My debut novel, Heartweed, was released on the Kindle last week. If you got a Kindle for Christmas, check it out – only £0.99.
Buy it from Amazon.co.uk
Buy it from Amazon.com
This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.
Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
Artie ducked from the tourist-crammed street into the alley. She pulled the broken lock from the iron gate and slipped through it, replacing the lock to keep up appearances. A glance around told her that she was safe from curious eyes. Eyes that would doubt themselves if they saw her disappear through the glamoured door.
Artie clattered down the stairs into the cellar where it had all begun. Her footsteps echoed in the empty stone chamber. Gorth and come back at some point after Matthew and Blue’s attack and removed his mysterious boxes.
He had come back for his merchandise, but he hadn’t responded to any of her emails. And why should he? Their deal was concluded. His interest in her had been only business. But every day when she checked her inbox at the cafe a lump of hope formed in her chest, right above the place where her heart should be.
He had left the camp bed. Artie crossed the room to sit on the edge of it. She had turned the mattress over before sleeping on it. The side that was brown and stiff with her blood faced the floor. Artie tossed a handful of change – the last of her cash – on the floor next to the empty brown bottle.
Out of magic potion. Out of defenses. Out of time.
She fished a heavy, green plastic bottle from a carrier bag and stared at it. The dry-dust voice of Lord Threat echoed through her head.
Cutting the parasite from her chest and burning it or administering certain poisons. These are the only sure ways to destroy one.
Weedkiller would probably do the trick. At that thought the parasite squirmed; Artie slapped it down reflexively. Slowly she unscrewed the safety cap from teh bottle. Her eyes lingering on the dark branching shapes growing under the bare skin of her arms and hands.
The harsh smell of the chemical made her stomach clench. The parasite squealed, but the sound was distant and tinny – coming in over a bad connection. She raised the bottle to her lips. One quick motion would send the murderous liquid burning its way to her stomach.
Her hand began to shake. Tears of frustration formed in the corners of her eyes. She could do this. She had to. She woke screaming from dreams of what it had been like when the parasite had completely taken her over. She wouldn’t go back to that again.
Artie closed her eyes. “Three… Two… One… Go.”
She couldn’t make her hand move. Artie howled in anger. Part of her wanted to blame her inability to drink the poison on the parasite’s influence. The rest of her knew the truth: she was a coward.
She just didn’t want to die.
Artie rocked backwards and forwards, her eyes fixed on the wall opposite, trying to work up the mental momentum to go through with it. Something moved on the wall. She blinked, frowning. Her rocking stopped.
“I can see you, you arsehole.”
Artie flung the bottle at the wall. It turned end over end, painting viscous streaks of green over the stone floor, before striking the wall next to Blue’s head. He didn’t flinch.
“How long have you been there?”
Blue stepped out of his glamour of invisibility. “I have been popping in and out over the past couple of weeks – to keep an eye on you.”
Artie made a face. “That’s creepy.”
“I thought you might see me and speak to me.”
“I don’t see magic stuff very well any more.” Artie shook her head. “It helps keep the parasite down if I don’t use any of its abilities. So no visuals unless I concentrate.”
“And no strength unless you need to break a lock. And no speed unless you need to steal something.”Artie could swear she saw a smile on the tall faerie’s face, if only for a moment. “Also even if you had seen me you would not have asked for help, because you are stubborn to the point of idiocy.”
Artie gaped. His words roused so much anger in her that it choked her, preventing her from retorting.
“You knew we had more of this.” Blue’s voice took a softer tone. He crouched in front of her and picked up the empty brown bottle. “In fact, Birtta has been working on an improved formula. Why did you not come to us for help?”
His peculiar face was close to hers. his eyes were deep wells, but, unlike before, the water at the bottom seemed warm. Artie found herself unable to meet those eyes. She shrugged.
“Come back with me now.”
“So you can look after me? Make it all OK? Isn’t it Matthew’s job to make that offer?”
Blue’s face broke into a real smile. “Maybe Matthew is tired of you throwing him across the room every time he tries to talk to you. But he will be there. He has agreed to work with Birtta and me towards our mutual goal.”
“What’s that?” Artie chuffed. “Faerie crime-fighting?”
“Yes. I would like you to join us.”
Artie’s head snapped up; Blue’s face was utterly serious.
“Are you not, in the parlance of your culture, a superhero?”
“Me?” Artie’s laugh was strong and bitter. “I’m… I’m terrified. I’m broken. I’m going insane or dying or both.”
Blue stood. “As I said, Birtta has an improved drug to keep the heartweed subdued. She is eager to work on a cure for you. Until that comes we can keep you stable”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then I will do for you what you are afraid to do for yourself.” Blue stretched out his hand. “Or are you too in love with the idea of being a martyr to your brother? It is easier than living with your choices.”
Artie glared up at Blue with slitted eyes. He looked calmly back.
“Are you at the end of your story or the beginning?”
Artie reached up and gripped the offered hand. She pulled herself upright and squared her jaw at Blue.
“OK. Count me in.”
This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.
New sections are released every week. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
Artie met Lady March’s soft eyes. The faerie woman dropped the glamour and walked forwards, her slippered feet tip-tapping against the stone. The parasite’s feeder roots groped at her, unable to get a purchase and feed without the addition of Artie’s touch.
They had time. This was easy prey. Lady March looked down at the body of her husband. There was no change to her large, luminous eyes, but a slow smile spread across her face.
“Thank you.” Her voice had the sweet clarity of a violin. “I am sorry about Alex.” She put her hands flat on her belly. “I loved him too.”
Alex? They frowned at the word. Alex. There were memories in the sea of their consciousness that fit that word. They did not care to sift them out.
They hungered. They needed to feed. Only a little more and they would be complete. They would become purely physical. They would put down roots. Bloom. Blossom. Fruit.
This life would be enough to tip the balance. These lives. Lives. There was another life beneath the hands. New. Barely there. A life. A seed.
I loved him too.
Fragments of Artie surfaced in their joint consciousness. A child? Alex’s child? They reached their hand towards Lady March, to take her magic and her life. The pieces of Artie rebelled. She stopped their hand – her hand! – and curled it back in to her side. Their other hand began to reach; Artie curbed it. The parasite’s frustration was deafening.
Artie used the last of her mind to turn away from a Lady March and run from the room. The parasite that had infiltrated almost every fibre of her being fought each step.
