The world stretched———
———and snapped back into focus.
I stumbled forward, arms still locked on Jo’s shoulders. She rocked gently on her heels, then slumped to her knees in the dirt.
Dirt. I looked down and found yellowing grass at my feet. To the left, tarmac. Above, a blue August sky. And there was Jo and me, and my trusty Ford Escort, and the corpse, and even the old busted tire lying on the verge as if it had every right in the world to be there.
A small, mad laugh escaped my throat.
How had I done that? Had I done that?
I looked behind me and saw the narrow stone bridge I had first used to cross into the Nether. It was a picture of countryside serenity, except for a flicker of neon on the grassy verge. Remnants of police tape. I wondered how long we’d been gone. I suffered a compelling urge to find a local newspaper so I could check the date.
I didn’t bring us here, I know I didn’t.
Jo hadn’t said a word. I knelt beside her and tried to gently pry the crowbar from her fingers.
“Ouch!” I snatched back my hand and sucked where it had burned. The iron was hot. And Jo’s knuckles were white.
A strange thought trickled into my head. Maybe there is more than one way to pass through a wall.
My way is sly and subtle, a gentle easing of the self through the folds of reality. Maybe Jo had punched a hole right through. All you’d need is a big enough hammer, she’d said.
But that’s absurd. No one could punch a hole that big, and on their first try, too! It takes mountains of effort to move anything besides yourself, let alone a two ton car and a couple of adult bodies. And don’t forget the coblyn.
Jo didn’t know that, I realised. Maybe ignorance and sheer force of will can make for one big hammer. I looked at her with a mixture of fear and admiration. She stared back, with an eerie faraway gaze.
“Jo?” I said softly, and touched the back of her hand. In contrast to the iron, her skin was cold. A new chill swept over me. I’d seen eyes like that before.
They had belonged to the girl who taught me how to unfocus, all those years ago. She had been a bit like Jo: a stubborn brick of a woman who would punch holes in your understanding of the world as easily as poking a finger through soggy bread. She was a natural, fluent in the language of the lost; expert in navigating the dark pathways I now tread myself. Her eyes had always been golden and warm, and filled with delicious promises of forbidden knowledge and unruly adventure.
One day she punched too hard, took a wrong turn, and my golden world turned to grey mulch. Her eyes gained that vacant gaze of a person lost, forever treading water in the darkness of their own head. I never found her again.
It shocked me, the surge of recollection that hit like a tide. It had happened so long ago. They tell you pain dulls over time.
“Jo,” I said again, more firmly. Shake it off, I thought. I wasn’t sure if I was referring to myself or her. “Listen to me, Jo. You better snap out of this, otherwise I’m giving you up for dead, y’hear? I haven’t got time for this. I’ll stick you by that bush and ring for an ambulance, and then I’ll be long gone.” Nothing, not a twitch. “There isn’t a doctor on earth who’ll know how to pull you out of your head if you can’t do it yourself. Are you hearing me? Do you want to be a cabbage for the rest of your life? Stuck in a wheelchair in some hospital, how does that sound?” Her pupils flickered. “Maybe they’ll put you down, like a lame dog. How about that, Jo? Or maybe they’ll just leave you to stare at a white wall for the rest of your life. For eternity.”
I grabbed her chin and forced her head to face mine.
“If they do, I’ll know it’s because you let them, Jo. Because you gave up, you quit. Because you left everyone who loves you, and you didn’t bother coming back for them.” I knew my voice had started to break. “Because you decided to stop fighting. Because you let yourself be bound to a chair and a room, and the inside of your own eyelids. I’ll leave you here, I really will, because you quit.”
Her brow creased, and there was a downturn at the corners of her thin lips.
“What are you talking about, Hansard?” she murmured. Light filtered back into her eyes.
I tried to mask my overwhelming relief. “You were gone with the fairies for a moment there,” I replied, gruffly. “Stupid thing you did, but at least it worked. You want to let go of the crowbar now?”
“What? Oh.” She released her grip and the iron thumped onto the grass. Four finger marks were scored into the metal.
“Huh,” I said.
Her gaze followed mine. “What happened to that?”
“I think you hit reality with it.”
“I did?” Her brow furrowed further. “I thought… it was almost like a dream. But it was all so clear…”
“Do you remember what you did?”
“There were those shadows, coming out of the Nether. We were going to die.” Her eyes sparked. “Dying’s not an option.”
“It’s certainly at the bottom of my list.”
