Sleep lay light on my consciousness, despite the late hour and the exhaustion of a long and difficult evening; when Evelyn knocked on our bedroom door, Raine was the one who roused herself to answer. She disentangled herself from my arms and clambered out of bed, but I followed her up the steps of lighter slumber too. I rolled over under the covers, grumpy in a deprived animal way at Raine’s sudden absence. I groped for my phone.
“Evee?” Raine whispered. She angled herself to block the faint light from the hallway.
My phone’s back-light blinded me, and I read the time through a squint. Barely four hours of sleep. “S’five thirty in the morning,” I groaned.
“That it is,” Evelyn said from the doorway.
Cold tension in her voice made me sit up in bed, rubbing at my puffy eyes. Raine tried to usher Evelyn out into the corridor. “Hey, Heather, go back to sleep, you need it. I’ll be right back, okay?”
“No you won’t,” Evelyn grunted. “And Heather deserves to see this too. May as well show everybody at once, I’m not running through this multiple bloody times.”
“See what?” I asked. “Evee, what’s wrong? Have you not been to bed?”
Evelyn shook her head. She looked how I felt, with an added layer of tightly controlled worry around her eyes, mouth set straight, knuckles white from gripping the handle of her walking stick too hard.
“I sent Praem to the tower block.”
“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine sighed and smiled, shaking her head. “You said you’d wait at least another day. We’re all exhausted. ‘Cept for Twil, I guess.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I may as well do something useful. Deal with it.”
“Alright. Dealt with, forgiven, no worries. Now what? What’d she find up there?”
“Evee?” I prompted. Her worry was infectious.
“The busses aren’t running this time of night. It took Praem a while to reach Glasswick on foot. I’ve already sent her up, inside, seen it all for myself.”
“Cultists?” Raine asked.
“No, I … nothing alive. You both need to see.” She glanced at me. “You especially.”
“Evee, what’s up there?” I said.
Evelyn swallowed, a chill passing over her face. “I have only theories.”
“Thought you said she was already up in the tower?” Twil asked.
She squinted downward, at the contents of a half-full inflatable paddling pool on the floor of Evelyn’s magical workshop – at the Praem’s-eye-view in the still water.
Praem was currently looking at the boarded-up front entrance to Glasswick tower, lit by distant orange street-lighting. The view through her eyes was crystal clear, but quite disorienting.
Evelyn’s remote viewing setup was barely believable, but I reminded myself I’d witnessed far weirder things. I’d seen all this the first time she’d ridden Praem at a distance, but I’d never watched it working before.
A child’s two-tone blue paddling pool, filled about halfway, with a magic circle written in permanent maker onto the plastic itself, maddened black scrawl extending below the waterline. A delicate ring of ice had formed around the edge, a by-product of the magic. Twil was the only one of us not wrapped in extra layers against the lingering cold. I had a blanket around my shoulders, while Evelyn wore two jumpers, a shawl, and gloves. She’d been at this for hours already.
“I pulled her back out.” Evelyn settled into a chair in front of the remote viewing setup, grimacing as her leg gave her trouble in the cold. She turned the grimace on Twil as she rubbed at her thigh. “I wasn’t going to leave her up there without instruction while I fetched you lot, I’m not a complete fool.”
“Alright, fair do.” Twil raised both hands in surrender.
“Uh, Evee,” Raine said. “I’m a bit more concerned at the ruddy great beastie over yonder.”
“Yes,” Kimberly breathed from the doorway, unwilling to come any closer. “What- what is that?”
At the back of the ex-drawing room, Evelyn had cleared another wide space for a second large-scale magic circle, on a piece of unrolled canvas. Glancing at the circle made my head swim and my heart constrict, the arcane symbols and scraps of inhuman language clutching at the part of my mind which recognised them – but the content of the circle was so much worse.
Trapped inside the circle, a creature of shadow and claw twisted and brooded, chitinous plates gliding over leathery flesh as it hid inside a veil of darkness. Filmy, oily black eyes peered out at us now and again before vanishing back into the murk.
Evelyn’s Spider-servitor clearly hated the thing, whatever it was. Clutching its habitual ceiling corner, the Spider’s mass of crystalline eyes were fixed on the writhing shadow-creature.
I’d already guessed what it was for, and tried to ignore it.
“Never you mind what,” Evelyn snapped at Kimberly, then turned to Raine. “It’s for clearing what I’ve found in the tower. I’ll need several of them, probably. Three or four should be enough.”
“As long as it doesn’t stage a breakout over there,” Raine muttered. She glanced about, located her nightstick propped against the wall, and picked it up.
“It won’t. It’s mine. I already bound it,” Evelyn said, rapidly losing patience, nodding at the view in the paddling pool’s water. “Pay attention.”
“Can she hear us?” I asked. “Praem?”
“Heather,” Praem intoned from the other side of the water, clear as ever, miles away on the other side of the city. Evelyn huffed and gestured as if to say there’s my answer.
“Nobody beyond her can, but she can hear anything we say here,” Evelyn explained, then clicked her fingers. “Back inside. Make your way upstairs.”
“What did you find? Was there anyone in there?” Twil asked.
“Shut up and watch.”
Praem crossed the pathway toward Glasswick tower’s boarded up front entrance. Her gliding pace lacked the nauseating small motions that one might expect from, say, a person with a camera strapped to their head. Her eyes stayed locked on specific points rather than flicking around, like those of a human being. Still, looking down into a pool of water and seeing straight ahead did afflict me with the gentlest touch of vertigo. I had to keep glancing away.
