The bulk of the fake cathedral offered no shelter from the omnipresent grey glow. Venturing down into the city was an easy choice – the only choice, I told myself.
Evelyn sent Praem first, both bodies. One of them waved an arm over her head to test if the giant gasbag jellyfish things floating in the sky would react, descend upon easy prey or droop those massive tentacles down to sting with alien toxins. They did not. Praem stepped from grey earth onto the jagged lip of imitation road, walked past the first of the twisted jade outcroppings pretending to be buildings, and stood on a street corner, at the very limit of visibility in the slowly shifting tendrils of fog. Her other body turned to look back at us.
“Down we go then,” said Raine.
“Hate this place already,” Twil hissed.
So did I. This place felt so fundamentally wrong, even to me, and I’d spent half my life getting dragged outside reality on the regular.
Our footsteps returned muffled echoes as the copied city streets rose around us. One of Praem’s bodies took the lead in the churning murk, scouting down a row of what were probably meant to be semi-detached houses.
All these normal everyday shapes – buildings, street signs, pavement – warped and bent and rough-edged, surfaces jagged and misaligned, as if approximated by an alien with terrible eyesight and a fetish for sharp corners. Every surface of dark green stone seemed to hide untold depths behind the rotten veins of grey and black, an optical illusion that tempted me to stare harder and harder with the promise that eventually I might see through to whatever waited on the other side of the ground itself.
I realised with a sick feeling that the entire place was seamless and unbroken; not even a hairline crack between pavement and brick, every object and structure melted into the greater whole in a flow of stone – like bone.
Like the copied city had been extruded from the ground, secreted in layers. I shuddered at the thought of touching anything here. My skin began to crawl and I found myself hunching closer to Raine.
Twil wasn’t faring much better than I. She’d wrapped her hands in those ghostly wolf-claws and looked ready to jump at her own shadow. Even Evelyn seemed smaller and reduced amid this mutated architecture. This place bore down on us in some obscure psychological fashion, made me want to curl up and hide; every wrong angle and defamiliarsed building told me to get out.
Only Raine seemed normal – well, normal for Raine. She was on the highest of high alerts, clear as day even if I hadn’t been holding her hand, vibrating with anticipation of sudden violence. She stayed fixated on the limits of visibility, the edge of the fog, as if a hundred monsters were about to come rushing at us.
Anybody trapped in this Godforsaken place absolutely needed rescuing.
“We’re way too exposed out here,” Twil hissed through her teeth. We were halfway to the castle, deserted battlements peering down through the shifting veils of fog.
Raine shook her head slowly. “Nothing to be exposed to.”
Twil looked like she wanted to punch her. “We’re out in the open. There’s no people, no crowd to hide in, we’re in the middle of the street. Fuck, is this even a street?” She scowled at the rotten-jade ground. “What the hell is this stuff? What the hell is this place?”
“A death-trap,” Raine said.
“I meant the road, dumbass.”
“I know you did, but that’s not important,” Raine grinned to herself. “This place is meant to be a death-trap, a killing-ground around that national trust wannabee up there.” She nodded at the castle. “When they trapped Heather and I inside that looping space in Willow House, they had dogs and their super-zombie. I don’t see no dogs. I don’t see anything. I think they’re spent.”
Evelyn grunted in agreement. “They’ve no monsters left for us.”
“May I make a suggestion?” I said, much softer than I’d intended, cowed by the bizarre surroundings. I cleared my throat.
“Always,” Raine said.
“I don’t think they’re aware we’re here,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” Twil said. “We’re totally not walking into an ambush, because Heather says so.”
“Nobody could have escaped that labyrinth without brain-math,” I said. “Whoever guided me put that back door in, one only I could find. Nobody knows we’re here.”
“Not yet, at least,” said Raine. Twil grumbled under her breath and flexed her claws.
I stared up at the castle as we got closer, frowning and chewing on my lips.
“You recognise it?” Raine muttered to me.
“No. I don’t think anybody makes castles out of jade.”
“Well somebody did,” Raine said, and cracked a grin for me.
I sighed and shrugged, a little difficult with the crutch tucked under one arm to support my weight. “Maybe it’s a copy of one in reality. Does Sharrowford have a castle?”
“Don’t think so. Any idea who we might find in there? Anything come back to you yet?”
I shook my head and felt a shadow of guilt pass over me, for dragging my friends into this, for insisting. “I don’t know, I-I’m sure there’s … ”
Raine squeezed my hand. “Heather, if the person who helped you is up there, I’m getting them the hell out.” She flashed me a grin, utterly devoid of artifice. “Can’t let myself get upstaged by your secret admirer.”
I felt myself smile. Amazing how much difference that grin can make.
