin, more predatory intent than confident power. We felt ourselves begin to blush, hot and red.

“—and we can leave this dangerous phone call task until tomorrow,” Evelyn finished quickly, as she saw what was happening on the far side of the table. She cleared her throat loudly and tapped the tabletop. “You have a room, you two. Please.”

Praem intoned, smart and soft: “No heavy petting in the kitchen.”

Raine laughed and relented. I quickly disentangled my tentacle from my girlfriend and sat up straight, blushing furiously and frowning my little frowny face.

“That’s not— I didn’t mean— I’m not going to—” We stumbled, mortified. “Oh, damn and blast it all! We’re doing it right now!”

I scooped the ‘burner phone’ off the table and woke the tiny screen, then raised Jan’s note with the incredibly long phone number, and squinted at the absurd string of digits.

Raine cheered. “Doing it live!”

Evelyn picked up her walking stick and—

Bang-bang-bang!

—slammed it against one of the table’s legs so hard that the whole tabletop shook. We flinched. Raine did a silly mock-recoil from Evelyn’s threat of violence.

“E-Evee?” I stammered.

Evelyn fixed me with an exasperated gaze. “If we’re going to do this, we do it properly. Up. Both of you. Into the workshop. And Praem,” Evelyn softened instantly as she addressed her doll-maid daughter. “Would you be a dear and fetch Lozzie from upstairs, please? Not Tenny or … ‘Grinny’, leave them be.”

Praem answered by turning on her heel and marching out of the kitchen, skirts swishing, shoes clicking.

“Evee?” we said. “Evee, I’m sorry, but what do we need Lozzie for?”

Evelyn gave me a flat-eyed look which could have halted a falling meteor. “Insurance. Now get up. Into the workshop. Let’s get sorted out.”

We followed Evelyn’s orders and decamped into the magical workshop; between the heavy curtains over the bay windows, the habitual gloom of the space, and the muffled feeling as if we were inside the core of the house, the heat became paradoxical — shadowy, yet sweltering, darker, yet hotter. A womb-like feeling. Cradled in the heart of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

Evelyn had me sit in a chair in the middle of the room, beyond reach of any other object, on a piece of canvas. Then she directed Praem in drawing a magic circle around me; nothing fancy or particularly eye-searing, just a double-layer of inward-pointing protection.

“Feels like I’m being welded into a shark cage,” we murmured.

“Shark, caged,” said Praem.

Evelyn snorted. “Good. It’s for your protection and ours.”

We sighed a long, disappointed sigh, gesturing helplessly with the ‘burner phone’. “Evee, I just … I just wanted to get this over with, not make a big performance of it.”

Evelyn jabbed the end of her walking stick toward me. “There is no ‘getting it over with quickly’, Heather. We do this with proper precautions, or not at all. How do you still not understand this?”

We felt a little ashamed. “I didn’t want to … impose … I guess.”

Evelyn snorted again and crossed her arms. “You can impose as much as you like.”

Raine set up the rest of the emergency equipment, in case something went wrong: a bucket of water, a helping of chocolate, a fire extinguisher — even Evee raised an eyebrow at that one — bandages, her makeshift riot-shield, and her handgun. The handgun went on the table, pointed away from everything else, safety firmly on.

Lozzie joined us too; she flounced down from upstairs, fluttering and bobbing in the doorway of the magical workshop. She had bare feet and bare legs poking out from beneath the hem of her poncho, and exposed her bare arms whenever she raised them; I suspected she was mostly naked beneath the poncho, and I didn’t blame her one bit, not in this heat.

Just before Praem finished the circle, Raine ducked inside and placed a bottle of water at my feet, dripping with cold condensation from the fridge.

“In case you’re in there for a while,” Raine said, winked, and kissed me on the forehead.

“This isn’t going to take a while!” I protested. But Raine was already retreating. Praem put the finishing touches on the circle. Evelyn sat down in her chair, frowning at me like I was an unsolved maths problem. Lozzie kept bouncing from foot to foot and flapping her poncho to help circulate the air. The spider-servitors were not present for once — they were upstairs with Marmite, who was with Tenny. Not particularly useful as guard creatures if they followed their new friend everywhere, but we all preferred them happy.

“Well,” Evelyn grunted. “We’re about as ready as we can be. Go ahead and make the call when ready, Heather.”

