pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.9

Content Warnings

None, I think.

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I would love to say that my friends and I rushed out of that cottage kitchen, tumbled through the corridor toward the back door, and shot out into an overgrown garden in some forgotten corner of rural Devon, bathed in the bronze sunlight of early evening. Like the righteous avenging heroes in a puerile fantasy story, arriving at the moment of maximum atmospheric drama, to confront an evil wizard for all his cruel misdeeds inflicted on the innocent and the helpless.

We didn’t do that, of course. If we were the sort of people who went gallivanting around like that, we would have all died long ago, and Edward wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.

Alas, if one’s response to the hidden supernatural truth of the world is to dress in Lycra, strap on a utility belt, and charge into every situation crying ‘yield, villain!’, then one doesn’t tend to last very long. Those who survive their baptism of the otherworldly tend to learn a habit of paranoia, or at least a dose of healthy caution. However much we might gently jibe Nicole for her aversion to involvement in the supernatural, or pity Kimberly for her crippling fear of magic, or even look down on Jan for her self-admitted avoidance and cowardice, theirs was by far the more rational response. The sensible thing to do when one discovered that magic was real and the world was filled with hidden monsters was to run far away and never look back, or somehow acquire a small arsenal of illegal weaponry and live in a bunker. Even Raine, with her leap-first philosophy and boundless confidence, was far more cautious and careful than I sometimes gave her credit for. She might easily “start blastin’” as she so delicately put it once, but she would always check her corners first, either literally or metaphorically.

So, when Edward’s voice floated through the high windows on one side of that rustic cottage kitchen, we all knew it was probably bait.

Well, all except Twil. After all, she was invincible.

We were still standing inside the magic circle from within which Edward had addressed me earlier, next to the rickety wooden chair I’d knocked over in my frustration at discovering that he’d escaped our ambush.

I was disentangling my tentacles from the others, to free them up for independent action, getting ready to move to the doorway or repel an attack, still trying to fight off the after-effects of the sling-shot Slip. Raine was caught in the moment of turning, looking away from the Dimensional Shambler and up at the window, the source of Edward’s voice. Her home-made riot shield was heavy in one arm as she drew her pistol with her free hand. The Shambler had stepped over the edge of the circle and was pressing herself against the back wall, a slab of grey muscle suddenly wary of us, like an animal not quite yet cornered. Praem held Evelyn steady, while Evelyn rapidly adjusted her grip on her bone-wand, frowning like a gathering storm, ready to deal with whatever Edward was about to throw at us.

But silly old Twil dropped to all fours, more wolf than human, and shot for the kitchen doorway in a clatter of claws on tile.

Luckily for us, Evelyn knew how to use her voice as a whip.


Twil jarred to a halt like a certain cartoon coyote slamming head first into a cliff-face painted to look like a road tunnel. Her whole body juddered and slammed backward, lurching up onto her hind legs, a pillar of bristling fur, sharp claws, and far too many teeth. It would have been the height of comedy under any other circumstances, but in that mystery cottage in the seconds before a confrontation between mages, it terrified me enough to provoke a loud hiccup.

Twil found her voice, holding her hands up as if poised before an electric fence. “What?! What?! Shit, what is it?! What?!”

“Shut up!” Evelyn yelled. “Nobody move unless I say, not an inch!”

“Don’t have to tell us twice,” Raine murmured.

We braced for the inevitable.

A moment of silence fell on the cottage kitchen, broken only by the low drone of summer insects out in the garden, the panting of our own laboured breathing, and the pounding of my blood in my ears. Evening sunlight licked across the floor in tongues of invisible fire. I felt sticky sweat down my back and under my arms, mingling with the damp remnants of Outsider swamp water. I held my tentacles poised, fanned out, trying to resist the urge to hiss and screech, or just follow Twil’s example and launch myself at the doorway into the corridor. A deep itch entered my muscles, a tingling at the base of my skull, the need to move.

Raine was like a spring aching to uncoil. Twil looked ready to bite through a steel plate. But the greatest burden fell on Evelyn, even as she leaned on Praem for support. Her knuckles were white on the bone-wand, her eyes locked on the single open window where Edward’s voice had come from. Visible sweat beaded on her forehead. We all knew that if some kind of magical attack came, she would be our only real protection.

But nothing happened. Silence turned to seconds. Edward did not speak again. The walls didn’t start bleeding or extruding tentacles or closing in to crush us. Nothing leapt out of thin air to rend us to shreds. The Shambler stayed where she cowered.

My shoulder blades ached. I realised I was gritting my teeth.

“Alright,” Evelyn hissed. She sounded doubtful. “Alright. Alright, okay. Nobody move until I say so.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Raine replied. No hint of sarcasm. Twil nodded too. But I couldn’t answer, not with my muscles singing for action.

Evelyn flicked a glance at the Shambler, still pressed against the back wall, watching us with those plate-sized oil-black eyes. “Heather, does that thing understand us? Heather? Heather!”

I had to swallow hard before I looked back as well, blinking sweat out of my eyes. I realised I’d wrapped two tentacles around Edward’s wooden chair, and was in the process of pulling it apart.

“I … yes, sort of,” I hissed. “I think she does. A little.”

“The hell are we doing!?” Twil hissed over her shoulder too, through a mouth made mostly of teeth. “He’s right out there! Come on!”

Evelyn shot her a look sharp enough to cut glass. “Did you lose a chunk of your brain while I wasn’t looking? Take a head wound? Get an elective lobotomy?” Evelyn looked like she wanted to beat Twil to death with her walking stick, then strangle the rest of us, then lie down and sleep for a year. I couldn’t tell how much of that was exasperation and how much was the after effects of the sling-shot Slip. “Do not go running head-first into a trap set by an expert mage. Not even you, Twil. Not even you.”

“But I’m invincible! And he’s right there, right out there! He’s gonna do for us any sec, we’ve gotta hit him first!”

“Yes, I am well aware!” Evelyn spat. “And he’s … he’s not doing anything. Which means he’s extremely unlikely to be right there, or anywhere here. We have missed him. That was bait, at best.”

“Then what the hell did we just hear?”

Evelyn clenched her jaw. “I don’t know. We should be under attack by now. Our ambush failed. We need to leave, right now.”

“He might still be here … ” said a hissing, shaking, dripping voice.

That voice was mine.

It took me a moment to realise I had spoken. My voice was quivering with a terrible, unspeakable need, my mouth full of so much saliva I was almost drooling down my chin. My muscles itched and ached, my head was pounding with adrenaline and aggression. Two of my tentacles were pulling and tearing at the wooden chair, ripping off splinters and shards of wood. Raine had produced her modified pneuma-somatic seeing-glasses and was watching me through them with open concern. Praem was staring at the chair.

Abyssal instinct was screaming with the need to hunt. Edward Lilburne had escaped me once. He was prey, slippery and clever, but he was so close. Pull off his head, rip out his guts, crack his bones, find his soul. It was like electric current up my spine.

Evelyn shook her head, sharp and grim, too preoccupied to notice that I was losing my mind. “His presence makes no difference either way. This is a trap, and we are not walking into it. He would be an idiot not to attack us now, an idiot! Wait a moment, wait a moment, everybody just wait, for pity’s sake, while I figure this out.”

