A folded note, lying on a glass coffee table, in a cramped, ugly, dusty little sitting room. I’d never seen this place before. Another Slip gone wrong had spat me out, another sideways shunt from the intended path, another rebound off the membrane between reality and Outside.
My name was on the note. Not handwritten. Printed.
To Heather Morell.
Paranoia was correct all along. Lozzie hadn’t made a mistake with the Slip to the hotel, she hadn’t tripped up and let go of me before reaching Jan’s room, she hadn’t done a single thing incorrect. My name on the note proved that. Somebody had interfered with the Slip. Somebody had plucked us apart from each other, with misdirection or brute force or unknowable magic. And that somebody didn’t just want Lozzie.
I’d been so concerned about the possibility of Edward kidnapping Lozzie, that I hadn’t considered I might be the target.
I stared at the letter on the little glass coffee table, my mind racing like an overheating engine.
What was the purpose of that first interruption, when Lozzie and I had translocated to the hotel, and I’d appeared in the corridor? A test run? A proof-of-concept before the real thing? A mistake, an accidental tipping of my assailant’s hand? A warning shot? Or had it been a misfire, a dud, a failure?
Oh yes indeed, this was a failure, very much so.
Whoever or whatever had done this to me — plucked me away from my route home and deposited me in some unknown place, far from my friends, alone and off-balance — they’d blown their chance. I’d already withstood the fear and the anxiety once today. I hadn’t acknowledged it at the time, the lingering toxic beast of post-traumatic stress disorder, the flashback I’d suffered in that unassuming and tasteful hotel corridor. I’d re-lived a moment of that horrible experience of handcuffs and bare concrete and credible threats, exhausted and caked in blood and afraid for my friends.
I don’t know a lot about neurochemistry and trauma. Maybe it was like a refractory period. Maybe I was just angry. Maybe the note on the table gave me clarity.
This time, the trauma rolled off my back like a shower of lead weights, heavy but loose, crashing to the ground. I spread my tentacles out wide, vibrating with muscle tension, ready to grab and constrict and flush my flesh with toxins lethal to anything I might touch. I let my reactor run hot, dumping energy into my core, ready to power me through brain-math at a flicker of thought. I even yanked my left sleeve up, to expose the Fractal.
I took a deep breath, and allowed abyssal instinct to fill my throat with a long, loud, furious hiss.
That hiss must have carried through brick and plaster. If anybody was waiting to ambush me, I hoped that sound made them wet themselves.
Truth be told, there weren’t actually any good hiding places in the weird dusty little sitting room where I’d landed, but that’s where abyssal instinct went first — checking corners for lurking predators, looking behind the ugly floral sofas for crouching people, and peering beneath the coffee table, just in case. My tentacles flickered out, searching for hidden packages, wires, magic circles, anything and everything that might be used as a trap.
Nothing. Nobody there. Abyssal instinct retreated, gave me space to think.
My bioreactor was still running hot, but easing down. If I had needed antibodies to fight off some kind of infection, then they’d done their work and denatured back into other compounds. If I’d been under attack, it was over. I was safe, for now, for a given value of ‘safe’.
I ignored the letter for a moment. Where was I, really?
The sitting room was cramped and oddly-shaped, like it had been converted from something else. A long, low step ran across the middle of the floor, splitting the room into two levels. Beams in the ceiling, like a converted farm building. Was I at Twil’s house? No, the air didn’t smell right, not like Twil’s home at all. I sniffed deep. Cleaning fluids and dust, like a holiday home that had never truly been lived in. Fake, unreal, a hollow shell of a house.
The brick fireplace was conspicuously clean as well, scrubbed of any actual soot a long time ago, then left to gather dust. Every surface was covered in that dust, all except the note on the table.
No pneuma-somatic life. That could mean something, but I wasn’t sure what. Was the building warded?
A door stood in one corner of the room, thick naked wood with an absurd and ornate black iron handle, like it was cosplaying as a castle door. The light fixture in the ceiling lacked a bulb, leaving the room drenched in cave-like shadows. Two windows high up on one side provided almost no light, as small and cramped as everything else. My legs felt like jelly as I crept over to the windows. I had to go up on tiptoes to peer outdoors, with my tentacles pushing the ground to give me another two inches of height.
Beyond the window glass, maybe three or four feet away, was a bare metal chicken-wire fence. To the left and right I could see scaffolding poles, supporting the fence. The metal reached upward further than I could see, though I spotted a hint of thatched roof. The building was wrapped in a cage. How odd.
An overgrown garden rambled in summer glory on the other side of the wire, too deep and too thick to see a wall or a fence. I spotted a rusty old swing seat, a few cracked lines of moss-eaten grey which might have been pathways, and a hint of another building past the bushes and long grass. A couple of very tall trees stood silent and unmoving under the baking sun, old and gnarled and wreathed in all their green finery. I couldn’t see the sun itself from inside, but the light was hot and burning, and the shadows were long. Late afternoon.
Was I still in England? Why was the building wrapped in chicken-wire? Was I caged?
I wanted to hiss again, but I swallowed the impulse and managed to stay quiet. Maybe they — they being Edward’s cultists, I wasn’t kidding myself — didn’t know where I was.
