mischief and craft; plainly seen – 21.12
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Announcement

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

PTSD
Degenerative disease
Malnutrition
Traumatised children

[collapse]

Sunset sky was crusted with cataracts of cobwebbed cloud, grown into gnarled layers of ghostly gossamer, stained crimson and caramel by the unkind caress of the submerged sun — bruised apricot, bleeding coral, burning orange — and darkening with slowing turns toward the blinded blue-grey of summer dusk. A ragged circle of sky — hemmed, imprisoned, squeezed in tight — with the edges of her cornea rat-eaten and raw, penetrated by the glistening green well-mouth of the shivering treetops. The sun, with all her blistering heat, had dipped well below those swaying, rustling, creaking trees, their trunks washed by the ever-present westerly winds, flowing in a ceaseless river toward the distant, hidden bulwark of the Pennines. An empty sky, compressed into a squinting blood-drenched circle of pain.

Was the sky lonely?

We couldn’t stop thinking about that; we really should have been paying more attention to our surroundings. The others needed us present. We were the core and fulcrum of this entire event. But I couldn’t stop.

There was only one sky, after all. Wherever one’s feet were planted upon the earth, one could look up and see the same sky. Sunset or sunrise, night or midday, cloud or rain or storm or snow or hail, these were all only masks over the one true face. Other skies existed, yes — Outside, Beyond, in other dimensions; but this sky, earth’s sky, she could not visit those any more than she could touch the ground. The sky above our heads that evening was a rounded circle staring downward, blind and insensate, from beyond a ring of Brinkwood trees. But it was the same sky. Singular. Alone. Empty.

Clouds were nothing more than water vapour held aloft by air pressure, no matter how infused with romantic metaphor; birds and bats and moths visited the endless, solitary blue, but only her lowest reaches — and they always fell to earth in the end. Human beings could barely imagine her upper secrets, only when we encased ourselves in metal tubes and hurled ourselves through the firmament like roaring intruders, not seeing, not comprehending a thing. We could not touch her, not truly. We were not made for contact with something so alone and apart, so vast and other. We could not understand the sky.

Could we understand the Eye?

A better question: was the Eye lonely?

After all, it filled the sky of Wonderland. It was the sky, from horizon to horizon. Did Wonderland have a sky, behind the great orb? Or did the eye have a hidden optical nerve, descending forever into a void at its rear?

I doubted the metaphysics were quite that literal.

I’d never considered this question before — not after Maisie was taken, not while growing up, not even during the previous year of my now-enlightened state. Not until the revelation relayed through Joe King’s memories, from the lips of a dead man possessed by the Eye. The medium had almost certainly not done justice to the message; for an Outsider entity on the scale of the Eye, a dead man’s lips and throat were probably about as expressive as a finger puppet was for a human being. But the message was simple: I am one, when I should be two.

Eyes come in pairs, don’t they? No, they do not — that is a human notion. Or at least a mammalian one. Spiders have eight eyes, bees have five, some kinds of lizard have three; there is even a species of undersea mollusc which boasts a thousand tiny little eyes, a fact which delighted us when I looked it up earlier that day, a great comfort while I was curled up in the dark on my bed, sniffing and confused while Raine rubbed my shoulders.

But no, the Eye had made itself so very clear. The first piece of clear communication it had ever attempted.

Two missing one. One missing half.

Just like me, missing my Maisie.

A spiteful, toxic, barbed little part of us hoped that the Eye was indeed lonely. We hoped it knew the pain it had caused me and Maisie by ripping us apart from each other. Another part of us was less optimistic — perhaps the Eye was alone, yes, but who was to say it felt such a thing as loneliness? Perhaps that notion was beyond it, or beneath it, alien and unknowable.

Perhaps that’s why it wanted me back so badly; perhaps it knew that Maisie and I had to be reunited, to be whole once more. One plus one equals two and all that. But maybe there was no sentiment in that desire.

Maybe it was just mathematics.

The lonely sky, from whose beauty I could not tear my eyes.

“Nothing yet?”

Evelyn grunted the question through her teeth, from my left; that almost brought me back down to earth.

Raine answered from my right: “Still a no, Evee. Same as the last time you asked me, which was thirty seconds ago, by the way.” Raine chuckled softly. “You can see my phone screen as well as I can, hey? The moment they call, you’ll know it. There’ll be a little jingle and everything.”

Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth. “They’re late. I don’t like it.”

Jan cleared her throat, a little way behind me. She said: “Actually, they still have five minutes before the agreed time of contact. Nothing is wrong, Evelyn. Please, everyone just … ”

Jan trailed off. I assumed Evelyn had turned and speared her with a glare. I couldn’t see, because I was too busy staring at the sky.

From even further behind, a dreamy voice spoke up. “We see nothing on the road approaching the farm. Everyone should be relaxed. That would be better. Better, yes. Better to be relaxed. Nothing to worry about. Miss Martense is correct.”

Amanda Hopton — speaking in that dreamy, floaty, dissociated voice which meant her god was communicating through her. Hringewindla was assuring us he had the approaches covered.

A grumpy masculine voice next to Amanda said, “These fuckers should know they’re on thin ice for this shit. They should have called early.”

Benjamin Hopton, Twil’s cousin, the Brinkwood Cult’s primary muscle. Technically he was not present to support us, but to act as his aunt’s bodyguard.

Jan repeated herself: “The agreed time of contact is still — four and a half minutes away. Nothing is going to go wrong. Everything is going to plan.”

Ben snorted. “Things always go wrong when you lot are around.”

On the other side of her aunt, Twil said: “Oi! I’m one of ‘this lot’ too, Ben.”

He snorted again. “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten.”

Twil’s voice rose. “What’s that’s supposed to fuckin’ mean, hey? You wanna tussle, Benny-boy? You wanna get bog-washed?”

“I’m the one holding the gun here, Twil,” he said. Did I detect a hint of playful amusement in his voice? Perhaps.

