eyes yet to open – 22.4
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

References to sex work (it's like one sentence)

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A clever, cunning, and crafty little cephalopod does not expose herself in open waters, relying solely on the protective colouration of her shifting skin and the dizzying dance of her many arms; neither does she lurch into view with tentacles outspread, beak snapping a challenge like a painted braggart demanding a duel. No, those are the ways of passivity or recklessness, both equally likely to end in ruin and defeat. Instead, if she is smart and swift and sharp, she will squeeze herself into cracks and crevasses and tight little caves in the undersea rocks, coiling her softly pliant body into the stony embrace of the dark corners and unseen recesses. She sinks into the darkness, hides in the shadows, silent and still and studious.

“Kitten.”

The cephalopod does this not to escape the searching eyes and razor teeth of sharks and rays — for she is a heavyweight cephalopod now, no easy morsel for a passing predator, more than capable of warning them off with flashing stripes of red and yellow on the canvas of her skin. She is flush with toxins and poisons and paralytics. She has sharp claws and hooks and barbs of her own, reinforced with iron and steel. She hisses to ward off unwanted interest. She wishes no interruption in her hunt.

“Kitten, I strongly advise against doing this by yourself. Kitten. Kitten. Heather.”

Hunt! Yes, oh yes, that is why she is tucked away in the shadows — to stalk prey of her own.

“Kyahaha! She’s right out in the open! Look at this! Look, I can see the road through those railings there. Maybe you should shake her shoulder or something, Sevensy? Some teenage weed-head out for a kebab to slake the evening munchies is gonna spot our little squid through the park railings, and then make a five thousand word post on a paranormal image board! Hehe!”

The abyssal cephalopod creeps through the thickly clouded waters, tentacles reaching forward in uncoiling silence, dragging their own stealth behind them in gossamer layers of unfolding cobweb, sheets of silence slicing through the dark.

“Kitten—”

“Heatherrrrr, shouldn’t you be doing this on a lonely windswept moor or something? Isn’t that where fair maidens are meant to brood like this? Pfffthahaha! I can’t believe this, Sevensy, she’s lost it! She’s gone over the edge! Sorry, but this one is not my fault!”

Her beak is sharpened to a razor’s edge, hard as a diamond-tipped drill. No human science could match the cracking, crushing, constrictive power of her maw. She will snap it shut on skull and bone, then slice through both to the crimson meat within.

“Kitten, you cannot — must not — do this by yourself. There is no rational reason for this self-isolation. Go home. Seek assistance. Ask for help and it shall be granted, you—”

“Sevensy, don’t be daft. She doesn’t want help. She wants revenge, and it’s gonna be ugly! You think she wants Raine and Evee to watch her splatter some mage like a balloon full of cow guts? She’s here because she’s gonna do biiiiiig vi-ooooh-lence.”

The clever cephalopod does not spring prematurely. She waits until she sees confirmation — the ghostly sheen of a crab’s shell slipping into the dark waters ahead, thinking it is alone and unobserved, primitive eyes missing the octopus coiled within the rocks.

“You need not be involved, Aym.”

“Haha! You think either of us are gonna be involved? Maybe if I can stay in a fucking bomb shelter while Heather goes bananas!”

The clever cephalopod creeps closer while maintaining concealment; her skin has turned gnarled and dark to make her just another stone along the sea bed. She waits until the crab’s back is turned, until the claws are pointed elsewhere, until the waters are filled with night’s murk, until the trajectory is perfect. She bunches her tentacles like a massive muscular spring. She opens her beak, ready to arc through the cold void and seize the hot meat.

She tells herself the crab does not see her. The crab is small — with sharp, strong pincers, yes, but too slow to impede her strike. She will not be denied.

She is almost ready; her hand — no, tentacle — no, hand, thumb, right thumb, hovers over the bright green call button, green and shiny enough to bite into, like an apple. But, no, no apples grow beneath the sea. Not an apple, a— The phone screen — the crab’s shiny shell, back turned — burns bright and cheery against the dark background of the park, leaves rustling in the wind — no, against the deep-sunk ocean depths, drenched in night — against the distant Sharrowford skyline of rooftops and streetlights and—

“Kitten. Stop this.”

A soft hand fell upon my shoulder.

I hissed through my teeth, quick and sharp and mostly involuntary, the product of an altered throat; the barely human sound sunk into the darkness which hung above the grass and lurked between the trees. But the hand did not withdraw. Clarity began to leave me.

“Octopus-brain has lost her crackers!” Aym screeched, giggling like she was enjoying this far too much.

“I’m perfectly rational,” we said at last, swallowing hard to force our throat back into human shape. “And I’m— I’m almost there!” I tried to shrug off Sevens’ hand, but she wouldn’t let go. “I’m close! Give me a moment!”

“Close to what?!” Aym screech-laughed again. “Getting absorbed into your phone screen?”

“Kitten,” said Seven-Shades-of-Shrinking-Patience. “We are all out of moments. Look at me. Look up. Look.”

I hissed again — it was supposed to be a sigh, but I was too far gone to retain control — and looked up from my phone.

We — us, seven Heather-like squid girls packed into one adrenaline-filled, panting, shivering body — were sitting on a old wooden bench, just off one side of an asphalt pathway, drenched in the late evening shadows of Lehrey Park, which was situated at the far eastern end of the city of Sharrowford. The park was big, and dark, and deserted at that time of night. Massive trees lined the edges of the park itself, concealing the low wall and high fence which separated it from the quiet suburban roads beyond. The wall and the railing and the trees worked to filter and darken the distant streetlights. The air was filled by the slow rustle of thousands of leaves, tossed gently on the night’s wind.