Lights began to bleed through the wall of fog, at first illusory and wavering, then clearer and clearer as a line of tiny flickering points. The light bled into the stone, made the dark veins dance and writhe, pulsing from within. Raine hissed a halt and we waited for several tense moments, but the lights neither advanced nor dimmed.
We crept forward.
Candles. Thick as an arm and a foot tall, each set on a metal pole – stainless steel, the first normal objects we’d seen in this place. The bollards were mounted in the middle of a road, the stone cracked and chipped where they’d been bolted to the ground. The line of candles stretched off in either direction, until the lights vanished into the fog.
Just this side of the line, a monster had been impaled on a wooden stake.
“Recognise him?” Raine asked.
“Of course I do,” Evee hissed. She gulped and had to look away. So did I.
“What? That’s yours?” said Twil. Evelyn nodded.
It was the gangly ape demon she’d summoned up and sent out into the city weeks ago. The knobbly joints were rigid in death, vertical jaw lolling open, huge tongue limp, eyes glassed over, flesh dry and dessicated. It had been impaled through the backside and the stake emerged from its shattered chest, pushing broken ribs outward. No blood on the ground, merely a little dried and flaking on the stake.
“At least we know what happened to the poor bastard,” Raine said. “Sorry mate.”
“It’s a warning,” Evelyn said.
“To who? The things up there?” Twil pointed at the giant mute jellyfish shadows in the sky. “There’s nothing here. Thing’s not even had birds or flies at it. This place is dead.”
“To whatever’s out there,” Evelyn said softly. She gestured with her eyes, off into the distance.
“What?” I said.
“Yeah, uh, Evee, what?” Raine added.
“I think I was wrong.”
“You, wrong? Never,” Twil tried to laugh at her own jab but managed only a hollow chuckle.
“The Cult didn’t build this place,” Evelyn said. She sucked on her teeth before continuing. “The labyrinth and all the looping pocket dimensions, yes, that’s them, and perhaps they even made that bloody great castle, somehow. But this space itself? I suspect they found this, re-purposed a small part of it, connected it to the city. All this, what we’re seeing, could be a … a sympathetic reaction, an allergic reaction, I don’t know.” She nodded at the metal bollards with the candles on top. “That’s to keep out unwanted visitors from the depths beyond.”
Evelyn’s words chilled me, should have made me look over my shoulder into the swirling fog, with all the lurid possibilities and lurking horrors. But the dead ape demon, hanging there next to us, was so much more real.
The dead men in the labyrinth had been victims of sudden terrible violence. The corpses had turned my stomach and upset me on that deep level of flesh’s sympathy for other flesh. But the ape demon, impaled on a spike? That implied a medieval capacity for calculated brutality, so much worse than any outburst of destruction.
“Heather?” Raine said. “You holding up okay?”
I nodded, tried to focus. “This is by far the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said, half exasperated, half trying to play it down.
“Eh?” Evelyn frowned at me.
“Occult road bollards. Traffic calming for monsters.” I shook my head.
Raine laughed, but Evelyn sighed and gestured Twil toward the row of bollards and candles. “Right, stick a hand past the barrier, see what happens.”
Twil goggled at her. “You’re having a laugh. Why me?”
“Because your flesh regrows in minutes. None of ours will.”
“What about the ice blues here?” Twil nodded at Praem. Both bodies stared back at her, an impassive rebuff.
“They don’t regenerate, they’re made of wood. Stop whining, it’s only pain.”
Twil grumbled and eyed the line of flickering candles. She edged up to the barrier, gave Evelyn a terrible scowl, then gingerly poked a finger past a bollard. Nothing happened. She extended her hand out, then her arm, then stepped over.
She shrugged. “Feels normal. Nothing doing, I guess.”
“That was a little cruel, Evee,” I said.
Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, then stepped up to one of the bollards and tapped it with her walking stick. She knocked the candle off the top, let it hit the ground in a splat of wax and puff of extinguished flame. “Pull it out,” she said, then glanced up at Twil when she didn’t jump to it.
“Do you want me to get blown up by a magical booby-trap or what?”
“No. Praem,” Evelyn gestured to her bound demon. “You do it. Pull it out.”
Praem grabbed the bollard and wretched it out of the ground with a loud crunch of breaking stone. Tiny chips of grey, dead jade flaked off from the bolts. She held it up and stared at the underside.
“Made in China,” Praem said.
“Huh. That’s one hole in their perimeter,” Evelyn said.
A hundred meters further on we hit a second barrier, a second ring around the false jewel of the castle – a triple-layered magic circle made of complex overlapping angles, all in white, painted straight onto the jade ground.
The circle was unfinished, cut off at one end, the other vanishing off into the fog. The air smelled of fresh paint.