She climbed through the shattered hole in the damp boards over the entrance, past the huge police notice threatening a £500 fine on trespassers, and everything went dark.
“Get the torch out, shine it ahead, same as before,” Evelyn ordered, then muttered to us. “She can see in the dark. We can’t.”
“Speak for yourself,” Twil muttered.
A light flicked on and a compact maglite lifted into view from below, held in Praem’s small, deceptively soft hand. The torch beam played over the filth in the entryway. The space was identical in layout to its twin in Gleaston tower, but heavy boards had been nail-gunned over the lift doors, and the stairwells had been blocked with walls of plywood. The only access to the stairs – a small door in one of the plywood sheets – stood open.
People – and likely a few animals – had camped here at some point, but they were long gone now. Water damage, a few dirty bedrolls, a gutted tent collapsed in one corner.
“Head up, stop at the fifth floor and give us a quick look there,” Evelyn said. Praem turned, slipped through the little door, and started her way up the stairs.
“Were there no people? No homeless people?” I asked in a whisper. Evelyn shook her head.
“None. Some had been here, I think. I’ll show you.”
“That’s a red flag, alright,” Raine grunted.
“What do you mean?” Twil hissed.
“Concrete building. Shelter, isn’t it? And the police don’t give a toss, not out there,” Raine said, still watching Praem’s slow ascent up the echoing, dark stairwell. “The lower couple of floors should have a few people trying to live there, at least, even if just shooting up or sleeping. Why keep away?”
“Uh … huh.” Twil nodded slowly, frowning to herself.
“The kids, around … ” Kimberly started, and crept a few paces into the ex-drawing room, terrified eyes glued to the horror in the magic circle at the back of the room.
“Kim?” I prompted. She swallowed.
“The kids around the estate,” she said, rallying. “They wouldn’t go in there either. They used to dare each other, I think, but they stopped for some reason. I’m sure I heard a silly urban legend about it being haunted.”
“Ha,” Evelyn barked with humourless laughter. “They’re not wrong.”
“Haunted, by like, a ghost?” Twil’s eyes went wide. “You found a ghost?”
Evelyn sighed and shot a withering look at her. “It’s a metaphor, you idiot. I’d prefer I had found a ghost.”
Praem stopped at the fifth floor and walked a few paces from the stairwell into one of the tower’s residential corridors. The light from her torch slid over closed and locked front doors, but a few hung open, kicked in or broken down.
“Poke your head into the first couple,” Evelyn ordered her. “This is all normal, all like this, all the same, up to the fifteenth floor. Most of the flats are locked tight, but there’s a few that people have obviously tried to live in, at some point. Maybe there was still running water, who knows?”
Praem showed us the evidence, and it didn’t amount to much. A few lost possessions in otherwise stripped-bare concrete boxes, places that had once been homes. A few candles had burned down to long-cold stubs. Discarded food wrappers. A condom in a corner. Nothing spooky, except the claustrophobic dark and the spectre of poverty.
“What’s at floor fifteen?” I asked.
“That … is beyond my powers of description.”
Praem returned to the stairwell and continued up, her precise footfalls echoing down the long concrete tower, the torch beam ascending the stairs ahead. She passed the landing for the tenth floor, above the level of the boarded up windows, and the cave-like darkness finally abated. Light pollution leaked in through the smashed glass, catching jagged concrete corners and the metal handrail. Snatches of night-time Sharrowford passed by on the edge of Praem’s vision. Sunrise was still hours away.
“Wonder if she can see us from up there?” Twil mused.
“Don’t be stupid. We can’t see the towers from here,” Evelyn said.
“Hey Praem,” Twil spoke up. “Flash your torch out one of the windows.”
“No,” Praem intoned, her voice echoing off the concrete.
“See?” Evelyn snorted. “Even she knows not to listen to you.”
“S’just a joke.” Twil huffed and crossed her arms.
The stairwell beyond the fifteenth floor was blocked off by another construction-site plywood barrier. The only way through was another one of those flimsy doors. The beam of Praem’s torch caught on three thick steel chains lying on the floor, complete with big chunky padlocks – all three locks crushed and broken, metal sheered and shattered.
“Stop there,” Evelyn said. “Show us the chains.”
“Lemme guess, they were like that when you got there?” Raine asked.
“What? No. I had Praem rip them off. But they’re all new. Look, no rust on them.” I peered forward at the image in the water. She was right. Compared to everything else so far in the crumbling, abandoned shell of Glasswick tower, the padlocks and chains were conspicuously shiny and new. “Combined with the general pattern of wet footprints lower down and a track relatively free of dust, somebody’s been coming up here, regularly.”
“Should have been a private eye, Evee. You’ve got the knack,” Raine said.
“Knack, nothing,” Evelyn snapped. “I’ve got magic, and that’s cheating. Praem, show them where the sign was.”
Praem’s viewpoint swung out, torch beam passing over the wooden barrier. Another ‘no entry – condemned’ sign lay on the floor, nails recently yanked free.
In the space it had occupied on the plywood. a magic circle stared back at us.
Raine whistled. Twil grunted a ‘huh’. Kimberly swallowed.
“Good thing I thought to have her check behind the sign,” Evelyn said. “Had to disarm it. No idea what it does. You recognise that one, Poundland?”
“Evee, don’t call her that,” I scolded quietly, as Kimberly blinked in confusion before she realised she was being addressed.