We were tucked deep in a corner, away from everything and everyone. Thick clouds covered the sky, hiding the moon, hiding us. The smells of summer grass and the sounds of furtive insects in the undergrowth had fled from our own reeking scent — we probably stank of predatory intent, secret pheromones pouring from our body. Even the distant cars on Sharrowford’s roads sounded like scuttling beetles hurrying for less benighted parts of the city.

I was shivering badly, though not from cold. My bum had gone a little numb from the hard bench. My chest hurt.

We held our mobile phone in both hands, palms slick with sweat, the screen glowing in the night. We held the mystery business card at the tip of one tentacle.

The phone number mocked us from both screen and paper: 010456-6754-7777-00-00-2. It wasn’t even a real telephone number, just another mage’s trick, a magic spell encoded in telephone exchanges and numerology. I’d crawled all over the internet trying to figure out where it would point me. The answer? Nowhere.

But that didn’t mean we weren’t going to make the call.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was standing in front of the bench, flanked by Aym. Sevens — with her smart black shoes touching the actual ground, with her yellow skirt and pressed blouse and rolled-up parasol — was lit from the front and below by the glow from my phone screen, and by the slowly shifting rainbow colours of all six of my fully manifested tentacles. She looked like a phantom from a nightmare, glowing with unnatural colours, ready to whisk me off to my punishment in some faerie dungeon.

I’m certain I looked far worse.

Aym had reduced herself to little more than a wisp of bitter darkness, a shadow backed by gloom, almost invisible against the falling night and the omnipresent background glow of Sharrowford streetlights.

Sevens did not look pleased; she looked strict and stern, like she wanted to give me a spanking — and not the fun kind. I could hardly blame her. I was being a very significant fool, in a variety of ways which I did not have the power to express, let alone counteract.

“Sevens!” I hissed — actually hissed, because I couldn’t control the quiver in my voice. “Give me a moment! I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right now! I need to be in the right frame of mind! Let me hold onto that, please!”

“Kitten, I love you with all my heart,” said Sevens. Her lips clicked on every word. “But you cannot do this alone. There is no reason.”

I hissed and slapped the empty air with three of my tentacles, agitated beyond words, beyond the power to explain myself. I was emotionally exhausted and I knew it, strung-out beyond the edge of rational human decision making. Sevens did not flinch at my wild gesture, not even when my tentacles throbbed and flexed with the beginnings of spikes and hooks and barbs. She did not let go of my shoulder. She did not let me raise anchor.

She stuck to her guns, bless her: “Kitten. Go home. Go to Raine and Evelyn. Take Zheng if you must. Take—”

“That’s not the point!” we hissed in her face. “Not the point! Sevens, let go, let me—”

Aym snort-cackled again, a noise like a rusty saxophone played by a swamp monster. “Some poor evening dog-walker is about to get an eye full of squid juice!”

“It’s fine!” I snapped at her instead. “Nobody is going to show up or walk by—”

“Quite a gamble!” Aym cackled. Her rippling, rotten giggle was borderline hysterical; she was more disturbed by this than she was showing. Another weight on the scales of guilt and madness inside my chest.

“—and if they do,” I went on, “then they’re going to come walking down a path with a torch, or a headlamp, or something like that. I will fold my tentacles up if I have to, yes, but I am tired of thinking about it! And I’m only going to be here a few more seconds! Let me finish, both of you!”

“Finish what?!” Aym squeaked. “What are you even doing?! Shit or get off the pot!”

I took a deep breath and filled my lungs, trying to contain the roiling cauldron boiling away inside my chest.

It was perhaps thirty minutes since Sevens and Aym and I had left my parents’ house, and a little less than that since we’d returned from Reading to Sharrowford, the same way in which we had arrived.

The revelations from my parents, my father’s determination and effort, my mother’s distress and resolve, the aching catharsis of ten long years — all of it had left me drained inside in a way I’d never felt before, both exhausted and refreshed. Before leaving we had gone through almost another hour of tearful goodbyes and repeated reassurances. My parents had both wanted to hug me, to tell me that they loved me, and to mutter half-finished questions about how they’d brought me up. They could not quite deal with the implications of that, not yet.

I’d briefly visited my bedroom — mine and Maisie’s bedroom — but I’d felt nothing there, nothing except a strange and distant alienation from a previous version of myself. There was no personal discovery of secrets left behind by the Eye, or by a mage, or the sudden reveal of a magical gateway just out of sight. I’d even stuck my hands and three tentacles under my own bed, trying to find that dimly-remembered impossible passageway to Wonderland. But there was only carpet and dust. Brain-math probing revealed no secret skein of webs wrapped around my childhood bedroom or the space where Maisie’s bed should have been standing. Nothing was there except painful memories and a few random spirits lurking in the corners. I resisted the urge to chase those spirits off; I even briefly petted one of them with a tentacle, though I suspect it thought it was about to be killed and eaten.

Both my parents had hugged me yet again, hard and desperate for my own safety. My father had wished me luck, clapped me on the back, told me something like ‘good hunting’, and then pretended he was not terrified. My mother had brandished her notebook again, now filled with the names of people I loved, with a detailed description of the things I had told her, with things she did not want to believe — and with Maisie’s name, repeated over and over in big black scrawl, breaking out from inside the neatly ruled lines.

My mother had then extracted from me a twinned pair of bizarre promises: to give her a phone call at the last minute before we embarked upon Maisie’s rescue, whenever it came, and to repeat the call when we returned with my long-lost sister, whatever protestations to unreality that my mother’s mind might impose upon her. I had been unable to refuse, not after her detailed notes and the way she was trying to cling to Maisie’s name so hard.