The note suggested otherwise. I crept back toward the glass table and carefully picked up the piece of paper with one of my tentacles, braced for trickery. The paper did not explode or try to suck my soul out through my eyeballs or turn into a giant frog that sang curses to make me die of melancholy. I lifted it closer, unfolded the note, and found more printed text.
“Please proceed to the kitchen. It is located on the first floor, at the rear of the house. If you arrive downstairs, simply follow the corridor. If you arrive upstairs, locate the stairs and proceed down. Watch your head on the beam at the foot of the stairs, I am told it is a bit low.
My apologies for the imprecision of this method. I do not know in which room you might arrive. I have placed an identical note in every room of this house.
You will not be stopped or challenged. I have laid no traps. You are free to leave if you so wish, nothing bars your way, but I beg a moment of your attention. Feel free to take your time.
Please proceed to the kitchen.”
The note wasn’t signed.
I read it three times, but I only grew more puzzled. If this was an attempt to kidnap and capture me, why not dump me straight into a magic circle designed to contain me, or into an actual cage? Instead I was unbound and prepared, forewarned and ready for a fight.
Lozzie. Of course.
With shaking hands, I pulled out my mobile phone. If Lozzie had also been taken, then this was all just a distraction to slow me down.
My phone showed no signal. Out of range. No service.
A sudden horrible suspicion gnawed inside my gut, like a trapped rat in my entrails. Was I Outside? Or was this the home of Felicity, beyond mobile phone signal, as she’d explained to me only a few hours earlier? I hissed between my teeth, consciously channelling fear into irritation — the moment I stopped being angry, I would start shaking. Well, shaking worse than I already was. I swallowed a hiccup, jabbing at my phone screen, sliding through menus.
“Yes!” I panted with relief.
Two wifi networks were within range. The signals were weak, but there they were, proof. Both were the kind you needed passwords for — one was a BT wifi hotspot, and the other was a private network named ‘MisterMuscle6942080085’, which I seriously doubted belonged to Edward. The signal was too weak to be coming from inside the building, anyway. It must have been a nearby neighbour.
So, I was in reality, still in Britain somewhere, and not inside some kind of magical dead zone for hiding houses.
Was this Edward’s house?
I crumpled the note in a tentacle, trying to think.
Nobody knew where I was — including myself. Lozzie had proven several times over that she was capable of tracking me almost anywhere. She’d Slipped me out of Wonderland, though she’d had help from Maisie to find me there, but I was in our reality right now. So something was blocking her from finding me, or she was restrained or unconscious or worse. Good thing I’d messaged Raine before we’d left Jan’s hotel room; she and Evelyn would at least know something was wrong.
I swallowed hard, feeling a quiver inside my chest. My breath came out in a horrible shudder.
Abyssal instinct was pulling me in two directions at the same time; part of me was screaming to run away, get out of here, go. Don’t follow the instructions, don’t try to find the kitchen, like the letter oh-so-politely requested of me. If I couldn’t Slip, then pull out one of the window frames, climb through the hole, rip the chicken-wire. Run.
Maybe if I tried to Slip out, something would stop me. But I didn’t try, because I didn’t know if I could return again. The previous interrupted Slip had not placed Lozzie and I very far apart from each other. Maybe she was here, close by.
I could not abandon Lozzie. I’d sooner cut off my hands.
“Keep yourself together,” I hissed. “She might need you.”
I strained my ears. Distant birdsong, somewhere beyond the walls. No screaming or thumping coming from other rooms or through the ceiling. Dead quiet. I couldn’t even hear any cars. Not surprising if this place was totally beyond the range of any mobile towers.
“Move,” I whispered. “Come on, Heather. You’ve been in much worse places. Move, move. Move!”
I made for the big wooden door, padding softly across the carpet. The pretentious wrought-iron handle turned easily. The hinges creaked, but only a little.
Beyond the door was a short corridor, turning left and right at the end. Salmon-coloured wallpaper, white tiles for the floor. Several unimaginative still-life pictures hung on the walls. Recessed lights in the ceiling, currently switched off. The sunlight didn’t quite penetrate this far, leaving the corridor wreathed in gloom.
I crept out of the sitting room. My socks met cold tiles. I winced and curled up my toes.
Should have worn some shoes. Nothing to make one feel vulnerable like exposed soles in a strange place, with only a thin layer of sock between oneself and the cold.
I wished I’d brought my squid-skull helmet. I had no idea what to do with my hands, except to keep the Fractal exposed. I held it outward as I crept along.
“This house better not be absolute nonsense,” I whispered. “I am not dealing with another stupid maze.”
Either the house was suitably cowed by my simmering anger, or I’d gotten lucky. It was no maze, supernatural or otherwise. At the end of the corridor I found a front door to my left, and more corridor to my right. It snaked off into the house, but it didn’t loop back on itself or vanish into the ground or turn upside down.
Lozzie was not in the first room I passed — a laundry room of some kind, short and squat, smelling of sea and sand — nor in the second, a long formal dining room with a faux-fancy table and a bunch of ornate chairs which probably cost a lot more than they were worth. The mysterious note-writer was true to their word: identical notes lay waiting in each of the rooms, placed so as to catch the eye of even the most casual observer. I even found another note folded at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Carpeted stairs, leading up and around in a little spiral, cramped and awkward.
Somebody really wanted me in that kitchen.