“No, no I don’t. I-I’m sorry.”
Evelyn grunted. She didn’t have the ire to spare for Kimberly right now. Somehow that worried me more than anything else. “The real treat’s further up. Praem, on you go, same route as the first time, but stop at the final corner before … before you see it. Stay alert.”
Praem continued up. She didn’t even reach the next floor before we all noticed what was wrong.
“The hell’s going on with the walls?” Twil asked.
“Optical illusion?” Raine suggested.
“No,” Evelyn grunted. “It gets progressively worse further up. Praem, pan your torch a bit, give us a view as you go.”
“It looks like it’s … ” I swallowed, struggling for the right word. “Diseased?”
The concrete of Glasswick tower had contracted an infection, a warping sickness, a mutation. In places it looked like a frozen sculpture of living muscle pushing from underneath the concrete surfaces, in others it was ridged and bumpy, or raised like flexing tendons beneath an inorganic skin, on a huge, tower-block scale, as if melted and re-set along distinctly biological lines.
Evelyn was right, the further up Praem climbed, the worse it got.
Praem climbed through the ossified corpse of a mutated whale cast in concrete. Kimberly had to turn away as the effect worsened, a nauseated look on her face. Twil pulled a grimace, and even I felt a little ill at the sight of this architectural violation.
Then the stairwell suddenly opened out, the interior walls fell away. Stairs still continued upward to the remaining floors, but around Praem a wide darkness yawned. She showed us what lay within, pointing her torch left and right.
“Holy shit,” Twil breathed.
“Shit is right, but there’s nothing holy here,” Evelyn grunted. “I think it’s five floors worth of space, semi-hollowed.”
Pieces of concrete wall and floor remained, but shot through with gaping, organic-looking holes and gaps, twisted into disturbingly biological shapes – ganglia and nerve bundles, sinews and cartilage – as if the building had tried to become part of a giant body, and failed. Steel rebar poked from shards of cracked wall, piles of concrete grit lay everywhere, shed as the structure had crumbled and buckled. Whatever this was, it had died – or failed to be born.
Praem strode into the space, up a sort of walkway of concrete, toward the centre of the cleared floors. She approached a corner, and the leading edge of her torch beam caught what could only be the heart of this place, a nexus of bunched imitation muscle-fibre, tendons, and nerves.
The core of this thing was not the grey of dead concrete, but distinctly crimson, and glistening.
“Stop,” Evelyn snapped. “Praem, stop there.” She turned to me, and sighed a deep sigh. “Heather. I think you should sit down. This is going to upset you the most.”
“What?” I blinked at her, then back at the view in the pool. My stomach turned over. “It’s not … no, it’s not Lozzie, it-”
“No, of course not. Bloody hell. I wouldn’t do that to you. If I’d found her, I would have … well, I wouldn’t do it like this.” She waved a hand. “Sit.”
“Okay, okay sure, I-”
Raine already had a chair for me, pulled from the table. I sat down, a little shaky, and Raine gave Evelyn a measured frown.
“Evee, drop the suspense act,” she said. “Heather’s plenty tough, but I don’t think any of us want to get surprised by something horrible, yeah?”
“It’s gruesome, yes, alright? Turn away if you’re suddenly feeling squeamish,” Evelyn said. “But that’s not the point. I just … I … look, if I just say it, you’ll all freak out. I need to show you the proof. He’s dead. Praem, go ahead.”
“He? Evee, who … ”
The question died in my throat, as Praem turned the final corner of knotted concrete. She walked the length of a projecting spar, up to the centre and purpose of this disgusting aberration, and played her torch over her discovery.
Like a heart – no, I corrected myself, like a tumour. Muscle fibres of frozen concrete converged on a central point, blood and meat colours fading in as they approached, as they wound around and merged with the figure in the middle. Minced flesh, spars of shattered bone, ribs exposed and cracked from awful crushing force, limbs clad in charred shreds. Head a burst melon, a few scraps of blonde hair clinging to flaps of scalp. Once-red blood was now dried and black, shiny like tiny beetles.
The wreckage cradled by a concrete harness was barely recognisable as a human being – let alone as Alexander Lilburne.
“But I killed him,” I breathed. A terrible, numb feeling came over me, an emotional violation. I’d dealt with becoming a murderer, and he was still here? My breath caught in my throat, stalling the more animal reaction to this awful sight. “I-”
“I was fukkin’ right!” Twil pointed at the image in the still water. “I called it!”
“No you didn’t, he’s dead,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Heather, listen to me. He’s dead.”
“Heather?” Raine squeezed my shoulder, hard, and put a hand on my forehead. “Heather, hey. Evee, dammit, you could have picked a better way than this.”
“What else was I supposed to do? You’d all have insisted on seeing the corpse anyway! We’d be playing Chinese whispers. At least this is fast.”
Their words didn’t make sense. I shook my head, staring at Alexander’s broken jaw and the glassy emptiness of his single remaining eyeball. I was vaguely aware of Kimberly hurrying out of the room, retching sounds coming from the kitchen.
“But I killed him. It’s not fair. It’s not-”
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. I jerked around to meet her eyes. “He’s dead, yes, you killed him. Well done.”