I could almost feel the evil grin cracking across Twil’s face. I certainly heard the crack of her knuckles. She said: “You ain’t got silver bullets in that mag, Ben. Go on. Give it a try. Put one in my leg and see how quick I can still kick your arse.”

Ben laughed, unimpressed. “You wouldn’t be so mouthy if your parents were here tonight.”

“Mouthy? Mouthy? Fuck you, Ben, I’m gonna shit in your cereal—”

“Will you lot fucking stop?” croaked a crunchy, crackling voice from a raw and broken throat.

That was Sarika — off to one side, separate from the others. Her voice was so full of scorn and acid that somehow it ended the stupid argument, though I wasn’t so sure it was a real argument in the first place. Twil and Ben had grown up together, somewhat. Just cousins, bantering. Trying to ease the tension.

Evelyn, however, agreed. “Yes,” she tutted. “This isn’t the time for—”

But Sarika was already off. She rattled on like a bag of broken bones: “Infighting before a confrontation with an enemy is about the most stupid, asinine thing you could possibly do.” She snorted, rough and painful. “Not that I should expect better, I suppose. Amateurs and hobbyists and wilful ignorance. You lot are going to get all of us killed, eventually, one way or the other. I don’t know why I agreed to come. Why am I here, huh? Why am I here? Paraded around like a fucking trophy.”

Nathan — our Badger — spoke up with surprising gentleness. “Sarry, hey. It’s going to be okay. Everyone’s just on edge.”

Sarika spat: “I’m not.”

Yet another voice spoke up as well. “Could’a fooled me,” said Nicole Webb. Sarika had no answer to that. “Don’t lie, Sarika, it doesn’t suit you.”

Somebody else opened their mouth with a soft click, for a fresh retort or a new joke.

But Praem interrupted, bell-clear in the cooling dusk: “No fighting.”

A moment of silence passed beneath the bleeding sunset sky — broken eventually by a snort from Sarika: “Shouldn’t your fearless leader be the one to say that?”

I sighed and lowered my gaze from the lonely heavens.

Geerswin Farm, the Hopton family home, Twil’s home, the base of the Brinkwood Cult, or the Church of Hringewindla. Forty one minutes past six in the evening. August 4th. 2019.

Why did that date stick so clearly in our mind? Perhaps because we’d organised this meeting down the smallest detail — we knew who was supposed to call who, and when, and where, and what they were supposed to say, and who was meant to stand in which position, and say what, and how to gesture and look and wait for answers — and who was meant to keep their lips shut tight and let the others do the talking. Or maybe it wasn’t any of that, maybe it was because we were so badly disorganised most of the time that this one high-precision event stood out among all others.

Or maybe because of Maisie’s deadline. My twin had little more than two months left — and I was not going to wait that long. But here we were, tying up a loose end.

Or maybe just because Raine had her phone in her hand, and we could see the numbers on the screen.

I did not turn around to look at Sarika and the others — though one of us did, my Bottom-Left tentacle, trying to cover our collective back. Instead I stared off across the crumbly tarmac and hard-baked mud of Geerswin Farm. Shafts of dying sunlight filtered down through the ring of trees, scattering in a lace-work pattern of rotten orange upon the ground. A soft breeze tugged at my hair, slipped gentle fingers into the slit-cut tentacle-holes in the sides of my t-shirt, and made the trees rustle against themselves in an endless wave. Insects chirped and trilled and sang in the long summer grass. Sweat lay sticky on my skin, but not suffocating, drying in the dusk. Far away, distant cars passed along distant roads, muffled beyond the woods — but not many, not on a Sunday night.

The entrance to the farm — a little bend of ancient asphalt which turned toward the road — was lined with Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors. The driveway looked like a chasm cut through a sea of bubble-bath. More of his ‘angels’ were scattered in the treetops, forming our perimeter guard, our early-warning system. A cluster of them hung far up in the sky above the farm. Raine had called them ‘air cover’; Twil had made a joke about ‘loitering munitions’. I’d barely been paying attention.

Sarika was waiting; we pulled our collective minds together.

“I’m nobody’s leader,” we said out loud, talking without looking back. “And I’m anything but ‘fearless’. You must be joking. You should know better than that, Sarika. I’m actually really intimidated. More than a little bit afraid. Worried. Anxious. Nervous. Can I find more synonyms for this? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure I want to.”

I hiccuped once, loud and painful. I wasn’t lying about the nerves.

To my right, Raine murmured, so softly that none of the others could hear it: “Hey, Heather, hey, it’s gonna be okay, nothing’s gonna go wrong.”

We whispered back, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Sarika heard none of that. She snorted with contempt, and said: “You’re intimidated? You? Don’t make me laugh, Morell. Hurts my throat.”

“Oi,” said Twil, taking offence on my behalf. “Big H doesn’t need that right now—”

“Wait, Twil, please. Sarika,” I said — still staring at the end of the driveway. “What do you mean?”

Sarika laughed, dripping acid derision. “God, you are so wilfully blind. Look around you. Look at what you’ve got here.”

I tore my eyes away from the driveway; watching would not speed up the proceedings, that was just magical thinking. We turned — all of us, all six tentacles and my human core — and looked around at the others.

I already knew exactly what Sarika was trying to express; I was just trying not to think about it too much.

We — not merely me, myself, and I, six other Heathers embedded in the neurons of my tentacles, but we, us, the group, me and all my friends, my chosen family, our allies and auxiliaries and fellow-travellers and friendly observers and conquered prisoners — were gathered before the ancient edifice of Geerswin Farmhouse, standing on the crumbly tarmac amid the slow sunset, ready to receive a surrender.

The Farmhouse itself was still undergoing repairs — the leftovers of when Edward Lilburne had assaulted the place with his obscene suicide-bomber Outsider creatures. Some of the damage had been too great for simple renovations. Whole window frames had been removed and replaced, the front door was brand new thick wood, and several sections of century-old wall had been chipped away and filled in with modern red bricks. I felt terribly sorry for the poor house; the damage was not our fault, it was Edward’s, but though Evelyn had helped to pay for the repairs, the scars would always remain. When we’d arrived at the farm about an hour earlier, to begin setting up, the first thing I’d done was walk over and pat the front wall of the house, murmuring my condolences.