Still no pneuma-somatic life anywhere, not even any diminutive spirits scuttling out of my way or nesting in the corners. I passed a few windows, but saw nothing except overgrown garden and a hint of a gravel driveway. That chicken-wire cage seemed to encase the whole house, three or four feet out from the walls. I spotted a couple of doors in the fence, also made of wire, leading outward. They weren’t padlocked or bolted, just closed.
This was far more spooky than the Scooby-Doo house which Hringewindla had summoned by accident. This was the real thing, empty and baffling. A possessed alpaca with bloody teeth would have been a relief. A lightning crash, a howling storm, anything. But there was only silence and that slow-burning, late-afternoon sunlight.
I couldn’t stand it.
At the bottom of those stairs, I filled my lungs and flared my tentacles wide.
“Lozzie!” I yelled at the top of my voice. “Lozzie!”
My shout didn’t even echo. The house was too small and twisty to catch my words and howl them back. I stayed very still for several seconds, waiting for a distant thump or muffled scream, or the slap of running feet, or the growl of an unseen watcher. But all I heard was distant birdsong under the pitiless sun.
“All right then,” I said out loud. I sounded so much more confident than I felt. My heart was fluttering, in the bad way. “Kitchen it is.”
I found the kitchen at the very end of the snaking corridor, next to a back door that led out into the garden, which was all peeling paint and half-glass, so I could see the overgrown lawn and wild flowerbeds as I approached. A pair of double doors stood wide open in the side of the corridor, inviting me into the kitchen of this strange and empty house.
Not so empty after all, as I quickly discovered.
The kitchen in this cramped old house was massive, by far the largest single room I’d discovered. Sunlight fell through a bank of high windows, flooding across a wide floor of slate-coloured tiles, sending questing fingers of afternoon glow up the stone counter tops and over the old-school wooden cabinets. Warm, bright, airy, with a high ceiling far above my head. No table, no chairs, no rubbish bin, no food, no cutlery, no evidence of people living here. Perhaps it had once been an entire dwelling; perhaps the rest of the building was added later, modern grafts to some core of ancient cottage.
Three things were waiting for me.
A machine: beneath the bank of windows, in the shadow of the wall, about as tall as a desk chair. It was like a cross between a cat-scratching post and a traffic light, made of stainless steel, a little tree of angled mirrors and coloured glass. Each mirror or circle of glass was mounted on an articulated arm, each one pointed in a different direction. The core of the machine was no thicker than my arm, but wires ran from a base of stainless steel to a set of compact LCD screens laid out on the floor, along with an open laptop. The screens were full of jumbled nonsense. The laptop had crashed; the screen was just a picture of frozen static. A faint smell of burnt circuitry hung in the air.
A monster: on the other side of the room, a nightmare creature squatted inside a magic circle. The circle was drawn with black pen, precise and without ornamentation, on a patch of whitewashed floor, to ensure no mistakes. The creature was like something dredged from the bottom of an alien sea. Built like a gorilla, muscled and heavy, it must have weighed easily five hundred pounds. Skin like grey meat, smooth and papery, dotted with curving spines like sensory hairs. Bare skull, bulging at the rear. A massive jaw jutted forward, showing a double-row of razor-sharp teeth, like an angler fish. Three blunt fingers on each paw, each ending in a long ragged grey claw. Eyes as big as saucers — and no, that’s not hyperbole, the thing had eyes about six inches across, and pure black, built for the ocean depths. It watched me as I stepped inside, expressionless and vacant as only something from a deep place can be.
And a man.
I’d never gotten a chance to see Edward Lilburne up close the previous two times I’d encountered him face-to-face. The first was in that deserted underground car park where we’d chased Maisie’s messenger demon — Edward had been little more than a lumpy figure half-glimpsed by torchlight, amid the dripping concrete and mad panic of our first meeting with the Sharrowford Cult. The second time had been during the ‘peace conference’ at the pub, where he’d sent his lawyer to negotiate with us, while he’d hidden inside some kind of artificial re-creation of one of his own magical underlings, remote-piloting an artificial shell. I’d seen his face only briefly as the mask had melted away, a moment of recognition, but the man himself had not been present for us to kill or capture.
But it was him. I had no doubt.
Old, in his seventies or eighties, and not at all well-preserved. His face was pale and bloodless, craggy and liver-spotted like a landscape worked over by too many frosts. He had thick, bushy grey eyebrows like dead caterpillars, a nose pocked like a moonscape, and very thin lips. Stringy grey hair hung down either side of a pair of wire-frame glasses, showing a huge bald area on top of his head. He wore a shapeless coat, a practical thing, a hiker’s coat, dark brown and full of pockets.
He was sitting in a rickety old wooden armchair on the far side of the wide kitchen floor. A plastic and metal walking stick hung from one of the arms. The huge owlish eyes behind his glasses were closed, peaceful and relaxed.
Edward Lilburne was fast asleep.
He was also protected inside a much larger magic circle than the one which contained the nightmare marine ape, easily twenty feet across, and much more complex. I saw three layers of circle, entire reams of Latin, Arabic, and Greek, and some snippets from a language I didn’t recognise.
I didn’t care about the magic circle; no barrier could stop me from crossing the room and pulling his head from his shoulders.
But I didn’t do that, because it was too obvious.