“There was this moment where it all made sense. Where I could feel, I don’t know, waves of reality around us. Like currents in a vast, churning ocean. And I could just see which direction we needed to go in, we just needed, I don’t know, a push, or–”
“Well, points for effort, but you’ve certainly got a lot of work to do in terms of finesse,” I said. In truth I was intensely unnerved. It’s never been that easy for me.
She seemed to take in her surroundings for the first time, the bridge, the tape, the reassuring absence of police. She shook her head as if trying to rid it of cotton wool, and then climbed shakily to her feet. I thought I saw a shadow fall across her face for a split-second, but it was gone as soon as I’d noticed. There was still something odd about her, something in the way she moved, that I suddenly found very off-putting.
“Are you all right?” I asked her.
“Sure. Why?” she replied, leaning heavily on the car.
I studied her carefully. “You seem sort of… fuzzy. Around the edges.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “I’m fine, Hansard. Just a little woozy, that’s all.” She motioned to Ang, bundled in the back seat. “Now what are we doing about your friend?”
I blinked. “We?”
“I seem to recall you were in a hurry to get her to a witch?”
“Yes, but I could drop you off in the nearest village or…” I trailed off under her hard gaze. She pointed to the dishevelled corpse lying by the roadside.
“Hansard, if nothing else, you are explaining the whole of this matter to me. I’m not going to let you just walk away with a dead body in your possession. Even after what we’ve been through, I…” she faltered, and her eyes moved off into the distance. An unnerving calm settled over her features again.
“Jo,” I barked. “Dead body, right?”
Her eyes snapped back to mine. “Exactly. And maybe at the end of all this I’ll arrest you, or maybe I won’t, but I’m not letting you out of my sight until we’ve seen this to the end!” She marched over to the passenger door, yanked it open, and strapped herself in. She sat straight-backed, legs crossed, and arms folded sternly across her chest.
“I guess I’ll put the stiff back in the car by myself, will I?” I muttered under my breath. He was heavier than I remembered. I threw a rag over his face once I’d forced it into the boot. Couldn’t stand the thought of the thing staring at me over my shoulder.
“All right, settle in,” I said, turning the key in the ignition.
Jo had the notebook out again. “Okay, Hansard. Tell me why you stopped to put the dead guy in your car.”
“I suppose I thought he might be needed,” I said. “Maybe we’ll have to do an autopsy or something to figure out how to help Ang.”
“That makes sense. I’d like to know what that slug did to him.”
She became engrossed in her scribbling, though I got the impression she was putting on a show. There was a slight giddiness to her voice; I wondered if she was still dizzy.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye. Jo seem strangely pale. I had a momentary impression of a black cloud hanging over her head, but I blinked it away. The exhaustion was drumming on my skull.
“How long’s the journey?” she asked.
“About forty minutes, I think.”
“You’re not going to take us over any more bridges, are you?”
“No. Normal roads from now on.” I refrained from pointing out that it was her own intervention that had forced me off normal roads in the first place.
“Okay. No speeding.”
“I’ve learned my lesson.”
I eased us onto the main road, heading for the nearest village. A quick stop to refuel and we’d be breezing on up North.
I kept an ear out for sirens and eye for flashing blue lights, but neither materialised. The roads remained calm, despite the churning in my gut, and we wound our way deep into the rolling hills of the Lake District with no more excitement than a stray sheep crossing the road.
We rolled onto the witch’s estate while the sun was still high in the sky. The goats, thankfully, looked rather more lively in their paddock than when I’d last visited.
Mark opened the door before I even knocked. He didn’t look surprised to see us, which bothered me at once. I know I’d be extremely troubled if I opened the door to a disgruntled police officer with a corpse slung over one shoulder, and a scruffy man in a long coat holding a small blanketed bundle which emitted strange whimpering sounds.
The witch regarded us coolly.
“What’s wrong with your friend?” he asked.
I took a step forwards, holding out the bundle. “Long story. But there’s this slug inside her and–”
“Not the coblyn. Her.” He pointed a slender finger at Jo. She stepped back warily, eyeing the accusatory digit as though it might explode.
“What do you mean?” I said, perplexed.
“She’s not all there.”
“I’m fine,” said Jo, though there was a tremor to her voice I hadn’t heard before.
Mark leaned in closer, peering at Jo’s face with interest.
“Aren’t you that copper who was kidnapped?” he said.
“I wouldn’t say kidnapped–” I began. “Wait. How on earth do you know about that?”