Twil gritted her teeth, but she did as she was told. Raine covered the door with her handgun. I watched the Shambler, trying to get a hold on myself.

Evelyn adjusted her grip on the bone-wand, as if preparing a different counter-spell. Praem let go of her waist and supported her by the arm instead, also openly watching the Shambler, in case the Outsider creature was about to betray us or respond to some hidden command from Edward.

Evelyn’s eyes dropped to the triple-layered magic circle that surrounded us. The design was scuffed where the Shambler had crossed, ruined by swamp water. Twil’s claws had also scratched flaws into the reams of Latin and Greek and Arabic notation.

“This is inert now,” Evelyn said after a moment, “whatever it was doing before.”

Twil hissed under her breath, “Yeah I coulda’ told you that part myself, seeing as I’m not on fire or nothing.”

Evelyn shot Twil a murderous look, then focused on the smaller magic circle, the one which had contained the Shambler earlier. “That one is textbook invocation, an invitation. That’s where the swamp monster was?”

“Yes … ” I croaked. It felt like my brain was creaking with the pressure of holding back.

Evelyn stared for several long seconds at the strange mirrors-and-glass contraption beneath the windows, standing there like a cat tower made of steel. The little LCD screens and the crashed laptop were lying exactly where I’d seen them previously. Twil flexed her claws with shuddering physical impatience, grinding her teeth. Even Raine looked twitchy, as if she expected the Shambler to charge us at any moment. Only Praem was placid and calm, and we all knew that was an illusion. Her unwavering gaze had the Shambler pinned to the back wall.

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed.

“Y-yes. Yes, that’s the machine he used to interrupt the Slip. Or so he claimed.”

Evelyn shook her head. “Just leaving it here like this, it’s nonsense. This is bullshit. No mage would leave their secrets on display. What the hell is he doing? What’s he waiting for?”

Raine cleared her throat softly. “Something don’t add up, right?”

“Yeah!” Twil hissed. “And why’s he stopped talking?” She raised her voice, shouting up at the windows. “Hey, arse hole! Come back in here and fight me, you rancid cunt!”

Evelyn’s attention snapped to me. “Heather, when you were here before, what did you see?” She jabbed with her bone-wand, out at the double-doorway which led into the corridor. “Anything around that door frame? Anything in the corridor? Anything at all?”

I shook my head, trying to focus. “Nothing. No circles, no traps, not that I saw. The door to the garden is on the left.” I pointed upward, at the bank of small, high windows in the wall. “And there’s the Faraday cage beyond that.”

Raine hissed between her teeth. “Doubting very much that’s just a Faraday cage.”

“Quite,” Evelyn huffed a humourless laugh. “This is making less and less sense. He should be attacking us right now, he should be trying to murder us. He should have wired this room with explosives or chlorine gas, even though I can defend against those things, maybe.” Her hands tightened further on her bone-wand. “That’s what I would have done. This doesn’t add up.”

“Retreat or advance?” Raine prompted. “Come on, Evee, don’t get snagged up. Don’t force me into executive decision mode.”

“I’m not getting bloody well snagged up,” she snapped back. “I don’t understand this!”

Twil growled. “Retreat? Fuck that! Maybe he wants like, an honourable duel?”

“Ha,” Evelyn barked. “As if.” She spoke like she was chewing bricks. “He’s not attacking us, but he knows that would make us paranoid, knows that I would read that as a false sense of security. Does he expect us to step out there? Or … or to Slip into the garden, to avoid it? Or … tch!” She tutted, staring at the open doorway, then the window. She looked like she was going to burst a blood vessel. I’d never seen her so paralysed by indecision before. She bit her bottom lip so hard I fear she might draw blood.

Raine repeated herself. “Retreat or advance? Now, Evee.”

“Retreat,” Evelyn snapped, suddenly no hesitation. “We had an opportunity to get the drop on him. We failed. We retreat, right now. We do not go deeper into a thicket of traps laid by an expert mage specifically to fuck with us.” She turned to me and nodded. “Heather, you need Slip us back out. We’ve failed here.”

“Awwww shit!” Twil hissed. “Seriously?”

Raine exhaled with obvious relief. “Discretion is the better part of valour and all that.”

“Come again another day,” said Praem.

Abyssal hunting instinct screeched and writhed inside my chest, like a monster struggling to be born.

“But … ” I croaked. “What if he is out there? What if … Twil is … right?”

My mind was chewing on this idea, turning it over and over and trying to worry through meat and crack bone to reach the core, the marrow, the truth of the matter. I felt like the idea was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t think straight, the need to hunt was blotting out everything else. The ends of my tentacles were coiling and uncoiling, as if trying to lend independent processing power to my brain. I barely noticed when I finally wrenched that wooden chair apart.

Evelyn snapped my name. “Heather, for fuck’s sake. An ancient mage does not seek a fucking honourable duel. What is wrong with you?”

“Down, girl,” said Praem. But it didn’t work.

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine purred. “Hey, look at me. Look at me.”

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was staring up at the single open window. Before I could stop myself, I raised my voice and called out.

“Are you still there? Edward, I’m talking to you. Are you still there?”

My voice came out as a hissing rasp, more animal trill than human words. I swallowed so hard it unknotted something deep inside my throat.

A moment of silence, then:


Edward’s voice did not come from beyond the window, but from the air itself, or from inside the walls, or perhaps from out in the corridor, or from the room above the kitchen. For a moment he was everywhere and nowhere, a ghost on the wind.

Evelyn bared her teeth and looked ready to summon hell itself with her wand. Twil twisted on the spot, back and forth, a dog responding to a sound beyond the human range of hearing. Raine froze. I almost lost control, thrumming with killing need, barely holding onto the urge to attack the walls and floor and ceiling like a flailing squid. I’m sure that wouldn’t have gone well. I’d probably have just hurt myself.

Then Edward whistled.

A haunting high-low-high piping, the unearthly language of the Dimensional Shambler, not quite structured like words, but not quite animal call either. That sound came from out in the garden, no doubt about it. Something was standing out there and waiting for us, Edward or otherwise.

In the corner of my vision, the Shambler twitched, as if she was fighting her own response to that piping whistle. A wall of grey muscle rose up, ready to move.

Running on pure instinct, I whirled toward her and fanned out my tentacles.

“No!” I screeched, barely aware of what I was saying. “No! Mine! I feed you now! I feed you! Me, not him!”

The Shambler stared at me, frozen in animal intimidation. Edward whistled again, high-low-high — but I screeched at the sound and slapped the wall with my tentacles. The Shambler flinched, but she didn’t vanish, didn’t step Outside. Panting, dripping with sweat, I forced my words to make more sense.

“Go home,” I said to her. “I’ll bring you food. But you don’t listen to him any more, you don’t—”

Edward whistled a third time. Was that my imagination, or did I sense irritation in his tone, in the subtle stumble over the notes? The Shambler cringed, but she did not obey.

“You don’t listen to him anymore,” I said. “You listen to me. I’ll bring you fresh meat. But no more people. Now go home.”

The Shambler stared at me, blinked her twin pools of oily black, and then vanished.