Lozzie chirped: “Maybe he won’t pick up! Maybe he’s sleeping. Or out. Or Out!”

Raine caught my eye and said: “Heather, whatever happens, we’ll catch you.”

We gulped, staring at the burner phone in one hand, then at the absurdly long number in our other. Our tentacles coiled in tight, around our belly and ribs, a layer of protective pneuma-somatic meat. We’d wanted this to be quick and easy, a nasty phone call but not a potential crisis. But everyone else was acting like we were about to get into a fight — if not a very serious one.

Evee was right; Raine was right. Operational security or magical precaution, both could not be ignored without taking significant and senseless risks. We had to take this seriously. We couldn’t afford another slip-up, not so close to Wonderland, so close to Maisie.

Praem was standing by Evelyn’s side. She fixed me with a milk-eyed look, empty of expression, and said:

“When calling an unknown party it is best to introduce yourself first. Avoid slang or colloquialisms. Speak clearly. Practice first if you are nervous. Write a script if you require further structure.”

Evelyn looked up at her with a confused frown. Raine laughed and shot her a finger-gun. Lozzie giggled and flapped her poncho as if heaping praise upon our Praem.

And I laughed too, just one soft exhalation. All the tension flowed back out of us — well, most of the tension. Partway there. Enough to get moving.

“Thank you, Praem,” we said. “I don’t think we’ll need a script though, not this time.”

We took a deep breath and prepared for the worst — for magical countermeasures, for Mister Joking’s clever trap on the other end of the phone, ready to snare any nasty mages trying to leave a lethal surprise for him. We flexed our metaphorical hands, ready to plunge them into the black and tarry depths of our soul, to grasp the machinery of hyperdimensional mathematics, to deflect the hidden blade we were about to face.

We raised the phone, typed in the absurdly long number, and triple checked that we had it right; then we hit the call button, and raised the phone to our left ear.

Ring-ring-ring-

“It’s ringing!” we hissed.

Evelyn tutted softly. “What did you expect? Concentrate.”

“Well, it’s just the number is so long, we didn’t—”

Click.

The call connected.

The click was so loud, like a thunderclap over a dark forest, like a slab of concrete slamming into the ground. The shock made us blink, made the hot air recede for a split-second, made the whole house flinch.

Then, silence: machine-silence, the soft whirring of a tape, the tiny motors and gears turning inside a device that was meant to speak to me, or meant to record my speaking, or negate the need to speak at all. We stayed silent and still, as if before the machine-eyes of a cold and lifeless trap. All our tentacles went dark, following some deep-buried instinct to make ourselves invisible and unseen. The machine waited for one of us to blink first.

Then a voice, scratchy and rough and exhausted, marred with static and tape-damage and age; I had to close my eyes and concentrate as hard as I could to make out the words. Had this been recorded on an old-school analogue answering machine?

“You’ve reached … well, you’ve reached me, hi. If you’re calling this number then you already know me. Or maybe I’m dead and you just want to hear my voice one last time? Ha. Sad. Anyway, if you have real business, if you want in, speak the password.”

Password?

Jan hadn’t said anything about a password.

Was that Mister Joking’s voice? It sounded a little bit like him, but too old, too exhausted, too melancholy. Perhaps it was yet another version of himself, another front or act to throw off unwanted visitors.

But what was the password?

We wracked our brains, all seven of them, but in the end we did not know this man, we did not know what he might set as a password. We could not make a guess, educated or otherwise. Figuring it out from first principles was impossible.

But we did know that an analogue answering machine from the 1990s was not capable of listening to a spoken password and rendering it into some kind of access. Which meant that magic was at play here. Which meant there was an opening, in this gap for a password, into which we could ram a piece of hyperdimensional mathematics. A crack for our crowbar.

Anything designed to accept a password must by definition contain the shape of the password within itself. A lock contains the shape of the key, in reverse, concealed in the shape and configuration of the pins.

I did not know the first thing about how to pick a lock; but I knew plenty about how to define the shape of things which tried to hide from observation and insight.

We were the Eye’s adopted daughter, after all.

With a flicker of thought we dredged from the sump of my soul a string of machinery, black and dripping with corrosive tar, thick with brine and bile and unspeakable fluids.