“Your face has been all over the local papers,” he told Jo. “Weird circumstances. The reporters seem quite confused on the story. Some had it that you’d died in a car crash, others that you’d drowned in the river, and another that you’d simply disappeared off the face of the earth. That’s the kind of story I pay attention to.”
“How long ago was this?” I asked. It felt like we’d only spent half a day travelling through the Nether. Don’t tell me several days had passed outside.
“About a month,” said Mark, throwing me a lopsided glance. “That’s a shock to you, isn’t it?” Jo and I nodded, dumbly. He sighed, like an experienced dog owner who knows to expect regular messes on the carpet. “Have you been doing some exotic travelling? Never mind, I can see where you’ve been. I trust you enjoyed your stay in the Nether.”
“How does he know that?” said Jo, brimming with suspicion.
“Witch,” I said, bluntly.
Mark pursed his lips. “What were you both doing in the Nether in the first place? I thought you’d know better, Hansard.”
“I was running from the police,” I muttered.
“I see that worked out wonderfully for you.”
I offered up Ang in my arms. “It doesn’t matter now. I just need you to help her.”
He glanced at the coblyn and then back at Jo. “Of course. Come in,” he said, stepping aside with a wry smile.
I hurried in gratefully and placed Ang gently on the large wooden table that was the centrepiece to the witch’s kitchen.
I spun on my heel when I heard Jo let out a painful yell behind me.
My eyes took in the sight of her held in the doorway, back arched and head thrown back, feet several inches above the ground. And then she was flung back out into the courtyard like a rag doll, gasping on the flagstones. A shadow followed her.
“Your friend can’t, however,” said Mark, placidly.
“What have you done?” I shouted, aghast.
“Calm down. I’ve done nothing. It’s that shade wrapped around her you should be concerned by.”
It was still there, a coil of darkness around Jo’s shoulders and torso. I watched it dissipate into the air, yet I got the sense that it hadn’t left at all.
Jo was trembling. Not with fear, I realised, but rage. “What is it?” she hissed. “What the hell is it now?” She leapt to her feet and shouted at the sky. “I’m warning you! If you try anything with me you’ll regret it!” She glared at myself and Mark. “Well?”
The witch answered. “Shouting at the universe may not be the most effective option.”
“Is this funny to you?” I growled.
“It’s very interesting,” he replied evenly. “It’s rare to see this sort of thing. Your friend in neon seems to have gained a lodger, shall we say.”
“Oh no, not at all. This thing from the Nether, this shade, has merely latched onto her. Like a parasite,” he said.
“I’m not playing host to some ethereal tapeworm,” said Jo through gritted teeth.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug. “You don’t have much choice. You’re not entirely here, you see. You might say you left one foot standing in the Nether, and the shade is clinging onto it.”
A droning sound began to form on the edge of hearing. I swatted by my ear, expecting a fly, but it only grew louder.
I turned back to see Jo, eerily motionless outside the doorway, and Mark still watching her with keen interest. He blocked me with an arm as I moved forward.
“Stay put,” he said.
The air was vibrating. It began to fill with the noise of buzzing, as if a hundred enraged hornets had exploded in our midst. Jo clapped both hands to her head and dropped to her knees.
“Jo!” I ran forward but Mark yanked me back by the collar.
“Nothing you can do about it,” he said.
The coiled shade was re-forming, rising like a black cloud over Jo’s head. It hung over her reeling body, a faint suggestion of head, torso, limbs… claws. It didn’t seem a solid shadow, more like a mass of tiny points of buzzing darkness tumbling over one another to create the illusion of a whole being.
I shoved back at the witch. “Do something! Help her!”
“Use your eldritch powers, man!”
He shrugged again. “If I sever the connection she’ll die.”
The shade reared and a slit opened, a gash of mouth spread in a grotesque, lipless grin. Crumpled underneath it, Jo’s body convulsed in gut-wrenching spasms as she if she was trying to vomit up her insides.
The maw opened wider, big enough to swallow Jo’s head. It leaned down.
“She’s dead if she doesn’t concentrate,” observed Mark. I looked at him like he was mad before comprehension hit.
I pushed past him and knelt down to Jo’s level. Her hands still shook against her head.
“Jo, listen to me. You need to unfocus,” I said, urgently. “Remember everything I told you. Think yourself unsolid. That thing isn’t really here, not all the way. You’ve got to put yourself on its level to fight it. Stop trying to be solid, Jo!”
She made a noise somewhere between a choke and gurgle. I bent closer to hear.
“What is it, Jo?”