Maisie, Maisie, Maisie! Don’t forget! She’s your other daughter! Don’t forget!

I had little faith that my mother would remember, but not because she wasn’t trying. It was the most real thing my mother had ever done.

She’d asked if I really did want to stay the night. She’d told me to be safe. She’d said a lot of things that I couldn’t process, or think about, or even recall properly — because the only thing which mattered now was the phone number and the name on that business card.

I was a cephalopod predator, coiled into my dark crack in the rocks, waiting for the unwary prey to pass below.

Taika Eskelinan

At Large In The World, Despite Your Best Efforts

All enquiries please telephone:
010456-6754-7777-00-00-2

We had dragged our eyes across those words over and over, trying to punch through them to the truth behind, desperate to snare or snag some clue in the name or the bizarre little motto. Internet searches had turned up nothing of note. ‘Taika Eskelinan’ was a real name — a Finnish name, though the surname was either a misspelling or a small modification of a more common one. ‘Taika’ literally meant ‘magic’; a mage’s jape? Perhaps. I seriously doubted that any of the internet search results referred to the impossibly tall, flame-haired, sword-carrying figure who my father had described. The little motto or self-advertisement turned up even less.

Whoever and whatever she was, Taika was a mystery.

But I was about to trap her in a corner of rock, pin her to the ocean floor, and suck the secrets out of her skull.

We’d left Reading by teleport, the same way we’d arrived. My course of action should have been obvious: I should have returned to the comfort and security of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, to ruminate on my discoveries with Raine and Evelyn, to seek advice and help, to warm my numbed brain and strained heart. That would have been the sensible thing — to do all that good, emotionally healthy, decompression stuff. But I was not feeling sensible. I was not feeling like a good girl. I was not a good girl — I was seven very bad girls in one body, vibrating with the need to grasp the truth behind the last ten years of my life.

So I had teleported myself, Sevens, and Aym to the heart of Lehrey Park, in the middle of the night, in the dark.

What was I doing? Pretending to be an octopus. Mentally preparing myself to gut a mage.

“I am gathering myself,” we hissed, soft and threatening. “I need a few more seconds, to— to get into the right mindset. That’s all.”

Aym let out a horrible little snort-giggle. Her voice came from inside the twisting pillar of darkness next to Sevens. “Right mindset, she says. What, you gotta envision yourself as a little squid all ready to snap-snap, so you can bite down the moment the mage-bitch answers the call?”

“Yes!” I snapped in Aym’s face. “And stop mocking me!”

“Kyahaha!” Aym giggled again — but she retreated behind Sevens’ back, overwhelmed by my predatory intent.

“Kitten,” said Sevens. “Stop trying to do this alone. You have nothing to prove. There is no special beauty in solitary pursuit, no magical narrative solution when you are alone. Take that from me, my love. What need is this? Go home. Speak with your friends. With Evelyn, with Lozzie. Make a plan to confront this mage. You are losing your temper, you—”

We tried to shrug off Sevens’ hand again, but she wasn’t having any of that. She tightened her grip. One of us — Top-Left — coiled toward her wrist with the implicit threat of force.

“Kitten. Do not.”

“Tssh!” we hissed. “Sevens, I’m not trying to prove anything! I’m trying to protect everyone else—”

“From a mage,” she interrupted smoothly. “Kitten, none of your companions needs protecting from a mage. They have already fought—”

“From me!” I finished.

Sevens blinked, just once. “Kitten?”

I was panting harder, my flesh hot and itchy, my tentacles aching to transform their smooth pale surfaces into sticky dark toxin, studded with barbs and hooks and razor-sharp spikes.

“No holds barred,” I rasped. “Isn’t that how Raine phrases it? ‘Fire-free zone’? I don’t even know what that means but I’ve seen what it means in video games! Raine would understand. No editing, no censoring, no risk of collateral damage! I don’t care if this mage doesn’t want to tell me anything! I don’t care if she’s ten times more well-protected than Edward Lilburne — it won’t matter. I am going to flense her for her secrets. You know I can do that! You know I can’t be stopped, Sevens. And I’d rather not have to hold back.”

Aym peered around Sevens’ flank, a sheet of smoke and lace. “Told you. Octopus brain is gonna go splatter-house style. Doesn’t want her pretty girls to see her pulling broken bones out of dead meat.”

“Shut up, Aym!” we snapped. “Stop it!

“Eek!” Aym mock-squeaked, ducking behind Sevens’ rear.

“Kitten,” said Sevens. “This has shaken you. You are not acting like yourself.”

“No! No it hasn’t! Sevens, I’ve never been so clear-minded before. I know what I want and I know how to do it, and I’m going to do it. You can’t stop me! And this is a mage, it’s not like I’m proposing to break an innocent person. And I will accept a surrender, I will show mercy, I won’t pull her thoughts out unless I have to — but I probably will have to!”

Aym snorted. “Not learned anything about mages, has she?”

Sevens shot a sharp backward look at Aym. The coal-dust demon-spite went silent.

“Sevens,” we said. “Please take your hand off my shoulder. I adore your touch, but I’m not bringing you with me.”

Sevens did not let go. I touched a tentacle-tip to the back of her palm. Would I hurt her, for the sake of this? I almost certainly could not. I would not pay the price of hurting a loved one for this, and she knew it. She held her hand steady and ignored the touch of my tentacle. I started to blush with shame and doubt; even threatening to hurt her made me feel like filth. But I could not let this opportunity go. If I stepped back now—

Sevens said: “What if this phone number is like that of Mister Joseph King? I believe most mages could do far worse than a warehouse full of toilets. You do not know what you are stepping into.”