“I don’t recognise the technique, the symbols, any of it,” Evelyn said. “Could be for anything.”
“Doesn’t hurt to look at,” I said.
“Wait ‘till it’s finished,” Evelyn muttered.
“Maybe this is what they were gonna use Heather for?” Twil suggested. “Maybe she was meant to be here when they finished it, up in that castle thing?”
A cold shiver went up my spine. We all looked at each other – except for Raine, who stared off into the fog. She had a smile on her lips and a cold look in her eyes.
“Wanna go find out if they’re still working on it?” she asked.
We crept along the curve of the magic circle for a couple of minutes before a kneeling figure drifted out of the fog. A young man in cream-coloured robes, down on his knees with a fat paintbrush in hand as he worked on extending the circle. Around him lay a tray to catch stray drips, some newspaper, and two cans of white paint. He looked up in wide-eyed blinking incomprehension.
Two other figures stood over him, both older men with scraggly beards and wild hair, expressions slack and eyes glassy, dressed in scuffed jeans and old coats and too many layers for what they so obviously were. Their heads swivelled toward us, machine-like and precise, empty of expression.
“Oh, oh, oh shit, oh, no no no,” the cultist stammered as he stumbled to his feet. “Y-you’re not meant to be here. You- you- none of you. Oh, um-”
“Hey, buddy,” Raine said. “No harm no foul, just drop your shit and put your hands up, yeah?”
The cultist glanced at his attendant zombies and gestured at them, clicking his fingers and stammering out a snatch of Latin. They seemed to stiffen – then stepped toward us. With a renewed flush of confidence the man smiled and raised an arm at us too, said a few more words in Latin.
Raine’s truncheon got in the way and knocked out a few of his teeth.
I shrank back involuntarily, but Evelyn stood her ground, radiating contempt; these zombies were not like Zheng – Twil and Praem made short work of them.
Twil slammed into one zombie in a tangle of limbs and claws, gnashing and snapping and growling, bouncing it off the ground with a crack of breaking bones. Praem simply grabbed the other one by the head and twisted; I squeezed my eyes shut at the horrible ripping noise. A few moments of shouting and scuffling and it was all over. I nodded when Evelyn gently touched my elbow, trying not to look at the pair of roughly decapitated zombies. At least they didn’t bleed – they seemed to be utterly dessicated, just dry bone and tendon under the skin.
“How was I supposed to know to pull it’s head off?” Twil was saying, exasperated, mostly human again except for her claws, her clothes twisted around from rolling on the ground.
“I didn’t know either,” Evelyn said, frowning down at the corpses. “It was a guess.”
Raine grinned down at the cowering cultist, his face bruised and lips bleeding. “Should have taken my first offer, yeah? Hope you’re a good little squealer. How many of your mates are hanging around here? Don’t make me hurt you for it, not in front of my girl.”
“Oh shut up, Raine,” Evelyn drawled. She raised the scrimshawed bone in both hands, elbow balancing her walking stick. “Get out of the way, unless you want to soil yourself.”
Raine glanced over her shoulder. “Eh? Oh. Geeze, Evee, that’s much worse than smashed kneecaps. Come on, give the old fashioned way a chance?”
I saw the man on the ground gather himself, realised he was about to try something stupid. Perhaps I’d spent too much time watching Raine, watching the way she moved, the hundred little tells which came before a moment of violence.
“Don’t you dare,” I said out loud.
He glanced at me and hesitated – just long enough for Raine to draw her handgun and point it at his face. He gulped and flinched, one hand out in a gesture of surrender. Raine tutted and shook her head, stepping back out the way of whatever Evelyn was about to do.
“N-none of you are supposed to be here,” he said. “If you leave now, you can still get out, m-maybe-”
Evelyn ran her fingers over the carvings on the thighbone, completed her infernal circuit.
The ambient temperature plummeted by several degrees in an instant, enough to draw a surprised gasp from me, despite the enclosing warmth of Raine’s borrowed hoodie. Static electricity crackled across our clothes.
The man fell silent with a strangled choke. His lips quivered and his pupils contracted to tiny black dots. His skin drained of all colour, dripping with sudden cold sweat. He shook, teeth chattering, and a puddle of steaming urine spread from under his robe.
A strange sick fear twisted in my chest, made me take a step backward where suddenly it lifted again; backwash from Evelyn’s spell. Raine sniffed and shook her head. Twil grunted and backed way up too, kicking at a zombie corpse on her way.
“Do you know my face?” Evelyn asked. The cultist nodded, numb and staring at Evelyn with awe born from pure terror. “Do you know my family name?” He nodded again. “Speak it.”
“Speak it or I will feed you to a demon.”