“Get well soon,” I’d said. Raine had laughed — but with love. Evelyn had sighed. Lozzie had joined in and hugged the front wall.

I’d felt terribly silly, but what did that matter?

Several cars stood at the edge of the tarmac courtyard — Raine’s little red one, Felicity’s hulking range rover, Benjamin’s muddy land rover, and Amanda’s modest five-door. The vehicles were lined up nose-to-tail, ostensibly to tuck them out of the way, but actually that was a cheap psychological trick to make the space feel more enclosed.

One of Jan’s many suggestions. She’d offered so much advice on how to run this little meeting. Some of that I had rejected as too cruel.

We were not, for example, going to blindfold and gag these people before we spoke to them. Nor were we tying them to chairs. Nor was I wearing my squid-skull mask and talking entirely through intermediaries — though I had the mask tucked into the coils of one tentacle, to use during the introduction. But I wasn’t going to wear it the whole time, not unless things went really badly.

We prayed it wasn’t going to come to that.

Evee was to my left, with her walking stick in one hand and her scrimshawed bone-wand clutched in the other. She was still dressed for the heat of the summer’s day, but adjusted for the rapid cooling of the evening dark — she wore a t-shirt and one of her long skirts, floaty and soft, with a shawl draped over her shoulders, and her long blonde hair still tied up but ready to be let down to cover the pale expanse of her neck. She stood close enough that I could reach out and touch her with my fingers, but far away enough to hide her continuing embarrassment — and she was deeply embarrassed.

That was the other half of why I’d been staring into the sky; I wasn’t merely lost in brooding melancholy over the nature of the Eye, I was trying to avoid sneaking glances at my poor, sweet, mortified Evee.

The dream — of Joseph King’s concrete house and everything we had learned there — had not dissipated into fragmented memory upon ending, but had stayed in everyone’s minds, fresh and clear as the waking world. The whole dream had lasted only sixteen seconds of real time. As far as I could tell, everyone recalled exactly what had been said and done, including the deal for Joking’s notes, and a last-minute promise of further contact via some more secure and less metaphorical methods.

And that meant Evee recalled saying that she loved me — and remembered her angrily vocalized wish for increased bust size.

At first, I’d been too wrapped up in the revelations from the Eye; there were more pressing matters than Evelyn’s thoughts about her boobs. But she’d blushed up a storm and spent all afternoon avoiding me, throwing herself into the process of organising this meeting.

I hadn’t realised how embarrassed she was until Raine had made a joke — a casual joke, barely a poke, which could have been interpreted in several different ways. The joke was about what Evee should wear to the meeting, something about buying new bras? Evelyn had blushed so hard I thought she might hurt herself, but then she’d released the tension by hurling a glass of water in Raine’s face — which was practically a favour, considering the sticky heat of the day.

We’d sat side by side in the back of Raine’s car on the way to Geerswin Farm. Evelyn had stared straight ahead. She had not offered me her hands.

But we knew she loved us. This wasn’t new. What was she so self-conscious about? Surely not the boobs thing. Surely.

We both had more important matters now though; she scowled at me for a second.

Praem stood at Evelyn’s other elbow, close enough to offer support if needed. She was straight-backed and starched, prim and proper, frilled and laced in her full maid uniform. Hands folded before her, blank eyes staring ahead, Praem was the absolute picture of self-control and iron discipline. A clever illusion, since she was always like that.

Raine was on my right, dressed in big stompy boots, jeans, and a black tank-top. She was sweaty from the hot day, still amused from the dream, her chestnut hair all stuck up and raked back. Her makeshift riot shield was propped against one leg. Her handgun was stuck into the front of her waistband — safety on. That method of carrying a firearm both terrified me and made me feel very funny about Raine’s crotch.

Raine also held one of the sub-machine guns — the awful shiny black weapons that we had, frankly, looted, from Edward Lilburne’s final clutch of doomed mercenaries. There was something ghoulish about that. The weird little killing machine hung from a strap over her shoulder, like it was a tote bag or a cute accessory.

A few steps beyond Raine was one of our auxiliary trios: Felicity, Aym, and Sevens.

Felicity had refused to give up her long coat, despite the heat of the day, though the garment hung off her shoulders more like a cloak. She made no attempt to hide her half-burned face behind her auburn hair. Her magically altered sawn-off shotgun was cradled loose in both hands. Frankly I was amazed she had agreed to attend this; she was supposed to be heading home in a couple of days, back on business of her own. Perhaps she felt she still owed it to Evee.

Next to her was Aym — physically manifested as a cowled and cloaked little figure, a sucking swamp of lightless black lace, faceless and armless, little wisps and tendrils tapping at the asphalt ground. And there was Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, resplendent in her Princess Mask, chin held high, hair ruler-straight, clothes pressed to within an inch of their fabric lives, with the tip of her lilac umbrella against the tarmac, held at a jaunty angle. She caught my eye and blinked slowly; hello kitten, are we not beautiful?

Oh, we were. In a very specific kind of way.

Directly behind me were Lozzie and Jan, holding hands. Lozzie’s poncho was all a-puff and a-float, the hem drifting outward against the breeze. Jan was wearing her ridiculous body-armour, a ‘plate carrier’, as Raine had called it — but not her big puffy white coat. The coat was plausibly deniable protection; the bullet proof plates screamed a different message.

To their side stood July, black hair tied back, dressed like she was ready for a martial arts fight, owl-faced and wide-eyed. She ignored everyone else.

Behind them, sitting on the steps of Geerswin Farmhouse, was Amanda Hopton, glassy-eyed and thick-tongued as she communed with her god for our benefit. The wall behind her was festooned with his bubble-servitors, watching his most beloved human in case the worst should happen. More of the angels were clustered up on the roof of the house, a rapid-reaction force kept close to hand.

To Amanda’s right stood Benjamin, big and heavy and frowning, shaven-headed and sceptical, carrying another one of our purloined submachine guns. He had specific instructions not to even take the safety off; not unless something completely untoward happened. His job was the same as most of the others present here — look scary and serious.