“Holy shit, Heather,” Twil hissed.

Raine let out a low whistle. “Well done, well done!”

“Great, yes, great,” Evelyn grunted. I’d never seen her so wide-eyed and focused, but also so conflicted. “That’s one problem out of the way, certainly. Now it’s our turn to leave, right now. Heather?”

“Evee … ” I whined — and felt the hunting instinct rising up through my body like a flush of hot alcohol in my gut.

I couldn’t deny the need any longer. More than mere psychological notion, it was a physical ache, burning in every muscle. My legs itched with the desire to move. My tentacles felt like fists kept clenched for too long, and my human hands were curled into real fists. Abyssal hunting instinct knew that if I could touch Edward, I would win. I could reach down through his vessel and along the connection back to his real self. Whatever it was made of would not resist analysis and deconstruction performed by brain-math. With one tentacle I could reach all the way back to the real Edward Lilburne and turn his brain into cooked meat. With one touch, there would be no need to find his stronghold, no further threats to my pack. One touch was all I needed.

Twil must have recognised the look on my face or the meaning of the tension in my musculature, because she stared at me and froze. Perhaps she knew it all too well, in herself. “Uh, Heather, chill out, yeah? You’re getting kinda freaky there.”

Raine’s hands were full of firearm and shield, so she bumped me with her elbow. “Yeah, whoa, ease down, okay? Heather? Heather?”

A physical need twitched up my back muscles and out through my tentacles and down to their tips. A mad part of me briefly considered climbing the wall and squeezing out through the window. Abyssal instinct screamed incoherent demands about hunting, about moving fast, about ambushes and surprises and the rending of vulnerable flesh.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, hard and unyielding, “we need to leave, now.”

“I … I don’t think he’s lying,” I said. I was panting, quivering all over, about to break. I was going to sprint for the door any moment, damn Edward’s traps, they didn’t matter. I would push through it all and bring him down and rip his head from his shoulders. Only Evee’s voice held me back, and only by a thread. “I think he’s out there. We have to … Evee, we have to try … to … ”

Evelyn gave me one of the worst looks she had ever directed toward me — fearful disdain, disbelief in my stupidity, and deep concern.

“I do love you, Heather, but—”

Hunting instinct screeched to a halt, not unlike Twil slamming into Evelyn’s whipcrack voice earlier. Apparently Twil wasn’t the only one who Evelyn had on a leash. I blinked several times, turning toward Evelyn and gaping like a fish.

But Evelyn didn’t seem to realise what she’d just said out loud. She was too afraid and too exasperated to care.

“—but you can be such a fucking moron sometimes. That isn’t even the real him out there, you understand? He wouldn’t expose himself to risk, especially not to you. This is a trap. We are leaving. Read my lips, Heather, we’re leaving. Right now.”

Hunting instinct had run aground, mostly on the force of Evelyn’s emotional outburst and her unintentional admission of love, rather than the appeal to my intellect. I blinked hard, hesitating, feeling like I’d slammed head first into a brick wall.

“This is not a boss fight, Heather,” she raged on when I didn’t answer right away. “You don’t kill mages by running at them and screaming a war cry, not one as old as Edward. Not unless you’re Zheng, and probably not even then.”

Raine cleared her throat softly. “S’kinda what we did, once.”

Evelyn didn’t even have the spare capacity to shoot a deadly glance at Raine. Her attention bored through me, angry and outraged that I would risk us like this — that I would risk myself. “We are in a trap. We are leaving, right now. How many more times must I say it?” Her voice did not rise into a shout, but grew sharp and dark. “Am I your strategist, or not?”

“Yes, okay! Right!” I put my hands up in surrender. Tentacles too. I felt like such an idiot, as if I’d been in the grip of lust and Evelyn had dumped a bucket of freezing water over my head to bring me round. “Okay, okay, but … but we can’t just leave this house here, and that.” I gestured at the steel-and-glass cat-tower thing beneath the windows, hooked up to the fried laptop. “And whatever else he’s doing here. Evee, there might be other victims like Natalie! We can’t just run away!”

Evelyn’s inner steel refused to bend. “We can too — but we’re not running away.”

“ … what?”

Twil sounded just as confused as I felt. “Yeah, hey, what?”

“Tactical retreat?” Raine asked.

“Come again another day,” Praem intoned.

“Tactical retreat and regroup, yes,” Evelyn said, still speaking to me and me alone. “We’ve lost the man himself, he’s already gone, but we can pick over whatever’s left. Heather, you said this house is in Devon, near Salcombe. That’s what Edward said, right?”

“I— yes, that’s right, but—”

“If he didn’t lie — ha, doubtful — and if we can identify the cottage from a map, can you drop us in on a nearby hill, a road, something like that? Near to the house but not in the garden itself, because I’m certain that’s where he’s laid his trap. Can you do that?”

I boggled at Evelyn with muted awe. She had a twinkle in her eyes, that gleam of genius that made her shine like no other. My strategist.

“ … I … I don’t know, but I can try. If I can’t, Lozzie might be able to. I think.”

Evelyn nodded once, curt and hard. “Good enough. Heather, do you trust me? Do you trust this plan?”

“Of course.”

“Then take us home. Get us out of here before something else goes wrong.”

“Hear hear,” said Raine.

Evelyn didn’t wait for acknowledgement. She crammed herself against my side, practically dragging Praem along with her, though I had no doubt that the doll-demon was still supporting her weight. I wasted no time on spluttering or planning, I just wrapped a tentacle around the pair of them, securely anchored. Raine stepped back toward me as well, though she kept her shield raised and her handgun pointed at the open door, just in case. I reached out and took her by the arm, adding a tentacle around her waist too. Twil rolled her eyes and huffed and made a great deal of fuss, but she hopped back across the boundary of the magic circle and submitted to the new plan of retreat and regroup, no matter how much it offended her hunter’s sensibilities. I looped two tentacles around her fuzzy shoulders, a double-harness, in case she decided to dart off at the last moment. That made her yelp in surprise, then she swallowed a growl. Keeping a werewolf restrained was a new experience indeed.

“Ready?” I asked out loud. My heart was hammering in my ears.

“Ready,” said Praem.

Raine nodded. “Whenever you are.”

“Yes! Go!” Evelyn snapped.

“Remember to close your eyes,” I said. I did the same, closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, trying to shut out the cottage kitchen and the glowing evening light and the high-pitched whine on the edge of my hearing and—

And Edward’s voice, a sudden reedy rasp crawling up a throat clogged with tar, as if just on the other side of the kitchen wall, out in the overgrown garden.

“There is no way out—”

But I was already plunging my mind downward, sinking into the depths of black oil and toxic waters, dredging out the infernal machinery of the Eye’s lessons. The equation to Slip, to send us Out, was as familiar as an old tool by now. My hand slid into the grip, the weight of it was a known quantity at the end of my arm, and I understood the function better than I had ever wanted to. The equation seared and hissed across the surface of my brain, white-hot fire shooting lances of pain down my neck and into my lungs and belly.

And nothing happened.