I caught Raine smirking in the corner of my eye. Was she laughing because that was a bluff, or was she taking pleasure in this unspeakable spectacle?
“Saye,” the cultist managed to choke out.
“Correct. How many of you are here? In the castle?”
“ … a … s-ssss-seven.”
“Is Alexander Lilburne here? Is he your leader?”
He nodded, jerky, desperate to please.
Another nod. Evelyn clenched her jaw with closely controlled anger.
He shook his head. Evelyn frowned, frustration plain, and suddenly the man babbled out nonsense words, non-words, baby-talk efforts to explain or excuse, to persuade this avatar of fear to pass over him. It made me feel vaguely sick. How many times had I felt that way, lost Outside before something utterly beyond me? He stared at Evelyn the way I might have stared at the Eye.
The man collapsed, forehead to the ground, prostrating himself in utter submission. Evelyn sighed and twisted her fingers against the thighbone again. The spell broke with an audible rush of warm air and discharge of static. The man scrambled to his feet, blinking rapidly. He’d lost control of the muscles in his face, as if he’d suffered a stroke, working his jaw and grimacing.
“I-I- what- what did you- you-” he stammered.
“My turn now?” Raine asked. She drew her knife and kept the handgun trained on him.
“Ugh,” Twil grunted.
“No, no! Fuck, no, okay!” The cultist held both hands out, warding us off. “You’ve won. You win. You win. I’m out, I’ll leave, I swear, I’ll leave.”
“First you’re going to tell me what this place is, what you degenerate fools have been doing here,” Evelyn said.
“I don’t know!” he said. “You think they tell me anything? I’m a goddamn drop-out, okay? I’m nobody important. I signed up for the money, and the Brotherhood- the Brothers, they taught me … stuff, stuff I don’t want to know. Look, I know they’ve been killing people, but it terrifies me too. I want out, okay? I mean, look,” he gestured at the unfinished magic circle, the splatter of white paint where he’d dropped the brush, next to bloody spittle where Raine had knocked him down. He tried to smile at us through his bloodied mouth. “They’ve got me doing the monkey work. I’m nobody.”
“Monkey work,” Evelyn echoed. “Constructing a circle of this scale.”
“Yeah. I-I don’t know how it works.”
“She hates liars, you know?” Raine grinned at him.
“Is there an exit up here?” Evelyn snapped. “A way out?”
“Yeah, a couple.” He nodded, smiling that broken smile again.
“Where? Be precise,” Evelyn snapped.
“That way,” he nodded. “There’s a Church at the intersection, it’s a door back to-”
The cultist raised one arm to point – and twisted his fingers one over the other, in a gesture that stung my eyes and burnt the air in the back of my throat. His words turned into a bark of inhuman language. Twil yelped, Evelyn winced.
The two decapitated zombie corpses jerked, as if trying to get to their feet.
For a split-second the young man’s face was no longer the sobbing, desperate drop-out, conned into a cult with promises of easy money; instead, raw dominance, victory, pleasure in inflicting pain. ‘Got you’ his eyes said.
Then Raine shot him in the head.
In movies and video games – the few violent video games I’ve watched Raine play – if a human gets shot in the head, their skull sort of pops or explodes, cartoon gore like a burst balloon. Reality is far less final, far less pyrotechnic. The crack of the gunshot was much softer than I’d imagined, but I flinched all the same. The cultist’s head jerked to the side, blood and brains spurting from a small exit wound. He flopped to the floor in a heap, twitched and jerked as ruined neurons fired at random, then lay still, blood pooling around his skull.
“Holy shit,” Twil said. She gaped at the body.
Raine blew out a long breath. She blinked at the gun in her hand and shrugged. “Did he think I was bluffing?”
“Maybe he thought it was a fake,” I offered, and found my voice very small and weak. I turned away and took several deep breaths, holding on tight to the borrowed crutch.
“Great,” Evelyn was saying. “Great.”
“Never had to actually pull the trigger before,” Raine said.
“Are you … okay?” I asked.
She flashed a grin, clicked the gun’s safety on, and tucked it back into her jacket. “Hundred percent. More concerned about you, wish you didn’t have to see that.”
I shrugged. “That’s not even the most violent thing I’ve watched you do.”
Raine grinned again, as if my words had been a compliment.
“Stop flirting,” Evelyn snapped. She was having Praem turn one of the dead zombies over, and pointed at it with her walking stick. “You know what this means? You know what this is?”
“A zombie?” I asked.
“Not as fun as the ones your mum used to make,” Raine said.
Evelyn shot Raine a death-glare. Twil laughed, thinking it was a joke, but then caught the look on Evelyn’s face.
