mischief and craft; plainly seen – 21.13
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Announcement

I know not everybody reads the post-chapter author note, so I'm putting this little note up here instead: there will be no Katalepsis chapter on the 21st of October. That's two weeks from now. This is the first time I've ever actually planned to do this, on purpose, rather than the few times I've had to skip updates due to medical issues, so I want to give all the regular readers a good advance warning. I'm going to be spending that week helping a family member with going to hospital; I'll still be writing, still be working on the story, but I cannot be certain of having a chapter prepared for Saturday morning. This week I am going to embark on a mad attempt to write two chapters in a single week, to see if I can buffer for it. But there's no guarantee that will work, so I'm calling it now. I can promise that Katalepsis will be back as normal afterward!

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

None this chapter.

[collapse]

Zheng didn’t even look at me.

We hadn’t seen her in days; she hadn’t seen me since I was half-comatose, lying insensible on my bed and sleepwalking to the toilet in the aftermath of a total pneuma-somatic crash. But she didn’t spare us a single glance. The dark slits of her eyes were fixed on a single person at that gathering, in the growing gloam of deepening dusk, beneath the suppurating sky, beyond the circle of shivering leaves. Her whole body was a coiled spring aimed at that one purpose, her intent written in the flex of muscle and tightening of tendon. One target, one cultist, one mage: Harriet Marsh, the Doctor, the older lady at the very front of the clutch of terrified faces.

A fox among hens, a wolf in the flock, a viper dropped into a pit of worms.

There was no time to negotiate, to call out, to shout, “Zheng, what are you doing?!”

We all knew exactly what she was doing, why she was here. Perhaps some of the ex-cultists didn’t comprehend quite so rapidly; maybe one or two of my allies didn’t fully grasp the situation. But they would soon enough, when the ripping meat and the spurting blood and the strangled screams started.

“Zheng!”

“—she’s gonna—”

“Zhengy no! Don’t!”

“-it’s the zombie, the zom—”

“Oh fuck, it’s her again.”

“Shoot her! Shoot her! Shoot—”

“—not doing shit—”

“—really? Now?”

The others started shouting regardless, even those who knew better, calling out warnings or challenges or just Zheng’s name. Weapons hesitated, mouths opened in gaping confusion, and nobody took charge. None of those shouts had time to finish; it was all too easy to forget just how very fast Zheng could move.

Zheng’s muscles coiled and bunched. She rocked back like a piston in a tube. Her lips peeled away from a razor-sharp grin.

And she pounced.

A lightning flash of rippling muscle and reddish-brown skin roared across the crumbly tarmac, coat snapping out behind her with a whipcrack sound. Hands spread like a raptor’s claws, face a mask of bloodstained joy in the drowning dusk, she was a living missile of murderous intent.

And we

saw everything

frozen!

all at

once

A moment of perfect clarity, before the blow had time to land. I’d experienced this before, when performing brain-math equations in the heat of panic and adrenaline and desperate need. But now, the moment seemed to hang, as if time was presenting me with a question.

Perhaps it was because I already had our tentacles outstretched, to make myself look big, to intimidate and impress the remaining cultists; we had accidentally created an array of perception, a ultra wide-angle lens on time and space and motion. Perhaps it was stress and anxiety and pressure, the need to help these people, poisoned by resentment and anger, mixed into a heady cocktail with the guilt of failing to live up to how I had defined myself. Maybe it was the echo of dream-logic from earlier in the day. Maybe it was because I’d been thinking about the Eye. Or maybe it was just the sky, the ‘Eye’ of our own little sphere, hanging in the void, lending me a brush of her perception as she stared down upon the bloody tableau about to unfold.

More likely it was just mathematics. After all, geometry, velocity, angles of impact, choreography — isn’t that all mathematics, in the end?

The group of cultists was gathered in front of me, dappled by the dying sun through the forest leaves; Harriet Marsh, Zheng’s target, was at the very front, sitting in one of the white plastic garden chairs. We were separated by about twelve feet of open space. She was gaping at Zheng, one hand clutching an arm of her chair, too slow and old and Eye-ridden to react.

The other cultists — all nine of them — were recoiling in horror, hens before the fox bursting through the wall. The little girl was beginning to scream. The one in the wheelchair had closed his eyes, resigned to fate.

None of them mattered — a harsh thing to admit, but it was true. None of them could help.

Praem was sprinting, skirts flying — but not toward Zheng. Praem had once proven that she was physically stronger than Zheng. Could she beat Zheng in a fight? Hold her off? Contain her? Who knows. But she wasn’t faster than Zheng. Praem was running for the little girl, Catherine, presumably to scoop her up and cover her eyes and ears, to spare her the sights about to unfold.

July — poor July, but she couldn’t think on the same scale as Zheng. She was simply not fast or ruthless enough. She pounced, but she aimed at where Zheng was, not where Zheng would be in the next quarter of a second. This was no play fight, no friendly wrestling match. This was not a game. Zheng was murdering a mage.

None of the others could make a difference either. Felicity’s finger coiled around the trigger of her shotgun, but she would have more luck hitting a butterfly in flight than Zheng on the hunt. Raine didn’t raise her firearm; I couldn’t blame her for that, she loved Zheng too, she wasn’t about to shoot her. Twil was turning on the spot, gone full werewolf, all tooth and claw, but she wasn’t fast enough either. Jan was shouting. Sarika was screaming — raw and rough. Amanda was mumbling some jumbled nonsense as bubble-servitors shivered and moved to intercept Zheng — but they were even slower, only just peeling themselves from the roof of the house. Sevens raised her umbrella as if to whack Zheng over the head with it, but what good would that do? Evelyn’s hands slid over her bone-wand, but she couldn’t crunch out the words quickly enough.