“Hansard–” another strangled noise as she looked me in the eye, “–shut up”
Then she was on her feet, fist curling round in a wide arc that connected with a resounding crack where the monster’s nose would have been.
The thing pitched backwards, writhing without a sound. Jo rebounded, shook her fist and swung in with another punch. It landed like a crack of lightning.
“Good show,” said Mark.
“Shut up and help,” I said, angrily.
I ran to the car, flung open the boot. Crowbar. Iron. It was good and heavy in my hand.
“That’s a bad idea.”
I ignored him and lunged for the shadowy parasite. With satisfaction I watched the crowbar slice right through the black mass.
Jo screamed in agony. She clutched at her sides and then her head, as if she didn’t know where the pain was coming from.
“Told you,” said Mark.
I reached for Jo’s arm but she snatched it back from me.
“Get away,” she snarled, except it sounded like wasps in her throat.
Shocked, I dropped the crowbar. Behind her the shadow seemed to gather and rise for a retaliatory strike.
“Jo, look out–!”
It struck like a cobra. Jo met it with a howl and an outstretched hand. It impacted and stuck, a rigid shape pinned in the air, balanced sideways against her palm.
The buzzing returned, but this time it seemed to come from Jo herself. The dark shade began to disintegrate, its bulk collapsing into a cloud of disjointed specks until it was only as thin as mist, and then like a cowed animal it slunk down onto Jo’s shoulders and seemed to sink, until there was nothing left to see at all.
The wasp-like drone subsided, and Jo opened her eyes. Slowly, she lowered her arm. There was something clenched in her hand.
“Jo?” I said, faintly. She looked at me, and her eyes were her own. She looked drained, tight exhaustion pulling at her features, but she offered me a weak smile before sagging to the ground.
Mark nodded, as if begrudgingly allowing us to continue disrupting his day. “Kettle’s in the kitchen, Hansard. Your friend could probably use a cup.”
I shot a dark look at the witch. “Can she come in the house now?”
“No.” He pointed to the iron horseshoe on the door. “Keeps out unwanted spirits, like that one attached to her. So I’m afraid she stays in the yard.”
I wanted to shove that horseshoe somewhere painful and decidedly unhorseshoe-shaped. But I chewed the inside of my cheek and resentfully dug through his cupboards. I found the tea – unnervingly housed next to the deadly nightshade – and brought a cup out to Jo.
“I don’t like tea,” she said, despondently.
We sat on the flagstones, watching the sun draw nearer the horizon. Pale pink already streaked the sky. The goats watched us with their curiously slit eyes, chewing cud in that slow, brainless kind of serenity that only livestock can achieve.
I held my mug close to my chest. There’s something comforting about just having a warm cup of tea nearby. Jo’s steamed on the ground next to her. Her arms were folded across her knees, but I could see she still clutched something tightly in her right hand.
Eventually, she said, “I can still feel it on me, you know.”
“It’s like a… fog, sitting on my shoulders. Curled around my spine.” I tried not to let her see the way I glanced over. Was that a shadow that fell across her face there, or my tired imagination?
I tried to push it from my mind. “What happened back there? For a second I thought it had you.”
“No,” she said, ferociously. “I had it.”
I sipped my tea. It eased the tension in my muscles. “What’s your secret weapon?” I gestured to her closed hand.
She exhaled and uncurled her fingers. She was holding a black wallet, which she opened with a deft flick of a thumb. Inside was an ID and a metal badge.
“My warrant card,” she said. She tapped the badge, a seven pointed star with a tudor rose in the centre and the Queen’s crown at the crest. The words ‘Lancashire Constabulary’ were emblazoned in a circle around the centre.
“It’s important to you.”
“Makes me what I am.”
She tucked it into a pocket in her police vest and her gaze became distracted.
“Has it really been a month?”
“’Fraid so. Time can be as fluid as reality, so I hear. But look on the bright side: you’re now technically one month younger, compared to everyone else.”
“I’ve always hated science fiction,” she said distantly. “My family probably think I’m dead.”
“This’ll be a nice surprise, then.”
“I don’t know if I can go back to my life.”
I was expecting this. It’s familiar ground. Once exposed to our world, it’s very hard to leave. In my experience.
“Sure you can,” I said cheerfully. “Think of all those people missing you.”
She poked the ground with a piece of straw, expression pinched and withdrawn. “And what do I tell them, when they ask where I’ve been for a whole month? What do I say when they ask about the man who pulled me into his car and drove into thin air?”
“Make it up. Make it good. Everyone loves a good story.”