I stared at her for a moment. The words finally went in, even as paranoid scepticism rolled up for its turn at my strings. “How can you be sure? He’s a mage, he could be doing anything, he-”
“Does that look anything like alive, to you?” Evelyn thumbed at the human wreckage on display. “And I already had Praem check. No pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing. He’s stone cold, he- Praem? Praem, stop, you-”
Praem was walking the final few steps toward the mangled corpse. “Heather,” she intoned, and suddenly I knew exactly what she was doing, for me. She ignored Evelyn’s instruction, and lifted Alexander’s head with one hand. His dead, empty eyeball stared at nothing. Evelyn sighed.
“Point taken, thank you for the demonstration,” she grunted. “He’s dead. We won. He’s not coming back.” She waved her hand in front of my face. “You with us?”
“Evee,” I tutted at her, pulling myself back together. “I- yes, I- how did you expect me to react?”
“Like that, mostly,” Evelyn grunted.
“You’re fine, Heather, you’re fine.” Raine murmured, for me alone, and squeezed my shoulders.
I shook my head and sighed. My gaze drifted back over to the view through Praem’s eyes. She’d stepped away again, allowed the corpse’s head to droop. Alexander Lilburne looked like he’d been run over by a tank. “That’s what I did to him?”
“You killed him super dead,” Twil said, then frowned. “Why’s he not, you know, rotted an’ all?”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “I can only presume what we’re looking at right now is an attempt to prolong his life – a failed attempt. The flesh is preserved, but nothing else.”
“Yeah, I’m no doctor,” Raine said. “But that looks like major brain damage. His bone dome is cracked right open, I see brains. He dead.”
“Right,” Evelyn grunted. “His people must have brought him here, or maybe his big zombie did, as a sort of final act of devotion. Plugged himself into whatever the hell they were already working on, but it didn’t take. It wasn’t exactly guarded well, I can only assume they’ve abandoned him.”
“What was he doing? Turning himself into a building?” Twil asked.
“Heard of weirder fetishes,” Raine added, shrugging. “Maybe he was into that.”
“What?” Twil squinted at her. Raine laughed. Always trying to keep it light. How could she laugh at the sight of this?
“Evee,” I said, gently, carefully, while glancing at Twil. I doubted Evelyn wanted her to hear the details, but I had to ask this. “What if he was doing the same thing you mother tried to do?”
Evelyn’s eyebrows rose. She nodded, taking me seriously, thank God. “I already thought of that. It’s vanishingly unlikely he had access to the same resources she did. And anyway, he lacked the essential component: an emotionally and psychologically dominated close relative. You can’t just – poof.” She made a gesture from the side of her head. “Takes years of preparation. Lozzie’s a lot of things, I gather, but she’s not cowed or submissive. No.”
“Okay,” I nodded, trying to take a deep breath. “I’ll try not to worry about that part.”
“What’s this?” Twil asked, frowning.
“Never you mind,” Evelyn grunted. “S’personal.”
I noticed Kimberly peer carefully into the room again, her face pale and drawn. She turned away at the sight of her former master’s shattered corpse, but Evelyn wasn’t about to let her go. She raised her hand and clicked her fingers.
“Kimberly. Yes, you, I see you lurking there. Any idea what he was doing? Any insights to share?”
“N-none. I’m sorry, I-”
“You must have some idea. Use your brain. They were training you as a mage, you must have heard something. Part of a plan, an overheard conversation. Think.”
I opened my mouth to tell Evelyn off, to get her to ease off Kimberly, to tell Kim it was okay – but then I noticed an oddly familiar shape hanging in the darkness above Alexander’s corpse.
My blood went cold in my veins.
“Praem,” I said, my voice on autopilot. “Please … please step back a pace and pan the torch upward. And to the sides as well. There’s more.”
Praem moved the torch as directed. Evelyn frowned at me, at the shake in my voice, and then she saw what I saw. We all saw it.
Above and to both sides of Alexander’s shattered corpse, his followers, his cultists, whoever had put him here, had drawn a trio of identical murals on large flat pieces of uncorrupted concrete. Daubed in charcoal or tar, black dried flaking blood, and a brown substance I’d rather not speculate on.
Each mural showed a single great lidless eye. Black. Expressionless. Six feet wide. They all gazed at a point in front of the body, as if positioned to regard a supplicant or worshipper before this twisted altar.
Graffiti, drawn in natural – if abnormal – materials. That was all. Nothing special. But somehow this urban cave art captured the faintest echo of the unspeakable feeling, the unyielding, crushing attention. For a split-second I was a child again, naked in the dark, my skin and flesh and neurons and atoms peeled back by the watching of the Eye.
Then the feeling passed. A memory of trauma, sinking back into the abyss.
Just murals – horrible ones. Placed there by a supernatural cult.
“I didn’t see these before,” Evelyn muttered, leaning forward, brow knotted. “I was so focused on the corpse I didn’t see them. Praem, step closer, get me a better look. Do not touch them.”
“I-I don’t recognise those,” Kimberly hurried to say. “I don’t, I swear.”
“It’s the Eye,” I managed to say, my throat closing up. “It’s art, of the Eye.”
“Heather, it’s okay, it can’t hurt you. It’s okay,” Raine murmured. She squeezed my shoulders, tried to keep me from getting lost in my own memories.
“Could be a coincidence,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.
“No. No it’s the Eye, it is. I can tell, I-”
“Alright, okay. I believe you,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t know if that helps us figure out what he was doing, though.”
“He must have … he made contact … he … I don’t know.”
“They magical? They do anything?” Twil asked.
Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I don’t see any magic circles, no workings connected to them. Nothing. They’re just … art.”