“Good!” we said. “Then I’ll have a direct line to her, to her head, her dreams, whoever she is!”

“Kitten—”

“Sevens, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Every second which goes by, this phone number might become invalid.”

Sevens sighed a tiny sigh, the most exasperated I had ever seen the Princess Mask. “Kitten. It’s been ten years. The number is likely not functional.”

I brandished the little piece of cream-coloured card in one tentacle, narrowly resisting the urge to shove it in Seven’s face. “Look at it! It’s perfect! Untouched! Ten years in my father’s wallet and it’s not even faded! That’s magic, Sevens. She’ll be at the end of this call. I know it.”

“Heather. You are being absurd.”

“I know!”

Our voice ringing out across the park, soaked up by the darkness and the trees. Our cheeks burned, but not with embarrassment. Sevens blinked. Aym peered around her hip, silent and curious.

Sevens was entirely correct. All seven of us Heathers knew that, we weren’t pretending otherwise. On one level we knew we were acting like total idiots. But that’s one of the major downsides of having seven of us — we could reinforce our own terrible ideas against any level of external argument. Well, anything short of Raine and Zheng tag-teaming us into submission. And no, not like that. Well, yes like that, but also not.

Why had I come to the park? Why had I not gone home? Why was I not seeking the support and counsel of my friends and allies? 

Because the moment I unclenched this predatory urge, I was going to have an emotional breakdown.

Everything about my relationship with my parents had just changed. Everything about my own past had just changed. I had cried with my mother and father, yes, and the catharsis was raw — but as soon as I relaxed and rode this high back into the depths, I was going to weep and wail and lie in a numb ball for hours, just to absorb how different my world was now. All that weight was hanging above my head, ready to crash into me, like delayed sleep-debt, or a panic attack, or worse.

If I went home and nursed the need to hunt, I risked listening to the other urge as well — the desire to extend this moment forever, to slip into a dark place and stop thinking, to never truly confront what just happened, or what was about to happen. Given half a chance we would luxuriate in stealth forever.

Either of those paths might lead to never confronting this mage.

So we’d come to the park, because eventually we would get cold and hungry, because we could not unclench here, could not relax. We were an octopus in the cracks; it was nothing more than hunting ritual, getting me ready to do what I must. But it was real, and urgent, and it would keep me moving until I was done, until I had the answers I needed.

“I know, Sevens,” I echoed in a whisper through my teeth. “But either I hunt, right now, or I collapse.”

“Your friends can—”

“Can pick me back up, yes. No matter how far I fall. I know. But what if I never again have this clarity of mind? Right now, I feel like I could take this mage apart atom by atom and it wouldn’t matter. I can’t— I can’t leave this now. If I come down off this feeling, I might never do it. Catharsis will turn sour. I’ll get afraid. Right now, right now nothing can stop me. After that, after my parents, nothing can stop me. Sevens, let me go.”

“Kitten. I love you, so no.”

“A-a compromise, then!” I stammered, grasping at straws. “Sevens, please! Go inform Lozzie, okay? If you think I can’t do this, then call for backup. Call for Lozzie, tell her to follow where I’m about to go. Tell her to bring, I don’t know, Raine and Zheng if she wants. But I won’t need it! You know what brain-math makes me capable of, if I push myself far enough. And now I have my reactor, I have distributed neural structures, I’m … I can’t be stopped. I can’t be. And I have to know. I have to know who did this, and how, and why. And if I have to strip away my entire human body and fillet this mage like a pig, then I will.”

Tears were running down my cheeks. I scrubbed them away in anger, shaking all over, but not with fear. My teeth ached with a desire to grow sharp. My tail bone stung, as if it was trying to sprout a blade. My tentacles tingled and quivered with the desire to plate themselves in bio-steel, to sprout with claw and hook and barb.

“Mages can’t stop me,” I whispered. “Sevens, let me go. Call Lozzie if you must.”

Seven-Shades-of-Suspicious-Surrender sighed deeply, squeezed my shoulder one last time, and then let go.

“We should have brought more lemons,” she said.

“A-ah?”

She straightened up, clacked the tip of her parasol against the asphalt, and raised her chin. She said, “I will seek Lozzie for assistance. I ask that you not engage this ‘Taika’ before she arrives, even if you must make the call. I cannot make you promise. You are too determined.”

“T-thank you, Sevens,” I stammered, burning with sudden mortified embarrassment. I felt like a naughty child who’s parent had finally given up on discipline. I’d won freedom of action, but at the cost of great disappointment. “I love you too. I’m— I’m sorry, I—”

Sevens looked to her side, one hand out. “Aym. Quickly now.”

Aym let out a weird little snort-giggle, then slipped one lace-and-shadow hand into Sevens’ waiting fingers.

As soon as the two of them touched, Sevens took three steps backward and sank into the shadows. At first she was merely stepping away from me, but then she faded as if swallowed up by the darkness, absorbed by the night itself, or perhaps by Aym. She vanished on the third step, going black-on-black, leaving behind nothing but the park and the night and the rustling trees.

Exit, stage rear, very unimpressed with her Heathers.

And then I was truly alone, with only myselves.

Though burning with shame and predatory need in equal volumes we did not waste a second. We raised the phone at last, became an octopus among the rocks, unclouded by interruptions, and pressed the shiny green call button — like bait dangling in the waters.

The call took a very long time to connect. Click-click, click-click, click-buzz-click.