To Amanda’s left was Twil. She was unarmed, fluffy, stripped down to t-shirt and a pair of exercise shorts, and practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. Our werewolf did not need a gun to project menace and the threat of violence.

Off to one side was another curious trio: Sarika and Badger — our proof of good intent, our examples of how this could all go — and Nicole Webb, our tame private eye on the edge of the supernatural world. I wasn’t entirely sure why Webb was here, or why Raine had invited her. Perhaps she was meant to offer her expert knowledge about avoiding police attention — or maybe she was worried about us gunning down ten people in cold blood?

We didn’t blame her; we knew what we looked like.

Sarika and Nicole were both sitting on plastic garden chairs fetched from inside the house, made more comfortable with some cushions. Sarika was stronger than she used to be, she could swing those crutches around like an extra pair of legs, but there was no way she was going to stay standing for the duration of this meeting. Nicole, on the other hand, still had a cast on her broken leg; it was due to be off in a few days, but for now she was still on crutches as well.

Nathan, however, was standing on his own two feet, with the aid of a metal cane. An extra chair waited, in case he needed to sit. Dressed in a baggy jumper and a pair of jogging bottoms, he looked thin and clean, bright-eyed and wide awake behind his glasses. He saw me looking and shot me an innocent smile.

In a way, Nathan was my proof. Here was evidence we were not monsters.

Two very good dogs were also present — Soup, Nicole’s big, grey, rather imposing hound, who was seated at her feet, and Bernard, Amanda’s pneuma-somatic seeing-eye dog, large and fluffy and apparently entirely comfortable with Soup now. Whistle, Badger’s Corgi, was not in attendance; this was too scary for little Whistle.

Several conspicuous absences stood out. Tenny and Grinny were back at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, looking after Whistle and Marmite. They, in turn, were being ‘looked after’ by Kimberly. Kim was not actually expected to do much, just keep an eye on things, with a fully charged mobile phone ready to call Lozzie if anything unexpected started to happen. The residents of Geerswin Farm were also not at the meeting; Twil’s parents had elected to make themselves scarce. Twil had suggested they were squeamish about what might unfold, despite graciously offering us the use of their property.

Again, I didn’t blame them. They probably thought this was going to get ugly.

Amy Stack was also not in attendance, much to Raine’s disappointment. Stack had, however, answered her phone earlier that day. She had listened to Raine’s request-slash-pitch, then replied with one word: no.

Then she’d cut the call.

Evelyn had grumbled, “We don’t need her there, Raine. Stop it. Stop thinking with your cunt.”

“Yeah, but I want her there. I want to—”

“We all know exactly what you want!” Evelyn had snapped. “She is not our ally, Raine. Don’t obfuscate that. She’s a hound with a leash around her neck. And she will try to slip that collar if she can.”

Raine had grinned and wiggled her eyebrows. “Leash? Collar? Nah, Evee, you’re getting it backwards—”

Evelyn had ignored that. “Just because she has very little reason to turn and bite us doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be treated as a danger.”

Raine had sighed. “What, we’re never gonna ask her for help again?”

Evelyn had snorted. “Leave her to her family life with her boy. If we never hear much from her again, I’ll be perfectly happy.”

I had cleared my throat at that. “Well, she is associating with Nicole now, isn’t she? And Nicole likes Kim, and … and … ”

Evelyn had given me such a storm-tossed look that I’d trailed off; at least that was better than her blushing over memories of the dream.

One final absence at the meeting worried at my heart — the only one which really mattered.

Zheng wasn’t there.

My beautiful seven-foot demon lover was not answering her mobile phone; nobody had seen her in a couple of days, not since she’d taken off while I’d been in semi-conscious recovery after my pneuma-somatic crash. She’d been back to the house a few times while I’d been sleeping, offering fresh prey to Grinny, but nobody could contact her now she was gone again. I’d not personally seen Zheng since the fight with Edward.

She’d done this sort of thing before, of course — vanished into the woods for days or weeks, hunting fresh meat, sleeping in the trees, living like an animal. And she had no way of knowing that we’d accelerated the schedule for this meeting. But her absence stung. Zheng was the other point of the triangle between myself and her and Raine. Raine missed her too, though she kept that well-concealed. Zheng wasn’t just mine — she was ours, now. Raine cared too. A part of her was missing.

Once this meeting was over, with the matter concluded one way or the other, I was going to look for Zheng — tomorrow at the latest, or maybe this very evening. We’d take Raine, too. We’d use brain-math if we had to. I was certain she was alright, I just didn’t understand why she was not here.

The many faces of our assembled forces; I sighed and met Sarika’s eyes.

“Yes,” we said. “I’m not blind to this, Sarika. We’re meant to be intimidating. I get it. We all know. You don’t have to rub it in.”

Sarika snorted again. “Then what have you got to be afraid of, huh?”

“Plenty,” I said, starting to lose my temper. “None of us are trained negotiators or anything like that. I’m barely an adult. We’re not qualified to be doing this, we—”

“Neither are any of my old friends,” Sarika grunted. She looked away. Badger gently touched her shoulder, trying to comfort her, but she shrugged him off.

We opened our mouth again. “And to answer your question, Sarika — you are here to make this easier on your ‘old friends’. As easy as we can make it. I— I promise, I—”

I hiccuped.

Raine reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “Hey, Heather, hey,” she purred, for me alone. “It’s gonna be alright, whatever happens.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe, but I can’t—”

Buzz-buzz! Buzz-buzz!

Raine’s phone vibrated in her hand, playing that weird little high-energy jingle she used for a ring-tone. The screen lit up with an incoming call, from a contact which Raine had named ‘Drug Dealer (Not Sarcasm!)’.

I almost giggled, despite everything. The humour helped.