They fell to their knees – her knees – their knees in the main hall of March’s manor. They tore at the flagstones. The stones shredded like paper under their strong hands. In its frustration the parasite lashed out too.
In a frenzy they were destroying everything. They stood in the epicentre of the destruction and drank in the magic that permeated every molecule around them. The stones of the manor walls crumbled to dust. Chunks of the ceiling fell around them. The parasite dodged their body out of the way of the falling masonry and they ran to the exit.
As Artie and the parasite passed through the arched door into the chill night air the remainders of the walls groaned and, with a grating roar, collapsed. The earth heaved in shock; they fell forward. The earth beneath their face smelled clean and potent.
The parasite fed ravenously on the magic in the air and the ground and the ruins. With the last bit of will that remained to her, Artie forced feelers out into the fabric of Faerie. She tore at it; it was already weakened by their sapping the magic and they rent a great hole through into the shadows. Beyond that Artie could almost sense the shape of the human realm.
The parasite revolted. It reached its tentacles up out of the roiling sea of their shared consciousness and pulled the last of Artemisia Jacobs under.
They were one. They were hungry. Dozens more feeder roots erupted from their body and delved into the space around them, seeking magic on which to feed. The roots throbbed on the very edge of being corporeal.
Here they would root. Here they would grow. They pushed their fingers deep into the soil. Rich. Heavy. Coarse. They could feel the physical roots itching to burst from the finger ends.
Remnants of the human’s mind turned their eyes with longing to the tear in reality and the ill-defined shapes of houses and cars beyond; their lowered their face to the dirt and pressed a handful into their mouth.
They chewed and chewed at the earth, grinding away tooth enamel with the stray grains of sand in the soil. They rubbed the crumbs between their tongue and the top of their mouth before swallowing, greedily, needily.
The heartweed smiled.
This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.
New sections are released every week. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
Artie ran on silent feet to the door and kicked it open. March jumped at the sound of the door slamming into the wall. He looked up at Artie with horror in his eyes. She felt a flicker of gratification at his fear. Then she leaped, her outstretched hands shaped to lock around his throat. Too late she saw the shifting pattern of magic through the parasite’s senses. As the image of March disintegrated in front of her, a stripe of white hot pain blazed across her back.
Her momentum carried her through the vanished glamour and to the floor. She half-rolled, half-slid across the stones. her injured back slammed into the thick, wooden leg of the bed. A shriek of pain burst from her lips.
She heard the sound of a blade parting the air and pushed herself to the side. March’s sword struck the stone floor beside her face. He raised the blade again. He was close, almost above her. Artie kicked out at March’s shin. She heard a wet crack and he lurched his weight onto the other leg. The descending sword came down into her shoulder instead of her skull. Metal grated on bone.
Ignoring the agony in her shoulder, Artie reared up and grabbed March by the wrist before he could withdraw his sword. The parasite plunged its spectral roots into him. March’s jaw went slack as the parasite began to drink. His fingers loosed around the grip of his sword and it dropped, riving Artie’s shoulder further as it fell from her flesh.
Keeping her grip on March’s wrist, Artie stood. Warm blood gushed down her front. The whole left side of Matthew’s once-white shirt was now red. A throb of pain sent a grey mist across her vision and she thought she would pass out. But that gush of blood had been the last. Artie’s vision cleared as March’s magic flowed into the parasite and the parasite poured it into repairing its host. She was dimly aware of the itchy, chilli-pepper heat of the healing, but more than that she was aware of power. So much power.
If Threat was a gourmet meal, March was a three-day banquet. The old faerie had been full to the brim of magic, but he had been old and the years had diluted him. March was in his prime.
They had already taken so much from him – enough for her to fully heal, enough that she felt stretched by it – and he still had more for them to drink. March stood frozen. His face was ashen and Artie wondered what it must feel like to be drained dry. The pain of the wound and the discomfort of the healing had abated. Now Artie was alone in her body with the torrent of sensations from the parasite. Glee. Gluttony. Ecstasy. She swayed into them. It was so easy to give herself up to it. As she once again joined with the parasite they felt the stream of magic from March swell into a flood.
It fed their bodies. The parasite’s core, nestled deep in place of Artie’s heart, pulled in more and more magic, concentrating as dense as a neutron star. Just a little more, they thought. They were so very close. Soon they would have enough power to break free of this flesh. The ethereal feeder roots, now swollen, teetered on the brink of becoming corporeal.
The parasite’s intention permeated the small pocket of consciousness that was still distinctly Artemisia Jacobs. An image. Her body, so small inside a tangle of vines and branches that pushed out through her skin. The feeder roots, manifest on the physical plane and no longer restricted to taking magic from the air or using her as their conduit, delved down through the earth, seeking to tap the wellspring of all magic.
The horror of this vision split Artie’s thoughts from the parasite’s and gave her the strength to thrust it from her mind. The last few drops of magic dribble from March and the parasite writhed in anticipation of consuming that elixir.
No. Not like this.
Artie remembered the taste of Threat’s life rolling on her tongue. She didn’t want to experience that of March. If she drank him in, he would be part of her. She would be soiled by him.
Not like this, Artie thought. I’ll kill him, but it will be me killing him, not you. She addressed the gnarled knot of wood and magic in her chest. She peeled her hand away from March’s skin. His arm dropped to his side.
March stood a head and shoulders taller than her, but he looked small and fragile to her eyes now. Without the magic, without the power and the arrogance of invincibility, he was just a fleshy bag of bones and blood. Just like Artie had once been.
She stepped close to March and he made no move to stop her, just shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes clouded in bemusement. His lips moved, making not-quite-words. Artie put her palms flat on his chest and shoved him backwards. His injured leg gave way beneath him and he sprawled on the floor, the unearthly faerie grace entirely gone.
Artie bent down to retrieve March’s sword from the floor. Gleams of reflected candlelight played across the blade, picking out the intricate etchings in the metal. The hilt was a satisfying weight in her hand. She rested the end of the blade against March’s throat. He stared up at her: lips parted, eyes lost.
“No. Not like this,” he whispered, his words echoing Artie’s earlier thought. “This is not how it ends for me. Not here. Not you.”
Artie licked her lips and smiled. She imagined March’s head rolling across the floor and with both hands lifted the sword.