The frozen split second of hyperdimensional mathematics, the speed-of-thought moment where I performed the equation, collapsed back into regular time. A sledgehammer of pain crashed into my head, like a band of red-hot steel expanding inside my skull. My stomach clenched and spasmed, trying to reject the logic of the Eye. I cried out, a pitiful sound, as my friends caught me before I collapsed to my knees.

We were still standing in the cottage kitchen, my friends were still tight and secure in my grip, and sunlight like fire on bronze was still pouring through the kitchen windows.

And Edward was still talking.

“—through the Faraday cage. And it is so much more than that now. And it is almost complete. Thank you, Heather Morell.”

“Heather?!” Raine, in near-panic. “Hey, hey—”

Twil, shouting. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit—”

“He’s trapped us,” Evelyn, ice-cold. “The bastard has trapped us. Fuck.”

Everyone was talking at once. Strong hands held me up beneath my armpits and around my waist as I sagged and whined. I tightened my tentacle-anchors around my friends, and not a moment too soon; Twil tried to dart forward, panicking and heading for the door again, but my grip on her shoulders was too secure. She yanked all of us forward, hard enough to jar my suddenly tender head and stomach and make me cry out. But she came up short, like a dog on a choke-chain, yelping as she sprawled on the tiles.

“Wait!” Evelyn shouted. “For fuck’s sake, wait!”

“Evee,” Raine was saying. “Evee, we’re gonna have to shoot our way out. Get ready, okay? Time for some old fashioned violence. Praem, with me. Evee, stay behind us and—”

“No,” I wheezed. “Just a … just a second … I can … ”

This wasn’t the first time an attempted Slip had fizzled out into nothing. It wasn’t anything like Alexander’s Dead Hands, reaching up from beyond the grave. Every time the lingering soul of Alexander Lilburne had stopped me crossing the membrane, I had felt the Slip begin and then felt the hands on my ankles, the dragging weight of metaphysical fetters on my flesh. But this nothingness, as if the equation hadn’t functioned at all, this had happened only once before.

Back when the Sharrowford Cult had sent Zheng to kidnap me, when they’d bullied and abused and threatened Lozzie into opening our experimental gateway, and they’d dragged me through into their pocket dimension that linked to the castle, I’d tried to escape by going Outside. And it hadn’t worked. I had solved that situation with the bright idea of knocking Zheng’s arm off. But I had never forgotten that feeling of null action, of the equation being correct but simply doing nothing, as if it referred to a quality of reality that was missing in that space, that dimension, that pocket of re-defined unearthly substrate.

Edward Lilburne had replicated the trick with a magically modified Faraday cage.

He’d figured out how to imprison Lozzie.

I like to imagine that thought gave me the burst of determination and energy; more realistically it was my bioreactor spinning up, pumping my veins full of exotic abyssal compounds that shouldn’t exist inside the human body.

“Shoot our way out,” Evelyn was saying to one side of me. Her hands creaked as she tightened them around her bone-wand. “I hate this. I hate it. We can’t step out there. Everything about this is a trap.”

“We can race for the other door!” That was Twil.

Raine raised her voice. “Everyone stay behind me and—”

With a deep, lung-ripping gasp, I reared up in my friends’ grip, made a sound like an asthmatic chimpanzee, and slammed my mind back into the dripping black relics of the Eye’s lessons.

This cage should not exist — metaphysically or morally. It was an affront, an offense, an obscenity. A cage for Lozzie could not be allowed to exist. However the Dimensional Shambler stepped between worlds, it clearly wasn’t reliant on the same method as me, but I didn’t have time to reverse-engineer an entirely different way of moving. Instead, I ran the equation again, the brain-math to take us Outside, but this time I didn’t treat it like a familiar old tool or an automatic reflex. I ran it like a machine with a missing component. Part of the equation simply did nothing, couldn’t find purchase inside this bubble of artificial constricted reality.

I had to take it slowly, which was a special kind of torture. A second, perhaps two seconds, where I hung in my friends’ arms and screamed and bled from the eyes and nose. Piece by burning, hissing, toxic piece, I reconstructed our way out.

And there it was, one element of the equation, one set of figures in the language of creation itself which did not apply here, in this space, this affront, this heresy to reality itself that Edward Lilburne had constructed.

I constructed a tool of my own. A response, an answer — an enzyme, shaped using the knowledge of the piece of equation that didn’t work.

An enzyme-bomb, a compacted ball of potential compressed so tight it was ready to explode in a screeching wave of nullification and reversal. Metaphor breaks down at the bleeding edge of hyperdimensional mathematics, human language begins to fail. Enzyme was the best descriptor I had. At the speed of thought, I crafted the opposite of whatever Edward’s magical Faraday cage was doing to the surface of reality.

Then I detonated it.

The others later told me that there was an audible sound — quite a loud sound, in fact, and not from me. As I cried out in pain with the technical difficulty of the brain-math, a great creeeeeeeak-ping screeched all around us, just beyond the walls of the cottage. Metal stress, we later discovered, as the entire chicken-wire Faraday cage was subjected to pressures it was never designed to endure.

But I didn’t hear the sound. I was too busy grasping the levers of reality once again, burning the flesh from my hands, right down to dripping fat and blackened bone.

“Close your eyes!” I croaked.

Out we went, with no cage or prison to stop us.


Our return to Number 12 Barnslow Drive was more than a little anticlimactic. It felt a bit like going out on a specific errand, but returning without getting anything accomplished, because one had forgotten one’s purse on the top of the washing machine.

Well, that, and we were planning to head right back out as soon as we were ready.

We may have failed in ambushing Edward Lilburne himself — or perhaps we had put one foot into his trap before wrenching at the jaws to free ourselves — but that didn’t mean we couldn’t come at the situation from another angle. It didn’t mean there was nothing to be salvaged here and no further responsibility to fulfil.

We landed in the usual big mess of headaches and nausea, of course, right in the middle of the magical workshop. I was bleeding from my nose and eyes, getting it all down my face, and so I missed the first few minutes of safety checking and recovery, as I sat in a heap on the floor and clutched at my head and stomach, trying not to vomit. That was some extreme brain-math and I was still reeling inside, throbbing and aching, trying to feel human again.

Edward Lilburne had not sent men with guns to capture Lozzie; or if he had, they must have taken one look at the spiders guarding the front door and skedaddled sharpish. Everyone was exactly where they were supposed to be. Lozzie and Tenny were still guarding Natalie in the kitchen. They’d wiped her face clean, gotten her sat in a chair, and were busy helping her drink a very large glass of apple juice. They hadn’t gotten much further, but we’d only been gone for about five minutes. I felt a strange embarrassment at our jumbled explanation of what was going on.

In a way, I had failed to slay the evil wizard. I didn’t want to explain that to Natalie. She was too young to understand.

Sevens was there too, sitting in the opposite chair, with a very comfortable-looking Turmy in her lap. The marmalade gentleman was getting marmalade hairs all over Sevens’ skirt, but she somehow pretended it wasn’t happening, even while luxuriously stroking his fur with one hand.

“We’re in no rush,” Evelyn explained to everyone, as Raine helped me wash my face and Twil looked ready to claw at every errant shadow. Evee planted her walking stick firmly as she spoke, which was undermined only slightly by Praem forcing a glass of water into her free hand. “Yes— Praem— thank you— thank you, right, yes. As I was saying, we’re not aiming to catch him anymore. He’s likely long gone. We’re aiming to get to that house safely, from a direction that won’t trigger whatever he had waiting for us.”