“That’ll be them!” Raine announced to the group. She turned to the rest of us so we could all hear her words, then answered the call. “Speaking, yup, you have the right number.” A pause. “You just entered Brinkwood, understood.” She flashed the rest of us a thumbs up; Jan gave one back in return. “Just follow the map, just like Jan said. Yeah, that’s correct. Be sure to take the last stretch slow. Park well clear of the driveway, well before you reach it— yes, before. Okay, good. We’ll have people out there so you can’t miss it. One at a time, remember? You’re the first car? Good. Call again if anything changes. I’m hanging up now.”

Raine ended the call and lowered the phone.

Jan said: “Miss Hopton — that is, Amanda — are we still clear out in the road?”

Amanda blinked, slow and heavy, her eyes half a world away; Hringewindla had dozens of his bubble-servitor angel-things lining the narrow country road in both directions. A precaution, invisible to human eyes, lest a police car or a hapless evening driver happen upon the periphery of our strange gathering. We didn’t want anybody spotting the firearms — or freaking out at the sight of my tentacles, or Aym, or Twil in full werewolf form.

“We’re— we’re clear,” Amanda said. She swallowed once, thick and gummy. “Clear, yes, clear. Nobody but— oh, there’s the first car! Yes, it’s them. They’re coming. Oh, oh they are … they are so small … so small … mmmmm.”

Benjamin rubbed her shoulder. “It’s alright, auntie Mandy. It’s alright. S’okay.” He frowned at Raine. “Go time, then?”

“Go time!” Lozzie cheered — totally at odds with the seriousness of the moment.

Raine slipped her phone into her pocket and clapped her hands once. “Ladies and gentlemen, places please.” She pointed here and there: “If anybody needs a slash, now is the time. Ben, finger off that trigger, mate, you know better. Fliss, keep that shotgun where they can see it. Sarry, Badger, say hi and nod and smile if you must, but please do stay put, hey? And Heather.” She paused and smiled at me. “Heather, you’re gonna do fine.”

We swallowed and nodded — and resisted the urge to wrap ourselves up in our tentacles. Turning into a roly-poly rainbow beanbag Heather-ball would rather spoil the effect of everyone else looking so intimidating.

Instead we spread our tentacles outward.

Look big, Heathers! Big! Big! Hiss! — no, wait, don’t hiss. Look big! Dignified. Unimpressed. Make your tentacles strobe brighter. Big! Don’t hiss, careful now.

Raine was already walking backward, one hand on the pistol-grip mechanism of her stolen firearm, lifting her makeshift riot shield with the other. She nodded to Twil and July as they moved forward to join her; Twil was shaking herself to work up her nerves, but July’s owlish expression betrayed no emotion. Everyone else shuffled awkwardly — all except for Praem. Evelyn swallowed loudly, fingers creaking on the handle of her walking stick, while Jan took up position on my right, her own phone out in one hand, Lozzie trailing behind her.

But then Raine looked back, as if she’d forgotten something.

“Oh, and Evee?” she said.

Evelyn scowled at her. “What? What? Raine, you need to get into position, you—”

Raine cracked the most absolute shit-eating grin I’d seen on her in months. “Puff your chest out. It’ll help.”

Evelyn turned the most fascinating colour of grey-white rage, lips compressed into a strangled line, eyes blazing with fury. Her right arm twitched — for a moment I thought she was going to hurl her walking stick after Raine. But then Raine shot her a wink and — bizarrely — blew her a kiss. Evelyn refrained from throwing anything after Raine’s retreating back. Our trio of advance security walked across the sticky tarmac, until they were out of earshot, waiting at the bend in the driveway of Geerswin Farm.

Evelyn crunched out through clenched teeth: “Cannot fucking believe her. Now, of all times.”

Down on my right, Jan looked vaguely confused. Mercifully, Lozzie did not laugh. She and I and Praem were the only ones who understood that the comment from Raine was, in fact, a boob joke. Praem just stared straight ahead, like everybody else.

I whispered back: “She was trying to get you to put on your scary face, Evee.”

Evelyn squinted at me sidelong. “My what? Excuse me?”

“Your … your scary face. You looked nervous. We all do. But now you look scary. It worked.”

Evelyn ground her teeth; that couldn’t be good for her.

Perhaps it was the nerves, or the way my mind was overwhelmed by other thoughts, or the performative puffing-up I was putting on; I don’t know why I said the words, they just slipped out.

“Evee,” I whispered. “Your boobs are fine.”

Evelyn just stared, wide-eyed and frozen. My own words hit me. I started to blush.

“I-I mean. They’re good. Your boobs are good. Uh, um— wait, no—”

Evelyn continued to stare. Praem turned to look. Jan either didn’t hear, or pretended not to. I think I heard Lozzie swallow a squeak so hard she almost died.

“Sorry!” I hissed. “Sorry. I just mean you’re well-formed. Normal. Healthy. You don’t need to worry about si—”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed like a broken gasket. “Stop. Oh my fucking God. Stop. Stop, please.”

Praem intoned: “Keep going.”

I cleared my throat and blushed far too hard. Evelyn sucked on her teeth, looked away, and huffed a great, exasperated sigh. She managed to straighten up a little, wincing at the trials of her warped spine and kinked shoulder. “I’m going to need a massage when this is all over. A professional one. An expensive one.” She huffed again. “Do I really look intimidating?”

“Yes,” I said, not trusting myself to say anything more. “Yes.”

Jan cleared her throat gently. “Looking intimidating is half the point. Well done, Evelyn.”

“Helmet on, Heather,” Evelyn grumbled. “Hide the blush, at least.”

“Oh, oh, yes, right.”

I slid my squid-skull mask on over my head. Then we stared at the driveway. We all did.

A minute or two later, the final remnants of the Sharrowford Cult began to arrive.

Jan read their names off her phone as they appeared, half to confirm their faces against her photographs, and half to inform us who these people were.

“First up,” she said. “Sebastian Faulko. Yup, that’s him. Bald as a walnut.”