Whoever and whatever she was, Taika was very far away, but not entirely beyond human reach. The call did not drop into an empty silence, or shunt back to a dial-tone, or pipe up with a pre-recorded voice to inform me that the number was unreachable. It slithered and searched, an electrical signal sliding through junction boxes and telephone exchanges, down wires in the dark, crossing human borders and passing through human hands, until—

Ring! Ring-ring! Ring-ring!

An octopus in the dark. Waiting for my prey to pass by. Our tentacles sprouted with hooks and spikes, right there in the open, in the park, in Sharrowford, in reality. We no longer cared about being seen! Our bioreactor ramped up, ejecting chemical control rods from their safe positions. We panted, quick and hard, and realised our breath was steaming in the late summer air. We glowed in the dark, breath pluming in the hot night, skin caked with flash-sweat. We coiled tighter, ready to spring.

Ring-ring! Ring-ring! Ring-click—

Somebody or something answered the call.

A long pause.

Not silence, but a distant sigh, like the falling of a log inside a fireplace. I could hear the sounds of traffic, muffled and far away, like the crackle of burning wood.

A voice reached out from within the flames.

“Hello?” she said. “Who’s calling?”

I was frozen, tentacles coiled tight. I dared not breathe.

Another pause, then the voice said: “I see a UK phone number on my screen. A very expensive call you’re making there, whoever you are. Which means either this is a trick, or I know you very well. Which is it, hmm?”

Her voice was like smoke and cinder, husky and dark, amused and tired, as if she’d just risen from a bed of coals. She spoke with an accent I’d never heard before; it was not a Finnish accent as her name had led me to expect, but a continental hybrid, part Scandinavian, part German, a little bit Eastern Europe, maybe Russia, maybe beyond. My ear was not skilled enough to pick her apart.

But my tentacles would be.

“Taika Eskelinan,” we said. “Is that you?”

I felt her smile — like a lightning-struck tree splitting in the middle to show a crescent of molten sap. Across hundreds or thousands of miles, down an electronic signal transformed into sound by a little piece of plastic and metal, I felt a hot wind like the breath of a live caldera.

Taika said: “An English rose? Mm, good bait. Who’s asking?”

“Me,” we said.

And then we reached into the phone.

We could not use the same trick which we had pulled on Mister Joseph King; there was no lock here to keep me out, no key to imitate with a shape-shifting mechanism of pure mathematics — there was only her voice and the signal which carried it, electrons dancing on the wire, a technological connection between two points in human space, strung out across an unknown distance. A trail to follow, a line of light-poles in the Arctic night, a trickle of blood in the water.

We slammed all eight hands into the black swamp at the base of our soul, ripping the whirling machinery of the Eye’s lessons from the toxic darkness. Hyperdimensional mathematics, naked and raw, burning the air the moment it was exposed. We rammed our limbs into the controls, grasped a lever here and a rod there, searing the skin from our tentacles and fusing the flesh on our fingers. We had to work fast, improvise at speed, build the equation on the fly, ride the wave in the split second before ‘Taika’ cut the call.

Define the connection between here and there, render it down from electrical information and signal and noise, racing through lines in the air and cables under the sea. Ignore the physical, ignore the copper and fibre-optics, strip away that layer of reality, the additional unneeded complexities in an equation of direction and location.

Link the parts, fingers burning down to the bone. Stitch one line to another, in an unbroken chain from my mobile phone in Sharrowford, to another phone, in an unknown place I could not yet picture, where the voice of a mage hissed like the crackle of flames.

We completed the equation. My body was beginning to rebel, despite our distributed nervous system; one moment longer and I would be gripped by a wave of nausea and headache pain. But we could not risk disorientation or damage. We had to arrive fresh, ready to pounce from our crack in the rocks.

The equation was a rough and dirty thing, pieced together from human nonsense and inelegant physics, the racing of voices down telephone lines, the sum of numbers in exchange systems, and the glow of a phone screen so very far away.

We straightened out the equation with a flick of one wrist, like snapping a whip.

The tip of the spear held straight and true, pointing toward Taika.

We grinned, wide and wild, with a rush we’d never felt before.

Then we pounced.

Out.

==

My eyes caught fire.

Light burned; an explosion filled the world, scorched the air, and sucked the breath from my lungs. Light, light light, the brightest we’d ever seen in our life, blotting out all thought and leaving us paralysed, gaping, panting, squinting and—

I’d been a very silly set of seven Heathers; I had spent the last thirty minutes sitting in a park in the middle of the night, psyching myself up by doing image training of myself as a clever little hunting octopus, buried in the rocks, waiting for my unwary prey. This was not the burning all-consuming light of the cosmos, or the roaring flame of an elemental mage, or a surprise nuclear detonation.

It was just dawn. Silly squid.

Dawn, breaking over a city, over the glittering surfaces of towering skyscrapers, over straight-line ribbons of clean grey asphalt, over  brightly coloured electronic billboards and little buses so far below, over the tiny dots of pedestrians all the way down on the ground, like ants on the pavement.

Dawn, bursting in through a bank of very fancy windows, lining one wall of the most expensive flat I had ever seen.

Shiny wooden floorboards squeaked under my trainers as I touched down from the teleport and stumbled sideways. I caught myself on a granite countertop, littered with empty alcohol bottles and decorated with the most gaudy, stupid-looking abstract metal sculptures, all meaningless crescents and swoops and curves, signifying nothing.

I panted, blinking, trying to clear my eyes, straightening up and raising my tentacles, ready to hiss at the top of my lungs.