In the depths of her mind she heard the parasite howl in disappointment. It forced its way into her thoughts, bombarding her with images of Alex’s death. All of the moments that it had learned from her it poured back in. Artie quavered, he body wracked with sorrow as she experienced her horror and grief at the instant of Alex’s death again and again.
She flung the sword away from her and dropped to her knees astride March’s body. She seized March’s face. The parasite pierced him. Together they sucked the life from him, drop by exquisite drop. The parasite’s joy and Artie’s vengeful satisfaction blended and merged and enhanced each other in a neverending feedback loop. There was no disgust this time. Artie stared into March’s eyes as the mist of death crept across them.
The very last drop was the sweetest.
Artie rose slowly to her feet. She felt heavy, sated – but the parasite was still hungry. It’s feeder roots wormed their way towards the corner of the room.
Artie looked. She could see the concentrated swirls of magic that were the signs of a glamour. Her stare penetrated them. Lady March stood against the wall. Her hands rested neatly in front of her, one inside the other. Still and quiet, yet she thrummed with life and magic. Food.
New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
They rose effortlessly to standing. Threat still scrabbled with his sword. A step brought Artie and the parasite to within reach of him. One hand gripped his wrist and twisted. The other took him by the throat. The sword clattered to the floor.
Artie met March’s eyes over his father-in-law’s shoulder. The parasite stretched out to him hungrily. March backed away up the stairs. They turned their attentions back to Threat.
The old faerie’s skin was as papery and translucent as an insect’s wing. His pulse fluttered against her fingers like a butterfly. The parasite flexed and their grip tightened. Threat’s eyes bulged.
The tendrils of the parasite stretched out beyond the limits of Artie’s body. They curled around behind Threat. Artie couldn’t just feel them, she could almost see them, encasing them in a cage of vines. The parasite’s glee pushed a smile onto her face.
They thrust out more feeder roots – directly into Threat’s chest. He gasped. What little colour his skin had held drained away. The parasite’s vision overlaid Artie’s and they could see the bright magic beneath Threat’s skin swirling into them through their roots.
They heard the clatter of March’s feet as he fled up the stairs. Threat’s magic diminished as it was sucked out of him and into them. Filling them to Artie’s skin. They rejoiced in the feeling and the taste of what they were taking. Then it was all gone. Threat was empty of power. He blinked his eyes slowly; he was still alive.
The flavour changed. It took on a richer, more complex vintage. Threat’s magic was used up – they began to drink his life. It soaked out of him and into Artie and into the parasite, and on into Artie. The sense of it made Artie lick her teeth. The taste of Threat’s life was all his. The sharpness of cruelty, the heavy sweetness of hedonism, the robust strength of ambition.
Every life would taste different.
The thought shocked Artie. It shook her loose from the parasite’s gluttony. Every life. How many was she planning to take? How many would the parasite take through her.
Artie pulled herself back from the feeding. Separated her thoughts from the parasite’s. She watched from a distance as the light began to fade from Threat’s eyes.Every throb of ecstasy from the parasite filled her with disgust.
Artie felt the moment when the last drop of life was consumed. Bile rose in the back of her throat. She dropped the husk that had been Lord Threat to the floor.
Never again. Artie pinched her eyes shut and shook her head. Never again. She’d kill March, but not that way. Not with that thirst and lust for it. To delight in bringing death would make her no better than him.
Footfalls rang out on the stairs. Three of March’s guards, weapons ready, hurried into the cellar. The parasite reached out hungrily towards them.
The thoughts nagged at her. Artie took an involuntary step forwards. Her hand lifted towards the leading grey-shirt – a tall faerie woman with two short sword. She slashed at Artie’s hand with a blade. It wasn’t there. The parasite’s near instantaneous reflexes had pulled it back.
Artie realised that she had begun to reach again. The parasite needed her to make skin to skin contact to feed on the faeries. Artie hardened her jaw. She wouldn’t let it have that.
The faeries spread out. The leftmost sidestepped, circling to try and get behind her. Artie lashed out with her foot. Her heel snapped past his guard and struck him on the solar plexus. She heard a crunch and the faerie flew backwards. His body struck the earthen wall and crumpled to the ground in a shower of dirt and stones.
A sword sliced through the point where Artie had just been stood, but she was already moving, ducking and twisting. Sliding through the spaces between the guards and their whirling blades, she came up behind the tall woman. Artie grabbed the faerie’s skull, a palm pressed to each cheek. The parasite pounced, thrusting its feeder roots into the woman. Artie wrenched the woman’s head to one side. Her neck snapped and the body went limp.
The parasite snarled in irritation as the life was extinguished before it could draw any into itself. Artie felt the magic and life that had been contained in the faerie guard’s body dissipate into the background.
The last of the grey-clad fae kept a wary distance from Artie his sword point low and intent. One of the female faerie’s short swords lay by Artie’s foot where it had dropped from its owner’s hand. Artie hooked her foot under the cross guard and kicked upwards. The hilt leaped into her hand. The tip of the faerie’s sword wavered.
Artie raised her blade. A flick of her wrist and it knocked the guard’s sword flying from his hand. She tossed the short sword into a reverse grip and hurled it. The blade buried itself to the hilt in the faerie’s chest.
Maybe fifteen seconds had passed since that first kick. In those seconds Artie had taken three lives. She had done it, not the parasite. A shudder rippled under her skin. In response the parasite squirmed, radiating discontent and disappointment at the waste.
Artie distanced herself quite deliberately from the sensations. She focussed her mind. Eye on the prize, and the prize was March’s head. Once she killed him, she could let it all be over.
Her eyes averted from the corpses that she had made, Artie strode to the stairs and ran up them. The parasite thrust its feelers ahead of her, no doubt seeking its next meal – March. Artie chased after the prehensile feelers out into a long, stone corridor. She recognised it from the night of the party. At one end a curtained archway opened onto the main hall. At the other end the door to March’s bedroom stood ajar. Artie could hear noises from within and see the shadows of movement across the gap.
New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
When Artie emerged into consciousness she found herself once again laying on a stone floor. This floor felt dirty and scratchy against her face. She could smell moisture in the air. Artie cracked her eyes open. She faced a dimly lit earthen wall. A heavy weight hung at her wrists, glancing towards them she saw thick shackles of a dark brown metal. A chain trailed from them to a hoop bolted to the ground.