They came on foot, one by one, waved forward and then halted by Raine’s raised hand and the threat of her gun. Behind me, Amanda Hopton confirmed the cars in which they had arrived, parked just off the road on the edge of the woods; she read off their number plates through bubble-servitor senses, for Jan to cross-reference against the list she’d been given. Four cars, ten people, no extras — all number plates had to match, all faces had to be accounted for. No hidden watchers, no last-minute additions, no unplanned plus ones.

Jan murmured: “Second iiiiis … Juliet Berry. Mmhmm. That’s her. No funny business.”

Each cultist — or ex-cultist, I wasn’t sure yet — came forward around the bend in the driveway, emerging from the trees like a trickle of refugees lost in the woods, escapees from some hidden faerie-realm. Each one halted when Raine ordered, then submitted to a pat down from July; they’d been informed this was mandatory, that we could take no chances.

“Third — a Doctor. Doctor Harriet Marsh. And … yeah, she’s clean. If anybody was gonna spring anything, it would be her. Smart lady, oldest of the bunch. No idea how she’s still going.”

After each cultist was checked for hidden weapons and declared clean, they were permitted to walk forward to the end of the driveway, where Twil waited to glower at them, more wolf than woman. A holding pattern, until they were ready to be presented, all at once.

Presented to me. What was I here, angel, or judge, or warlord? We didn’t even know anymore.

“Number four, Mister Jonathan Perioet — pronounced like the ballet move. Most likely to pass out during proceedings. We may have to fetch him a chair.”

And we — all of us, standing there triumphant and clean and sane and whole (well, mostly), sitting in front of Geerswin Farmhouse, we watched every second of this sad performance.

“Five, Richard Fosse—”

“—and that’s his daughter, Nena Fosse—”

“—William Turner. He has seizures, but his wife— yup, she’s up next, Penny Turner, she’s got his wheelchair—”

The names washed over me. I couldn’t take them in. I couldn’t do anything but stare through the eye holes of my squid-skull mask.

These people were human wreckage.

Hollow-eyed, sallow-faced, sagging and shuffling and full of sorrow; greasy hair, grimy flesh, grim clothes. They stared across the tarmac at my tentacles with empty looks, the classic ‘thousand yard stare’; some of them stared at Aym, or flinched away from Twil, but they struggled to find much awe even in a full-fleshed werewolf or a faceless blob of darkness.

They really did seem like refugees from some hidden conflict in England’s sleepy summer heart. Nathan had looked a little like that, before I’d ‘rescued’ him from the Eye — but Nathan had been sustained by taking action, even if that action was a deal with Edward and a foolish attempt to kidnap Lozzie. Action had given him hope. These people, all ten of them, they had no hope but to wait upon mercy, to pray to a God who was not listening. They had endured the Eye whispering inside the backs of their heads for months and months and months.

They were beyond exhaustion. Beyond bags under the eyes or slumped shoulders or slack jaws. They were walking corpses. None of them looked like they’d bathed in weeks, or slept in days. Most of them were at least a little malnourished. They shook and shivered and flinched at nothing.

The one in the wheelchair had rheumy eyes, thick and puffy. The Doctor — Harriet Marsh — was the most coherent of the lot, a small and slender woman with grey hair, perhaps in her sixties or seventies, tough as old oak, alert in the eyes, but twitchy, like she’d been mainlining a petrol tank worth of coffee to keep her mind from rotting. I recognised two of them — Richard Fosse and his adult daughter, Nena; they were the pair who had accompanied Nathan in the park, during the ill-advised plan to kidnap Lozzie. Richard had been solidly built the last time I’d seen him, exhausted and drained but holding on; but now he’d lost a great deal of muscle mass, his dark skin tinted grey as if from blood loss. The daughter was twitchy and nervous, holding onto her father’s arm like he might trip over a loose piece of tarmac.

How had they even driven here? Wasn’t that dangerous? I suppose they hadn’t any choice.

I watched Raine halt each one of them and implicitly threaten them with a gun. I watched July frisk them. None of them resisted; I doubted any of them could.

We knew this was necessary. The others had made it clear and I had not disagreed; in the cosy, easy comfort of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, it had made sense that any one of these ex-cultists could still be a so-called ‘Eye Loyalist’. One of them might decide they had a better chance of fulfilling the Eye’s demands by surprising me at the last moment — shooting me, or rushing at me with some kind of magic circle beneath their clothes, or some other plot that we couldn’t predict.

But here, watching them, that notion was revealed as utter nonsense. These people were defeated. They were already dead.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” I murmured softly inside my mask. I could barely swallow. “They kill us for their sport.”

Evelyn tore her eyes from the slowly gathering line of cultists. She glanced at me sidelong. “Heather?”

“King Lear,” I said, then shook my head. “I hate this. I didn’t think it would be … so … ”

Evelyn tutted sharply. “Heather, all these people were members of Alexander’s cult.”

“And?” I sniffed. “So was Kim. She was a victim, too. Not all of them were willing … or, I … I don’t … no, nobody deserves this. Nobody deserves the Eye. We didn’t even leave Edward to the Eye.”

“They went to war with us, Heather.”

I tried to laugh, but it felt hollow. “The last remnants of a defeated army? From a war that started before I even arrived in Sharrowford? Is that what we’re doing here?”

“Harden your heart,” Evelyn hissed. “You may not be able to save … to … oh … ”

But even she trailed off as the ninth cultist shuffled around the bend in the driveway, to be frisked and examined by Raine and July.

It was a little girl.

“Oh, no.” I put a hand to my mouth — or where my mouth should be, the front of the mask. “No.”

Evelyn swallowed, dry and hard. “Shit,” she hissed. Some of the others stirred behind us. I heard Benjamin swear beneath his breath and Sarika choke back something suspiciously akin to a sob.

“Christine Durmore,” Jan read off her list. “I, uh, don’t expect any trouble from this one.” She added quickly: “Her father survived, too. Don’t worry, she’s not an orphan. He’ll be number ten, he’s probably just behind her.”

Christine Durmore was not quite as young as I’d been when the Eye had taken Maisie away — she looked perhaps twelve years old. But she’d fared no better than the adults. Malnourished, thin, eyes glazed and distant, with that look which one sees on pictures of children from war zones, children who’ve seen things they should never see — empty, numb, far away inside herself. Lank brown hair, skinny and short, exhausted beyond thought.