Nobody present could force Zheng to stop; nobody was fast enough to intercept her strike, or strong enough to bring her down, or willing to hurt her in the ways which mattered. Given time and proper motivation, the mages may have been able to contain her. Given permission and a free hand, Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors could perhaps have denied her some action, held her back, cut her off from her target. Raine and myself, if we’d been able to sit her down and talk this out, we might have convinced her otherwise.

All too late, all too slow. An ex-cultist was about to die, right in front of the others, in front of me, torn apart by one of my closest allies, my lover, my beautiful and unstoppable Zheng.

We saw a solution to several problems; we all agreed, all seven of us Heathers. This was going to hurt.

Harriet Marsh was twelve feet in front of us; Zheng was on the right, approaching at a right-angle. Lucky; the solution to this equation would not have worked if she had approached from any other direction.

We whipped all our tentacles down and back, coiling them into one giant muscular spring. My perception-array collapsed. Time resumed in a roaring rush.

Zheng was a blur of bronzed flesh and whipping coat and scything limbs. No human could have hit that moving target.

But we were not a human. We were seven squid girls. And we had a lot of extra neural tissue for running that calculation.

Hiiiissssss-scrwwwwaaaaak!

I leapt at Zheng like a squid at a shark, shooting from a crack in the rocks, beak snapping, tentacles whipping forward. Wait, did I have a beak? Not literally, but it felt that way, like I should be snapping a bony protrusion shut on Zheng’s flesh, nipping off pieces of her. But I did make the most awful noise with my throat, a screeching squawk which would have sent the cultists fleeing if they hadn’t already been falling over each other to get away from Zheng. If I’d had an ink-sac, I would have squirted the contents and filled the air with a cloud of darkness, fogging Zheng’s eyes and filling her mouth with sticky mucus.

It all felt very powerful. Very big and strong, very clever, very well done. Very sharp, little cephalopod.

What was this now, the third time I’d leapt at Zheng like this? I was making a habit of it. One would have assumed I might have learned a thing or two by then. But I hadn’t. No time to think, only to calculate!

I had failed to account for the fact that even with my tentacles fully manifested, I was less than a quarter of Zheng’s body weight.

She wasn’t just fast, she was big.

We slammed into her like a minnow into the flank of an orca. Our tentacles whipped around to find a grip, slipping off her coat, flailing for a handhold, desperate to hook around neck or waist or an arm. We speed-grew suckers to anchor ourselves to any exposed flesh. But Zheng was moving too fast and we were so very small. She could simply have kept going, brushed us off with pure speed, left us to complete our arc and crash to the tarmac among the cultists. Harriet Marsh would be dead before we even hit the ground.

But Zheng loved us very much; she was not willing to let us fall, to break our bones and graze our skin.

Zheng caught us like a rugby ball as we slammed into her. She stumbled sideways to stop me falling. Her redirected momentum carried us to the ground, together.

Zheng and I fell among the cultists, rolling on the crumbly asphalt; one huge hand cradled my skull to stop it cracking off the ground, while another cushioned my hip to prevent a fracture from the sheer speed of impact. Legs parted and scurried out of our way, voices yelped and screamed and fled, chairs toppled and scraped back.

We came to a halt with me on top, cradled against Zheng’s heaving, furnace-hot front. Zheng’s face was inches from my own, her lips peeled back in a furious snarl.

I started to croak her name through a twisted throat: “Zhe—”

But Zheng jackknifed to her feet; the world lurched around us. She stood up, let go of me — and to my horror and surprise — shoved me backward. Several pairs of hands caught and steadied me.

“Shaman!” Zheng roared in my face. “Do not deny me this!”

Zheng was angrier than I had ever seen before — which was saying something. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, the tendons in her neck stood out like steel cables, and she was coated in sudden flash-sweat, beads of moisture rolling down her forehead and matted in her dark, greasy mop of hair.

I flinched — an understatement, actually; I flinched so hard that my tentacles flailed, baffing somebody in the face and eliciting a growl of ‘ow, Heather, fuck’s sake’ from my left. I squeaked and squealed and tried to make my skin flush with warning colouration, but I wasn’t Outside, was not set up for that. Part of us wanted to hiss and spit. Middle-Left tentacle wanted to grow barbs and spikes and cover us in armour. Top-Right wanted to harden her tip and hold it out like a spear, to ward Zheng off. We did none of those things; our senses were still a-whirl after our unplanned leap and tumble, our minds still catching up with what we’d done.

Nobody seemed hurt, at least not physically.

Twil and Raine had caught us. The circle of cultists was scattered and broken by Zheng’s intrusion, but Praem and Felicity and Sevens were doing what they could to herd them all back together. Evelyn had gone white in the face, clutching her walking stick. Lozzie was biting her lower lip, sad and hurt by this in some way I didn’t understand. Several bubble-servitors had descended to the tarmac, but then just sat there, great big bubble-blobs unsure how to proceed. July just stood with her arms folded, glaring at Zheng as if disappointed. Soup — Nicole’s dog — was barking and growling at Zheng, while Nicole and Jan both tried to get poor Soup to calm down. Bernard, Amanda’s dog, did not seem too bothered. Benjamin Hopton had gone white in the face, eyes wide. Aym hadn’t moved, content to stay as a little lace-patterned pillar of night; but I thought I detected a nasty grin inside that darkness.

Zheng’s target, Doctor Marsh, was standing up, shaking like a leaf but looking defiant. Iron-grey hair was stuck to her forehead. Her chin was raised. She looked like she wanted to cry.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled when I did not answer.