I stood there for what must have only been a few seconds, but it felt like minutes, poised just over the threshold of the kitchen door. My tentacles strained, my heart hammered against my ribs, my head pounded with adrenaline. The ape-thing watched me, but it didn’t move. The machine by the wall was dead or malfunctioned, quiet and empty. Edward dozed on, thin chest rising and falling beneath coat and shirt.
I spoke up. “What is this?”
Edward’s eyes blinked open, slowly and with some difficulty, fighting against the late afternoon sunlight pouring in through the windows. He raised a papery, liver-spotted hand to shade his face. Smacking his lips, taking a deep breath, he drew himself up in the chair. The rickety old wood creaked beneath him, as if he weighed much more than suggested by his lean and sinewy body.
Owlish eyes blinked. Boney hands adjusted wire glasses. He stared at me, unsurprised and unconcerned.
“ … were you … taking a nap?”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say, or do, except cross the circle and disembowel him. But I wasn’t an idiot. This was a trap.
“This body is not the real me,” he said, curt and quick but without great haste. “It’s a remote controlled vessel, similar to the one you saw previously.”
He had the voice of a ten-pack-a-day lifelong smoker, rough and reedy and raspy, all from his throat and nose. A Sharrowford accent, from back when England still had proper regional accents. A rich Northern roll, but fussy, indistinctly upper-class, with a cold certainty behind his words.
“Of course you wouldn’t risk yourself,” I muttered, not really speaking to him.
Edward — or the Edward-shaped vessel — unhooked his walking stick from the arm of the chair and pointed at the magic circle which surrounded him.
“If this circle is broken or crossed in any way, the vessel will disconnect,” he said. “And this conversation will come to an end. Physical disturbance, magical interference, even too much air pressure will trigger it. Do you understand?”
He waited for an answer, watching me. I waited too, trying to swallow my racing heart.
He didn’t speak, didn’t continue, didn’t repeat himself.
I nodded, slowly, and drew my tentacles back toward me. “You’re not really here. And you have a fail-safe.”
“Correct. I repeat, this is not the real me. If you try to harm me through the remote connection, I will be gone before you can reach the vessel. Yes, even you. I know you require touch to use your particular skills, as you did with my construct.”
“In the home of Amy Stack’s husband and son,” he said. “You required touch to reach me through the remote connection. Hence this.” He pointed at the circle again.
I bristled inside at the reminder. He was talking about Marmite.
I had dug Edward’s control out of Marmite’s pneuma-somatic brain, chasing Edward’s spirit-scent through flesh and metal, battering down his barricades and smashing his security measures, right at the cutting edge of my hyperdimensional mathematics. In the end he had disconnected and fled, leaving Marmite free to flee across the rooftops of Sharrowford, with Edward’s control broken.
He was right; if this wasn’t the real Edward, if he was remote controlling it, then in theory I could use brain-math to trace the connection back to the genuine article, wherever he was hiding.
But I’d have to touch him first.
He saw the recognition in my face, nodded his head of stringy grey hair, and continued. “Furthermore, you won’t be able to track me through any object in this house, nor the house itself. I’ve never visited this place. I purchased it through an agent. The equipment was installed by hired workmen, days ago. Nobody has been to this house since then. Nobody else is in this house, or in the garden, or anywhere nearby. Do you understand?”
Very carefully, I turned my head to look at the ape-monster in the other magic circle. It was staring at Edward with those massive all-black eyes, jaw hanging slack, no trace of human expression in the oddly flat face. I wasn’t certain how, but I could tell the thing wasn’t pneuma-somatic. It was true flesh, solid and meaty, very much on the same plane as us.
I said, “Hired workmen summoned that?”
Edward did not answer. He stared at me. I swallowed, my mind racing.
Why leave that one chink in his armour? Why go to such lengths to ensure there was almost no chance of me being able to trace or hurt him, but then leave a creature he may have summoned right there, for me to see, and then refuse to answer my question? He wanted my mind to fill in the blank. He wanted me to assume he had summoned it himself, and that it may provide a method by which to trace him. But that was too obvious. Why try that ploy in the first place? Did mages leave a magical fingerprint on creatures they summoned from Outside? I had no idea. Evelyn might have known, but it was just me here, alone with a mage.
Edward Lilburne was more clever than we’d given him credit for.
I stared back at him, craggy-faced and pale, old and weathered. He didn’t look like a wealthy, powerful man. He looked like the total opposite of his arrogant nephew, Alexander Lilburne, a mage I’d put in the ground twice over. His shoes were battered and scuffed, his hair hadn’t been cut in a long time, and his glasses were hardly the height of fashion. He wore that shapeless lumpy coat like it was his life. Then again, this was just a vessel.
He hadn’t even introduced himself, or said my name, or threatened me. I don’t think he cared about any of those things.
“You’re telling me you want to talk,” I said. “Not fight.”
Edward nodded, then sighed and cracked his own neck, wincing.
“Why not just use a video call? Or send me a letter, like you did with Evelyn?”
He considered me for a second, unblinking and unmoving. I was reminded uncomfortably of a lizard, a big one, a komodo dragon held in motionless repose. The slanted sunlight added to the momentary illusion.
“A letter is not truly private,” he said eventually. A papery tongue darted out to wet his lips. “One cannot have a proper conversation via letters. It takes too much time to receive a reply. A video call is too dangerous, you could trace me. This was the best way I could think of to talk in private.” He leaned forward in his chair, gaze never once leaving me. The chair creaked. “You know who I am. I know who you are. I assume introductions are not necessary.”