“They’re fresh,” Evelyn said. “Probably no more than a few weeks old, not enough time to settle into the body. Can’t believe they’re using corpses for this. Sheer insanity. This is worse than anything we’ve found so far, worse than this bloody place,” she gestured around us with her eyes, at the fog and twisted buildings.
“Eh? Why? They went down easily enough,” said Twil.
“Yes, now they did. A couple more weeks, a month, two, and these amateurs will lose control of them. Real demon hosts. Not like Praem.” She jabbed the dead zombie with her walking stick. “we have to find them all, put them down.”
I was still staring at the emaciated zombie as Praem stood up and stepped back.
“They look like-” I said, then cut off and reconsidered. “They look like a pair of homeless people.”
“They probably were,” Evelyn grunted. “Nobody missed them. We find the zombies, put them down, and Raine shoots their maker in the back of the head. No questions.”
Up close, the castle was supremely ugly. From a distance the fog had encouraged an illusion of dark masonry set atop an unassailable peak, a fairytale fortress from one of my less comfortable daydreams. We halted at the foot of the hill, to the sight of a jagged crown of dead grey jade trying to approximate crenellations and towers, shot through with blackened veins like a body in the final stages of a disgusting exotic disease.
A pair of huge metal doors were set in the gatehouse, shining with condensation from the fog.
We waited at the foot of the hill as Evelyn sent one of the Praems on ahead. I held my breath as she probed for traps or a hidden ambush, but nothing moved amid the thickly churning fog. Not a single person gazed down from the battlements or peeked out from the arrow slits.
A few stray blood splatters on the road surface offered the only colour in all the grey – Zheng’s path back to the castle?
Praem reached the huge stone doors and turned back to us. She waved a hand.
“What now?” Twil hissed.
“We go in,” Evelyn said, raising a questioning eyebrow at her. “What else would we do?”
“I dunno, dynamite the place?” Twil said. Evelyn barked a laugh of approval and said something else, but I barely heard the words.
The fog, thick as treacle, seemed to drape itself over the battlements in layers, obscuring details as it shifted and swirled. Greyed jade blended into the fog, making it hard to see where structure ended and sky began. I squinted into the murk as my friends began to debate our next step.
And I saw her.
A little elfin face, long blonde hair tugged by the fog, like seaweed underwater. A girl up on the castle battlements, staring out over the mile of false city, chewing on her nails.
A thicker bank of fog rolled over and hid her from view.
Cold sweat broke out down my back. My throat tightened and my chest constricted. A ringing sound throbbed in my ears. I felt myself take a step forward, then another, and another. Hands caught my arm, my waist, and voices said my name, but I pushed them away, pulse roaring in my head. I fumbled with the crutch as I pushed myself up toward the castle.
“Hello?” I shouted into the thick silence, raised my free hand, stared up at where I thought I’d seen the girl. “Hello?”
No reply. Raine caught up with me and took me by the shoulder.
“Heather? Heather, what is it? What’s wrong?”
I shook my head and almost growled. “Quiet.” I’d never felt so impatient in my life. Twil jogged up alongside us, peering off into the fog as if my voice had stirred up a nest of vipers.
A reply floated out of the fog at last, a call, my name. “Heather?”
Raine and Twil both jumped, stared up at the battlements with me. I started to hyperventilate.
None of this made the slightest bit of sense. “ … who … ” I managed to squeak. My head hurt, a dull ache like a tight tendon. “H-how … ”
“Heather, is that you?” the voice called again.
“Y-yes!” I cried out. “It’s … yes!”
A break in the fog, and there she was again, two dozens meters up and half cowering behind the crenellations. Our eyes met. The strange girl lit up in bright, manic relief. Her hair hung in a great fog-teased mass.
“Heather! You came!”
The two halves of my mind, awake and dreaming, bifurcated until now by the wall of sleep, crashed together. My own memories overwhelmed me. I almost forgot to breathe as I gaped up at her.
“Lozzie!” I managed to shout. A hysterical smile struggled onto my face, chased by a hiccup as I clutched my own throat.
She smiled wider – then screamed as she was yanked down below the battlements. The sound pierced the sky like needles, the horrible yelp of a small creature overpowered and immobilised.
“Lozzie!” I shouted again. “Lozzie!?”
More struggle, a thump, a second scream – distant now, muffled behind the walls. Another voice reached us through the fog, deep murmurs on the air. Then silence.
Dream-memories pummelled me. Raine spoke but I couldn’t hear a word, squeezing my eyes shut in a vain attempt at control. The memories were all there. They’d been there all along, on the other side of a conceptual leap I couldn’t possibly have made alone. The places she’d taken me in the dreams – the great winter castle, the desert, the library, a dozen others. Mars. She’d shown me the surface of Mars and I hadn’t remembered. We’d cried together, talked for hours, days, cuddled and held each other – were we friends, or more? A seed of guilt nagged in the base of my chest, but I crushed it down and ignored it for now. Bigger things to worry about.