“Safety first,” said Praem.

“Safety first,” I croaked — and then spat blood into the kitchen sink as Raine rubbed my back. “Good idea. Mmmhmm.”

Sevens cleared her throat with expert delicacy. “And what about mademoiselle Shambles?”

“Heather made friends with it,” Evelyn grunted. “With her. I think we can be sure she’s not listening to Edward’s commands anymore. She obeyed Heather, instead.” Evelyn sighed and glanced at Natalie. The little girl was watching the proceedings with shell-shocked eyes, wide and staring, like she wasn’t all there. No child should look like that. “Still, Lozzie? And Tenny, you … keep an eye on things, until we’ve confirmed. Yes?”

“Yaaaaaah,” Tenny trilled. Lozzie did a little mock-salute, making sure Natalie could see the comedy gesture. But the girl just stared at her glass of apple juice. The poor thing was exhausted, physically and mentally.

I was starting to feel the same. As the remnants of hunting instinct dribbled away, a great weariness came over me, not all physical. Failure dragged hard. I let my bioreactor spool down, slowly and carefully.

Locating likely candidates for the Faraday-caged cottage took about half an hour in the end. Evelyn had Praem fetch her laptop from upstairs, complete with the mouse so she didn’t have to fiddle with the track-pad. She set it up on the table in the magical workshop, with the rest of us peering over her shoulder now and again.

Evelyn opened Google Maps and got started. “Assuming Edward was telling the truth—”

Twil scoffed. “Big ask. Still think we’ve lost the place.”

“Assuming. Edward. Was. Telling. The. Truth.”

Twil put her hands up. “Alright, alright.”

“Then that cottage was near — where was it, Heather?”

“Salcombe,” I croaked, leaning heavily on Raine. She was practically carrying me. “Never heard of it before.”

“Seaside place,” Raine supplied. “Kinda famous?”

“A little,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ve heard of it, I think.” She panned the map down over the Westcountry, then Devon, then searched for Salcombe. The map zoomed in on an area that was all little seaside towns and picturesque villages clustered amid a patchwork of fields, all bracketed from below by the endless deep blue of the sea and a thick, sluggish estuary on the eastern side. “Assuming he wasn’t lying, it should be a few miles away from this town. Now, I think we can rule out anywhere within a village, and anywhere close enough that neighbours would see a giant chicken-wire cage around the house. Must be somewhere isolated.”

“Won’t we see the cage?” I croaked. “If we zoom in?”

Evelyn cleared her throat delicately and didn’t seem to know what to say. Twil snorted. Raine rubbed the back of my neck and said, “Heather, love, it’s not real-time images.”

“Oh. Well. That’s a bit disappointing. I just assumed it was.”

“Yes,” Evelyn confirmed, sounding a little uncomfortable. “At best these pictures will be a few months old. We won’t see the cage itself. As I was saying, it has to be an isolated house. You mentioned a thatched roof, Heather?”

“I only saw a tiny corner, but it was thatched, yes. There were two trees out in the garden as well, really big trees. They must have been really old.”

“So,” Evelyn said, already panning the map back along the main road which led out of Salcombe. “Isolated, thatched roof, large garden, at least two large trees. Let’s get looking.”

While Evelyn played geography detective, Raine helped me strip out of my damp clothes and get under a hot shower, to wash off the remnants of stinking swamp mud. More accurately, she forced me under the shower; I wanted to stay right there, ready for anything, raring to go right away. But Raine was correct — staying on the edge all the time was terrible for me. I’d be visiting the Shambler again soon enough, but I was confident that I could land on the rocky outcropping itself and avoid the mud. And when we returned to the cottage, I didn’t need the distraction of wet clothes and filthy hair.

Praem bustled about, cleaning up the mud I’d brought into the kitchen earlier. Lozzie and Tenny took little Natalie upstairs, to help her get clean as well. I sat in a heap on the sofa with Raine. Evelyn worked, with Twil peering over her shoulder.

After a while — I wasn’t sure how long, because exhaustion was fast laying a claim to me — Zheng stalked in through the back door like an avenging angel, roaring for attention, for her ‘little wolf’, for my approximate location. She calmed down as soon as she saw me.

“Shaman. You are returned.”

“Zheng … pick me up?”

I stuck my arms out, running mostly on instinct. Raine helped me up, Zheng accepted the burden, and I spent the next ten minutes clinging to her side like an octopus attached to a rock, using my tentacles to anchor myself on her. Raine filled her in on the details.

Zheng listened in silence, then rumbled down at Evelyn. “Wizard, what is your plan?”

Evelyn just frowned at the screen in concentration. “I’ve narrowed it down to three places. I think it’s this one here.” She jabbed a finger at the screen, at a smudge of green and brown satellite image. “The others are too visible from the roads. But this cottage, this is very isolated. Cleverly hidden by the hills. The only way to see it would be to hike over fields, ones without public footpaths. Not illegal, of course, but that still leaves it very well-hidden.”

“Plan, wizard?” Zheng repeated.

Twil answered for her, doing a sideways swoosh-motion with both hands. “We’re outflanking the bastard. Eyyyy.”

Evelyn tutted. “The ‘bastard’ is gone. I will guarantee you that. He didn’t expect us to escape.”

Zheng purred in approval. “None can hold the shaman against her will.” One of her hands cupped the back of my head as I clung to her. “Nor her disciples.”

I frowned at that word — disciples — but I was too drained to complain. Evelyn either didn’t get the meaning, or she ignored it. “But his works will remain.”

Zheng grunted her disappointment. “We raid his abandoned camp? Huh.”

“Think like a detective, not like a boxer,” Evelyn said. “He may have left something useful behind. Heather,” she said my name and finally turned away from the screen, twisting around in her chair, rubbing her hip and looking up at me clinging to Zheng’s side. She pointed back at the screen with one finger. “Can you drop us in on this hill, right here? Can you do that, from just a map?”

I frowned and squinted and tried to visualise the landscape in my head. I was exhausted, and though this feat of hyperdimensional logistics didn’t seem beyond my powers, it felt tangential to how I understood the subtle art of stepping back and forth through the membrane. Part of me wanted to curl up on the floor and sleep. Or better, snuggle down in Zheng’s arms, drifting off into the mercy of temporary oblivion. So many other responsibilities loomed — checking on the Shambler, possibly sending her some food; helping little Natalie understand what had happened to her, not to mention returning her to her parents; preparing for Felicity’s help, or maybe her arrival here; and perhaps, once I was brave enough, dealing with how I’d been blinded by my own lust for the hunt.

But Edward Lilburne had tried to trap us, in a cage built for Lozzie. A hard, cold stone settled in my stomach, gripped by muscle tension and etched with acid.

“I’ll try my best,” I said.


Twenty minutes later, standing on a lonely hilltop somewhere in rural Devon, side-lit by the dying firelight rays of the setting sun, Raine lowered a pair of binoculars from her eyes, and said, “Yup, that’s gotta be the place.”