I hissed, “Jan. You didn’t tell me one of them was a child.”

“ … yes I did, Heather.”

“Then I— I didn’t— I—”

I almost left my place in the line and moved forward; the girl had stopped in front of Raine, but Raine, for once, looked back to us, uncomfortable with this turn of events. July paused too, uncertain of how to proceed. This was all planned, all organised, we all knew we had to do this — but when it came to the moment, none of us were truly prepared.

I pulled my squid-skull mask off my head. Deviating from the plan. I couldn’t do this, I could not intimidate a literal child, I couldn’t—

Evelyn’s hand shot out and grabbed mine. She locked our fingers and held on tight.

“You have to stay here, Heather!” she hissed. “You undermine the entire point if you break that. Stay put.”

Jan swallowed and nodded. “Yes, stay put.”

My throat felt so thick that I almost choked. “But—”

Evelyn said. “Praem, if you—”

But Praem was already striding forward. The doll-demon crossed the tarmac with neat little clicks of her perfectly polished black shoes, the skirts of her maid uniform swishing and swaying, her spine ram-rod straight, her eyes high and blank. The little gathering of cultists shied back from her approach, like the demon she was.

The girl just stood there, numb and distant, as Praem marched up to her. Praem stopped, gathered her skirts, and crouched down so they were eye level with each other. Raine and July withdrew a little way, then waved the last cultist forward — the girl’s father, James Durmore. Praem spoke with the girl for almost three full minutes; I couldn’t hear what they said to each other, they were too far beyond earshot, but I could see the girl’s lips moving as she replied.

“She’s a saint, you know?” I murmured.

Evelyn grunted. “Mm?”

“Praem.”

“Mm,” Evelyn said. “I know. Better than any of us deserve.”

Eventually Praem got the reassurances she needed; she stood up and offered Christine Durmore her hand. The girl accepted the offer. Praem led her to join her father with the others, handing the girl off to the exhausted, hollow-eyed man. We did not have a twelve year old child frisked at gunpoint; something toxic and lethal unknotted in my chest, falling back down into the roiling chaos of my guts.

Raine and July led the cultists across the tarmac. Twil brought up the rear, like a sheepdog. They moved the group close enough for a conversation, then halted them. Praem fetched four additional plastic garden chairs from indoors — one for the little girl, one for the man who apparently had seizures, one for Richard Fosse, and one for the Doctor, Harriet Marsh.

The cultists watched and waited, nervous with anticipation, but with hope beaten out of their minds. Raine and July and Twil hovered around the edges of the group. Just in case.

Evelyn squeezed my hand. She whispered: “Heather? Heather, if you’re not up to this, I can—”

“No,” I murmured back. “I can do this. I want to do this.”

We cleared our throat, spread our tentacles as wide as we could stretch, and raised our voice.

“My name is Heather Morell,” I said. “Some of you have met me before. All of you know who I am. The woman to my left here is Evelyn Saye — most of you know who she is as well, because you once served Alexander Lilburne. And that means you know the woman behind me, as well — Lozzie Lilburne. Everyone else present here is my ally, or friend, or family, or—” I almost choked, but I had to say it “—vassal, in some form.”

Sarika snorted; nobody winced, because she was supposed to do that. Sticking to our script. Some of the cultists exchanged glances with her — they knew who she was. They had some rough idea of what had happened to her. These remnants were the last of the cultists who had rejected her plan to communicate with the Eye. They’d chosen not to follow her. They’d fled. All the rest had died.

“And of course,” I added. “You all know Nathan.”

Badger smiled. He raised his free hand. “Hello, everyone,” he said, then greeted several of them by name. “Rich, Will, Seb. Doctor Marsh. Hi.”

Richard Fosse stared at Badger with thick, dull eyes — and then blinked and lit up, just a little. He nodded in return. The Doctor had a pinched expression, but she nodded too. William, the one in the wheelchair, said: “Switched sides, did you, Badger?”

“No,” said Nathan. “I was saved.”

I took a deep breath and carried on. So far, so good. “I know what lurks in the back of your heads,” I said. Some of the cultists winced. Some of them made as if to shy away. The little girl shivered and swallowed a dry sob. The Doctor closed her eyes as if suffering internal pain. Penny — the wife of the man in the wheelchair — let out a strange whimper. “And,” I added quickly. “I will not speak its name aloud, nor a version of its name, because I know that would hurt you. I’m not here to hurt you.”

One of them spoke up — James, the father of the little girl: “Are you going to help us?”

“Like you helped Nathan,” said Harriet, a little harsher and harder than I had expected. It was not a question.

I was shaking inside. We tried very hard not to hiccup. “I did save Nathan, yes. I … wrested ownership of his soul, from the thing that ails you. It was not easy, it—”

Richard Fosse interrupted, his voice dull and lifeless. “I told you, she’s not going to help us.”

“Hey,” Raine snapped. “Shut up and listen.”

But Harriet Marsh stared right at me, and said: “You’re not going to help us, are you, young lady?”

“I—” my throat was closing up. “I— let me finish explaining, I—”

“Please,” said one of them — I wasn’t sure which.

“She’s not going to help us.”

“What was the point of this? What was the point of this?”

“Please, please.”

“—can’t take much more of this—”

“—think they’re going to kill us—”

“—just get it over with—”

“—please—”

All of them, all talking all over each other, starting to panic, to wail, to sob. And throughout it all the little girl — Christine — sat in her chair, growing smaller and smaller, further and further away inside herself, little eyes locked on nothing.

Hiiiiiiissssssss!

That shut them up. Most of them flinched hard enough to stumble, or jerk backward in their chairs. Harriet, the Doctor, went white in the face. The little girl blinked.

We unknotted my throat, heaving and gurgling. This had not been part of the plan.