I knew Lozzie, if only from dreams. And I knew better than anybody else alive that dreams could be completely real.
“I have to help her! We have to get in there.” I blurted out, clutching at Raine’s arm.
“I heard that name,” Evelyn added as she joined us, frowning at me. “That’s her? The girl from the cult’s bloody ritual? You knew all along?”
“The fuck does that matter?” Twil said. “I just saw some lass dragged off somewhere. Heather’s idea sounds good, yeah? Let’s go.”
“No, no,” I said. I dropped the crutch from shaking hands, barely able to get the words out. “In dreams- she’s been- I didn’t remember until I saw her- oh God, it’s been going on for weeks, weeks and weeks, she’s been right there, I-I … she’s like me. She’s like me.” I hiccupped, tried and failed to steady my breathing.
“Heather,” Raine said, crisp and clear as she grabbed my hands. “That girl, Lozzie, she’s your friend?”
“I don’t- I think … well-”
“Heather. She with you, or not?”
“Yes, yes she’s my friend.” I stammered but I got it out, nodding and holding on tight.
“And she’s the one who asked for help? She woke you up just before the zombie got you?”
“Yes! Yes, she did, it was her.”
Raine turned away without a moment’s hesitation. For the merest split-second I thought she was turning away from me in disgust and confusion – jealousy. A word caught in my throat. Pure projection.
“Right, we need those doors open. Right now.” Raine pointed at the massive metal front doors on the castle. “Twil, move your arse, see if you can shift them. Evee, get your other sex zombie up there too, in case Twil’s elbow grease isn’t enough.”
The guilt grew until I could have choked on it; Raine trusted me, fought for me, and didn’t even demand the full story. Lozzie was my friend, and my word was all Raine needed.
Twil picked up the borrowed crutch, handed it back to me, then ran for the doors.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get to her,” Raine said. She scanned the top of the battlements, squeezed my hand, and took a step forward. “Come on, better not let Twil get too far ahead of us.”
“Okay, but Raine, I’m sorry.”
“For what?” She blinked at me, then grimaced over my shoulder – she’d seen Evelyn’s expression.
“What is this?” Evelyn hissed, staring at me. She was flanked by a Praem, neither of them moving a muscle to help Twil. I glanced over at the werewolf as she braced her shoulder against one of the metal doors.
“Evee,” Raine said, a soft warning.
“Don’t you ‘Evee’ me. What is going on here? Heather? Is this some kind of elaborate bait?”
“How could you even think that?” I blurted out, already on the edge of hysterical panic myself. “She’s been visiting my dreams for weeks and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t remember anything. She needs help, Evee! She asked me for help.”
Evelyn frowned all the harder. “She’s one of them. These fucking vermin in my city. These-”
A cry cut through the air, across Evelyn’s vitriol and the fog alike – my name from Lozzie’s throat.
“Heather! Heather!” Lozzie flung herself against the battlements overhead, half-visible in the mist, mouth bloodied and hair wild and eyes staring as she leaned over the edge. For a terrible moment, I thought she was about to jump. I moved on instinct, jerked forward before Raine caught me around the waist.
“No!” I said, panic in my heart.
Instead of pulling me back, Raine stepped in front.
“Do it, jump!” She called up to Lozzie. “We’ll catch you!”
“We’ll what?” Twil shouted, backpedaling from the castle doors.
“Evee.” Raine whipped around. “Come on, I need your plush demon for this. Get over here and help me or this girl’s gonna snap both her legs.”
Two dozen feet above, Lozzie’s face lit up. She clambered up onto the battlements and wet her lips. Evelyn hesitated.
“Evee, please!” I almost whined. Running footsteps echoed from inside the castle, a scrambling and a puffing of breath. Lozzie glanced back over her shoulder. Her bare toes peeked over the edge of the castle wall.
“I’m never leaving anyone behind,” Raine said, softly, meant for Evelyn alone. “You know that.”
“Bloody hell,” Evelyn snapped. She prodded Praem One with her walking stick, and our friendly pet demon leapt forward next to Raine. She looked up and spread her arms – it didn’t seem enough.
“Okay,” Raine shouted up to Lozzie again. She gave her a double thumbs-up. “You ready?”
Lozzie squealed. A pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her back down behind the battlements, followed by sounds of kicking and struggling. She screamed again, her frustration and despair wrenching at my heart. I think I called her name. Muttered, angry conversation floated down through the fog, then a loud slap of flesh on flesh and a pained yelp.
“Dammit,” Raine hissed. Twil bared her teeth and growled.