It was so delicate, so fine, like a tangle of razor-sharp fishing line; in the past such a specific equation would have sliced through my fingers, cut off chunks of my brain, and left me vomiting in a heap on the floor. Such an equation would have required hours of unconsciousness, or burning my reactor at the red line, or simply hurt too much to endure for the time it took to implement.

But now the effort was split and shared; seven of us to grasp the pieces and put them in the right order, seven minds to run the equation, only combining together at the very last moment.

We slid the machinery into the right configuration, and slammed it into the space that rightfully belonged to a ‘password’.

Mister Joking’s recorded voice spluttered: “Hey, what are you— oh no, no way—”

==

“—no you don’t!”

Leaden grey sky, heavy with dark clouds, threatening days of rain.

The edge of a forest, dark and thick and untended — true old growth, wrapped around and over itself in a riot of century-slow life.

A concrete building, a Brutalist dream of grey slabs and long brown windows, four stories tall and damp with woodland mist; a wide intrusion squatting in the middle of the forest clearing, surrounded by half-buried boulders and craggy outcrops of rock, as if the concrete itself had grown from the ground.

“What?!” we yelped.

Well, actually, we didn’t yelp, or say ‘what’; we intended to, of course, but actually we made a strangled noise which had no business emerging from a human throat, a rising hiss coupled with a squawk of shock and warning.

Our tentacles went wild, flinging outward in all directions. Our shoes scuffed on the loamy forest earth. Our voice vanished into the depths of the trees.

Where were we?

We’d been in Number 12 Barnslow Drive only a moment ago, sitting in the magical workshop, phone in hand. Mister Joking’s static-blurred, recorded voice still rang in our ears.

And now: forest and clouds, concrete and dirt, and a chill wind howling through the leaves.

We turned slowly on the spot, tentacles ready for anything, mind racing.

I was not exactly a stranger to sudden transitions, to put it lightly; I’d been dealing with this kind of thing for more than half my life, either Eye-enforced Slips to Outside and back, or my own dimension-hopping shenanigans, or Lozzie inviting me into dreams that were not quite dreams, or sticking my tentacles where they didn’t belong and ending up inside the quasi-dreams of inhuman creatures trying to teach me more mathematics.

This experience did not fit into any of those categories. I was fully present, all seven of my sub-Heather routines running at full lucidity, our minds sharp and alert and more than a little bit scared. I had not Slipped, or gone through the membrane. This place was not blurred through the logic of a dream, or pressed tight by the pressure of Outside.

But it didn’t look real.

The forest was too dark, too thick, too fairytale — the sort of forest that had not existed anywhere on earth for hundreds of years, at least not at this horizon-to-horizon scale; the sky was too low, too heavy with clouds, too long paused on the threat of rain; the concrete building was — well, it was beautiful, in the way that only a proper piece of Brutalist architecture can be, not the half-considered knockoffs that called themselves Brutalist, but the true originals, a perfect blend of textured grey concrete against a background of dark green.

We put our hands on our hips and sighed at the Brutalist beauty.

“Okay, well, I know you’re not real,” we said out loud. “Because if you were, they’d have written books about you. Nobody actually makes concrete giants so perfect.”

I felt a bit silly waiting for a response, but I waited anyway.

Nothing, just the wind rushing through the equally too-perfect treetops.

“Did Mister Joking make you? If he did, well, maybe he’s not so bad. At least he has taste. Sort of. Is he inside there?”

Nothing.

“Is this your … ” I searched for the term again. “‘Intrusion countermeasure’? Is that what I’m looking at? Or is this all a metaphor? I’m going to be seriously disappointed if you’re not real. You’re too beautiful to not exist.”

Still no reply.

We sighed and rubbed our face. “If this turns into a whole crisis just because I wanted to speak with you, I’m going to be furious. I can’t afford to have this become a whole multi-hour or multi-day—”

==

“—thing.”

We blinked our eyes open.

Evelyn was frowning at us from across the magical workshop, deep in the sun-forced shadows of the house. Raine was leaning forward in a pose of casual tension, ready to move, but not alarmed. Lozzie was caught mid-flutter by the doorway. Praem was exactly where I’d left her.

Gosh, but the air was so hot, compared with that deliciously cool forest clearing. We burst into a fresh wave of sweat, panting suddenly.

Evelyn shook her head and made her eyes wide. “Heather? ‘Thing’? What thing? What are you talking about?”