Artie felt a twitching in her chest. The parasite was stirring. It slowly uncurled a fresh sprout from its cold, gnarled centre. It reached out tentatively, but flinched back when it felt her attention on it. The parasite was weak and so was she. Artie knew it would be a struggle to move and she didn’t want to try until she knew what was going on. Murmuring voices came from behind her. She turned her concentration outwards and listened.
“If someone is creating an army of heartweeds, I must know who.”
This voice was March’s. The second voice was papery thin, but with the kind of edge that reminded Artie how much a papercut stung.
“It would not take an army. With a mere dozen of these creatures coupled with the means to control them one could take and hold the whole of Faerie. But they are dangerous. If this human is indeed host to one she should be destroyed now while she is weak.”
“So there is a means to control her?” March sounded eager.
“A combination of spells and drugs can compel the parasite to do your bidding.” The second voice rasped. “There is no point dealing with the hosts. They become only gibbering shells.”
“We should make our weapon, my Lord Threat.”
“Fool, we should kill her now.”
Lord Threat. Artie remembered what Gorth had told her. This was Lady March’s father.
The long tendrils that the parasite had stretched through her body quivered and wakened. Strength surged back into her. Yes. Artie damped a smile, trying to remain unmoving. The parasite sensed her eagerness and stretched out its feelers towards her mind. Immediately Artie imagined the fire. The body, not the mind. The body, not the mind. She chanted inside her head. Could it understand her? Did it think like that? Did it even think?
“You have never seen an active heartweed – I have.” Threat’s hissing whisper intruded on her thoughts. She strove to keep up her defenses and to listen. He took a deep ragged breath. “I was a child then. Lady Jacinth brought and army of fifty thousand against the King and Queen. My father and his vassals went to that war on the side of the royalty. I rode at his side, to learn about taking life.
“We crushed them, drove them back. At the last Jacinth took fourteen of the Gentry officers in her army, all of them her lovers or so it was said, she took them and she fed them the heartweed seeds. Only two survived the transition.”
Artie held her breath, she could feel March doing the same behind her. Threat continued.”
“They laid waste. Within weeks the land was desolate and we were running. They destroyed everything in their path. They sucked the life and the magic from everything. Tore the land and the buildings and the people into shreds.
“It was terrifying and it was incredible.” Threat’s tone was wistful. “A bitter victory for us when we eventually defeated them. A century to fully recover” His voice hardened into cold anger. “And now she is here: new, infected and mobile. And you want to keep her alive? We should destroy her now.”
March’s voice rose to match. “She is weak. She must have only just ingested it. Now is the time to question her, to find out who created her and to bind her to our will.”
“You are a fool, March.”
“This could give us what we want. My son, your grandson on the throne of Faerie.”
“Tangle with heartweeds and you will not live long enough to father a child on my imbecilic daughter.”
The parasite reached out again and again Artie repulsed it. Instead of attempting to breach her mind again the parasite withdrew its wiry tendrils from her limbs, taking with it the strength she had felt. It stretched outside of her and began to feed on the magic around them. This wasn’t the hedonistic gluttony they had shared when they first emerged into Faerie. This was a slow sipping, like an invalid with their first bowl of broth. She must have damaged it quite badly with the combination of the potion and flames of her anger.
A thought of uncertain origin floated through her mind. I can wait. Maybe it could, but Artie couldn’t. Soon March and Threat would decide what to do with her, whether it was ‘kill’ or ‘torture for information’ or ‘take control of’. She wanted nothing to do with any of those options. But with the parasite sulking and feeding, refusing to take her body without her mind, she would not be strong enough to stop them – let alone kill March.
At the thought of March’s death her mind flooded with images: blood-stained pictures of March’s body, broken and torn. And an offer: trade.
Artie heard steps coming towards her. She closed her eyes. Threat’s voice was soft and close.
“You said you could taste the heartweed in her blood. If that is the case she is infected enough to be dangerous. Dangerous and hard to destroy.” He spoke as if to himself. “Cutting the parasite from her chest and burning it or administering certain poisons. These are the only sure ways to destroy one. Other than that they are nearly impossible to harm. They heal damage to their hosts rapidly,”
Access, not control. The thought was there in her mind and at the same time whispered in her ears on a rustling of leaves. We will kill him together. Could she trust it? Could she afford not to?
Artie dropped the wall of flames around her mind. The parasite pounced. Its tendrils plunged once again throughout her body. Her aches and weakness vanished. Every cell throbbed with life and energy. Her cheek burned hot, and she realised that the parasite was healing the cut March had made to her face.
The parasite’s feelers probed deep into her mind and she was choked on a tumbling kaleidoscopes of memories. Submerged in each of them – as if they were all happening again, all at once. She struggled to pull both of their attentions back to March and Threat, but it was as much use as trying to lasso a tornado.
Artie felt cold fingers turn her face upwards.
“The damage to her cheek has already healed. Kill it. Kill it now, March.”
Artie eyes popped open. She found herself almost nose to nose with Lord Threat. His dank eyes filled with horror and he staggered back from her, scrabbling for the handle of the long sword sheathed at his waist.
The mental, physical and magical cacophony focused itself with vertigo-inducing speed into a laser point of intent. Artie and the parasite sat up. They licked her cracked lips and smiled.
New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
Harsh pain stabbed through Artie’s shoulder blades and upper arms. Her head lolled to one side and she saw that she was suspended between two of the grey-shirted fae. Her heels scraped along the ground as they dragged her through the large doorway into the main hall.
The last time she had been here it had thronged with life and colour; today is was empty – still and cold as a tomb. The torches were unlit and the setting sun threw a deep-red light through the windows. It made the walls look as if they had been painted with a thin coat of blood.
The fae guards dropped Artie to the floor. Her back striking the hard stone floor knocked the air from her lungs. Stars sparked inside her eyes.
Harsh steps snapped across the floor towards her. March leaned into Artie’s field of vision. His bone-white hair floated around his face. He smiled: a slow expression that slithered into his face.
“So you have come to pollute my house again.”
He flicked his hands at the servants and they backed away to the walls. March pulled a short dagger from his belt.
“Have you come to try and kill me, little human girl?”
He began to circle Artie, his eyes set in the expression of a cat watching a wounded bird. Artie stared back with loathing.
“Did you bring your steel knife? Take out your knife.”