Four faces appeared up on the battlements. Lozzie, her arms pinned behind her back by one beefy cream-robed cultist. The man had a squashed nose and thinning hair. Another, a young woman, blonde and blinking and fretting and staring, biting her lips hard enough to draw blood, frowned at us we if we were an invading army.
And Alexander Lilburne.
If looks could kill, we’d all have been struck dead. He stared at us like excrement found on his boot, utter disdain and disgusted contempt. He was in shirtsleeves, rolled up as if he’d come straight from some unexpected physical labour. His cheek twitched. I made myself stare up at him. Yes, that’s right, you slimy, disgusting thing, you tried to kidnap me and now we’re here to destroy your work. I reminded myself who I stood next to, all four of us – five if you count Praem – and the fear stayed manageable.
“That’s him,” I hissed. “That’s him.”
Now I understood why I thought I’d recognised him before. Side-by-side, him and Lozzie, the resemblance was plain. Brother and sister.
He raised his voice, loud and clear through the fog.
“You will leave this place.”
Twil gave him a double middle-finger. “Come down here and fight me one-on-one, you massive cunt,” she yelled. He curled his bottom lip in disgust, then opened his mouth again, and I remembered.
“He can do a thing with his voice,” I said quickly. “Evee, he can do a mind-thing with his voice-”
“You will leave,” Alexander called out again.
A tug in the forefront of my brain, sharper and more insistent than when he’d tried the same trick in that deserted Sharrowford coffee shop. Why didn’t we leave? Evelyn could collapse the place from outside, surely? We’d never rescue Lozzie now, it was hopeless. What would we do with her anyway? I-
No! I shook my head. Those were not my thoughts, that wasn’t me, it was him.
Raine blinked and winced. Please, no, don’t listen to it, not you too, Raine. Twil frowned down at the floor, as if seriously considering the command. Her clawed wolf-paws dissipated to reveal the pale human hands beneath.
I spluttered. “No, we have to-”
“Is that all?” Evelyn barked with laughter.
Her resistance broke the spell. Raine snapped to, took a deep breath. Twil shook herself like a wet dog, angry and confused but catching up fast. I felt the tugging lift from my mind. Alexander’s expression soured even further.
“I’ve been compelled by worse than you,” Evelyn shouted up at him, and I swear I saw Lozzie smile at that, under her curtain of hair. “I’ve out-thought demons in my own head. You, Alexander, if that’s even your real name, I am going to feed you to my pets.”
“Oh, don’t be such an utter bore,” Alexander drawled. “I have never been much for all these amateur dramatics, certainly not from a failure and a cripple. Leaving would be for your own good, at least then you would live out the remainder of the year. Or perhaps you want to become a martyr, perhaps-”
Suddenly Lozzie jerked against the man holding her, kicked and pulled and thrashed. She almost made it, almost broke free, straining for the edge of the battlements to throw herself over. Alexander turned and struck her across the face, almost as an afterthought, and the big cultist held her head down against the wall to pin her in place.
“Stop it!” I called out.
Alexander whispered to Lozzie, quiet and close, and the words made her shrink away, retreat back down inside herself.
“Can’t you shoot him?” I hissed to Raine.
“Not confident at this range,” she muttered without taking her eyes off him. “I might hit her instead.”
Alexander straightened up from his sister. As he did, I took a step forward, suddenly resolved, a feeling of desperate, unfamiliar strength in my heart.
“Give me your sister and we’ll leave,” I shouted.
Alexander met my eyes. His expression shifted and a shiver crawled up my spine. Wrong tactic, Heather, utterly wrong. All his irritation and anger seemed to drain away as he raised his eyebrows and ran his hands over his hair, as if to check every strand was in place. He raised his chin and the ghost of a smile played across that shiny, clean-shaven face.
“Lavinia wishes to make a deal? How interesting,” he said, and turned to Lozzie. “How do you know Lavinia, dear sister? When, in all the permutations of time and reality, could you possibly have shared each other’s company? Hmm?” He leaned down close to his sister and cupped her chin in one hand. “How curious.”
“Oh shit,” Raine hissed.
“Lozzie!” I called out. “Why can’t you- jump out, teleport, like we-”
“I can’t!” she wailed. “We can’t leave from here! I’m stuck!”
That’s why the brain-math hadn’t worked on Zheng. No route to Outside from here. A pocket, cut off from reality. This non-place, this shadow city, there was only one way back out – to Sharrowford itself. I could do that math, I’d done in once before in the Willow House loop, but could Lozzie do it? Did she know how?
“Then back to the city!” I called, gripped by panic as Alexander turned back to us with a satisfied look. He muttered something to the two cultists and they began to drag Lozzie away, back down into the castle. The woman hissed something in Lozzie’s ear.