“Um … er … ”

Raine said: “Sounded like a recorded message. What’d he say?”

We blinked several more times. “Uh … how long … how long was I … out?”

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance. Lozzie paused and bit her lip, pressing a corner of her poncho over her mouth.

Evelyn frowned at me, very hard. “Heather? What happened?”

Raine actually answered my question: “You weren’t out. You blinked and then you said ‘thing’. That was it.” Raine raised a hand and waved. “We’re really here, you’re really awake. This is reality.”

“Heather,” Evelyn grunted through her teeth. “Explain. Quickly.”

“I— I was in a forest. There was a building. It was sort of like a Lozzie-dream, but not. I was fully conscious and aware right from the start. Was that his ‘countermeasure’, or … did I lose the contact? All I did was … well, I didn’t do anything I … I … ”

I still had the phone pressed to my ear; the wind was still rushing through those dark green treetops.

“Heather?” Evelyn snapped.

“ … I’m … still there … ” I muttered. My eyes turned toward the phone, toward that vista of green and concrete, of shadow-raked clouds and brown glass, of moist earth between my shoes. Shoes? I wasn’t wearing shoes, not here. But there? But there was here. Here was there. Two mirrors faced each other. “I’m there, and I’m here. At the same time. I … ”

Raine said quickly: “Any monsters, bad guys, anything like that?”

“No … no … it’s really quiet. Sort of nice. Peaceful.”

Evelyn raised a hand and pointed — at Lozzie.

Lozzie froze in place, mock-paused between one motion and the next, hands out, one leg raised, face a funny little o-shape.

“Lozzie,” Evelyn said quickly. “Go with her. That’s why I wanted you here. Can you do that? Is she dreaming with her eyes open?”

Lozzie shrugged and flapped her poncho. “Yes aaaaaand yes. I can try!”

Evelyn nodded. “And promise me you’ll come back — you’ll pull her back out if something bad happens. If something bad even glances in your direction. If one of you so much as farts wrong. Promise me, Lozzie.”

Lozzie did a big nod up and down. Her wispy blonde hair went everywhere. “Promise-promise! No farting!”

We tried to look up at Evee, but our eyes were elsewhere. We stared at the concrete building, the Brutalist beauty, and the dark forest behind her slender bare shoulders.

“I can,” we said, lips only moving with the greatest concentration. “Evee, I can promise … promise too—”

Evelyn snorted. “You always get distracted. Lozzie, step into the circle if you need, it should be perfectly safe, and—”

In my peripheral vision, somebody else stood up and stretched: Raine, rolling her shoulders and cracking her knuckles. “Hey, Loz, can I come too?”

“What?!” Evelyn spluttered. “Raine, don’t make this more difficult and dangerous than it already is! And you’ve never been in one of these absurd dreams, you—”

“Sure!” chirped Lozzie. “Rainy-Raines can come! It’s not hard!”

Raine scooped her handgun off the table. She did something that made it go click. She stepped toward the circle as well.

“Raine!” Evelyn snapped. “For fuck’s sake!”

Raine turned back to her for a moment. “Sorry, Evee. I just figure they could do with some fire-power.”

“It’s a dream, you knuckle-dragger!”

Raine laughed. “Not the gun. They’re gonna talk to Joking, right? Come on, Evee. I think they need a little muscle to back them up.”

Evelyn started to say something else, a string of creative insults about Raine’s ability to reason, her attachment to violence, and how she should let the adults actually tackle the problem without—

But then I blinked.

==

We found ourselves back in the forest clearing once more, beneath a ceiling of slowly roiling storm, facing a building of grey concrete beauty.

To my right, Raine let out a low whistle. “Damn. Look at this place.”

She was dressed for a street fight: a leather jacket with studded shoulders, a black t-shirt with ‘fuck you’ written on the front, thick jeans on her legs, and a pair of heavy boots with steel toe-caps. As she glanced around the clearing, she shoved her handgun into her waistband. She didn’t seem to be aware or surprised by her sudden change of clothes. Which was a pity, because she looked amazing.

“Oh!” Lozzie chirped from my left. “It worked! Heeeeey Rainy-Raine!”

Lozzie looked exactly the same as out in reality — barefoot and bare legged, wearing nothing except her poncho and perhaps some hidden underwear. She flashed me a smile, then wrapped her arms around one of our tentacles.