Raine said, “Hey, hey, big girl? Cool the fuck down, right now. Don’t make me come over there and spank you one.”

Zheng ignored Raine, with eyes only for me. At least she was looking at me now.

Twil hissed through a mouthful of fangs: “Bloody hell. The fuck was all that about?”

“Heather,” Raine hissed to me. “Heather, can you talk to her? She’s going to snap if you don’t. Heather? Come on, you can do it. I believe in you, you can do it. Talk to her. Say something. Anything at all. Call her a bitch if you gotta.”

Raine’s belief buoyed me back up. I got my feet planted firmly beneath myself and spread my tentacles outward again.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled a third time.

“Zheng,” I croaked, trying to force my throat back into a human shape. I sounded awful, like something dredged out of a tar pit, or a 1970s rubber monster. “Zheng— guurk,” I coughed, then gave up. Zheng didn’t care. “Zheng, you can’t kill these people. I’m trying to protect them.”

Zheng stared at me like a tiger at bay, eyes bulging, mouth a sagging line of compressed fury. Her breath was like the exhaust of a coal engine; heat rolled off her in waves, a palpable burning behind her flesh; she quivered, vibrating with anger in every muscle.

It was easy to forget just how large Zheng appears; her size tends to fluctuate in my mind. I once measured her to get an accurate assessment — with her enthusiastic and amused consent. We used a tape measure, though she had to lie down, or I would have needed to climb up on a chair. Seven feet and two inches exactly, from soles to crown. She weighs approximately six hundred and seventy five pounds, almost fifty stone — and all of that is muscle, great slabs of muscle packed onto her massive frame, far denser than a human being of the same size. She is a titan dredged from the ancient world, giant and unyielding, and it is very, very difficult to stand one’s ground before her rage.

“Zheng,” I croaked again. “You’re—”

“Scaring you, shaman?” she rumbled. She was not amused. She was not playing.

“Well, yes. Y-yes, of course you are.”

Zheng leaned closer. I flinched and shivered. Raine swore softly under her breath. Twil growled deep in her throat, all wolf now, barely woman at all. Sunset’s glow glinted off Zheng’s dark eyes. The evening heat seemed to have fled. Even the insects in the undergrowth had gone silent. Zheng was a pillar of shadow with the last of the dusk at her back.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “I follow you — I venerate you — because you are the way. But do not deny me this. Do not ask me to do this.”

I swallowed, very hard and very dry. “Zheng, I told these people I would protect them against—”

“I care nothing about these worms!” Zheng roared.

She raised one arm and pointed past me and Raine and Twil, pointing at Harriet Marsh. The older woman flinched as well, blinking rapidly, shivering on the spot. But she did an admirable job of standing her ground — though that may have been due to Felicity’s shotgun at her side.

Zheng growled: “The wizard is mine, shaman. She forged links in my chains. She dies. Here. Now.”

We took a deep and unsteady breath. Were we on thin ice, here? Zheng had stopped her assault, but was she only humouring us, or was there a way to convince her not to do this?

And did I really care about some ex-cultist? Should we have simply let Zheng have her prey?

I glanced over at Doctor Marsh again. She was flanked now by Felicity on one side and Lozzie on the other, as if she might decide to do something rash. Evelyn stood a few paces further away, leaning heavily on her walking stick. She caught my eye and nodded.

“Harriet,” I said, trying to unchoke my voice. The lady flinched again. “Marsh,” I tried again, and sounded significantly more human. My throat hurt. “Doctor Marsh. Is this true? Are you a mage?”

Harriet Marsh blinked at me several times, like a sleepwalker slapped across the face. She mumbled, “I don’t— I— but—”

“She was!” croaked a familiar voice.

Sarika was sitting up in her own chair, glaring across the tarmac. Badger was trying to hush her, but too gently to have much success.

“Sarika?” I called back.

“She was,” Sarika repeated, quieter than before. “She was one of us. Taught. A little.”

Harriet stammered out her own answer: “Y-yes. Yes, technically. But I was never taught very much. Alexander took me under his wing, promised enlightenment and … and … knowledge.” She swallowed, struggling against something internal, blinking hard as if against a headache. “I retain bits and pieces, and—”

Zheng rumbled deep in her chest, drowning the woman out. “This wizard filth added to my chains.”

Zheng lifted the hem of her baggy grey jumper beneath her coat, showing her naked belly and flank, muscles rippling, dark skin coated in a sheen of sweat, brown-rose complexion glowing in the dusk. Her tattoos shone on her skin, a network of lines and circles and script crawling across her flesh, cut through by the circles I had removed when I had broken her chains.

She ran one fingertip across a looping line of esoteric letters; the script was cut off by my intervention, truncated by one of the circles of bare skin.

“Here,” Zheng growled. “I recall, shaman. I recall.”

“Zheng—” I said.

Harriet raised her voice, shrill and terrified: “I barely remember!”

Zheng rounded on her. “The shaman speaks! Silence, wizard!”

Harriet jumped so hard that Lozzie had to steady her. She glanced down at Lozzie, half-nodding a thank you — but Lozzie stuck her tongue out with a little acid wiggle of her nose. I had a feeling Lozzie would not mourn if Zheng killed any of these ex-cultists.

I said: “Let her explain herself, please. Doctor Marsh, is this true, did you assist in controlling Zheng?”

Harriet looked at me, at an utter loss. “Maybe? In truth, Miss Morell? I do not recall. My mental faculties are not what they used to be. My brain, my thoughts, my … self, is all falling apart.” She blinked back tears. “I-I may have held an inkwell and a design sheet, while … M-Marcus? Was that his name? I can barely fix my late colleagues in my memory. Marcus. While Marcus added to the zombie’s bindings. Maybe.” She shrugged, thin shoulders going up and down beneath her unwashed pullover. “The last year is a blur. I do not know.”