It was not a question.
I was furious, far more than I’d expected. My tentacles quivered with barely suppressed violence, struggling with the urge to spring across the room and dash him out of his stupid chair. Intellectually I accepted that I was talking to a mere vessel, some kind of pneuma-somatic mask like he’d used for our previous meeting, but instinct didn’t care. Abyssal instinct and ape solidarity were in total agreement: this man threatened my pack, he had to die. He’d plucked me away from Lozzie. He might have Lozzie somewhere right now. Why talk? Kill him, reach in through his remote connection and shred him like mince. Pull him apart. Core his brain. Drain his blood. Eat him alive.
Unlike all those months ago with Alexander, nothing held me back here. I had no ethical conflict. I simply didn’t care.
But he might be right. He might be too quick for me.
I’d called Raine before Lozzie and I had left Jan’s hotel room. I was fifteen or twenty minutes overdue. Evelyn and Raine would call Jan. They’d know I was missing. Evelyn would be looking for me, somehow.
Instead of launching myself across the room in a whipping cloud of barbed tentacles, I clamped down with sheer force of will and lashed myself to the door frame, moving slowly. If Edward wanted to talk, perhaps I could stall him, while my friends tried to find me.
Not for rescue. Oh no, I didn’t need rescuing. This was nothing like when I’d spoken with Alexander. I wasn’t holding out for a saviour.
If Evelyn could find us, perhaps she could do more than just talk.
Meanwhile, I bent my entire mind to the task at hand. I tried to still my racing heart and unclench the nervous fist in my gut. Listen. Observe. Look for a gap in his protections.
Know your enemy. Evelyn would approve.
“Say my name out loud,” I hissed.
The smallest possible test. Edward passed with flying colours. He didn’t even frown.
“Heather Morell,” he said.
No Lavinia. He hadn’t used my middle name on the letter either, though he must know of it. Did he know that Alexander had used my middle name like a weapon against my temper? Was he omitting that intentionally, to be polite? Or to lull me into a false sense of security?
Well, not security. Never security, alone in a room with a mage. Except Evelyn.
“You’ve tried to kidnap me,” I said, barely keeping the anger from my voice. “And I felt something else, too. Some magical effect my body fought off. Why should I believe anything you say?”
“I am not a fool,” he continued after a moment, in that raspy, reedy voice, calm and focused. “I am not going to expose myself to danger without good cause. You are highly contaminated, a vector for a dangerous infection. You know of what I speak — the Eye inside your mind. It has already corrupted and ruined countless lives, though that was not your fault, but the work of my feckless nephew. Nevertheless, you are dangerous to confront and dangerous to contain. If my method had an adverse effect on you, that was unintentional. For that, I apologise. I would not do this if I did not believe you are worth talking with. Alone, in private.” He blinked, once, heavily and slowly, then stared at me again again, owlish and wide. “Though I will admit, I did want a good look at what you have become.”
His eyes went left and right, up and down, by the smallest fraction. He could see my tentacles.
A hiss crawled up my throat, soft and low and threatening. I didn’t try to stop it. Helped with the nerves, the thudding heart, the shaking hands which I shoved inside the front pocket of my hoodie.
Edward raised his eyebrows, faintly interested in that sound. But he didn’t even flinch.
“Where’s Lozzie?” I demanded.
“I have no idea,” he answered too quickly. My mind raced with my heart. He’d expected that question and prepared for it. “Presumably she reached whatever destination you and she were heading toward when I rerouted you. She will not find you here, I have taken steps to ensure that.”
“You expect me to believe you?” I spat. “Why wouldn’t you try to intercept her?”
“I cannot. She doesn’t work like you do. I had the better part of a decade to study Lauren—”
“Lozzie,” I hissed, long and loud. I reared up on my tentacles, straining toward him from the door frame, tentacles and teeth aching to rip him apart.
The feeling was like a slug of hot alcohol down my throat. The killing urge was a heady rush pounding up through my body and into my head.
I think he saw that. Edward stayed very, very still for several long seconds, until I eased down, panting and shaking. We stared at each other across the sun-draped kitchen flagstones.
Scraaaaape-scrape, scraaaaape-scrape, went the claws of the huge marine-ape Outsider-thing trapped inside her own circle.
She was staring at me now instead of Edward. My hiss had attracted her attention. Her claws tapped and scraped at the flagstones, like a caged parrot.
Her? Why did I know that? Abyssal instinct supplied the answer: scent, pheromones. This one was a female, though it hardly mattered.
“Lozzie, then,” Edward said. I flicked my attention back to him, feeling like a snake in the grass. “I had the better part of a decade to study her. If I could pluck her from the transference stream, I would have no need to negotiate with you.” He lifted his walking stick and pointed at the machine by the wall, the short tower of glass and mirrors hooked up to screens and a laptop, all broken now. “My methods cannot be attuned to her, she avoids them by instinct. You interact with the interstitial space differently. You can be detected, like any other Outside being moving from one side to the other. You can be rerouted. No doubt if you were doing it yourself, you would have sensed me and fought back. I had to wait until she was the one moving you, then select you alone.”
“You missed the first time,” I said, almost growling with challenge.
“Indeed.” Edward finally glanced away, looking at his strange machine by the wall. “It is single use. Undoubtedly you have learned from this encounter. This method will not work again. We may talk like this only once, so do not end our conversation lightly.”