I nodded, trying to let go. “What if the cult … what if … ”
“If they made contact with your ‘Eye’?” Evelyn finished for me. “I don’t know. What I do know is we destroy this place, tonight, and smash those images.”
“Burn it down,” Raine said.
“Oh, please,” I said.
“A tower fire is easy, if we get enough petrol in there.”
“It’s ninety percent stripped,” Evelyn said. “There’s nothing to burn.”
“At least this doesn’t have anything to do with Lozzie, does it?” I asked.
Evelyn took a moment, then shrugged. That didn’t fill me with hope. “Certain kinds of magic are stronger when family is involved – blood family, I mean. I doubt very much it’s a coincidence that the brother is enmeshed in this … this,” she waved a hand at the whole awful concrete mutation. “And the sister is wandering around with some Outsider living in her head. This is connected. We need to clear the place out, the upper floors may contain more nasty surprises, or hopefully some way to find who put him here, somebody we can beat until they tell us what we want.”
“Bloody right,” Raine said.
“That’s what my little nasty back there is for.” Evelyn thumbed over her shoulder at the shadow-creature in the magic circle at the back of the room. “Three or four of them, clear the whole place out, the upper floors, and burn Alexander’s corpse, yes, to be sure. Just in case. Can never be too careful. Praem, time to leave again.”
“Hold up,” Twil said. “Why not be sure right now?”
“What do you mean?” Evelyn grunted at her.
Twil looked at the pool, at Alexander’s limp corpse, then back at Evelyn. She gestured with both hands, as if it was obvious. “Pull his fukkin’ head off.”
“Pull it off,” Praem echoed from the other side of the water.
“Yes, please, please do,” I added. Raine snorted. “Make sure he’s dead.”
“ … sometimes, you big dumb mutt,” Evelyn said. “I really like how you think.” She favoured Twil with a nasty smile. “You heard her, Praem. Twist his head off.”
“Mind your sleeves on the blood,” I said, trying to focus on anything except what those eyes might mean.
Praem held the torch between her teeth. The circle of light jerked as she grabbed the sides of Alexander’s head – his corpse’s head, I reminded myself, that is a corpse – put her back into it, and twisted.
A dry crunch, the sound of tearing meat. His neck put up little fight against Praem’s inhuman strength. I squeezed my eyes shut. I hated the man, but I couldn’t watch that. Kimberly made a pained noise in her throat and turned away. Twil winced and let out a little ‘urgh’. Evelyn sighed, trying to conceal the way she turned green in the face.
“That’s him done then,” Raine said. When I turned back, Praem was holding up Alexander’s severed head in one hand, pointing the torch at it with her other.
“Done,” Praem echoed.
It wasn’t much of a head, with the skull cracked and the jaw broken and teeth missing and one eyeball burned away. I tried not to dwell on the threads of tendon and tail-like spine dangling from the neck. His remaining eye was stuck looking up and to the left, forever.
He deserved this. An evil man, come to an evil end.
“Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” I whispered.
“What?” Twil blinked at me.
“I’m going to guess that was Shakespeare,” Evelyn said. “Mm?”
“Yes. Hamlet. It seemed … appropriate, that’s all.”
“Oh. Poetry? Right.”
“Quite right,” Evelyn grunted. “That’s him done. Even my mother wouldn’t have survived a good guillotining. Dump that skull and come on home, Praem.”
In the moment the head began to tilt from Praem’s hand, Kimberly was still turned away, Raine must have been looking at my face, and Twil had glanced upward.
That saved them.
Evelyn and I were not so lucky.
I saw it because I was still staring at his eyeball, thinking about what I’d become by taking on responsibility for this. Evelyn saw it because she was directing Praem.
As Alexander’s severed head fell from Praem’s hand, it passed through the precise intersection point of the invisible gazes of those three eye-murals.
Behind that glassy, dead eye, embedded in its bruised, puffy socket, I saw a ripple of motion. The settling of a vast underwater bulk, as seen through a tiny porthole. It reminded me of what I’d witnessed moving behind the eyes of Twil’s mother – a passenger inside a human mind, but unlike that one. A vast, dark attention turned on us. A split-second was all it needed.
Alexander Lilburne was dead – but nobody said an Outsider needed an intact human brain.
The attack – and in light of what unfolded in those remaining thin hours before sunrise, I do believe it was an attack – was quick and sharp. Pain blossomed inside my head, in my frontal lobe, through the vector of my own sight. I think I screamed, clamped my hands to my skull, and fell out of my chair.
For a few moments I knew nothing but darkness and pain. Awareness returned slowly with a throbbing intensity, my thoughts struggling up through thick tar, everything muffled and too loud at the same time, panicked voices, hands on my shoulders. I sat up suddenly as if freed from a net, panting, my heart racing.
Raine took my head firmly in both hands, and peered into my eyes. She glanced over her shoulder and back, saying something – Twil’s name, a command to calm down, muffled by the pounding of my own blood in my ears.
An awful keening sound filled the air, interrupted by a repeating heavy thump; the summoned thing in the magic circle at the back of the room was going berserk, throwing itself at its invisible cage over and over, clawing and hissing and spitting, a mass of whipping black limbs and boiling dark fog. Kimberly was over there, snatches of terrified Latin drifting across the room as she fumbled with a book.
Raine peered into my eyes again, and I realised I’d never seen her so worried before. For once, she couldn’t hide it.
“Heather. Heather, you with us? Oh, thank fuck.”