“I do,” Zheng rumbled.

“Zheng,” I sighed.

“The wizard is mine,” Zheng grunted.

“Zheng!” I snapped, losing my patience at last. “Does that mean you’re going to kill Sarika, too? Or Nathan?”

Zheng looked down at me with dark and boiling eyes. “Shaman.”

“You let Sarika live,” I said. “You haven’t torn her tongue out and broken all her fingers. Have you changed your mind? Or does that only count for mages I haven’t dealt with?”

“The worm-rotten ruin is of no—”

“She’s still a mage,” I said. “I assume you mean Sarika.”

“She is broken.”

I pointed at Harriet. “And she’s not? She can barely stand on her own feet. All of these people are broken, Zheng. If they wanted to be a threat to us, they would have tried something already. I doubt any of them will be doing magic ever again, not with what’s been done to their minds.”

Zheng rumbled, glaring at me. Her eyes were like twin pits of hot tar, thick and dark and roiling with rage. The sunset was deepening, plunging us all into the long shadows of the forest.

“Shaman,” she said. “You deny me this.”

I flapped my arms and several tentacles, helplessly. “Why did you wait?”

Zheng tilted her head, jaw still clenched, eyes narrowing to shadowed slits. “Shaman?”

“Your phone has been off for days, Zheng.” I felt my temper boiling over; felt words bubbling up that perhaps I should not say, but all of us were getting angry now. “You could have been part of the planning process for this meeting. You could have added your own stipulations, or warnings, or told me this might happen. Were you waiting and watching in the woods just now? For how long? Were you stalking us without revealing yourself?”

Zheng tilted her head the other way. One massive hand slipped inside her coat and extracted her mobile phone — a little dirty, but intact. She pressed the power button, but the screen stayed dark.

Raine said: “Needs charging, big girl.” She did not sound amused.

Twil winced. “Seriously? Fuckin’ ell.”

I repeated myself. “Zheng, that wasn’t a rhetorical question. Were you waiting and watching, from the tree line?”

Zheng’s eyes flickered back up to me, impassive and blank, like a shark in the deep. “Shaman.”

“Because you could have joined us!” I snapped. “You could have walked up to me and said ‘Oh, Heather, by the way, that one is a mage, can we kill her later?’” I glanced around at the other cultists, at Harriet trying not to shiver too hard, at the faces of my friends — Evelyn was wincing in slow-motion. Praem was carrying the little girl — Catherine — against her hip, like a much smaller child, arms supporting her weight beneath her legs, her face buried in Praem’s shoulder. I cleared my throat and hurried to add: “I mean, don’t worry, I don’t think I would have said yes to that either, frankly—”

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “I am not your hound—”

“No, Zheng, you’re my equal. That’s the point! You’re one of us. Part of my family. So, what was this? You waited until I was done taking responsibility for these people, and now you expect me to just let you murder one of them in front of everyone?”

Zheng let out a long, slow, rumbling breath, like a living engine of steel and flame. She had eyes for nobody but me. Boring into my flesh, staring me down, trying to spook me or force me back or make me look away. Once I had been a rodent before a snake, transfixed by power and beauty and the threat of violence — and muscles and boobs, I won’t lie — but there and then I stared back at Zheng, beneath the darkening sky, both of us drenched in bleeding shadows, coated in sweat, tired and angry. I would not look away, no matter how much I wanted to hide behind Raine.

The others faded away; it seemed like there was nobody in this twilight world but Zheng and I.

Zheng purred, low and deep, “You will forbid me, shaman?”

“No,” I said.

Zheng’s lips curled into a more familiar expression, a face-splitting grin of deep satisfaction, showing her shark’s teeth and a hint of long, flickering tongue. The dying sunlight caught her face from far away, flame-lit and falling. “Shaman. You still understand—”

“I can’t ‘forbid’ you from anything, Zheng. I don’t control you. I can’t order you about, or tell you what to do, because you’re not my slave. You’re my friend and my lover. I can’t stop you from killing that woman. None of us can. The choice and the power is all yours. But I will be … incredibly disappointed in you.”

Zheng’s grin died. She pulled her lips back in — disgust? At me?

“These worms are nothing,” she purred. “You owe them nothing.”

I sighed. “So you were listening to my little speech? Yes, Zheng, I don’t owe them anything. You’re right. But I’m choosing to take responsibility, even if it’s not mine to take. Nobody else can. Nobody else will. They don’t deserve it, certainly. But does that little girl there deserve to be stuck like this?” I gestured at Catherine, in Praem’s arms, though I could barely see them in the dying light of sunset’s end. “Do any of them deserve the Eye? No.”

“You made no oath, shaman. You—”

“Well then I’m making one right now!” I said. “At the very least — the very least! — they can die free. Not with their souls bound like this. You of all people should understand that, Zheng.”

A low blow. I almost winced.

Zheng drew in one great heaving breath — and took a step backward.

Framed by the distant line of darkening trees and the soupy-thick shadows of the fields, she sank into the gloom, becoming part of the gathering night. Her head dipped, her shoulders slumped, her eyes went slack and slow.

A surrender. But in shame? Not what I had intended.

I opened my mouth again to speak some plaintive nonsense — but Doctor Harriet Marsh spoke before I could call out to Zheng.

With spluttering defiance and an arrogant huff, she said: “This is a set up. An obvious little play, to win our trust.”