He was supplying so much information, giving so much away, letting me ask all the questions. How much of it was lies? Was Lozzie really back home? Or was she somewhere else, trapped and bound, and this was all a ploy to stall me? I couldn’t read his expression, his dead eyes and papery skin, his disinterest and detachment. I decided not to believe a word of it. But I had to figure out as much as I could.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Where is this?”
“Devon,” he answered instantly.
“Devon?” I couldn’t help my splutter of disbelief. Devon? I’d never been that far south. We must have been nearly three hundred miles from Sharrowford, on the other side of the country.
“Inland. Near a seaside town by the name of Salcombe. It’s not far, a few miles’ walk down the road. If you step outdoors and leave the Faraday cage that I have had constructed around this cottage, you may verify your location with your mobile phone.”
I stared at him in shock. Faraday cage? For blocking electricity, and signals. He’d thought of everything.
Perhaps he read the surprise on my face, because he hurried to add, “But not yet. I do not want you to call your companions. If you leave the room, I will assume this conversation is over, and I will cut the connection to this vessel.”
“What if I Slip away, hm?” I raised my chin, burning inside with anger and defiance. I wanted to knock him out of his chair and scream in his face. “Can you stop that? I’d like to see you try, because I don’t think you have any idea what you’re dealing with.”
Edward nodded once. “You are free to leave, whenever you wish. I will assume the conversation has been terminated, and I will leave too.”
He stared me down, daring me to go.
Was I being tested by this ancient, blood-soaked mage? He was being so very reasonable, probably on purpose. He wasn’t even attempting to argue with me. According to him, he hadn’t trapped me, he wasn’t keeping me here, he hadn’t touched Lozzie at all. Staying to talk was a decision made of my own free will. He didn’t even really sound like the letter he’d sent to Evelyn — where was the preening arrogance and linguistic meandering? Perhaps Edward Lilburne was simply not very eloquent in person. Or perhaps he was trying to lead me toward something else, something specific.
There was another layer here, one I was not aware of with human senses.
“I shouldn’t be talking with you,” I said slowly, unable to keep the scowl off my face.
I leaned into it instead. Why should I be polite with this man, this slaver and kidnapper? If Lozzie had told the truth, Edward Lilburne was the fixer and manipulator behind the homeless people that the cult had used as vessels for zombies. He was the man behind the dead children beneath the castle. Alexander had been the leader, but Edward was the engine.
I flared my tentacles out and allowed a hiss to fill my voice as I spoke, my throat twisting into an inhuman configuration. Didn’t matter that he seemed impossible to intimidate, it made me feel better.
“I should be reaching through that circle and pulling your ‘vessel’ apart, looking for the strings. Is your magic really faster than thought? You want to play out that bet? You said it yourself, I’m contaminated by the Eye, but you don’t understand the half of it — I’m its adopted daughter. It taught me everything it knows. I could put a tentacle through your chest and chase you all the way back to where the real you is waiting, and I don’t think you can move fast enough. You’re a threat to my friends, my family — mine!” I snapped like a beast dredged from the deep. “Should be trying to kill you.”
Shaking, quivering with rage, I forced myself to stay still. Very still. Draw him out, keep him talking. Come on, Evelyn, Lozzie, anybody. Find me.
Edward stared. Wrinkled lizard-lids blinked slowly. Papery tongue flickered out to wet lips thin as straw.
I had to swallow hard to return my throat to a mostly-human shape.
“I’ll stay and talk,” I hissed. “But I would rather not.”
“I will be frank. I will keep it short.”
Scraaaape-clink-clink-clink, went the claws of the marine-ape-Outsider, trapped inside her magic circle. I turned my whole head to look, making the gesture as obvious as possible.
Vacant eyes stared back into mine, black as the bottom of an ocean trench. Grey-fleshed muscles bunched and flexed, pulling the skin so taut it looked painful. Jutting jaw hung open, as if for filter feeding. But no plankton-eater would have teeth so sharp.
She looked from me to Edward, then back again.
“Is this thing supposed to threaten me?” I asked. Back to Edward. “I’ve fought far worse things from Outside. A fancy gorilla isn’t even frightening, I’ll just send it back where it came from.”
Edward shook his head. Lank grey hair barely moved. “It was necessary to bring you here. It is part of the machine.”
I frowned. “Explain. What is it?”
Edward took a deep breath. His thin chest rose. “We are wasting time.”
“I don’t care. Explain.”
Come on, Evelyn. Find me.
Edward gestured at the creature with a papery hand. “A fool who knew more than he wanted to once Christened the species as ‘dimensional shamblers’. They are incredibly rare, difficult to tempt from their hunting grounds. They almost never breach our reality without significant encouragement.”
“Breach our reality?”
“Yes. They possess a very limited and distant cousin of Lau— of my niece’s powers, naturally evolved, wherever they originated. They use it for hunting prey. The natural resonance of the thing’s flesh is necessary to set up the divine harmonics, which allowed my machine to function and bring you here. The creature is a kind of catalyst, nothing more.”
I stared at the ‘Dimensional Shambler’. It stared back at me.
“It is only an animal,” said Edward. “It is not here to harm you. Furthermore, it couldn’t. Its method of predation is to snatch things away, to elsewhere. That wouldn’t work on you. I lured it here and confined it for the machine, that is all.”