“Yes- yes, Raine, I- it was-”
“It’s okay, it’ll be okay. You were out cold for a few minutes there. How many fingers?”
“ … two. Now three. Raine, what-”
The image in the paddling pool had gone out. Just water.
Evelyn had been a few inches further forward than I. She’d taken the brunt. She must have slid out of her chair. Twil had caught her before she hit the floor, and now held her gingerly, wide-eyed, clearly with no idea what to do.
Evelyn was unconscious, her breathing erratic and laboured, eyes rolling under their lids, blood-flecked froth on her lips.
“Why won’t she wake up? Come on, Saye, why won’t you wake up?”
“I don’t get this. She’s always so fucking stubborn. How can she be out like this? E- … Evee?” Twil grabbed one of Evelyn’s shoulders and shook her gently.
“Twil,” Raine snapped. Twil rounded on her, turning away from Evelyn’s unconscious form laid out on the sofa, baring her teeth in a growl. “Give her some room. Don’t crowd her.”
Twil straightened up, still baring her teeth. “Oh yeah? Like that’s gonna work? She won’t fucking wake up, Raine! She’s in a fucking coma!”
“I’m thinking,” Raine said.
We’d done what we could. Or rather, Raine and Twil had. More than enough muscle between them to lift Evelyn onto the sofa and make her comfortable. Raine had fumbled around under Evelyn’s skirt to remove her prosthetic leg, in case she’d hurt herself somehow. Her breathing had stabilised but her eyes twitched and flickered as if she was in deep REM sleep.
Almost half an hour later, we couldn’t wake her.
I was able to sit upright, hunched in a chair, but I felt awful, as if a fist had reached into my head and punched me in the brain, left me weak and woozy. If I hadn’t been so scared for Evelyn – not to mention Praem – I would have happily curled up in bed and passed out for twelve hours.
If I hadn’t been so terrified.
“Thinking, fuck. We need to do something.” Twil cast about, settled on Kimberly. “Kim, come on, don’t you know anything? Isn’t there some magic you can do, or … ”
Twil trailed off as Kimberly shook her head. She looked almost as bad as Evelyn, slumped against one wall, a thin trickle of bloody drool leaking from one side of her mouth.
None of us knew exactly what had happened with the smoky-dark creature Evelyn had summoned. Perhaps her control had broken when she’d been knocked unconscious, or perhaps it was trying to protect her. The latter seemed unlikely. Whatever the cause, the thing had gone feral. Not one of us had known what to do, except let it free and have Twil or the Spider-servitor rip it apart, but for all we knew that might not work.
Kimberly, with her tissue-paper knowledge and abuse-learnt skills, had stepped in, cringing and terrified of the very thing she was trying to banish. I suspected she’d only succeeded because Evelyn’s notes and books were nearby, already open to the relevant pages, but that didn’t diminish the act of courage. The magic circle was empty now. She’d been spitting blood into a wad of tissues since – the words had hurt her mouth and throat.
“I’ll fucking kill him all over again, fucking Alexander, I fucking will,” Twil said through gritted teeth.
“It wasn’t him,” I said. My voice felt thin and weak. “It was something inside him. It was the Eye. It was those murals, the graffiti.”
“It’ll be okay,” Raine said, squeezing my shoulder. “It can’t get us here, it can’t do that again.”
I shook my head. She didn’t know anything, no more than I did.
“Oh yeah?” Twil spread her arms. With every fury-driven word she looked less and less human, wisps and fragments of her wolfish transformation gathering to her arms and face. “Crush that fucking severed head of his, I bet that would work. Fuck, are we just gonna sit around? We need to take Evelyn to a hospital, now, call an ambulance or something. Come on!”
“That might not be a bad idea,” I said, nodding my agreement, clutching for any shred of normality here.
“And what do we tell the doctors?” Raine asked. She wouldn’t look away from Evelyn, staring, frowning.
“Tell them fucking whatever!” Twil spat.
“And what if they can’t help her?” Raine shook her head. “No, we need a mage.”
“ … we … we could take her to my family.” Twil swallowed. “My mother, she’ll get this, she knows stuff. There’s gotta be something they can do.”
“Not sure we trust your family, not with Evee.”
“Fuck you!” Twil shouted at her.
“Twil, please, stop,” I said, but I had no steel left for my voice. The Eye, it was the Eye. It had gotten to Alexander, somehow – how? He’d known about my sister, hadn’t he? He’d know about Maisie. He’d made contact, somehow? My mind whirled. I couldn’t stop shaking.
“If you’re just going to stand there, I’ll take her back to Brinkwood myself.” Twil bent down toward Evelyn, preparing to lift her.
“I said, I’m thinking.”
Twil froze. Kimberly stared at Raine, spooked-animal style. A tremor of adrenaline shuddered through me. Raine had crammed such threat into those four simple words, without moving a single muscle. Twil straightened up, slowly, staring at Raine as if she couldn’t believe her ears. She bared her teeth and let out a growl, a deep, thrumming sound. Raine finally looked away from Evelyn’s unconscious form, and met the eyes of a very angry werewolf.
“This time last year you would have been happy to see her dead,” Raine murmured.
“Yeah, well things change, don’t they?” Twil thumped her own chest with one hand. “We’re fucking friends now, and that means something to me, yeah?”
“Good. ‘Cos we’re gonna need some of that. I’m not your enemy here, big bad wolf, but the one thing you’re not doing is carrying Evee out of this house.”