Everyone looked at her — well, everyone except Zheng, who had eyes only for me. Raine sighed, Twil snorted and shook her head. Evelyn looked disgusted. Over by Soup and Nicole, Jan winced and grimaced and braced as if about to get splattered with gore. Most of the other cultists looked sceptical and fearful.

As well they should, because I lost my temper.

Before we even knew what we were doing, we whipped out a tentacle and wrapped it around Marsh’s throat; her hands flew to her neck, her eyes bulged with panic, and she let out a terrible spluttering wheeze. I didn’t actually squeeze — I wasn’t genuinely choking the poor woman, I didn’t know if we had it in us to do that — but we gave her one hell of a fright, then dialled it up past eleven by screeching at her.

“Shut up! Shut up before I change my mind and feed you to Zheng!” I said — or tried to say. The words were not entirely human.

I think she got the gist of it though.

Then I let go and shoved her back. Luckily Felicity was there to catch her.

I was quivering with anger, struggling to control myself, but equally embarrassed by my ugly little outburst. The little girl was sobbing into Praem’s shoulder, shaking and shivering and panting. Had I caused that? The other cultists were exchanging awkward looks, terrified and skittish. Harriet was rubbing her throat. A hand squeezed my shoulder, Raine whispered words close to my ear, but we couldn’t take them in. Twil raised her hands and said something to the cultists, but I was miles away.

The sunset was ending; the exterior lights of Geerswin Farmhouse finally started to flicker on, flooding the crumbly asphalt with harsh electric light. This had not gone how I had wanted.

And Zheng — my beautiful demon — turned away from us. She vaulted the fence in one smooth flowing motion of muscle and fabric, and then stalked across the dry-baked field, her feet sinking into the shadows, returning to the woods.

“No … ” we murmured. “No, no, no, this is all wrong, I … ”

The others were gathering themselves. The cultists shuffled closer to each other, like droplets of water joining together. Faces were looking to me for direction, so many faces, so many little expectations, watching me for cues, for promises, for which way to jump next. And not just the cultists — ex-cultists, now? — but my friends too. Evee, watching to see what I did; Sarika, eyeing me with silent judgement; Amanda Hopton, seeing with the eyes of her curious and distant god; Lozzie, biting her bottom lip and looking at Zheng’s rapidly retreating back; Seven-Shades-of-Sinking-into-the-Shadows, with her subtle nod of acceptance that I’d done the right thing.

Had I?

I was stuck, with words jammed in my throat, the soles of my shoes glued to the tarmac.

And then, clarity whispered in my right ear.

“Hey, Heather. Hey, hey, love. Go after her,” said Raine.

We turned to face her. Raine was lit from the side by the exterior lights, harsh and washed out. We blinked and realised we were almost crying; Raine raised her eyebrows, so full of meaning.

“W-what? Raine?”

Raine nodded sideways, after Zheng’s retreating back; she was almost at the distant tree line, a slightly more coherent smudge of darkness against the night beneath the canopy.

“Zheng,” Raine said. “Go after Zheng, hey?”

“B-but what about—”

Raine cracked a grin. “We’ll handle the stragglers. Hey, you’ve already made your point. Said what you meant to say. Brilliantly, too.”

“I don’t think I did,” I whispered.

“You did. Now, get after our big girl before she vanishes for another week.”

“But what if she wants to be alone? Raine, I-I think I hurt her—”

“Heather, I love you, but you’re daft as a bat sometimes. If Zheng didn’t want to be followed, she’d be moving a damn-sight faster than that.” Raine shot me a wink, pushed my shoulder to point me after Zheng, and gave me a — thankfully covert, in front of all these people — pat on the bum. “Get after her. For me, too.”

On the far side of the field Zheng melted into the tree line.

I ran for the fence, and I didn’t look back.

Behind me, I heard Raine turn around and raise her voice: “Okay, ladies and gents, listen up! Heather’s gotta go fix that little mess, but we’ve got a few more things to talk about. Evelyn Saye right there wants to inspect you for other magical phenomena, and all of you have something to say to our Loz—”

But I wasn’t listening; I was chasing Zheng.

I didn’t leap the fence. I clambered over it awkwardly and dropped to the other side, cushioned by my springy tentacles; we could have launched ourselves over the barrier, but we weren’t quite as flush with emergency adrenaline as earlier, and we didn’t want to risk an awkward landing in the uneven, rock-hard, sun-baked field, or end up with a broken ankle in a rabbit hole. We landed on the grass, picked myself back up, and crossed the field at a run.

Down in my gut, my bioreactor woke up, thrumming with energy. We were running?! Gosh, we did not do that, as a rule. Heathers might have six tentacles but we were still not very athletic. This would leave me huffing and puffing very soon indeed.

Zheng was long gone now, a shadow among shadows soaked into the great cloying mass of the woods. The last of the sunset was still blazing and bleeding just beyond the forest, a final ragged slash along the treetops, and the exterior lights of Geerswin Farmhouse were flooding the tarmac courtyard with electric brilliance — but out here, on the edge of the wood, I may as well have been staring into an ocean trench.

We scurried over the exterior fence without pause, then plunged past the limits of the farm, beneath the silent sentinels of the bubble-servitors high up in the treetops.

Beneath the woodland canopy, beyond sight of the sky, we dived into premature night.

Leaves shivered in the summer night’s wind. Gnarled roots clawed for my trainers. Skeletal branches plucked at my hair. The trees were thick and ragged in every direction, mute giants towering in the darkness. Undergrowth coiled and curled about their skirts in hanging fronds of fern and trailing ends of ivy. The air was thick with rotten smells, with the scent of bark, the dust of high-summer earth, the verdant reek of leaf and sap and decomposing muck. This was true old-growth woodland, nipped at the edges by human hands, but with the heart untouched in a thousand years.