Twil snorted with sarcasm. “Yeah, how can you tell?” She gestured at the binoculars. “Don’t even need those to see it.”

“Mm, no kidding.” Raine laughed softly. “How many other cottages round here do you reckon look like that? Well done Evee, good call, first try. And well done Heather, for getting us here.” Raine reached over with her free hand and squeezed my shoulder. I replied with a tired grumble, using most of my energy to cling to Zheng for support.

A few paces ahead on the hillside, Evelyn pulled her modified 3D glasses off her face. Fingers of gentle wind teased at loose strands of blonde hair, playing them out across the vista of rolling hills and hedgerows and little clumps of trees. For a moment she stood frozen, staring down at the cottage near the foot of the hill, lit from the west by the rays of the fainting sun, casting her in deep orange from boots to crown. Though she was leaning on Praem for support and her shoulders were visibly tense with concentration, I’d rarely seen her looking so strong.

She turned back over her shoulder and met my eyes.

“Heather, you see anything? Anything pneuma-somatic? Anything out of the ordinary?” She gestured with the glasses. “I’ve checked, but I trust your eyes better than I trust my work.”

Zheng purred in my stead. “Nothing lurks here, wizard. It is dead.”

“Very quiet,” Praem agreed.

I sighed and nodded, gathering the shreds of my ragged concentration. “Zheng and Praem are right. It’s like a dead zone in the ocean. There’s no spirit life here. I can see things further off, but nothing ventures close to the cottage.”

The lack of spirit life was the only thing marring an otherwise breathtaking view; I never thought I’d see the day when I would consider the absence of weird and spooky creatures to be a mark against a locale, but that was how it felt, like something was deeply unnatural about this spot, driving off the omnipresent pneuma-somatic wildlife, not unlike the approach to Hringewindla’s shell near Brinkwood.

We were standing on the rough peak of the hill which Evelyn had indicated on Google Maps. I’d managed to sling-shot Slip us here without too much confusion or difficulty, though we’d spent a few moments staggering about like drunkards upon arrival, whining and doubling up with the pain and disorientation. I’d even sat down on the grass for several minutes while the others had looked about, until Zheng had hauled me to my feet and acted as a scaffolding for my increasingly exhausted mind.

The view was beautiful — and I wasn’t just thinking about Evelyn looking determined and confident in the glowing sunset. All around us, patchwork fields rolled off into a tangle of strange countryside, little lanes winding between thick hedgerows, dark copses of trees on distant hills, and tiny cottages and houses visible far away, all lit by the darkening rays of a long summer sunset. The air buzzed with the drone of small insects, the purr of distant cars on unseen roads, and the skitter of small animals inside the hedges and the long grass. Far to the south, the horizon turned into a dark haze that seemed to fill half the world, becoming one with the sky as it darkened. The sea, I assumed.

At the foot of the hill was Edward’s cottage.

Raine was right, there was no doubt we’d found the correct place. A picturesque two-story cottage, with whitewashed walls and an archaic thatched roof, set very far back from the nearest road, accessed by its own long, unpaved driveway. There were no cars on the little patch of paved ground at the end of that drive, nor any sign of life in the massive, overgrown garden — though the trees and the hedges and the little brick walls could be hiding quite an ambush for the unwary.

The cottage was wrapped in a structure of scaffolding and chicken wire — scaffolding which had collapsed in places, and chicken wire that had exploded outward, bent and ruined and ripped by some unimaginable force. Hyperdimensional mathematics.

Spirit life wouldn’t come anywhere near the cottage. The closest spirits I could see were at least a mile away across the hills, dark little tree-like things rambling across the landscape in jolly little hops. Others lurked further out — a giant of crumbled rock stood stock-still over a faraway farm, and a sleeping bird made of fire inside glass was curled up on a distant hilltop.

Raine was shaking her head, staring down at the cottage as she tucked the binoculars away. “It’s the perfect hiding place, isn’t it?”

Twil frowned at her. “Eh? It’s right out in the open.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “It’s not visible from any of the roads. Even if you go all the way up that drive, you’d have to step into the garden to actually see the cottage. I’d bet fifty pounds it doesn’t get any post. Nobody has any reason to come here, except to break in to a holiday home.”

“Yeah exactly,” Twil said. “It’s a holiday spot. Bad place to hide magic, right?”

Raine cracked a grin. “Naaah, think about it. Salcombe’s that way, yeah?” She pointed off to our right, turning so that the sunset fire caught her face in profile. “Kingsbridge is north east.” She pointed another direction. “Thurlstone’s the opposite way. And hey, I’ve never been to any of these towns, but they’re all beach holiday places, right? Sun, sea, sand, all that shit.”

Twil huffed. “I wouldn’t mind some of ‘that shit’ right now, sounds good after today.”

“Speak for yourself,” Evelyn grunted, still frowning down at the cottage. I struggled to imagine Evelyn at the beach. It wouldn’t suit her. Would her prosthetic be in danger from loose sand?

Praem said, “I do like to be beside the seaside,” which earned her a sidelong frown from Evelyn and an amused snort from Twil.

“Point is,” Raine went on, “this time of year, in the summer hols, every beach is gonna be full of middle aged couples turning into lobsters, and gaggles of screaming kids. But here, inland? No way. Only locals would use a little road like that. A few hikers, maybe. And there’s no natural path up here, no reason to come here. If you wanna build a weird magical cage around a house and have nobody see, yeah, I’d say this spot is a pretty good bet.”

Twil shrugged. “Yeah, sure, whatever, but why all the way down here in Devon?”

Evelyn made a low grumbling sound. “Whatever it is, he wanted it far away from where he lives.” She took firm hold of her walking stick and planted it on the earth, clinging tightly to Praem’s arm for support as she took the first step down. “So tread carefully. We still don’t know what we’ll find.”

“Or if he’s gone,” Raine said.

Evelyn sighed. “Yes, well, we’re prepared for that, this time.”

Zheng rumbled like a tiger, eager for fresh meat. She was very happy to be included in this second expedition. None of us had any illusions what would happen if we found Edward.

The short walk down to the cottage felt quite surreal. As Raine had explained, it was extremely unlikely that we risked being seen by anybody out here, not even a passing car, especially at this particular time of day. But we still had to conceal our true purpose. Raine had swapped motorcycle jacket for leather jacket, dumped her makeshift riot shield, and hidden her weapons away somewhere inside her clothes. Twil was under strict instructions not to ‘go wolf’ out in the open. Evelyn’s scrimshawed thigh-bone was tucked inside her coat. Praem still wore her habitual maid uniform, but we were relying on the tendency for observers’ eyes to slide off her, the effect of not being in the know, if we came across any lone evening hikers. From a distance we could pass for a group of young women on their way back to their holiday cottage, perhaps slightly drunk and out for an unwise ramble before dinner. But up close it would be difficult to ignore the seven feet of rippling muscle that was Zheng. Or how I was clinging to her side without using my hands.

We approached the cottage from the rear, from the garden, where we located a tall wooden door in the rough brickwork of the garden wall. A sign next to the door informed us of the name of the property: Grushans.

“What’s that, Welsh?” Twil asked.

“Cornish,” Evelyn said. “I think. It’s not important.”