We said: “Aren’t you going to get cold like that, Lozzie?”

“Mm-mm!” Lozzie shook her head. “It’s a dream, you can be as warm as you want!”

Raine said: “And you can pull Heather back out, right? At will? Just click your heels and no place like home?”

Lozzie bobbed her head up and down, then raked her long blonde hair out of her face. “Mmhmm-mmhmm! It’s not a sticky dream like with Mister Squiddy! Actually I think Heathy already kinda broke it. There’s almost nothing here!”

Raine flashed a confident smile. “Good stuff, good to hear it. A straight walk into an unlocked house, hey?”

I wasn’t sure if I should tut at Raine or reach out with a tentacle to give her a covert squeeze; I hadn’t realised until that moment why she’d really joined us. She wasn’t fire-power or muscle or our intimidating enforcer, not at all. She was here to make sure Lozzie kept her promise, to make sure we all turned tail and fled at the first sign of trouble.

Evelyn must have been spitting mad out in reality — that is, if all this was taking more than the blink of an eye.

“Wait,” we said. “Lozzie, this is a dream? It doesn’t feel like one.”

“Mm!” Lozzie squeaked. “It is! But I don’t think it’s meant to be here. If Jokerman is home, I don’t think he wants to be?”

“Feels like a dream to me,” said Raine.

“It’s not usually so … Raine?”

We hadn’t realised until we’d studied Raine with more care, but she looked wrong too; her pupils were massively dilated, her skin was flushed, and she was shaking slightly — not with fear or nerves, but like she’d taken some kind of energy drug. She looked ready to run a marathon, or fight a bear, or have sex with Zheng.

“Uh … Raine, are you okay?”

She nodded. “Just feels a bit weird, that’s all. If I feel like I’m gonna fall over or something, I’ll tap out early. But I’m fine. Let’s rock.” She turned her eyes toward the Brutalist Lady of the Forest. “Up those steps, then? Doesn’t seem like there’s any other way inside.”

“Hold my hand, Heathy!” Lozzie chirped. She wiggled her hand into mine and held on tight. “In case we have to run!”

Raine set off toward the building. “You two stay behind me, alright? Let me go in front.”

Our ad-hoc trio of dream-explorers crossed the loamy grass which filled the strip of land between the edge of the forest and the building herself; the structure loomed, four stories of heavy, dark concrete, weather-stained and wet, running with little rivulets of water. The brown windows were all dark and still, showing no lights, no life, no motion. Some of the buildings on the Sharrowford University campus were like that, but always lit from the inside, always glowing with even just a touch of life. This one was quiet, but in a stately, dignified sort of way. Her sweeping clean lines and sharp angles formed a perfect counterpoint to the dark green of the forest.

Whoever had made this was a genius.

We almost blushed when we reached the lip of her staircase.

The stairs up toward the front door were akin to those outside a great public building, or a library, or a courthouse — a hundred steps climbing into the air, to a row of dark glass doors. But the concrete had no lower termination point, simply sinking into the ground as an uneven line, with the earth grown right up to the edges of the structure; it gave the impression that the building had been disgorged from the bowels of the forest, not built here by other hands.

Raine drew her pistol as we climbed the steps, pointing it carefully downward with both hands. Lozzie fluttered and skipped, almost weightless. I used my tentacles to help us endure the climb.

Raine paused before the glass doors and peered inside, going up on tiptoe, ducking her head from side to side. “Nobody home?”

Lozzie stuck a hand out of her poncho, palm up, and looked up at the sky. Raindrops began to patter off the steps. We drew closer to the doors, beneath the shelter of a concrete overhang, out of the sudden rain.

“Oh, it’s raining!” we said. “Is that a good sign? Or a bad one?”

Raine snorted. “A sudden storm drives our stranded protagonists into the spooky abandoned building. What horrors will they encounter within?”

I rolled my eyes, with an unexpected flutter in my chest. Lozzie giggled. Raine laughed at her own terrible joke and pushed one of the doors open.

We crept inside.

The interior of the mysterious dream-structure was concrete, concrete, and more concrete. Dark concrete walls formed wide and airy corridors; concrete ceilings were lined with strip-lights — turned off, so the only illumination came through the brown glass windows, slowly strangled by the growing static of the raindrops; concrete floors were marked with concrete arrows, pointing down one corridor, up another, left and right and backing up on themselves again.