I blundered deeper.

“Zheng! Zheng! Wait for me! Zheng!”

For an unaltered human this would have been very foolish. The woods were just as lonely and dark as they were a thousand years ago; true, there was probably a road within fifteen minutes walk in any direction, but that wouldn’t help if you tripped on a root and broke an ankle, or didn’t have a torch or a phone to see by, or wandered in circles until morning found you exhausted and thirsty and weeping, curled up in a ball. Being alone in the dark in the woods is frightening — it taps deep into the ape brain we all still share, populates every shadow with unseen predators, screaming at you to get out, get clear, get to somewhere with better sightlines, find friends, find fire, be silent, don’t make a sound.

But I was not just a human being, not any more. I was a little scared, how could I not be? But there were seven of us inside me, and apart from Zheng I was probably the scariest thing in these woods. I was half-tempted to slip my squid-skull mask back on, but what did owls and foxes care for that? My tentacles protected my ankles from unseen roots. If the worst came to the worst, I could always Slip out to Camelot and then home. And I could almost smell Zheng among the trees — her unique spice of sweat and heat called to me.

But I couldn’t bloody well see her. It was extremely dark. Stupidly dark. When I looked back over my shoulder I could not see the lights of Geerswin Farm anymore.

Deep in an abyss. Just how I liked it.

“Tch, Zheng! I can’t— oh, wait, here—”

And for light, I had my phone. I got halfway to fumbling it out of my pocket before I realised I didn’t need it.

“Oh, Heather, Raine is right, you are very daft sometimes,” I said to myself, as I raised two tentacles and turned up the brightness of their slow rainbow-strobe. The bioluminescence pushed the darkness back.

It was worth the risk. There were unlikely to be any mundane walkers out and about in the middle of these trackless woods, in the dark. And if there were, then I would wager they were up to no good, and probably deserved the fright of seeing a six-tentacled rainbow-glowing lesbian squid-girl among the trees.

“Zheng!” I called out. “I’m not leaving without you!”

A rumble replied from up ahead. I breathed a sigh of relief; if Zheng had sprinted off, I had no way of keeping that promise.

I skirted a particularly thick holly bush which was covered in nasty sharp thorns, worked my way around the thickly gnarled boughs of two massive trees, and emerged onto a low ridge which ran through this part of the woods.

And there was Zheng, sitting cross-legged on a wide, flat rock which jutted out from the apex of the ridge, less than six feet away from me. We were almost eye level with each other — she was still a little taller, due to the angle of the ridge.

“Zheng,” I sighed. “There you are.”

Her eyes were closed, her reddish-brown face lit by the slowly shifting glow of my own tentacles, framed by the dark trees. Her hands rested in her lap. She looked ready to meditate, or pronounce wisdom, or sit there for a hundred years. Her coat trailed off into the shadows behind her. 

“Shaman,” she purred. She didn’t sound angry any more. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign.

“Yup,” I said, feeling very lame. “That’s … that’s me.”

We fell into awkward silence. Wind rustled the forest canopy, far above our heads. I looked up and took a deep breath, trying to think of what to say. My tentacles had plenty of suggestions — hug her, slap her in the face, start hooting and shouting, go sit in her lap, tell her we love her (which was the truth and the whole truth and never would be otherwise), fling ourselves at her again, and a dozen other less useful courses of action.

“Zheng,” we said eventually, looking at her again. “I didn’t mean to humiliate you, back there. I meant what I said, I-I have no right to even attempt to control you. I wasn’t. I was just trying to save that woman’s life, even if she doesn’t deserve it, perhaps especially because she doesn’t—”

“You have made a puppy of me, shaman.”

I winced. Zheng didn’t sound resentful, or angry, or upset. It was a statement, nothing more.

“Well … maybe it’s not so bad to be a puppy?” I said.

Zheng cracked open one eye. I blushed and sighed.

“I-I mean, sometimes!” I added. “If you like the feeling! Not always. Not permanent puppy-mode. Sometimes you can be a puppy, sometimes you can be a big scary tiger. It’s up to you, Zheng, not me.”

Zheng rumbled and closed her eyes again. I had the distinct sense I had fumbled that.

“Puppies are still dogs,” I muttered, more to myself than her. “Still nature, red in tooth and claw.”

Zheng’s brow twitched. Her lips curled upward with approval. She purred, the sound rumbling off into the darkness. “Red in tooth and claw. Mmmm. Praem said that once, also. Poetry?”

I blinked, surprised that Zheng had used Praem’s actual name. Was that a special marker of respect? It wasn’t the time to ask, however.

“Tennyson, yes. The poet, I mean.”

Zheng grinned, amused. “Tenny-son?”

I sighed and crossed my arms over my chest; without the lingering heat of the sunset, the air beneath the canopy was growing cold and cloying, damp and dank. My bioreactor responded with a flush of warmth from deep inside my abdomen, but my shoulders and scalp still felt chilly. I wished I was wearing my hoodie.

 “No relation to our Tenny,” I said. “And I actually don’t like the part of the poem that line comes from. It’s all about the contradiction between a beautiful world created by God, and the grisly reality of nature. As if real nature isn’t beautiful, too. As if predators aren’t … divine.” I stared at Zheng and sighed a very big sigh. “Oh, I have caged you, in a way, haven’t I? I’m … I’m sorry, Zheng.”

“There is nothing to apologise for, shaman.”

“There kind of is. Look, Zheng, maybe you’re correct. Maybe once I’ve freed those people from the Eye — assuming that even works — maybe once it’s all over, maybe the mage, that Harriet woman, maybe you should … you know … ”

Zheng lost her amused grin. “Feeding me your table scraps.”