“I don’t believe you, Raine. Still, you don’t fucking trust me? Now?!”
“Raine, it’s Twil,” I managed to murmur.
Raine shook her head. “Trust’s got nothing to do with it. I’m cool with you these days, you’re with us, you know that. Drop the anger. I don’t like to admit it, but we’re real vulnerable right now. You get me?”
Twil blinked at her. Claws faded back into human hands. “What?”
“Evelyn’s always been her own best asset. Not me, not her reputation, not even this house – which, right now, might be the only thing keeping her safe. If this was a trap, a set-up by the cult-”
“It was the Eye,” I hissed.
“Yeah, maybe it was.” Raine glanced down at me, tried a smile. For once, it didn’t land. “Maybe that’s what the cult’s doing now. They might have a line on her, know she’s helpless. Might be on the way here. I don’t think they’re stupid enough for that, but they might. And this house – the wards, the servitors, everything her family left here – is the only barrier we’ve got. Following me now?”
Twil stared for a moment, then cast about as if lost. She nodded and scratched wildly at her own head. “The hell do we do then? Wait for her to wake up?”
“Could wait for Praem,” Raine said. “But being realistic … don’t think she’s coming home.”
I felt a sob catch in the back of my throat.
“That’s it then?” Twil said. “We just fucking wait?”
“No, I said I was thinking.” Raine nodded at Evelyn. “There is one person who’d drop everything and come running to help her. Evee’ll kill me for it, but I can make a phone call, and I think we’d all rather have her awake and breathing fire, yeah?”
“Who are you talking about?” I asked, confused.
“Remember back when we were trying to figure out Tenny? Remember the phone calls, the other mages? Remember Felicity?”
“ … a little. Vaguely. I thought she was dangerous?”
“Not to Evee, not in that way. Long story. I’ll get my phone. If I tell her what happened, she’ll be here by nightfall.”
“Nightfall?” Twil gaped. “Fuck, Raine, that’s too long. I can’t- I have to- shit. Fuck it, I’m going. I’m gonna smash that bastard’s skull apart.”
None of us could have stopped her. Kimberly couldn’t even rise to her feet without shaking. By the time I managed to get myself out of the chair and through the kitchen, Twil was already in the front room, shoving her arms into her coat and stamping into her shoes.
“Twil, I’ve never asked you for much, but right now we need you here,” Raine was saying. “The house gets hit, we’re gonna need you. You care about Evee? She needs you here.”
“I can run to Glasswick in fifteen minutes!” Twil all but shouted in her face. “Up the stairs in five, thirty seconds to find the head, and then-” She swung a fist into her own palm. “And then she wakes up. Right?”
“What if it gets you too?” Raine asked. “Only thing spared us is we weren’t looking.”
“I’m fucking invincible, remember?” Twil clacked her knuckles against her own head. “Like to see ‘em try.”
“It won’t make any difference,” I heard myself say.
Twil blinked at me. Her determined expression collapsed. “I gotta do something. I don’t want her to die, I … she … You lot’ll be safe for fifteen minutes. Come on, you’ve got a gun, right?”
“Yeah … yeah I have,” Raine murmured. “Twil, please, hey-”
But Twil wasn’t listening anymore. She unlatched the front door and bolted into the night like a racehorse, more wolf than human. She vaulted the garden wall, and sped off into the darkness, footfalls echoing in early morning hours of Sharrowford before dawn. Cold tendrils of air reached my face, but I couldn’t shiver any harder.
“Raine,” I whined.
Raine stared after Twil, then quickly shut and locked the door. “Wait here,” she said, and hopped up the stairs, three at a time. She returned as quickly as she’d left, the matte black threat of her pistol in one hand, a sheathed knife in the other. “I should go after her. I really should go after her,” she said, grinning. “But no way I’m leaving you and Evee here alone.” She tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pajamas – a image I’d probably never forget – and pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. “I’m gonna make the call now. This might get weird, you don’t have to listen.”
“I … Raine … ” I swallowed, terrified, but I knew what I had to do. “I have an idea.”
Raine’s eyebrows climbed. “Heather?”
“I want to try to use brainmath – hyperdimensional mathematics – to wake Evee up. Break whatever’s been done to her.”
Raine lowered her phone. “You think you can do that?”
I shrugged, and my voice shook a little. “I have no idea. In theory, I can do anything, if I can endure the pain. It’ll hurt, it might go wrong, I’ll … I’ll definitely pass out, but it’s worth trying. Isn’t it?”
“Heather, hey,” Raine tucked her phone and the knife away, and then gave me a hug. Goodness, I needed that. She wrapped her arms around me and for a moment I felt that tiny little bit better, that shred of safety in the one place I’d found real security in life. She sighed. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself too”
“It’s worth trying.”
“Okay, okay, I get it, yeah.” She pulled back, glanced at the kitchen door. Kimberly was bracing herself against the doorframe. “Kim, you holding up alright?”
“I think so,” Kimberly croaked. “May I … may I get some water?”
“’Course you can. We’re gonna try to wake Saye. We might need you nearby, I don’t know, this isn’t my-”
The room echoed with a knocking on the front door. All three of us stopped and stared.
“It’s Twil, she came back,” I said.
“Maybe.” Raine stepped away from me and drew her gun, held it low, in both hands. She transformed in a split-second, from comforting softness to whipcord-tight tension in every muscle. “Both of you get in the kitchen, behind a wall. Somebody watch Evee.”
“Raine, be careful.”