Artie rolled to her knees. That one movement exhausted her and her vision swam in and out of focus again. She panted.
March crossed close in front of her. Artie reached out with a clawed hand to swipe at his legs. He stepped nimbly out of reach, then stamped hard on her hand where Artie had let it fall to the floor.
Artie screamed. Pain radiated through her hand and up her arm. She tried to move her fingers and could feel the bones grinding together inside her hand.
“Or did you not bring a weapon? Did you come here to tear me apart with your bare hands?”
March laughed in a merry pealing of bells. He slid his dagger back into its sheath. Artie snarled at him and his smile deepened.
She struggled to get to her feet. She felt so weak. The strength that the parasite had given her was gone and fighting with it had sapped her own reserves.
Artie tried to call back that tensile feeling of latent power, but it was no use. The overdose on Birtta’s meds had stripped all of her new-found abilities. The parasite lay dormant in her chest. Not dead, but not helping either. Sullen and fearful sensations emanated from it.
She stood, turning slowly to keep her eyes on March as he circled her.
“I’m going to kill you,” Artie said.
March darted in, sla[pped her and had already resumed his stalking before Artie’s shocked nerves registered the pain. She tasted blood in her mouth and spat it on the floor. Then she sprang. She forced her aching legs to push her into March. Her forearm raised to smash into his face. Her uninjured hand grabbed for the knife at his belt.
March captured her arm and inch from his face in a vice-like grip. But she had the knife now and slashed at him. The blade opened a long tear in his shirt, but failed to cut his skin.
March shoved her backwards. he fingered the cut edge of the fabric. He looked up at her and opened his arms wide in invitation. Artie stared warily. She burned with the need to bury his own knife deep in his heart. The way he just stood there said louder than words that she was going to get hurt badly if she tried.
Arms still wide, March raised his eyebrows. Artie’s legs were tiring and she wobbled. The white-haired gentry skipped forwards. He was just out of reach. Artie raise the knife, her eyes locked on his. Her legs quivered again. He arm shook from the effort of holding the knife up. March took another step forwards. Artie slashed at him. She missed.
A grey curtain was drifting downwards between her and March. I’m going to pass out, she thought with almost artificial clarity. The words rang in her skull like a bell. Artie blinked. She felt March take the knife out of her hand. he drew the blade slowly down her cheek. The pain bloomed and Artie’s vision cleared.
March stood in front of her holding at the knife. A wavy line of blood decorated the edge of it. As she watched the wavefront broke and a single drop of the bright fluid ran down the centre of the blade. Without breaking eye contact with Artie, March licked her blood from the flat of the dagger with small lapping motions.
His eyes widened and he went still, so still Artie would have believed him to be carved from marble. The sound of his voice, when it hissed betwee nthose unmoving lips, made Artie start.
“What. are you?” March’s face had twisted into a grotesque mask of rage, but Artie could feel the fear radiating from beneath it and hear the terror riding the edge of his words. “Whose are you? Who made you?”
His fist snapped towards her. He cuffed her on her cut cheek, breaking her flesh even further open. Artie fell to the floor. She caught herself on her hands, but could not muster enough energy to pick herself up.
“Guards, take her out of here. Chain her up beneath ground.”
Artie sank down. She pressed her wounded face to the cool stone. The guards yanked her up by the arms again, but now she really didn’t care. She couldn’t care, couldn’t think.
the grey curtain descended again and this time Artie let it.
Artie hurtled through the shadows. This time there was no dizziness, no disorientation. None of the crushing and none of the unpleasent prickling. The parasite towed her through it like it was slick oil.
She saw the outlines of Faerie begin to resolve around her; the swirling shimmers that she had seen overlaying the world multiplied and swarmed and then burst into incandescence,
Artie fell through into Faerie. Above her loomed the grey bulk of March’s manor house. The air around her was saturated with magic. She could feel the parasite swelling as it leached the power from the air – growing stronger.
It lashed out at her. The cracks in her mind that it had wormed its way into before it now rived wide open. It reached into her thoughts and consumed them with the same greed that it fed on the magic around her.
Every muscle in Artie’s body began to convulse. She collapsed into a quivering heap on the ground. Teeth gritted she tried to move. The tincture bottle in her pocket dug into her hip. She couldn’t even force a fingertip under her control. Her body belonged to the parasite. It soaked up the magic, together they were so heavy, so bloated and still so hungry.
She mustered together the shards of her thoughts. All that was left of herself formed into a single red hot point. She forced it into flame. Burn.
The parasite shied away out of her mind, allowing her to pull more of herself into the flame. Artie forced more of her concentration into the flame; it blazed hotter, burning the parasite further from her mind. It fled from the fire of her thoughts, but for every intrusive shoot she burned away three fresh ones sprouted.
She could not turn any thoughts to moving and her concentration was flagging. It was only getting stronger, and Artie weaker, she wouldn’t be able to hold it off much longer. The parasite would take her; she would die here, insane, while it gorged on magic. She would never be able to avenge Alex, to protect her parents, to kill that bastard March. The fire in her mind flared like phosphor; the parasite flinched.
March’s sneering face flashed into her mind again. And again came the flare. The parasite flinched back further. I can work with this, Artie thought. She took all her grief and all of her anger and poured it into the flames. They erupted into searing white. The parasite’s tendrils fled from her mind, shrivelled and squealing.
“Get out of my head,” Artie growled through her clamped teeth. SHe clenched her fist. The fingers curled slowly, still resisting. Inch by inch she forced her hand into her pocket. Towards the bottle. All the while she stoked the flame of her hatred.
Her hands shook with violent tremors as she brought the bottle to her face. She pulled out the top with its dropper, but she jerked and it fell to the ground. Liquid splashed from the bottle all over her shaking hands and her face. Artie bent her aching neck and her lips made contact with the bottle.
She gulped a mouthful of the tincture. The strength of it made her mouth pucker. Already she could feel the parasite weakening and curling in on itself. The memory of it forcing itself into her mind was still strong; Artie took another mouthful, enjoying its discomfort.
Slowly she sat up, every muscle in her body ached from the convulsions. She felt weak, like she was just a thin skin filled with water. She plucked the stopper from the ground and fumbled it back into the bottle. Through spilling and the size of gulps she’d taken the bottle was now less than half full.