We winced again. “Not what I meant! That’s not what I meant at all! Oh, Zheng. I feel like I’ve neglected you.”

“You have not, shaman. You have changed me.”

“For the better? You don’t seem very happy about it.”

Zheng rumbled a big sigh, her massive chest and shoulders rising and falling as the sound crawled off into the forest around us. We could feel the heat coming off her, like a stone left out in the summer sun, radiating all her stored warmth into the dark. We longed to crawl into her lap and cuddle up to her, but we felt as if we didn’t have the right. Not then, not yet, not in the middle of this.

Zheng did not have a chance to answer, however, as an unexpected visitor glided out of the woodland shadows.

Russet fur and black-tipped ears slid into my circle of rainbow-strobing tentacle-light; silent, elegant, precise little paws padded across the carpet of decomposing leaves; orange eyes glowed like firelight in the darkness. Sleek and glossy and very well-fed, her little face preternaturally aware of myself and Zheng, showing neither fear nor caution.

“Oh!” I squeaked in surprise. “It’s— it’s the fox! The Saye Fox! Hello?”

“Yip,” she went, very softly.

Zheng cracked her eyes open and turned to look as well. The Saye Fox — for she could be no other, and I would recognise her anywhere — trotted up to us, completely fearless. She hopped onto the low rock where Zheng was sitting, then directly into Zheng’s lap. She curled up on one of Zheng’s massive thighs and rested her head on Zheng’s knee.

Zheng chuckled, low and amused. She reached down and scratched the back of the fox’s neck. The Saye Fox went: “Yerp-ip.”

“Perhaps it is not such a bad thing, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, thoughtful and quiet. “I return a little to how I was before, with my little bird.”

I couldn’t conceal my sigh of relief. “Still. I’m sorry, Zheng. I have neglected you.”

“No more apologies, shaman,” she said. She was very focused on petting the fox. A luxury very few humans could say they had ever enjoyed.

“Well, okay then,” we said. “You should really, really speak with Lozzie too, by the way. I could tell she was seriously worried about you. She cares about you a lot, Zheng, she gets worried when you’re upset.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “The mooncalf’s love means much.”

“It certainly does,” I said. I glanced down at the fox. She’d closed her eyes in deep contentment. “Have you been hanging out with the fox for the last couple of days? Is that why you’ve been out in the woods?”

Zheng didn’t answer for a long moment. “She lurks here and there. Wherever she wishes.”

“ … that … wasn’t an answer to either of my questions, Zheng. But you don’t have to, I think. I-if this is something private. I don’t … ”

Zheng raised her head and gave me a level, blank stare. “Shaman.”

“Zheng?”

“I conceal nothing.”

“I wasn’t claiming you were, I just … you seem so … I … ”

Zheng let out a low rumble. “The child leaves me conflicted. The woods are good for thinking, or perhaps for not-thinking. For doing, without thought.”

I blinked at her, framed by the darkness. “The … child? I’m sorry, Zheng, but who are you talking about?”

“The mage-wrought demon-child. The young one, who cannot speak well, but who yearns for my name.” Zheng sighed, a big rumbly sound in the darkness, and returned her attention to the Saye Fox.

“Oh,” I said. “You mean Grinny.”

Zheng grunted.

“You don’t like that name?” I asked. “It’s only provisional.”

“Names have power, shaman. They build and they bind. They stick where they should not. They get into cracks, then work themselves free and damage more than their weight has right to. Like grains of sand between the teeth.”

I winced; what a gruesome metaphor. “Then why not name her yourself?”

Zheng looked up at us, surprised; it was rare to see her surprised, eyebrows raised, eyes widened. She said nothing.

“Grinny likes you,” we explained. “That’s why she likes your name. Probably because of how you helped rescue her. We can’t just call her ‘Zheng Two’ or something. Well, I suppose we could, if she really wanted. But maybe you should give her a name, maybe she’ll like that, maybe it’ll give her somewhere to start. You could even give her a list of suggestions and let her pick.”

Zheng stared at me in silence for a long, long moment. Wind rustled through the treetops far above. A bird called in the distance, perhaps an owl.

“I’ve never … ” Zheng mumbled.

But then she raised her eyes from my face and looked over my shoulder. The Saye Fox stood up suddenly, hopping out of Zheng’s lap, her ears pricked up.

I glanced over my shoulder as well; a thin light was poking through the trees, bobbing, swaying, making its way toward us.

“Be calm, shaman,” Zheng purred. “It is only—”

“W-who’s there?!” I stammered out.

“Only me!” came a confident reply; it was Raine.

She joined us seconds later, stepping out of the trees, holding her mobile phone in one hand. She cracked a grin when she saw that I was lighting up the area with my tentacles, and switched off the flash-light function on her phone. She looked flushed and excited, perhaps from wandering in the dark, but she’d also left behind her equipment — her firearm and her home-made riot shield. She still had her pistol jammed into the front of her jeans, but otherwise Raine was empty-handed.

“Raine?” I said.

“Little wolf,” Zheng rumbled.

Raine grinned at both of us. “If you go down to the woods today,” she said in a sing-song voice as she stepped forward. “But hey, you two are much more exciting than a teddy bear’s picnic, right?”

I stumbled back.

“R-Raine?”

Raine was totally focused on Zheng — and brimming over with anger of her own. She grinned, she flexed, she didn’t show it in the same way, but it was written in every muscle and tendon, in the way she stepped slowly toward Zheng, sitting on her flat rock. The Saye Fox scampered out of the way too, and coiled herself around one of my ankles.

Zheng just stared.