Abyssal instinct whispered up my spine and into my hind-brain, reading impulse from sources my human senses and human judgement could not, as I stared at the weird Outsider-ape-shark-thing. Outsider, yes. Animal, yes. But non-sapient?
Instinct whispered to me. This creature, this Shambler, this dimension-hopping predatory shark, it wanted out. It knew it was in a cage, yoked for some purpose it couldn’t comprehend. Anger, confusion, fear — such simple things did not cross the species boundary, but it felt analogues to those emotions. Cold marine-life predation, threat calculation, the simple equation of muscle and meat. She and I understood each other.
I let my tentacles drift wider, running on instinct. The Shambler watched them strobe in dull rainbow. Or at least, her eyes moved.
This thing walked the spheres, Outside. Edward had summoned her. She might know where the real Edward was hiding, right now.
“It cannot understand you,” he spoke without being asked. “If you wish to dismiss it right now, then break the circle. It will likely leave of its own accord.”
Bingo, I thought. He didn’t like me showing interest in the creature. Now, if only I could communicate with her.
I left one tentacle extended, strobing softly, as I turned back to Edward.
“I’m not stupid enough to fall for that kind of trap,” I said. “Don’t insult me, please.”
“I do not intend insult. I wish to talk.”
I shrugged, trying to look offended and unimpressed, buying more time. The tentacle I had extended toward the Shambler brightened slightly as I tried to figure out how to communicate.
“About what?” I said. “Why talk to me anyway? You already sent a letter to Evelyn, she got it this morning. Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of her too. And everyone else. Zheng, try speaking to Zheng, how about that?”
“You and Evelyn Saye have different aims. I know why you want the books, The Testament of Heliopolis.”
He waited, expecting me to counter. Maybe he wasn’t so different from Alexander after all. I waited as well. I was so much better at this than I used to be, even with cold sweat all down my back and my hands shaking and twisting inside my front pocket. I stared him down, daring him to comment on the tentacle I had extended toward the Shambler. I slowed the rainbow pulsing, trying to see if she would react in any way.
The Shambler raised one paw and held it vertical, level with the tip of my tentacle.
Edward cleared his throat softly. It was like the sound of a steel brush. “I want to offer you a deal. The book, in full. In return, you hand my niece over to me. Use your skill set to bind her so she won’t escape.”
I actually laughed. Well, I snorted a puff of air through my nose and shook my head. “You can’t be serious.”
“You must know I’d never accept that, I’d never betray Lozzie. I’d never betray any of my friends. Not for anybody, but certainly not for you. Why even ask?”
Edward watched me from beneath his bushy grey eyebrows for a moment, then said, “Because I am attempting to avoid a conflict.”
“Avoid? You’re starting the conflict!”
“No, I am not.” His voice offered the first hint of real emotion — he was irritated, growing rougher and more reedy. “A war between mages is a terrible thing. I do not expect you to understand, but Evelyn Saye should know better. It is not worth the risk.”
I shrugged, shaking my head. “You’re starting this. I’m sorry, but are you an idiot?” I almost hiccuped, doing my best to channel Evelyn at her best. “There wouldn’t be any conflict in the first place if you left Lozzie alone and gave us the book. What happened to all your high-minded stuff about how dangerous Lozzie is, about how she needs special care or whatever?” I grimaced, even saying the words left a bad taste in my mouth. “I read the letter you sent to Evelyn. These don’t sound like the same justifications at all. You were lying then, or you’re lying now, which is it?” I huffed. “Actually, don’t bother answering. I’m pretty sure this is nonsense. You’re wasting my time.”
I turned to the Dimensional Shambler and pulled my tentacle back, then let go of the door frame and took a step toward the creature.
“Wait!” said Edward.
I stopped, rolled my eyes, and looked at him again. He was almost out of his rickety old chair, agitated and frowning.
Oh my gosh, I thought, trying to keep my emotions off my face. I can’t believe that worked.
I worked very hard to keep frowning back at him, smouldering with Evelyn-like irritation, while inside I was shaking and shivering with nerves. I had to swallow another hiccup. I’d been bluffing, and he’d taken the bait. Or was I playing into his hands? He was about to reveal the true reasons he wanted Lozzie, or something similar, wasn’t he? But this would be a lie too. I reminded myself in no uncertain terms, he was lying.
He wet his lips and settled back, breathing a bit too hard. “I wish to avoid conflict. That is true. I wish to avoid a war with another mage, while also achieving my own aims.”
I tried to look extra unimpressed. Edward carried on talking.
“The content of the letter, that was for Saye. It was not a lie, but it was economical with the truth.”
I shook my head. “Word games.”
“The reason I am speaking with you, more frankly, is because you and I may understand each other better, far better than Evelyn Saye and I would understand each other.”
“You and I have nothing in common. Nothing. You can’t seriously believe I would fall for that?”
Edward paused, wet his lips, and considered me as if from a different angle. “I want the secrets to travelling in the spheres Outside. That is why I want my niece.”
“Yes, I figured that part out. You already have our gateway magic.”
Edward sighed and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “The gateway magic I stole from you—”
“How?” I snapped.
He ignored that. “—it leads only to the great Outside library. I lack the neurological structures to adjust the spell. I require my niece.”