Two pairs of trainers and Lozzie’s bare feet padded down empty corridors of echoing concrete, circling the inside of the building, looking for anything — anything at all, any room which contained more than just windows and concrete floor.

But this was an empty house.

“Creepy-creepy spooky-spooky,” Lozzie whispered.

“Lozzie, please don’t say that,” we protested.

Lozzie giggled, then whispered ‘spoooookeeeee’ under her breath.

Raine took the corridors and corners with utmost seriousness — though a little too sharply, a little too quickly, too wired with strange dream-energy. She led with her pistol, pointing it at bare concrete walls, bare concrete floors, and doors made of nothing but glass and a handle.

“Watch your corners,” she hissed. “Holler at me if you see anything.”

“There’s nothing here,” we whispered. “Maybe he’s not in?”

“Maybe he’s sleeping!” Lozzie chirped.

Then, when we reached the doors of the front entrance again, we heard the whistling.

Jolly, tuneless, echoing from deep inside the structure. We all paused and shared a glance. Raine raised her eyebrows. Lozzie tilted her head as if the whistling meant something. But then she shrugged and puffed out her cheeks. The whistling came and went, notes going up and down, without purpose. Exactly like a person whistling while doing some random domestic task.

Raine pointed down the corridor we hadn’t taken — the one that went straight into the heart of the building. We all nodded. Lozzie hung on tight.

The corridor went straight, then right, then left, then met a pair of double doors made from opaque glass. The whistling was coming from inside — but still far away.

Raine paused, raised one hand, and hissed: “If something weird or bad happens when we step through—”

Lozzie finished for her. “Then back we go! Go go go!”

Raine pushed the doors open and led with her gun. We scurried in behind her. Then we all stopped, staring, three mouths open in shock. Even my tentacles froze.

In the core of the Brutalist beauty was a single room as large as a football pitch; a concrete box like a giant warehouse. We had the distinct impression that out in reality, such a room would require at least a few structural supports to stop the roof from caving in. But this one was featureless, plain, and gigantic.

Except for all the toilets.

Hundreds and hundreds of white porcelain toilets were lined up on the floor in a perfect grid pattern, all of them facing the same direction. They looked like they were plumbed in as well, not simply sitting loose on the ground. Each one had about five feet of clearance on all sides.

“Um,” I said. “This is … new.”

“Ever seen anything like this, Outside?” Raine whispered.

Lozzie and I both shook our heads. Lozzie snort-giggled into a corner of her poncho.

The whistling was coming from the rear of the room, by the back wall. A figure was sitting on one of the toilets, a newspaper propped open on his knees, whistling loudly. He was also completely naked.

Raine whispered, “He hasn’t noticed us. Lozzie, is this a dream thing?”

Lozzie tilted her head one way, then the other. “Don’t think he knows he’s here!”

Raine chuckled. “Heather, what the hell did you do to this guy?”

“I don’t know!” we hissed. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Let’s go say hi!” chirped Lozzie.

Raine kept her gun in both hands, pointed at the floor. “Just keep your distance. Dream or not, remember that he’s a mage.”

The three of us crossed the field of toilets, awkwardly filtering down one of the long rows of endless identical porcelain bowls, complete with rear water tanks and flushing handles. We peered into a few to confirm they were indeed full of water. At least they were spotlessly clean.

Mister Joe King did not look up when we drew close.

He looked exactly as he had when we’d bumped into him on our way to Edward’s house. A big, broad face, given to easy smiles, beneath an artfully messy mop of dark curly hair. Nose a little large, a little puffy around the eyes, with big cheekbones. A healthy, olive-coloured complexion — all over, for as much as any of us wanted to see; broad shoulders, barrel chest, with a lot of muscle packed onto a soft frame. He had very hairy legs and a dark thatch of chest hair. We tried not to look at anything else.

He went on whistling, pausing briefly to chuckle at something in his newspaper. I tilted my head to read the name of the publication, but it was all nonsense, letters and words scrambled by the dream.

“Hey,” Raine said. “Joe.”

“Mmmm?” Mister Joking grunted vaguely, but didn’t raise his eyes from the newspaper.