Raine walked right up to her, still grinning. They were about level with each other. “Hey there, big girl.”

“Little wolf,” Zheng purred.

Without warning or challenge, Raine reached out and bunched a fist in the front of Zheng’s jumper, like she was getting a good grip for a judo throw, or was about to pull her other fist back and punch Zheng in the face.

“Raine!” I squeaked. “Don’t—”

But both of them ignored me.

Raine said. “Stand up.”

“I will tower over you, little wolf.”

“That’s the point. Stand the fuck up.”

My throat closed up as I watched. Zheng stood, towering over Raine, though Raine kept her grip on Zheng’s jumper. Then Raine tugged, as if to jerk Zheng’s head back down to eye-level. Zheng didn’t move, she just raised an eyebrow.

“Play along, big girl,” Raine growled.

Zheng said, “Why?”

“Because I’m real fucking angry with you. Because you and I have a deal. Because you’re not just Heather’s, you’re mine too.”

Zheng grunted deep in her chest, and to my incredible surprise she lowered her head, allowing Raine to drag her downward. They stared at each other, locked inches apart.

Then Raine said: “You wander off into the woods, for days. You don’t answer your mobile phone. You don’t let anybody know what you’re up to. When you do come back, you’re ready to murder, and you’re tunnel-visioned right on that, nothing else—”

“Little wolf,” Zheng rumbled.

“And I don’t disagree with any of that,” Raine said. She grinned again.

“R-Raine?” I said, surprised.

“Hell,” Raine went on. “I kind of agree with you, actually. Heather shouldn’t be fixing mages. Probably better to kill that woman, safer for all of us.”

Zheng started to grin too.

But then Raine said: “But that’s not the point, big girl. You wanna know why I’m so angry with you?”

“Yes, little wolf.”

“Because you didn’t even say hi to me. Not a nod. Not a word, back there. What are we to each other, huh? Are you bullshitting me? Heather’s your shaman, sure, I get it. But you and me, big girl. This isn’t like what Heather and I have. You know that.”

Zheng grinned even wider. “You are jealous of the woods, little wolf?”

“Jealous isn’t the right word. And it’s not the woods.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, at such close range, close enough to touch — or to kiss. Both of them were grinning, Raine with burning confidence, Zheng with dark predatory intent. Zheng even parted her teeth and slid her massive tongue out for a moment, then snapped it back with a flicker of wet red motion. But I felt like they were about to strike each other. About to clash with knife against fists, like they did once before.

Then I realised: both of them were loving this.

I was vibrating so hard I thought I was about to pass out. Several of my tentacles suggested we sit down, and quickly. The Saye Fox was frozen against one of my ankles. I don’t think she was enjoying the show in quite the same way.

Then, Zheng sighed. “My apologies, little wolf.”

She leaned forward. I thought she was about to kiss Raine on the cheek, but instead she closed her teeth gently on the edge of Raine’s jawbone. Raine laughed and let her go. They both straightened up and stepped back.

“The shaman is about to overheat,” Zheng said.

Raine laughed and glanced at me. “You alright there, Heather? You are looking a bit flushed.”

“As if I could possibly help that!” I squeaked. We all flailed, tentacles going everywhere. The Saye Fox darted back over to Zheng, who scooped her up in her arms and placed her on her shoulder, where the fox coiled around the side of Zheng’s neck quite happily. “You two looked like you were about to— to— oh, I don’t know!”

Raine laughed. Zheng just purred, seemingly mollified at last.

I sighed and huffed and tried to clear my collective mind. “Raine, what about the others? What’s happening back there?”

“Not much,” said Raine. “Evee’s doing some stuff with them, then they’re all off. Meeting over, Heather, you made your point. Praem’s talking to the kid, doing what she can. We might have some ideas there, but nothing you can act on right now. There’s nothing more to do. Everyone else has it under control. This was more important.”

“This?” I said.

“You and me and Zheng.”

Zheng grunted a soft agreement and turned to stare off into the woods. “We agree, then, little wolf. We go hunting.”

“Excuse me?” I said, bewildered.

Raine clucked her tongue. “Eh, not quite hunting. Just a walk. The three of us. It’ll do Heather good too, clear her head.”

I boggled at Raine. “In … in the dark? Here? Right now?”

Raine nodded at my tentacles. “We’re hardly in the dark, we’ve got our little deep-sea squid to help. And hey, you’re all wound up, you need to work out that. And Zheng needs to talk.”

“She … she does?”

Zheng said nothing. But I suspected Raine was right. We hadn’t finished the discussion about Grinny.

Raine said, “And if she can’t talk to us, who could she talk to?” She shrugged. “So, let’s go for a little walk. Not long, no worries, just a little. Then to home again. Just the three of us.”

“Four,” Zheng rumbled.

The Saye Fox let out a soft, “Yip.”

“Ah yes,” Raine said, grinning. “My mistake. The four of us. A walk in the woods.” She held out a hand to me. “Come on, Heather. You’ll enjoy it. Nothing to be scared of, not with me and Zheng around.”

Announcement

Heather! Why are you denying your cute puppy her tasty meal?! She just wanted to help, see? Zheng is helping! Big doggy Zheng is a good girl, helping with bad people, woof woof bark bark.

Oh dear. Okay at least they avoided traumatising that little girl any further. Praem really is a saint, right? And Heather made her point. Maybe a bit more forcefully than she intended, but hey, if it works, it works. And now it's time to wander around in the woods, in the dark, at night, with a huge zombie and a heavily armed dyke. Heather's going to have such a wonderful time.

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Next week, Heather goes for a wander in the abyssal darkness, right in the middle of the English countryside.

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