Artie passed the back of her hand across her forehead. It was cold and beaded with sweat. Her breathing was fast and shallow and every inhalation brought a wave of dizziness. Her vision started to blur; she could no longer see the magic swarming around. The parasite was curled in her chest – cold and still like a dead thing. Had she killed it? And killed herself in the process? Artie swayed. Her head drooped. Maybe if she just lay down here and slept for a while.
A cold, hard line pressed into the edge of her throat. Artie raised her eyes along the long, thin blade to the hand and grey-clad arm that held it. One of March’s lackeys swam in and out of focus in front of her.
Artie’s eyelids fluttered. Her mouth was dry. The pressure of the blade lessened as she fell backwards, away from the blade. The world blurred and danced before her eyes. Artie giggled.
Artie pulled on her trousers. They were splattered with her blood around the waistband. The long shirt she had been dressed in fell to mid-thigh and covered most of it.
Her boots and socks lay beneath the trousers. There was no sign of her jacket, t-shirt or bra. Artie guessed that they still lay where she’d left them in Gorth’s cellar. She pulled on her socks and laced her boots.
She could hear Birtta moving in the conservatory. Artie leaned backwards and peered around the double doors. The light spilling into the glass-walled room was stained green by its filtering through the leaves of the many clambering plants that competed for space.
A long bench stood against the far side. Glassware and metalware that looked like parts of a chemistry set – or maybe an alchemy set, judging from its weightiness and irregularity – clustered on the bench. There was no pattern to them, they hadn’t yet been configured into a meaningful structure. A brown liquid lurked in a flask alone in the centre of the bench. More of the tincture Birttta had given her?
Artie glanced at the brown bottle on the table near her and then back to where Birtta was working. She let her hand drift to take the bottle and pushed it to the bottom of the deep pocket on the outside of her thigh. She wet her lips and stepped backwards softly into the archway between the back room and the front.
The front room of the house was just as bare as the one she had left. To her right another door opened onto the hallway and through it she could see the start of the stairs and the heavy front door with its stained glass panel.
With one more glance back at the engrossed Birtta, Artie turned and swiftly made her way to the front door.
She twisted the brass knob and the door clicked easily and swung open. She felt the parasite in her stir and respond to the warm touch of the afternoon sunshine. Beyond the short front garden was a quiet street, but Artie could hear the sounds both of the river and of traffic on a nearby road.
“Where are you going?”
Artie spun to see Blue, back in his businessman glamour, at the top of the stairs staring down at her. She backed across the threshold of the door.
“Going to finish what I started.”
Blue advanced slowly down the stairs. “That is a bad idea. March will kill you, if the heartweed parasite does not consume you first.”
Behind her the gate creaked, Artie turned to see Matthew coming up the path, carrier bags in both hands.
“What’s going on?” He looked between Artie and Blue.
“Do not allow her to leave.”
Matthew looked at Artie. His stance wavered and he glanced again between Blue and Artie.
“Please.” Matthew spread his arms farther apart, as if to corral her. “You shouldn’t go until we’ve figured out–”
Artie heard the whisper of Blue’s clothes as he moved from almost the top of the stairs to behind her within the space of a breath. The sound snapped her indecision. She grabbed Matthew by his lapels and thrust him past her back into the house. He flew faster and harder than she intended; she was just learning this new strength. Artie heard the dull thump of bodies colliding and glanced over her shoulder to see Blue and Matthew sprawled backwards together onto the floor. Then she ran.
Artie ran and she loved it. The speed, the power – she had never felt anything like this before. She had tapped into a boundless energy and felt that she could run until the shoes wore from her feet and not be tired. The parasite stretched out, its non-physical presence extending far beyond the confines of her body. It lashed out behind her – pushing her on. It reached out in front of her – grasping at the world and pulling her forwards.
She was aware of a couple on the pavement turning to gape as she hared past them, flowing around them without checking her stride. Her change in direction causing no change in her pace. She raced across a busy road, the sounds of horns and squealing brakes already left far behind her.
There was a path between two houses and Artie darted along it. It came out opposite a stone wall topped with tall iron railings. At this sight Artie transitioned from a sprint to a stop without a judder. She wasn’t even out of breath.
The walls enclosed the cemetery, its high gates now locked for the evening. Artie measured the height of the gates with her eyes. She flexed her feet, rolling from her toes to her heels and then back again. Her knees bent only a little, but she could feel the tremendous potential energy within herself.
She sprang, releasing it all in a burst that carried her up high over the gates. Artie laughed. She reached the pinnacle of her jump and for a second it felt like she would just keep on going, carried like a kite on the wind.
She landed and began to run again, zigzagging from the path, dodging between trees and brambles and the grave.
Despite everything that had happened over the past weeks she felt a rising joy. A joy in her pure speed and strength. A joy which turned her mouth dry in terror, because it was not her joy. These feelings belonged to it. To the thing inside her. The heartweed. The parasite. It was feeling, and she could feel its feelings.
The thought made her lose concentration; she tripped and sprawled heavily onto ground, narrowly missing mashing her face into the wide trunk of a beech tree. Artie lay face down on the dank, sun-starved earth. Her breathing was ragged, but she knew it was with fear, not exertion. She concentrated on steeling her mind against the parasite. The misty glass barrier that Birtta’s potion had set in place still stood fast between her and it. The parasite had made no attempts to break through. Yet she was aware of the glow of its giddy happiness, and also of a diffuse sense of curiosity, a tentative reaching.
Let’s see what else we can do.
Artie was almost sure that the thought was hers. She was fast and she was strong – everything that Gorth had promised her. She could walk right up to March and snap him in two. But she had to find him first.
She pushed herself back into a kneeling position and looked around. The area under the beech tree was cool and still, surrounded on three sides by twisted coils of blackberry and on the other by ivy-swamped headstones. She let her eyes drift out of focus and searched for the currents of magic that she had seen before.
For minutes the world faced her looking nothing but normal, then – as if she had been seeing it all along without really noticing – the overlaying swirls of power became clear to her. She could see the cracks between the reality of matter that they seeped in and out of. She reached out with the unreal, parasite part of herself and pushed it into a crack.
With a groan it split wider. She saw the shadowy maelstrom through the gap and beyond – a bright something. The parasite brought sensations back to her that her mind translated as taste – grainy and sweet and moreish. Artie swayed towards the gap.