“Oi, mate. It’s us,” Raine went on. “We’re in your dreams. Come on, pay attention now. Chop chop, laddie.”

“Ehhhhh,” went Joe. He turned the page of his paper.

Raine sighed. “Alright. Lozzie, how do we—”

Lozzie filled her lungs, and shouted: “I can see your dick!”

Her voice echoed off into the concrete void.

Mister Joe King looked up.

I saw the moment of recognition, the freezing of his eyes, the stilling of his breath — the realisation that he was not alone inside his own head. We braced for combat, for hyperdimensional mathematics, for Lozzie to grab us and rip us from the dream, for Raine to raise her pistol and—

“Woah!” Joe King said, recoiling without leaving his porcelain throne. He raised his hands, newspaper forgotten in his lap.

Raine laughed. “There we go. That’s more like it. Hello there, mate.”

“Woah, woah!” Joe King went on, eyes wide at the three of us. “Okay, woah! Holy shit. Hey, hey, girlies, woah, okay! I never did anything to you girls! I fucked off! I fucked off, twice! Alright? I never came after you. I bugged out from Edward’s bullshit. What the fuck, yo?”

Raine lowered her gun — but not all the way. “This ain’t our fault, fella.”

I sighed. “I called a phone number. You dragged us in here?”

Mister Joking frowned at me in confusion; I had to remind myself that this could all be another layer of act, a trick to leave us off guard. “What? What are you talking about?”

“I called a phone number. You had a recorded message. You asked for a password, and I … broke in.”

He gestured at me with one meaty hand. “Duh! ‘Zactly! You broke in. I think I’m right justified in being a bit freaked here!”

We held up a hand and three tentacles. He eyed them — us — with wary suspicion. “What is this place?” we said. “It’s like a dream but it’s not. And … excuse me, but what are you doing? Can’t you put some clothes on?”

Mister Joking looked genuinely offended, pulling a face like I was talking absolute nonsense after breaking into his house. “What do you mean, what am I doing?” he said, voice hitching high with outrage and confusion. “I’m just existing. I mean, sure, ‘kay, cool, this ain’t exactly real, but what do you mean by … ” He paused, narrowed his eyes, and glanced at Lozzie. “Wait a sec. Lass, there you said … uh … Right, what do you see? Like, me, right now? What are you seeing here?”

Lozzie smothered a giggle.

I sighed. “You’re … naked.”

Raine said, “You’re sitting naked on the bog, mate.”

Lozzie lost control of her giggles.

“What?!” Joking looked disgusted. He shoved his newspaper into his lap. “Oh, fuck. What do you lot want?!”

“Information,” I said.

He boggled at me, like I was an idiot — or perhaps like I was seven layers of squid girl who had interrupted him on the toilet, while her scary girlfriend held him at gunpoint and her pixie friend giggled at the size of his penis.

I sighed a big sigh. “You were studying the Eye. It’s how we first ran into you. I remember that you had notebooks, with drawings, and other information. I want to know what you know. I want every last detail. I’m willing to threaten you, but I would rather exchange information as equals, as—”

Mister Joking straightened up.

The mask — the easy-going wide boy, the harmless laddish drunkard with the grin and the rolling tilt to his words — vanished. In his place, the mage started back at us, suddenly full of stern dignity and unquestioned mastery. Even naked, he radiated cold confidence.

“I will not help you,” he said, in the thick Welsh accent of the man under the mask.

“Ahhhh,” went Raine. “Hey there you. We talking to the man in charge, now?”

“We are all in charge,” he said.

We sighed. “Why not? Why not help me?”

“I know what you are, Miss Heather Morell,” said Joseph King. “You are the progeny, the little watcher to the Magnus Vigilator. I do not think it wise to give you advice on how to better emulate your adoptive parent.”

Announcement

Very rude to interrupt a mage trying to take a dump. You never know what might start flying. And hey, Joking has a point, right? As far as he's concerned, Heather may as well be some Outsider nightmare trying to gain a foothold in this dimension. He's got no reason to trust her. But can he be convinced - or bought? And by what, exactly?

More importantly, what is Evee seeing during all this? The three of them standing perfectly still, punctuated only by Lozzie shouting about dicks?

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Next week, it's time for negotiations, bargaining, maybe threats, and probably learning more things about bizarre mages who, for once, do not have anything personal against Heather.

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