The walls were all soft cream and the ceiling was twenty feet up; the furnishings were dark wood, plush white leather, and shiny chrome. The kitchen space was larger than my bedroom, the attached ‘sitting room’ larger than some houses. The carpets were thick enough in which to swim. Four sofas were gathered around a television the size of a small car; two of the sofas were littered with discarded clothes — very small discarded clothes, as if something interesting had happened there on the previous night. A low table was covered in yet more alcohol bottles, and also what looked like the remains of rolling and smoking several ‘special’ cigarettes. Two short hallways led off from the main room, their own walls plastered with framed pictures of abstract art.

The air smelled of sweat and sex, expensive alcohol and fried food, strange smoke and thick incense.

One wall was all windows, gazing out across a city that looked like something from a movie, seen from the highest possible point.

A penthouse. I’d arrived in a penthouse.

The hiss died in my throat; I felt more out of place than I did when Outside. I had no context for this; the apartment felt like an alien environment. We were on Earth, yes, but this was not my world.

On the near side of the living space stood a huge dining table in dark wood, perhaps made of oak, with matching chairs which looked like they belonged in an early 20th century detective novel. One of the chairs had been knocked over in the specific sort of way that implied somebody had been having too much fun while sitting down. One end of the table was littered with the remains of several recent meals. The other end was host to what I could only conceptualise as a spy set-up: a massive black briefcase stood propped open, the inside all full of electrical parts and little screens and radio dials. A pair of huge black knives lay either side of the briefcase, double-edged but without any handles, like swords lacking their grips. The sunlight refused to touch the metal of those blades; their surfaces remained dark and unreadable.

And standing by the table, holding a mobile phone to her ear, was—

“Taika!” I croaked. “You!”

She lowered the phone and turned to stare at me.

Taika Eskelinan looked exactly as my father had described. She was six and a half feet tall, with the build of a casual athlete or amateur long-distance runner. Bright red hair fell like a waterfall all the way to the backs of her knees — fire-red, frozen in a moment of flame-tongue flicker. That was an impossible colour to achieve without hours in a salon — but I saw no hint of roots at her scalp, no hair out of place amid the sleep-tousled mess. Her face was pale and angular, with high cheekbones and wide lips, all framing a pair of impossible eyes; Taika possessed the eyes of a goat, slightly too large for a human face, with horizontal pupils on a background of fire-bright orange. Her age was impossible to place, anywhere between early twenties and late forties.

Though unmoving in that moment when our eyes met, she seemed to writhe against the background of reality, like a magic eye puzzle, as if boundless energy was held in check beneath her skin.

She was also half-naked, wearing nothing but a pair of tiny white shorts and a matching tank-top, showing off tight abdominal muscles, strong legs, and well-toned arms.

And she wasn’t afraid.

She was barely even surprised.

She raised her equally red eyebrows at me, more a question than any species of shock. Her strange, goatish eyes quickly took in my six tentacles, barbed and spiked and ready for combat. Her wide lips curled upward in vague amusement. She lowered the phone and killed the call, placing the handset back on the table. I lowered mine, too, fumbling it into my pocket.

“Hey there, calamari delivery,” Taika said with a voice like a burning brand in boiling oil. “English seafood is kinda shit, you know?”

I took one step toward her, my trainers sinking into the plush white carpet. “You’re going to answer my questions!” I rasped. “You’re going to—”

“Hold,” she said. She raised a hand, fingers spread in a lazy ward. “Please?”

“Don’t try some trick—”

Taika thumbed over her shoulder, toward the little corridor which led out of the living area. “I’ve got three … ” She paused, eyes roving over the discarded clothes on the sofas and the fallen chair next to the table. “Four? No, five — five mundane humans back there, all still very much asleep in my bed. You wanna burn this apartment down? Fine, it’s not even really mine. You wanna rumble?” She grinned wider, those goat-like eyes sparkling with mania. “Even better. But I don’t like getting the normies involved. Bad for my digestion. Mind if I let them leave first?”

We stammered to a halt and realised what we looked like. We whipped our tentacles back, making a cage rather than a spear. “T-this doesn’t have to be violent,” we stammered. “I-I’m sorry, I mean, it doesn’t have to go that way. If you just—”

“Yeeeeeah,” Taika drawled. Her voice was like dripping lava, hissing into cold seawater. “I’ve heard that one plenty of times.” She looked me up and down. “I know what happens next, though I’ve never tasted roast squid before. Let my little normies go, or you’re gonna get the angry me, not the playful me. Come on, calamari. You got a conscience?”

We gritted our teeth, hard enough to hurt, all seven of us debating inside. Was this a trick? She was being so reasonable. So humane. But she was a mage, she might be trying anything. Then again, the condition of her ridiculous flat did suggest that she might have a companion or two back there. What if she wasn’t lying? What if I had to Slip this entire apartment Outside and left some random human to die?

I couldn’t do that. We all couldn’t do that.

“No tricks?” I said, my voice just as inhuman as Taika’s.

She nodded, nice and slow. “No tricks, fish and chips. Let me call them?”

“What about my tentacles?” I snapped. “If they’re not In The Know—”

“Ha,” Taika chuckled softly. “That’s a phrase I’ve not heard in a long time. Just stand behind the kitchen counter and look normal. My little friends are probably still riding the tail end of half a dozen different drugs. Plus, they’re used to seeing me and they’ve explained that away. You’re nothing to them. Act like it for a second.”

Despite my better judgement, I did as Taika asked; I stepped behind her kitchen counter, which suddenly seemed like an absurd and inadequate barrier, despite the gaudy counter-tops and shiny taps and expensive-looking mono-task devices. She had all sorts of nonsense back there: a bread maker, a portable grill, some kind of blender for smoothies. Was that an air fryer? It seemed large enough to count as a regular oven. How silly.