She heard the patter of four swift feet; the low sun cast a long, lupine shadow on the ground beside her. Artie looked up in time to see two-legged Matthew step towards her between the gravestones.
“Back off,” Artie said, holding her voice low.
Matthew held his hands up and stopped. He squinted at the patch of reality Artie had broken open. Then blinked, shook his head and turned back to face her. Could he see it, Artie wondered.
“Please, don’t go. Don’t go to Faerie – Birtta said it could destroy you.”
“If I get to kill the creature that killed my brother first then I would consider it a fair trade.”
Matthew’s eyes slid back towards the area of disturbance. He frowned again, confused. He couldn’t see it, Artie realised. He could tell that something was there, but he couldn’t see the way reality fit together, r could be pulled apart. Not the was she could.
“Come back to Blue’s house with me. Please. We can help you get March.”
Artie made a dismissive noise. “Help me kill him, would you?”
Matthew grimaced. “Well, no. Not in cold-blood.” He hurried on when Artie’s lips curled. “But we could bring him to some sort of justice. As I understand it, that’s what Blue does. He polices the interactions between faeries and humans. Officially. With authority from the Queen of Faerie. He could bring March to her for punishment.”
Artie only half heard Matthew’s words. The parasite nagged for her attention. Its tendrils spread through the shadows. She followed them with her mind, groping her way towards what it wanted her to see – the place where the shadows grew thinner, where the bright flickers showed. She saw the suggestion of some other thing beneath them, like a familiar shape beneath a dark, draped fabric.
“So how about it?” Matthew continued. “Come back. We’ll have that pizza and figure out what to do.”
“How about no. If your friend Blue was any good, he would have stopped March from kidnapping and killing my brother.” Matthew opened his mouth, but Artie ploughed on, not wanting to give him a chance to speak. “”He was ther. He saw, he knew what was happening.”
Matthew shut his mouth, his teeth gave a hollow snap when they connected.
The parasite was nagging her again. She could feel it pushing its way through the shadows. The shape at the other end was more familiar now. March’s house. Yes., Artie thought. The pulse of her assent travelled down the outstretched tendrils of the parasite. When it arrived at the farthest end it gave the final push that allowed the parasite to break through from the shadows and into Faerie.
Artie’s lips slipped apart. She felt her eyes widen. Her breath caught in her throat. The taste. It tasted so good.
She saw concern cross Matthew’s face and he took a step towards her, hand outstretched. But she was already going. The parasite pulled at her. A child tugging at its parent’s hand – eagerness turning to insistence. She felt its glee and its need. Its cravings wracked her body like they were her own. She closed her eyes and fell into the sensations coming from the parasite. The hunger. It gorged on the brightness. She could see the shape of March’s house floating behind her eyelids. The parasite pleaded and pulled; with her mind fixed on March’s manor, Artie agreed. The parasite poured itself through the shadows; Artie flung herself after it; surrendering to the feeling of falling.
“Utterly,” Birtta said. “Mind shattered into pieces. No pattern or logic to fused the shards together. Trapped in a terrifying and changeable reality, battering itself against the edged trying to escape, like a bird against a window.”
“Gorth didn’t tell me that. ” Artie’s voice echoed dully in her ears.
“I imagine not,” Blue said. “He told you that it would be the shortcut to power and strength. And you thought ‘cool’ and didn’t even consider the price.”
Artie stared into the face of Blue’s cold distain; loathing almost overwhelmed her, loathing for this smug faerie bastard and his wiser-than-thou attitude. What the hell did he know about her and her choices?
“I did consider it.” She fired each word like a dart at Blue. “He told me the price. That it would kill me. I accepted that price. I’d have enough time to avenge my brother, to kill March. He threatened my friends and family. My life for all of theirs? Fair trade.” Artie jutted her chin. “I’m not stupid. I know it wouldn’t come for free. I knew it would kill me.”
“If you are lucky.” For the first time, Birtta’s clinical tone softened with sympathy. “Those hosts that the parasite doesn’t kill it renders immortal and eventually immobile. The madness waxes and wanes seasonally. There are times when the hosts wake into sanity – unable to move, unable to die, and fully aware of what has befallen them.” She did not meet Artie’s eyes. “They often cry at those times.”
Artie felt cold all over. But most of all she felt the cold, hard knot in her chest. The parasite. She imagined that she could feel it moving in there, stretching out through her body. Unless it wasn’t her imagination. She placed the flat of her hand on her chest. No heartbeat. No pain either.
She parted the neck of the white men’s shirt that they had dressed her in and looked. There was no scar. Her skin was white, smooth and unblemished. Artie looked up to find Birtta watching her.
“Why doesn’t anyone put them out of their misery?”
“We offer. Sometimes they accept. Sometimes they cannot.”
“Birtta’s people are the guardians of the last few remaining heartweeds,” Blue said. “They treat the sufferers and search for a cure. And ensure that the species does not propagate.” Blue’s voice held a cutting edge that was parried by the flash of steel in the look Birtta gave him. She turned back to Artie.
“Yours is the first seed to have escaped in over four hundred years. You are quite unique. A new heartweed, and a human. Implanted, not ingested.”
Her eyes glowed and she reached out a hand, almost involuntarily, to touch Artie’s face. Artie felt something prickle and stir within her chest: a tendril uncurling, reaching.
“It likes you,” Artie said.
A flicker of untarnished horror crossed Birtta’s face, but she withdrew her hand slowly and her voice, when she spoke, was even.
“Well I suppose our species are cousins of a sort.”
A thick silence invaded the room.
Neither Birtta or Matthew met Artie’s eyes. Blue stared straight at her and Artie liked that even less. She turned her head away from him and drew her knees to her chest.
Artie stomach gave a loud growl; she felt rather than saw the others jump at the sudden noise.
“I guess you need to feed me.” Artie gave a weak smile. “Being on the receiving end of amateur heart surgery really takes it out of you.”
“Right.” Matthew shook himself into action. “OK. What’ll it be? Shall I order a pizza?” He looked around at the two faeries and Artie. Artie’s stomach growled again.
“Pizza it is then. Where’s the landline phone?”
Blue shook his head. “No phone.”
“Well I don’t have my mobile with me.” He quirked the corner of his mouth. “They don’t travel well with me shapeshifted. I learned that the hard way.”
“The girl has one,” Blue said. “Use it.”