An evil little impulse took me by the tongue. “Too difficult for you, yes? What if I teach you how to Slip?”
“No.” He answered instantly. “I have considered that possibility and what I would trade for the lessons. One, you are contaminated by the Eye. Teaching me how to ‘Slip’, as you say, would open me up to similar infection with Outsider thought-patterns. Two, even if you could teach me the necessary mental sigilisation, my brain is human. Yours is not. You are only able to execute the necessary magic because you have undergone certain changes. I am too old and too human to survive such a thing. No. Physical gateways are the only viable method. For those, I require my niece. I require her mind.”
“I wouldn’t teach you anyway,” I said. “You’re the worst kind of monster. And I have no reason to give you Lozzie for this, either. Why would I ever help you? We’re close to finding your hiding place, and then we win.”
I thought I was bluffing; finding him was only half the battle, we had no idea how well he was protected.
But then Edward said, “I have no doubt you will. You are skilled and determined.”
“Then … what?” I came up short. “You expect us to find you, and win?”
I frowned harder. Was he mocking me? Was this his idea of sarcasm? He didn’t sound sarcastic, but I had no idea where he was going with this.
“We’re bringing in other help as well,” I said. “Other mages.”
His left eye twitched. “Unwise.”
“You want to avoid conflict between mages? Give me the book. That’s my deal, my offer.” I spat the words, feeling sharp and quick. I wasn’t a scared little girl any more, cowering before authority, medical or otherwise. I could pull his head off seven different ways if I found him. “You give me the book, I let you live. Lozzie is not involved.” I laughed, a sad sound, hollow and unimpressed. I think I pulled that off, better than I expected. “What was the point of this conversation? Did you seriously think I would agree to any of that? Why do this? I can tell you’re trying to hoodwink me somehow, that this conversation isn’t what it seems to be. It’s too obvious. What are you doing?”
Edward stared at me through his thick, wire-rimmed spectacles. He sat up straighter and smoothed his coat over his chest.
“Do you know why?” he asked. “Do you know why I want the freedom of access to the spheres beyond, Outside?”
I opened my mouth to say ‘Lust for power’, but that was too obvious. I stopped and shook my head. Something in his tone was different — a baited hook. I backed up one pace, toward the kitchen door and the corridor beyond. The Shambler watched me, unblinking.
“You have been there,” Edward said. “You have travelled Outside, extensively, just like my niece has. You have seen the wonders beyond our cradle. You have witnessed first hand the depths which lie just beyond this veil.” He waved his hand slowly, back and forth, through the air. “You have seen a fraction of what I wish to see. And you’ve gone partway through the process.”
“ … process?”
“Do you know there are only three ways a mage ends up?” His voice focused again, sharp as gravel under the tongue. “Evelyn Saye is one such way. My late nephew, the arrogant fool, he is another. Dead end in the former case. Simply dead in the latter. Do you know why Alexander died?”
“Because I murdered him. I put down a threat,” I said, suddenly bristling. My tentacles flared with involuntary anger. “And I’ll do it again.”
Edward ignored that. “Alexander died because he believed in something. He had a cause. A stupid and pointless cause, true, but it was cause, beyond himself. The cause blinded him to the consequences of his actions—”
“And you’re not? Kidnapping, child murder. Children in cages!” I spat. “I haven’t forgotten that! As if I would ever hand Lozzie over to you, you—”
“I accept the consequences of my actions and work to block or mitigate them. I do not convince myself they will not happen. And I have but one interest.”
Edward’s voice hitched on those last few words. I stopped shouting at him. I sensed we were past posturing, nearing the truth.
He was right about one thing. He was a lot more clever than Alexander had been. If I was going to find him and put him down, then I needed to understand him.
“What interest?” I asked.
“And I have kept myself human,” he carried on, ignoring my question again, but staring right through me. “Very human, in order to see that interest through, as a human being. I will step beyond this cradle, this flesh, this matter. I will take the third option open to any mage who is not a fool. But I will do it as a full human being, untainted.” He spat that final word, hissing with disgust, overflowing with all the emotion he’d kept bottled up. “Now, give me my niece.”
“No,” I spat back. “Give me the book.”
A twinkle in his eyes, the faintest smile on his thin and papery lips, totally at odds with his anger and disgust a moment before; a perfect poker player, revealing his hand at last, revelling in his bluff.
“Show me how,” he said.
Edward Lilburne pursed his lips and burst into a flurry of whistles, high and low, piping and wheezing.
It sounded barely human. I braced, hissing, tentacles balling up to protect myself.
The Dimensional Shambler stood up in her magic circle, all five hundred pounds of grey meat-muscle rolling and shifting. Her giant deep-sea eyes locked on me.
And she vanished.
“A demonstration, then,” said Edward Lilburne.
The Shambler reappeared, a grey giant inches from my face, arms closing around me in a bear hug.
Mages and monsters and malicious machinations. Turns out Edward might be even more clever – and more cautious – than Heather and the others had suspected. After all, he’s an old mage, he’s been around a long time, he knows how to survive these kinds of challenges. A very special kind of monster, one that lives in human skin and insist on its own purity. Still, this doesn’t seem right, does it? At least it’s nothing like the time with Alexander, but Heather feels like she’s missing something vital here, something that Edward knows and she doesn’t …
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Next week, time for a fight, right? Or is it just an incoming hug?