To save my efforts, Evelyn spoke up: “Jan Martense has explained the problem to you.” Her voice came out cold and hard, but she did not let go of my hand. “Heather’s method of saving Nathan required trepanation — physical, not magical, not anything like that. He died during the process, his heart stopped, and we had to resuscitate him. He went to hospital afterward. They put a plate in his skull. If we repeat the process for each of you, even two or three of you, then the police will become suspicious, at the very least. And likely not all of you would make it through the procedure. Some of you would die in the attempt.”

Harriet Marsh, at the front of the group, said: “Then why call us here? Just to tell us no?”

“It’s the end,” one of the others said.

“It’s not the end,” I said, my throat finally back to something approaching human shape. “I called you here to give you hope. I want to explain to you what I’m doing, and how I will attempt to free you.”

I waited a beat; all eyes fixed on me, waiting, so full of desperation. I almost couldn’t take it.

We said: “The thing that lurks in the back of your heads — I am, in a way, the adopted daughter of that entity. And in a week or two, as soon as we are ready, I am going to travel to where it resides, and confront it, to rescue my twin sister. And when I do that, I am going to ask for it to free all of you as well.”

The cultists stared. Some of them blinked. None of them said anything.

Not the effect I had hoped for, but the one that the others had told me to expect.

James Durmore — the father of the little girl — raised his hand. “Trepan me. Please. Trepan me, I don’t care if I get brain damage — then, if it works, please, please do the same on my daughter. Please.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “You don’t understand—”

“Put a hole in my head!” one of the others shouted. “Do me! I don’t care if it doesn’t work!”

“Death or freedom,” one of the others slurred. “Fine, fine, I’ll take it.”

“Hey, hey,” Raine was saying. “Hey, calm down.”

“Please! Miss Morell, please!” James said again.

Twil snapped something too. Evelyn spoke up. Jan stepped forward. I could feel it all collapsing around me. Lozzie whimpered. Even Nicole spoke up, a rattling voice urging calm. Badger raised his voice too, calling for quiet, for his old comrades to understand, but—

“You owe us better than that,” said Doctor Harriet Marsh.

We broke.

“I owe you nothing!” I practically screamed in her face. She blinked, shocked, taken aback.

Everyone stopped shouting; the Heather of a year ago, or even six months ago, would have been mortified. But we were seven now. And we were right.

“I am not a saint,” I went on. “Or an angel. Frankly, I owe none of you anything. All of you were members of a cult — a cult that kept one of my closest friends imprisoned. Lozzie, behind me — how many of you recognise her? How many of you knew her? How many of you helped her? Any of you? You all followed Alexander Lilburne, a man who had little children kidnapped and used up, who turned homeless people into zombies. All of you are lucky to still be alive. All of you were part of that—” I cut off my words and pointed one tentacle at the little girl, at Christine. “Not you, sweetheart. You didn’t ask for this. You’re only a child. It’s not your fault.” I sniffed hard, but I was too angry to stop. “The rest of you — do you think I let Sarika live because I owed her anything? I used her as an experiment, a proof of concept that I could rip a human being from the— from the grasp of the thing inside your heads.”

The cultists looked upon me, cowed and quiet.

“If we attempt to trepan all of you,” I went on, softer now. “Then the police will take an interest. They may interrupt us before we can go Outside, before I can attempt a rescue of my sister. And I would sacrifice every single one of you if it would increase my chances of getting her back. So, no. I will not compromise the thing that matters above all else to help a group of people who tried to have me killed or enslaved.” I took a deep breath. “But, when I am before my adoptive parent, I will make the effort to save you, too, because what is happening to you is not right. Some of you deserve prison. None of you deserve the Eye.”

I was shaking when I finished. Nobody said anything. Evelyn squeezed my hand. Raine blew out a long breath.

This had not gone to plan. I had not given these people hope.

No saint, no angel.

Just the daughter of the Eye.

Amanda Hopton broke the silence: “Oh! Oh, everyone, there’s—”

Bubble-servitors shifted in my peripheral vision, scattering from the treetops beyond one of the fields, like startled birds. Raine whirled around, hands on her weapon. Eyes raised toward the tree-line.

“—there’s a person— it’s—”

A towering form emerged from the gathering darkness beneath the trees, draped in her long coat and her baggy grey jumper. Raine lowered her gun. Lozzie broke into a smile. Several of the cultists stared in mute horror — because they knew who and what they were looking at.

“Zheng!” I called out, raising several tentacles, delighted to see her. “Zheng! Where have you—”

But then Zheng was striding across the field, picking up speed with every step, moving with sudden, swift, terrible purpose.

She reached the fence before I fully realised what was happening, a flickering blur of sprinting motion. Lozzie shouted, “Zhengy, no!” Felicity even raised her shotgun. Evelyn swore, loudly. Praem moved forward to intercept the interruption; so did July. I wasn’t certain they could stop this.

Zheng vaulted the fence, landed on the tarmac in a blur of dark clothes and sharp teeth — and grinned at her prey.

Her eyes were locked on one cultist in particular — Harriet Marsh, the Doctor.

Teeth bared, sharp eyes narrowed, muscles coiling back like springs.

I knew that look all too well.

Zheng was about to rip out the tongue of a mage, break the delicate bones of her hands and fingers, and probably feast upon her flesh, to make certain she stayed dead.

Announcement

Squid-angel of sudden salvation, or heartless supernatural warlord unwilling to extend aid; I'm not sure which one Heather thinks she is anymore. Evee would certainly know which way she falls. And Zheng is about to take this abstract question and make it very practical (and possibly very messy. Ew.)

No patreon link this week, because it's almost the end of the month! If you want to subscribe, feel free to wait until the 1st of October! And hey, go check out some of the other lovely web serials out there; I haven't got any specific shout-outs this week, since I haven't had my head in the web serial space for the last month or so, but hey, there's plenty to see!

Meanwhile you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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And as always, thank you so much for reading. Thank you for following Katalepsis so far, and for enjoying it so much. I couldn't do this without you, the readers! This story is for you!

Next week, Heather gets to decide if she's going to stop a speeding Zheng, or let things get bloody. And if she does want to get in the way ... how???

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