The girl. Artie grimaced up at the Gentry fae. His high-handed ways and icicle eyes were really starting to wear on her. She opened her mouth, but realised she had no response that wasn’t just a variant of ‘screw you’.
“Is that OK?” Matthew asked her. She shrugged and nodded.
Her bloodied trousers were heaped in the corner of the room. Artie guessed that the rest were still where she’d left them in Gorth’s cellar. Matthew fished through the pockets and pulled out her phone. He held down the power button.
“It needs a pin.”
He held the phone out to Artie. She took it and swiped in the unlock code, but didn’t hand it back.
“I could call the police on you.”
“And tell them what.” Blue’s cold voice seemed edged with amusement; Artie tightened her shoulders and ignored him.
“That you’ve kidnapped me.”
“Please don’t,” Matthew said.
“She will not.”
So much for ignoring Blue. Artie spun to give him a piece of her mind and found herself watching his back as he glided from the room. She turned back to Matthew.
“Is he always such a dickhead?”
She handed the phone to him.
“I don’t know. I only met him on Tuesday.”
Tuesday – the day she had gone to meet Gorth. Artie frowned.
“What day is it today?”
“Thursday,” Matthew said. The phone in his hand erupted into beeps and buzzes, as message after message registered.
“My parents have probably already called the police.”
Matthew handed the phone back to her. “Maybe you should call them. They’ll be frantic with worry.”
“And tell them what?” Artie closed her eyes and snorted softly as she heard herself echo Blue’s words.
“That you’re OK.”
She looked back up at Matthew, his face was etched with discomfort. “I’ll go fetch some food from the shop instead. Let you decide what to do.”
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll trace the call here or something?”
“Blue did some complicated piece of magic around it,” Birtta said. “He said that this house would be protected from such things.”
Artie had almost forgotten about Birtta. The faerie woman continued:
“Matthew, please go get food for our guest and for yourself. I will keep watch over her and make sure that she is well.”
Matthew nodded. To Artie’s surprise he took her hand and gave it a squeeze. He left the room and a second later Artie heard the sound of a heavy door thudding open and shut.
“He is a father,” Birtta said. Artie looked at her in surprise. “He has a daughter not much younger than you, or so he told me when you were unconscious. I would theorise that this prior relationship makes him protective of you.” She spread her hands wide. “My people do not have those sorts of relationships, but I can imagine the bonds they incur.”
She gestured at the phone in Artie’s hands.
“Are you going to call your own mother and father?”
The phone felt heavy as she lifted it to her ear. The call connected and she heard only a single ring before it was answered.
“Artie?” Her mum’s voice was stretched.
Artie swallowed; her mouth was dry. “It’s me.”
“Are you OK? Where are you?”
“Mum, I’m sorry.”
Everything that Artie had experienced over the past few days, everything that she had tamped down inside herself, welled up in her throat. It threatened to break free and wash her away.
Artie swallowed again. “I’m fine. I’ll come back soon. Please don’t worry.”
She hung up quickly so she didn’t have to hear her mum’s reaction to those horrible words. She just wanted to go home, to curl up on her bed with her mum stroking her hair – like when she was a child. Hot tears built behind Artie’s eyes and she knew that if she let go know she would just fall to the floor in a sobbing mess and never get up again.
Into her anguish she felt an intrusion. The feeling of something else being there, something alien. The presence that had travelled through her dreams with her. It was there and it pushed against her. It stretched out its feelers like it was looking for cracks in her, cracks it could worm its way into and push wide open.
“What’s the matter?” Birtta’s concerned face was close to Artie’s.
“I can feel it.” Artie whispered. “It’s trying to get into my mind.”
“Push it away. Stop it.”
“I’m trying.” Artie brought her fists to her temples. The squirming, probing sensation intensified. It circumvented every thought she sent to push it away. “It keeps coming back.”
Birtta hurried away into the conservatory. “Burn it.” She threw over her shoulder. “They fear fire.”
Burn it? Another exploratory tendril pushed against her mind. Artie blocked it and it smoothly slid to another point of attack, another memory, another weakness.
Artie closed her eyes and imagined a bright flame: blue and intent like the flame of a bunsen burner. She blasted that thought at the invading parasite.
“Burn. Burn. Burn.” Artie chanted in her mind adding fuel to her fire with each word.
The tendrils fled, their tips blackened. Artie thought she could hear a high-pitched squealing.
Birtta returned with a brown glass bottle. She unscrewed the lid and revealed a glass pipette attached to the underside. there was a line marked on to the glass and a brown liquid filled up to the line.
“Take this.” Birtta handed the pipette over. “Swallow.”
“What is it?”
“A variation on the substance that I injected you with earlier. It will help keep the mental symptoms of the heartweed parasite at bay.”
Artie stared at the peaty liquid. She remembered how the injection had weakened her. Sensing her reluctance, the parasite stirred again in her mind.
Artie squeezed the dropper into her mouth. The initial sharp shock of bitterness mutated into a sickly sweet aftertaste that clung to her teeth. Almost immediately the sense of the parasite’s infiltrating feelers diminished in her mind. It was as if a sheet of glass had been set between her and it. The parasite could push at that smooth surface all it wanted, but find no cracks. There was no way in.
Artie handed the dropper back to Birtta.
“You said ‘the mental symptoms’. What about the physical effects? Does that stuff make me weak, like the injection did?”
“Slightly weaker than if you were fully integrated, but much stronger than any human has a right to be.”
“How about the magical bits?”
Birtta stiffened. “Stay away from using magic or being too near it, if you want to stay alive and sane. The parasite feeds on it.” She pursed her lips. “Had you been in Faerie when you became infected, we probably would not have been able to save you.”
Birtta put the brown bottle down on the windowsill.
“You should practise the mental discipline of resisting the parasite and keeping ti from your mind, but that tincture will help you. We shall start you out at three times a day and see how things go.”
“For how long?” Artie sprang to her feet. “I mean, what happens now? Do you cure me? Do I just go mad more slowly? Die more slowly?”
Birtta’s smooth face wrinkled in to a troubled expression.
“I have no answers. I have worked with and studied the heartweeds for all of my life, but for you I have no answers. You are-”
“Unique. Yeah, you said.” Artie held her hand up in front of her face. She curled and uncurled her finger, feeling the wiry vines of the parasite coiling and uncoiling within them.