“Speaking for the police force, we prefer true stories.” Then in a soft voice that I almost didn’t hear, she said, “Will this thing kill me?”
I considered making up something comforting. But ill-founded comfort is often unhelpful. “I don’t know. Bit out of my realm of experience, that. Might be that your body can’t take the strain and slowly dies. Might be that it saps your mind away instead – that’s what I’d put my money on.” Her expression hadn’t changed. She’d guessed as much already. “Or maybe it just sits there, occasionally making you itch. In any case, if I were you I’d seek help, tout suite.”
“Help from where? If your witch can’t do anything–”
“There’s a guy I know, specialises in possession. Or rather, exorcism. I reckon he’s your man. I can give you a name, and a last known address.”
“You might have to do a little detective work, but I reckon you’re up to it.”
She passed me the notebook to jot down the details. I tore a page out a page to write on and she winced. “Sorry, old habit,” I said, apologetically.
I handed it back with a sincere hope that she would find what she was looking for. I realised I’d screwed up her life. All this because I decided to drive twenty miles over the speed limit down some quiet country road. I bet she wished she’d never pulled me over; she must wish she’d called in sick, swapped shifts, or any number of other alternatives that could’ve caused her to not be on the same road as me, on the day that I was ferrying a corpse and a sick coblyn towards a witch.
She stood up suddenly, with a new sense of determination about her.
“Think you could call me a taxi?” she said. “I ought to get going. No sense waiting around, letting my parents think I’m dead.”
I nodded. Practical thinking. Matter-of-fact. She’d probably do all right.
As we waited for the cab to find its way to this slice of quiet nowhere, I left Jo with some parting advice. “Use iron,” I instructed. “Reliable stuff. Hurts the things that aren’t quite there – spirits, and the like. And if it’s a physical entity you’re up against, well, a bloody great bar of iron will hurt anybody if you swing it hard enough.”
“You think I’m going to get attacked?”
“Not as such. It’s just good advice. In case you never quite find the way back to… ‘your’ world.”
I think she understood. We spent those final moments watching the sun dip below the crest of the hills, spilling rose gold rays across the valley. She left with hardly a word of good bye. Neither of us, I suspect, believe in ceremony.
The goats continued to give me the devil’s eye through their fence. Their gaze seemed accusatory as I thumbed through Jo’s little black notebook. Sleight of hand is something I feel I’ve perfected. The handwriting was very messy, I was surprised. Hasty scribbles on top of other scribbles, some doodles, and a lot of smudged bullet points. I picked out words about my character, my car, Ang, the Nether, unfocusing, and at the end a few notes on witches with many, many question marks. I’d burn the whole thing later.
I’d have to change the registration plates on my car. Again. Lay low, hope the police aren’t still looking for me in a few weeks’ time. Maybe Jo would find a way to smooth it all over.
Or she might brand you a fugitive and have the whole country on red alert with a description of your face.
I’ve never been a fugitive before. Might be fun. But something told me I was probably safe from that option.
“It’s getting dark, Hansard. Come inside, or I’m locking you out.”
I shoved the little book inside my coat. “How’s Ang?”
He was stirring some unidentifiable brew in a tall mug. Could be a magical tonic; could be pretentious coffee. Hard to tell with a witch. He took a sip, which didn’t narrow down the options. “The coblyn should live. Tough job, though. Time-consuming, if you see what I mean.”
I didn’t hide my exasperation. “You really want me to pay for your help? After all this?”
He shrugged, a gesture so infuriatingly habitual that it verged on being a tick. “Time is time, and work is work.”
“I’m broke, Mark. This time I really am broke. I’m asking you as a friend–”
“As a friend, you can do a small favour for me. That’s all I want. A favour.”
“There’s a catch.”
“Where would we be, without life’s little surprises?”
I sighed, gloomily. “Surprises like parasitic slugs and shadows? I think I could do with less of them.”
He patted my shoulder and said, unsympathetically, “So could I.” He disappeared back into the kitchen where Ang still lay on the table, though now with a duvet and a pillow under her head. An array of slim metal tools were lined up beside her, and bottles with contents I couldn’t fathom.
I collapsed into a chair and rested my head in my hands.
“You’re going to be all right, Ang,” I murmured. “I’d say I’m sorry for all this, but you’re as much to blame as I am. I guess we both got in too deep, huh?” My eyes drifted closed. “I hate drowning, Ang.”
My head slipped down onto my forearm, nestled in the folds of my coat. Fatigue finally caught up with me, and drew my conscious mind into darkness.
The witch’s favour would have to wait.