Twil and Zheng wanted to smash the bolt and shatter the wood, and probably rush into the garden and punch anything that moved. Raine offered to leap the wall and unlock the door from inside, but that would leave her exposed for a moment. Evelyn demanded extreme caution, and my grumpy grumbling kept Zheng in line, for now. Evelyn checked everything — door, frame, handle, the grass — before we were allowed to even touch the wood. The door wasn’t even locked, and opened with creaking, rusty hinges.

The garden itself was overgrown, near-wild, neglected for at least many months, probably closer to several years. The grass was long and unkempt, the flower beds along the edge of the house and the inside of the garden walls had been overrun by weeds of all sorts, and the two massive trees I’d spotted from indoors were covered in creeping ivy and dry lichen. Stone pathways were marred by thick moss. Matching stone benches had cracked with the stresses of winter cold. A child’s play-set swing had turned mostly to rust.

We proceeded into the garden as if creeping through a minefield.

That strategy paid off moments later, when we discovered the outer rim of Edward’s magic circle by almost tripping over it.

The magic circle was cut into the earth, made from a series of shallow trenches perhaps two inches deep and three to four inches across, hidden by the overgrown grass. It was impossible to spot when looking at it from an angle, or from inside the house, and was difficult to see from more than a few feet away, even when we knew it was there. One would have to be directly above the cottage in order to glimpse more than a tiny fraction of the strange, winding magic symbols which covered most of the lawn.

At the bottom of each trench of fresh-cut earth lay a cable of copper wire, lining the entire design with conductive metal.

We quickly discovered that the circle extended around the entire cottage, filling the garden with looping swirls and esoteric symbols, snatches of strange non-human language, and a series of concentric rings that tightened around the building itself as one approached closer. It was the largest man-made magic circle I’d ever seen, and by far the most strange.

“I can’t believe he’s done this,” Evelyn said in a hushed voice as we cut our way through the circle. “Out in the open, I can’t believe it. What is all this for? What was he doing?”

Zheng disarmed the thing as we went, ripping clods of earth out of the overgrown garden to ruin any magical effect. She pulled up the wires and cast them aside, taking a savage glee in the destructive work. Evelyn documented the circle with her mobile phone, but her hands were shaking. Eventually I reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her wrists, which helped.

“You don’t know what this does?” Twil sounded more than a little uncomfortable that we didn’t know what all this was for.

“Not a fucking clue,” Evelyn spat.

And we weren’t about to find out any time soon, because Edward Lilburne was no longer in residence.

The scaffolding and chicken wire Faraday cage was in ruins. Some parts of it had simply collapsed against the walls of the house, but in places the wire had twisted and exploded outward, as if pushed from inside by sudden force. A few of the metal scaffolding poles were sheared and broken as well, looking like they’d been through a car crushing machine.

“Holy shit, Heather,” Twil murmured as we approached and negotiated our way around the wreckage. “You really did a number on this place.”

“Sorry,” I murmured, as Zheng lifted me over the mess.

“No!” Twil laughed. “It’s good! It’s cool!”

“No cage can hold the shaman,” Zheng agreed.

Once we got inside the cottage itself we quickly discovered that Edward was gone. We proceeded with almost military caution, with Zheng and Twil in front, Raine with her gun out, and Evelyn clutching her bone-wand. But there was nothing here to fight, nothing here to surprise us or jump out at us from around a spooky, shadowed corner.

We found the kitchen exactly as we’d left it, complete with the magic circles and Edward’s steel cat-tree machine hooked up to a broken laptop, the machine which had apparently interrupted Lozzie’s Slip and brought me here in the first place.

“We’ll want that,” Evelyn said. “I want to take it apart and understand how it works. It’s the best clue we have on Edward’s techniques.”

Zheng didn’t agree. “A poor trophy.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Evelyn said with a sigh.

We found the rest of the introductory letters Edward had left for me in every room. We found the light switches to flood the house with proper illumination, pushing back the encroaching evening, including a few outdoor floodlights attached to the corners of the cottage, which did their best to make the garden more hospitable at night time.

We didn’t find any children in the basement. Indeed, the house had no basement at all. We found no secret summoning circles, no hidden library, no bloody altar or ritual knife, and no handy address book with Edward’s location waiting for us to discover it. We didn’t even find the remnants of the ‘vessel’ that Edward Lilburne had been remote-piloting, not even when Zheng and Twil combed the garden in the fading light, with demon eyes and werewolf sense of smell. I half expected us to find a cartoonish puddle of goo on one of the floors, like the thing would have melted once he’d withdrawn his control.

“You don’t think it was the real him, right?” Twil asked with a frown that made her look like she was constipated. Hands on her hips, standing on the overgrown garden path, the too-harsh outdoor floodlights ruining the majesty of the summer night around her. “Like, he was bluffing or some shit?”

“Then where’s he gone?” Raine asked.

“ … walked off?” I suggested. The others looked at me. I shrugged. “As soon as we left, he could just have … started walking.”

“Fuck,” Evelyn spat, without looking up from documenting the magic circle which surrounded the cottage.

Raine started laughing.

In fact, we found nothing new that one wouldn’t find in any holiday cottage in rural Devon. Except for the contents of the kitchen, which were now ours, and the letters in every room, which had undoubtedly never touched Edward Lilburne’s hands, there was nothing here for us to puzzle over except his absence.

And the magic circle, of course.

Evelyn insisted on documenting the entire magic circle — and on systematically destroying it afterward. None of us argued with that, even if Twil sighed a bit. I think she was missing something on the telly that evening.

Raine snorted at that. “What’s wrong, Twil? You don’t fancy staying the night here, going down the beach in the morning?”

“Screw that. S’too bloody spooky.”

Praem found a long-handled garden spade just inside the front door of the cottage, with dry dirt on the blade, just the right size for digging those little trenches. Evelyn set about taking photographs of every part of the design cut into the garden soil, sketching certain areas in her little notebook, and writing down the strange language of the added incantations. Praem followed, digging up lumps of earth, destroying the circle piece by piece, severing the copper wire as she went.

As they worked, the sun slowly dropped below the horizon, plunging the cottage and the garden into the shadows of a summer night. I sat on one of the little stone benches by the back door, the door which Edward had been trying to lure us into charging through. Watching them work lulled my mind into a strange semi-trance state of emotional and mental exhaustion. Zheng stayed close, stalking up and down, accepting the lazy touch of my tentacles whenever she passed. Raine and Twil were back inside the cottage, going through the upstairs bedrooms one more time.

Eventually, Evelyn’s circuit brought her back toward the door, toward me.

She looked up from her note book, staring at me across a few feet of humid night air. She watched me for a long, long moment, long enough that Zheng came near and loomed at my back, as if Evelyn was somehow dangerous. My mind surfaced from the exhaustion as I blinked at the look on Evee’s face — concern and worry, but also anger, poorly hidden beneath the cold, hard-edged analysis of Evelyn Saye the master strategist.

“Wizard?” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s all right, Zheng,” I said. My voice came out raspy and tired. “Evee, what’s wrong?”