“Careful’s not in my vocab. I’ll try,” she hissed. She stalked toward the front door, but kept herself off to one side, listening to the deafening silence. Kimberly put a hand on my arm, tried to encourage me to hide with her.
Knock knock knock.
Raine pointed her gun at the door.
“That you back with us, Twil?” she called out.
The reply came after a long silent pause, as if the speaker had to think very carefully about how to form words, how to use its lungs and larynx, mouth and tongue. It didn’t do a very good job.
“Open up, open up, three little piggies,” it said, in a nightmare imitation of Lozzie’s voice.
Things seem to have gone very bad very quickly!
Far quicker than anybody’s ability to control events!
Well, this is extremely bad…
An understatement, indeed.
I doubted Evelyn wanted her to her the details,
her to her -> her to hear
Thank you for spotting that one! You seem to have an eagle eye for proofreading errors.
Well, at least they found not-Lozzie. Who can’t count – there are four piggies. Time to vote, Time to vote, one little vote http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=katalepsis
Perhaps she’s not counting on the presence of a particular person. Or perhaps counting doesn’t come naturally to those who hail from Outside of reality.
Ah,one of the oldest tricks in the book: Booby-trapped bodies.
Its taken out Evelyn,and worse,Fake-Lozzie’s is pouncing on the gang while they’re vulnerable. Its also sad that Parem is out,or was it just one of her bodies?
An old and despicable trick!
As for Praem, she lost the double-body in the mayhem of the cult’s castle. However, even with only one physical body, she is quite robust.
worst ding dong ditch ever
That made me laugh for a reason I can’t yet disclose!
(I wonder if there are Outside cleaning/maid services, because the house is probably about to be trashed)
(Does Praem count?)
(…Yes. More Praem-Maid please!)
“What if he was doing the same thing you mother tried to do?” … your
Scary trouble now…
Well spotted! All these old typos nobody usually notices, they slip past so many proofreads.
Gosh I really love all the descriptions of the tower and Alexander’s remains. Also please call Fecility, we must expand the disaster lesbian polycule
Oh dear lord. Lozzie, please be okay, and everyone else too just what the fuck is this thing ;-;
Scary! That’s what it is.
This chapter highlights an interesting tension between the things the story is trying to do with its fantastical elements.
On the one hand, we have the escapist fantasy. Our good guys include a witch, a werewolf, and an embodied demon who likes dressing up in a maid outfit. A lot of people who read fantasy would like to imagine themselves as one of those things, whether for exciting adventures or for how useful it would be in mundane situations. In-universe, Twil at least clearly gets a kick out of how awesome her powers are.
On the other hand, we have the cosmic horror: magic as something alien and scary. The protagonists of traditional cosmic horror stories often lack supernatural powers themselves; characters that do have powers tend to be either tragic or villainous, sometimes both. You, the reader, do not want to live in that universe.
Katalepsis, in my opinion, manages this tension extremely well, using a couple of techniques.
The first is that magic tends to come with a price tag – not just “a diamond worth 100gp”, but something that hurts. Pronouncing magic words causes the caster to bleed from the mouth; hyperdimensional mathematics cause headaches and nausea; the most powerful magics we’ve seen are fuelled by human sacrifice. It’s never something casual, or something that an average person would do just for kicks.
The second is that the characters’ understanding of magic is sharply limited, even the characters who are most learned – who tend to be dangerously overconfident, presumably because sensible people in a universe like this don’t become wizards. A lot of stories pay lip service to this idea, but Katalepsis gives it real teeth by repeatedly making magic-users pay for their overconfidence: Alexander terminally underestimated Heather, Evee’s mum terminally underestimated the cunning of the thing she was trying to interrogate (and her own daughter), and so on.
What makes this really work is that the protagonists are not exempt. Way back in Arc 1, Evee opens a viewing portal to Wonderland, blithely assures Heather that it is one-way, and is proven totally wrong five minutes later. In this chapter, she dismisses the eye graffiti as non-magical only to be proven wrong, again, in the same scene. Both mistakes come with genuine “Oh Crap” moments for the characters and the reader.
(Not that it does her much good, but Evee’s language this time around – “I don’t believe so” – is slightly more cautious than it was at the beginning of the story. Perhaps she’s learning, slowly.)
This is great! It’s surprisingly rare for authors to really make their characters pay for their mistakes. It’s even rarer for authors to remember to make the designated magic-exposition character fallible in their own area of expertise. But this story shows that it’s definitely worth it.
Thank you very much for this analysis, it’s really gratifying to see that what I’ve attempted to do in Katalepsis comes across so clearly. One of the main challenges I set myself when I started the story was to attempt a successful blend of the two styles – urban fantasy, and cosmic horror – with an added dash of deconstructing the notion of a well-understood and well-charted magic system embedded in a secret second-layer society.
That’s one of the things I decided on very early; magic in a cosmic horror setting should be truly beyond human comprehension, interpreted piecemeal by overconfident people, and impossible to fully chart out. Everything we see in the story is just people interpreting the unknowable cosmos, trying to apply labels and systems that ultimately it will not fit inside. Even Heather’s “hyperdimensional mathematics” is her way of applying human concepts to something fundamentally inhuman and not knowable. The only true way to know it is to stop being human.
And yes, the protagonists are never exempt! They might have some plot armour here and there perhaps, but they’re all just people in the end. Poor Evelyn is slowly learning the price of her overconfidence.
Thank you! I take that as a great compliment, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the story so far!