“Heather!” she called out.
“Lozzie, no- you-”
“We’ll come get you! Hold on.” Raine called louder and clearer than I ever could, as the cultists and Lozzie vanished down into the castle. The young woman returned with a clatter of feet to spit at us over the castle wall, then disappeared again.
“I do believe I’ve changed my mind about your little visit,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath and leaned forward, his hands on the edge of the castle wall. “After all, Lavinia was supposed to join us tonight. This merely opens up further opportunities, all far more interesting. Dear dear, I will have to hear all the details in due time, yes, I will know how you damaged our … valuable asset, shall we say?”
“Your big zombie?” Raine called. “Next time Heather’ll knock her head off.”
Alexander spared Raine the briefest of glances before returning his attention to Evelyn. “In fact, I should be thanking you, Saye, shouldn’t I? Now I can both remove an irritant and gain a valuable addition to our stock in the same stroke. But that is mere logistics. The opportunity between you and I is far greater, isn’t it, Saye? Here we are,” he spread his arms out to indicate the entire fog-soaked pocket dimension. “Not an uninformed soul in sight, with all our powers at our command, all our little monsters and grand techniques. I have so ached for a real duel with another as skilled as I, even if it will be a little disappointing to match wits with such a … ” Alexander allowed his smile to broaden. “Reduced shell of a person.”
“You’re not worth my time,” Evelyn said, flat and unimpressed. She ran her fingers across the scrimshawed thighbone as she raised the ugly thing out in front of her. Raine tensed, and I sensed she was ready to grab me and haul me out of the way.
Alexander held out one hand.
“Ah, wait, do wait. Indulge me?”
“You will not win this one, Saye. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I am going to give you a free shot.” He held up a finger, still smiling. “You have one completely open attempt on my life, right here. After all, I am a grown man, and you are a cripple of a girl. It would hardly be fair of me to overpower you without giving you at least a sporting chance, a real opening to win.”
“I could scale the wall,” Twil said. “Take me a minute or two. Rip his head off and have done with it.”
“One shot, Saye. I promise, I will not defend myself,” Alexander said. He smiled that maddening smile, so reasonable and self-assured.
Evelyn, to my surprise, turned to Raine.
“Well? Why have you been carrying that thing around all these years?” she hissed.
“Me?” Raine asked.
“Yes you. This,” she hefted the thighbone, keeping her voice low, “may as well be useless. A thousand pounds says he’s protected. You do it.”
“Confer all you want,” Alexander called out. “It will not help you to victory, you-”
In one single fluid motion, Raine drew her handgun, clicked the safety off, and shot Alexander through the chest. The crack of the bullet echoed out across the fog.
Alexander blinked in surprise. He looked down.
A patch of crimson spread across his shirt from a little dark entry wound. My heart leapt – and then my throat began to close up. Alexander shook his head slowly, sighed with indulgent amusement, then smiled at us and wagged one finger.
“My turn now, young lady.”
ooh i do hate him very much
smug little nerdlinger
wanna give him the world’s worst cosmic swirlie
shove him in an eldritch locker
Spill ink on his textbooks and runes of containment
I love the creepy touch of all the stone being melded together in an organic fashion
The jade space being discovered and used by the cult but not created by them is an interesting twist, and I like the use of bollards as a symbolic barrier. I wonder what occult effects you could achieve with other kinds of hostile architecture?
Something I’m really enjoying about Katalepsis is the juxtaposition of the mundane with the supernatural, like the young cultist extending the magic circle with a drip tray and some sheets of newspaper
Alexander is such a smug asshole, and I’m now guessing that the reason for the grandiose castle is to give him battlements to be smug from. Such medieval tastes would match the impaled demon too.
Given his obvious goading of the party into attacking him, I wonder whether his magic has some kind of retaliatory component, like a bound entity that only harms people who attack him first? He also must be pretty durable, maybe his resilience comes from a variant on the way they’re creating zombies?
I think I already said this in the discord, to this exact same comment from you, but it bears repeating here! I’m super glad that my aesthetic choices about combining the mundane and the supernatural work so well for so many readers, it was a very intentional decision right from the outset.
The copy of the town, all molded together seamlessly – it kinda reminds me of a theme park, actually. You have your rollercoaster all dressed up like a viking castle or whatever, but it’s all plastic and smooth stone and mortar, stuck together in the least offensive way.
i always thought this plastic mold caricature of real things was creepy. Of course, i’m used to it, so it doesn’t freak me out quite as much as it could. 😀
Yup! That’s kind of the vibe I was going for here. This is a place trying to look like a real environment, but it’s all made from the wrong materials, obviously fake, not quite right. As soon as you look closer, it’s just a mask over a strange truth.