I lowered all my tentacles, trying to tuck them half behind my back. Taika nodded a sarcastic thank you, then stepped over to the little hallway.

She knocked on the wall and called out: “Rise and shine, ladies! Qǐchuáng shíjiān dàole! I need you gone! Come on!”

After a minute or two of this — of Taika banging on the wall and calling out in a mixture of English and what I assumed was broken Chinese — I heard several grumpy groans from deeper in the apartment. Somebody called back with a complaint. I did not need to comprehend the language to understand the meaning: ‘Come back to bed.’

Taika did not relent. “Ladies, mama has to deal with a gangster,” she called out, making it sound like a joke. “If you stay here, you might die! Come on, don’t make this hard on me.”

I began to feel absolutely ridiculous. What was I doing? This was no better than what we’d done with Joseph King — no, it was worse! I’d appeared in this woman’s apartment and started threatening her, with no explanation and no introduction; unless she was faking all this behaviour it didn’t seem that she even knew who or what I was.

A gaggle of half-dressed, groggy, glamorous young Asian people emerged from what must have been Taika’s bedroom — and it wasn’t all ladies, it was four ladies and one man, a young man of the kind Raine might describe as a ‘twink’, or maybe a ‘twunk’. I’m not quite clear on the distinction.

None of Taika’s ‘friends’ had the look of sex workers who wanted to go home after a busy night with a wealthy, foreign client. They looked like they very much wanted to go back to bed, with Taika.

My embarrassment climbed to as yet unseen heights as Taika saw them all off; I started blushing, mortified at myself and the situation into which I had unwisely inserted my ugly little nose. The four women voiced playful complaints in Chinese as they passed Taika; she paused to kiss two of them, and ruffled the hair of a third, who let out a loud meow and bit Taika on the collarbone. Taika seemed quite surprised to see the young man there, as if she’d forgotten a portion of the previous night, but then she slapped his backside as he passed her, which made all the women laugh.

None of them spared me more than a disinterested but wary glance as they grabbed clothes off the sofa and sauntered for the other corridor, where I assumed the front door would be found — all except for the girl who had let out a meow. She paused and turned and cocked her head sideways at my tentacles, frowning delicately, long black hair shining in the dawn sunlight.

Taika said: “Huiying, ignore her. She’s organised crime.”

‘Huiying’ snorted, tossed her head, and followed the rest of Taika’s friends, vanishing into the corridor.

Taika stepped back into the living area and peered after her departing companions, until they were gone. She shouted something in Chinese — “shut the door!” I assumed. We waited until we heard a slightly petulant reply, and the sound of a heavy door clicking shut.

Taika turned back to me. The sultry smile she’d used for her ‘friends’ vanished, replaced with a grin like a pot of boiling pitch.

No longer did I feel like a clever little cephalopod who had hunted her prey into a dark twist of rock; we felt like a pathetic wet octopus who had gotten herself washed up on the beach by accident. I stepped out from behind the kitchen counters and raised my tentacles again, though more for show than actual aggression. Taika and I were perhaps twenty feet apart, with nothing between us.

“Alright, calamari,” she purred. “Who you working for?”

“Working for?” We frowned. “Nobody, for us, for— look, Taika, I’m sorry for this, I just want to ask you some questions, I just—”

Taika laughed. She spread her hands; empty-handed, not a single weapon on her, nor any place to hide even a knife. She was too far to dive for the swords on the table. Then again, she was a mage.

She said: “You pull a translocation trick like that, down nothing more than a phone line, and you want me to believe that you just wanna ask some questions? I haven’t seen anybody do shit like that in decades, not since the Homunculus War. No, you’re here for something real. Spit it out, calamari. It’s just you and me now, my closest real allies are a plane flight away. This apartment is fire safe. Shutters will come down the moment we start shit. You want me, come get me. We’ll have twenty minutes before the fire engines get here to flush us out. And hey, you wanna take this rumble into the streets, I’m game. The PAP might not be, though. Hope you’re ready to murder some cops to get to me.”

I held out a hand — a human hand, fingers shaking. “Wait, wait. I genuinely do just want to ask you some questions. And I— I don’t understand, where is this?” I gestured at the bank of windows. “Where am I?”

Taika raised one red eyebrow. “You teleported and you don’t know where you are? Did you seriously come all the way from England?”

“I followed your voice,” we said, blushing even more. “I think I may have … acted … rashly. Where are we?”

Taika’s expression shifted, like she was trying to decide whether to believe me. She jerked a thumb at the windows. “Chengdu.”

We blinked several times. “Cheng-what? Pardon?”

Taika rolled her goatish eyes. “Sichuan.” She paused when she saw I still didn’t get it. “China. People’s Republic, not Republic of.” She paused again and let out a big sigh, a sound like the roiling of a magma flow. “China’s the big country on the Asian mainland.”

“I know where China is!” I spluttered. “I’d just never heard of this city! And I … I didn’t know I was going so … so far … um … ”

We trailed off and stared out of the massive bank of windows. We were so very far out of our depth

“You’d be surprised.” Taika chuckled. “Met an English girl once who didn’t know the difference between Japan and China.” She narrowed her eyes. “You really don’t know where you are, do you, calamari?”

“Stop calling me that,” I hissed. I spread all my tentacles wide, trying for a threat display again. “I’m not working for anybody, I’m here on my own behalf. My name is Heather Morell and I want to ask you some questions, about something from ten years ago.”