Evelyn stared at me for a moment longer, then sighed and shrugged, gesturing around us with her notebook, at the magic circle hiding in the grass — or its remnants now, as Praem was kicking up one last clod of mud with her boot against the back of the spade.

“What else? This. This … extravagance. It’s obscene.”

“What does it do? Do you have a theory?” Evee loved her theories, maybe that would help.

Evelyn walked over and sat down on the bench next to me, lowering herself carefully with her walking stick. She winced when she sat, then sighed heavily and screwed her eyes up, sagging a little and kneading her thigh where flesh met prosthetic socket. All her earlier determination and confidence had turned to a kind of weary drag from within. Maybe she was reacting to the lack of danger as well. We’d combed the place inside and out, Edward was gone, there was nobody to fight. I gently nudged her arm with a tentacle, but she didn’t take me up on the offer of casual skin-ship.

“Evee?” I prompted, suddenly growing nervous.

“No, Heather,” she grunted. She straightened up and rolled her neck slowly, producing several loud pops, followed by a grunt. “No, I have no idea what any of it does. Whatever magical tradition this draws on, I am almost completely unfamiliar with it. I recognise only a few basic elements, and from that I can perhaps draw some educated guesses. Perhaps. And I don’t like the results.”

“That all sounds very, um, measured and cautious. And also not what you really think.”

Evelyn turned and glared at me. “This was a trap.”

“Well, yes, that much was obvious. He was trying to kill us, of course, he—”

“You are much smarter than that, Heather,” Evelyn snapped — angry, with me. I blinked in surprise. Zheng stirred behind us. “Or at least I would like to believe you are smarter than that. Think about it for five seconds. Please. Think.”

“E-Evee, I don’t follow, I don’t—”

“If Edward Lilburne wanted to kill you, you know what he would have done? You want to know how I would have done it?” Evelyn stamped with her walking stick. “I would have planted a bomb under that chair, that old wooden chair he was using to bait you, the one you couldn’t resist pulling to pieces. Remote detonation. We were right on top of it, because it was bait for you. A man like him could certainly lay his hands on the necessary resources for making a bomb. You’d probably have survived with hyperdimensional mathematics, but he wouldn’t know that you’d be capable of that.”

“ … Evee, what are you saying?”

“He wasn’t trying to kill us. He wasn’t trying to kill you. If he was, there were very simple ways to achieve that end, multiple things we blundered into like fools. No.” She gestured at the garden, at the ruined magic circle. Praem was highlighted against the tall garden wall by the glow of the exterior lights from the cottage. “He was trying to get you to step into this circle.”

A cold feeling settled in my guts. “Me, personally?”

Evelyn turned back to me, eyes blazing with cold anger. “This was a trap for you, specifically. Yes, that is my theory. And you almost walked right into it. Fucking hell, Heather, you were ready to throw yourself into it, you imbecilic, bloody-minded moron! You’re as bad as Raine, I swear to God. I should slap you, maybe that would knock your brains back into place.”

“E-Evee, I don’t— I’m—”

Zheng shifted again, a shadow against the light, but Evelyn raised a finger to stall her, before the demon host had a chance to get indignant and defensive on my behalf. The sheer force of Evelyn’s anger overrode any intimidation she felt.

“And don’t you get pissy with me either, Zheng, you weren’t here. Heather nearly fucking died — or probably worse — so don’t you complain, because it’s a miracle she’s even sitting here with us.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted, like a cautious tiger.

Evelyn looked away from Zheng and back at me again. Her anger was something new, something cold and sustained. “This was a trap for you, Heather. So you better start acting like it.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The party was not quite prepared for this boss fight, though luckily one of the DPS classes noticed and averted the encounter. Or was it a boss fight at all? Seems more like a trap that Heather almost stepped into, right? At least they rescued Natalie, and managed to find the cottage via other means – hurrah for modern technology and Google Maps, I guess. Rural Devon sure is peaceful, unless there’s mages about (or drunk tourists).

No Patreon link this week, as it’s the last day of the month tomorrow, and I don’t want anybody tricked into getting double-charged! The Patreon still stands at 2 chapters ahead, but if you want to subscribe then I recommend waiting until Tuesday! Instead, go check out the Katalepsis fanart page! There’s several new pieces, including Roofing Tenny, Cosmic Shrimp, and Animated Lozzie. Or! Go read Feast or Famine, still one of my favourite things currently running on Royal Road, by the wonderfully talented VoraVora. If you enjoy some of the darker psychological aspects of Katalepsis, you might like it!

And in the meantime, you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And also, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, Evee is angy. Very angy. Angry paranoid mage girl demands attention and caution, but also probably has a coherent theory about what Edward just tried to do here …

10 thoughts on “pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.9

  1. Yay! * Happy giggles* So many sweet and precious interactions with Heather and her polys ( and Twil).

    Yay, for Angry Evelyn. Her Heather almost got herself killed or worse before they have yet to confirm their love and relationship.

    Also I’m starting to to realize just how smart and intelligent Edward is. Apparently Paranoia and Ambition are good for him. For now.

    I still think the girl is a trap.

    Heather x Evelyn! Heather x Poly!

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • Hooray! You know, I’m actually really glad whenever readers enjoy Heather and the others simply interacting with each other, it’s always fun to write, they’re often completely out of my control on a micro level.

      Angry Evee is angry for Heather’s safety!

      Edward is a lot, lot smarter than any other mage they’ve dealt with so far (with the possible exception of Saldis, but she’s already far beyond regular human concerns.)

      Natalie might be a trap! But what kind?

      And you are very welcome indeed, glad you enjoyed the chapter!

    • You are very welcome! Glad you enjoyed it!

      I think they all need a beach holiday, yes. When they might be able to fit that in, I have no idea. Can you imagine Evelyn at the beach? Or Zheng? Actually Zheng would probably enjoy swimming.

  2. First off, thanks for the chapter! It was great.

    Second, theory time!

    Why didn’t Ed kill them? Well, he must want something from them. What does he want? Well…he might have told Heather already.

    He aspires to what many mages aspire to, to roam Outside in a near immortal form, exploring the spheres and learning forever. Basically what Saldis is doing.

    But, whether it’s arrogance or pride, he wants to do this while completely maintaining his humanity. The only person close to being able to do anything like that is Heather, with brainmath. So he really wants to know how that works.

    So how do you learn? By watching! And recording. When she first left the cottage, it recorded how she slipped, and pretty quickly set up a countermeasure for it. When she returned, one of two things had to happen. Either she escapes again, in which case he gets more data on brain math. Or she enters the circle, in which case something more horrible happens and he gets even closer to getting what he wants.

    That’s my thoughts anyways! Regardless, Ed is quite smart, I can’t imagine he sets up a scenario that he gets nothing out of.

    • You’re very welcome, glad you enjoyed it, thank you!

      A very good analysis! If he wanted to kill them, he actually had a pretty good shot here, but he didn’t take it, probably because he wasn’t intending to in the first place.

      He wants something that Heather has, but he wants it without “contamination”, without leaving behind his precious unaltered human state. Is it even possible? Heather isn’t human any more, but she’s still a person, very much so. But he doesn’t seem to see it that way.

      And indeed! even if they escaped, he probably still got something out of all this, even if they don’t know it just yet …

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