Taika frowned in thought; those strange slit-pupil eyes narrowed.

“Heather … Morell,” she echoed, rolling my name in her mouth an iron sphere. “Morell. Morell. Holy shit. I remember you now, kid. You’re the English girl who got spirited away. The Reading twins—”

“Twins, yes!” I snapped, my chest suddenly roaring with strange anger that I had not expected. “We were taken by the Eye! Me and my sister, and you knew, and you could have told me it was all real! You were a responsible adult, right?! And you knew! You spoke to my parents, you— you had a photograph of my sister and me! You knew!”

Taika did not respond, like she couldn’t hear my words. She was looking me up and down anew, dragging her gaze along the length of my tentacles.

“You grew up,” she whispered. “Well, damn. Didn’t expect you to last a year, let alone ten.”

I cleared my throat, still angry but also embarrassed now. “I’m … look, I’m sorry for the dramatic entrance. I didn’t know if I’d have to fight you, or something like that. I’ve had bad experiences with mages, I apologise. I just … I just want answers. And the photograph. If you still have it. I know it’s been ten years, but … I need it. And I need to know what happened.”

Taika’s eyes travelled back upward and met my gaze; I did not like what I saw there. Her horizontal pupils were dilating, bulging like fire-flushed rock.

“Good thing I’m not a mage, then,” she said. She used one hand to sweep her flame-bright hair back over her scalp, falling in a wave. “But I’m sure if we work together we can give you a bad experience anyway.”

We froze. “What? No, no, Taika, I just want answers. What does it cost you to tell me—”

Taika burst into a grin like the opening of a volcanic rift; something was glowing in the back of her throat. She laughed. She bobbed on the balls of her feet. She rolled her shoulders.

“Cost?” she echoed. “Nothing. But it’s been decades since I saw something on your level, calamari. And you’re flying blind. You’re reckless. Somebody’s gotta put you on your arse before you start killing people. Or worse.”

I took a step back, tentacles raised in a protective cage. “I’ve killed mages, yes. It’s not hard, but I don’t want to! Please, just give me the answers I want, or I’ll—”

Taika clicked her fingers.

The pair of handle-less black blades on the table rose from their resting places and shot toward her, like iron slugs pulled by magnetic force. They settled into an orbit around her, tips pointing outward. Another ten identical blades shot out of the corridor, homing from another location deeper in the apartment; those additional ten joined the first two, circling around Taika’s body in a segmented cage of iron.

Each blade gained a shadow, despite the burning light of the dawn still pouring in through the windows. Each weird little sword was wrapped in a shade, a writhing black flame, half-visible against the background of reality.

“What the— what— I—”

“You’ve fought tadpoles and frog-spawn,” Taika said in a voice like a forge-fire. “Mages? Ha. I’m a witch, squid-girl.”

“So?!” I blurted out, shrugging with all my arms, absolutely done with this. “Is that supposed to mean anything to me!?”

Taika cleared her throat and went to carry on, but I rolled right over her.

“I’ve had a year of these absurd supernatural definitions, and I don’t care anymore!” I yelled. “I don’t care what you are or what you call yourself. My head is full of hyperdimensional mathematics. Do you even know what that means, hmm?! Do you?”

“Well,” Taika said. “Yeah, but—”

“And I’m quite certain that a ‘witch’ can be thrown Outside as easily as a mage! I don’t want to fight you, Taika, whatever you are, but I need answers!”

“And you need a lesson,” she purred.

One of the black knives suddenly whirled outward from the cage around Taika, striking toward me with an almost lazy motion, spinning through the air, showy and flashy, intended to intimidate more than wound.

I had not yet completely taken leave of all of my senses. Seven squid girls we might have been, but I was still very much Heather Morell, and Heather Morell did not know the first thing to do in a sword fight — let alone a sword fight against a ball of spinning blades held aloft by the ineffable magic of an overconfident and smug woman who appeared to be a raging bonfire in human form. I was not about to meet this mage — or ‘witch’ — in a fair fight.

So I hissed from the depths of my throat, slapped at the blade with a tentacle, and spun up the familiar old equation. If Taika would not yield and talk like a sensible person, then I would show her exactly what I could do. She had her warning shot, and so did I.

My tentacle touched the black surface of the lightless blade. The equation slammed into place.

Out.

A blue flash blurred the air where we made contact, like metal on metal. The blade span away, deflected by my tentacle and the hardened spikes of bone and claw.

But the sword was still there.

The blade was still present, in the apartment, in reality. The equation had worked, but the object had not gone Outside.

My eyes went wide. Something roiled in my stomach, something sick and wrong, like I’d taken a tumble at an unexpected angle, like my inner ear was confused.

Twenty feet away, Taika blew out a long breath, like she’d just done a somersault and pulled off a difficult trick landing. The deflected blade sped back to its place in her orbiting cage.

I boggled at her. “Wha— how—”

“I was trying to tell you, calamari,” she purred. “You’re not the only one four knuckles deep in reality’s cunt.”

Announcement

You're not the only one, Heather.

Though whatever Taika is, she certainly doesn't seem that much like Heather, does she? Same thing, different angle? Same kind, different ... metaphor? Well, whatever the case, Heather has perhaps bitten off a lot more than she expected. This isn't a mage. This is something else. And Heather's been rude. Heather's been rash and swept up by emotion and probably hurt Sevens in the process. Heather wants answers and was prepared to kill. But is she prepared to fight?

Meanwhile, I have art to share again! I want to share this wonderful picture of Heather with Sevens and Aym, over on the fanart page! It's by skaiandestiny, over on the discord server.

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Next week, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight!

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