Discussion of real-world terrorism
At the apex of Jan’s borrowed whiteboard, written in black and crossed out in red, was one word: negotiate.
As the real strategy meeting got underway and smeared itself across the summer evening like a handful of cake smeared across a clean tabletop, I kept glancing back up at that word, with the letters smeared sideways by a red slash. One of us — bottom left — coiled herself into knots thinking over the implications, neurons mono-tasked to the intricacies of a single word, feeding conclusions and contradictions back into my torso and up to my brain. I even whispered it to myself a few times as the others talked, which earned me a curious sideways glance from Raine and an overt stare from Seven-Shades-of-Supernatural-Auditory-Range.
Negotiation, negated. Ruled out. Removed.
There was a finality to that — not least because it was the first thing Jan had asked, once all the participants were gathered in the magical workshop: is there no chance of a peaceful resolution? Can Edward Lilburne be brought to the table? Can you talk it out?
She didn’t ask “Does this mage truly deserve to die?”, or “Are you up to the task of killing another human being, no matter how evil?”, because this wasn’t a moral question. It was a practical question, a strategic consideration. Was there any chance, no matter how small, that negotiation could work?
The answer was no, of course. There were no objections.
We had tried, perhaps naively, to negotiate. We had really tried. All the way back to the first time, when we had attempted a treaty of sorts with one half of the shattered remnants of the Sharrowford Cult — whichever cultists and sycophants had sided with Edward in the wake of Alexander’s death at my hands.
We had made an honest effort to find a solution by which we could get the book which Edward had swiped from under our noses — The Testament of Heliopolis — and secure ourselves against further aggression. We had never really sat down and discussed the implications, not all together, not all at once. Even Evelyn had briefly flirted with the notion that we could somehow come to an understanding with him, and secure Lozzie against his intentions by placing our protection over her. We would let him live, beyond Sharrowford, away from us. No conflict, just disengagement, an uneasy coexistence.
That had been a mistake.
Edward Lilburne had responded with trickery, insults, goading, demands for his ‘property’ — and then attacks, attempts to murder us, hijackings and secret plots and threats on the lives of uninvolved children. He had sent monsters to kill us, turned his weapons on innocents, and even set his lawyer after us.
When I was younger, part of me used to believe that there was always a peaceful solution to any conflict; not because of any inherent pacifism in my character, but simply because I was raised to be a good girl, and good girls didn’t fight. By the time blows are being struck, it’s too late — but before rifles are pointed and graves are dug, surely there’s always some other way out? A compromise position, a meeting of minds, something to negotiate over.
Raine would have told me that was very naive. Raine was correct.
Edward Lilburne would never negotiate in good faith, not without a literal or metaphorical gun to his head. There was no secret combination of words, no esoteric way of presenting ourselves, no hidden appeal that would bring him around. Coexistence was impossible, because what he wanted was inimical to coexistence.
As the strategy meeting raced through the first hour and then dragged into a second, I kept thinking about that. Half of us — me and half my tentacles — were focused on Jan’s slow, methodical run-down of our options, her rapid addition of suggestions and questions, and her simmering head-butting with Evee over dangers and risks. She was very good at that, wrangling a room full of people with a touch of public speaking; there was more than a little performance in the way she gestured and nodded to everyone present, the theatrical twist to her voice, the snap of her wrist as she flicked her pen. I half-suspected she was receiving help from Sevens. But no, Jan was just very talented at pretending.
The other half of me was distracted by that question.
The point of all this was to retrieve the book — The Testament of Heliopolis — so that Evee might finish her spell, her Invisus Oculus, the invisible eye, or eye of invisibility, a great working that would hide us from the Eye’s gaze when we stood upon the soil of Wonderland. The point of this was Maisie. All this was for Maisie. Edward Lilburne didn’t actually matter.
But if we obtained the book and left him at large, he would still be inimical to us. We would never be safe. The ex-members of the Eye Cult, still languishing in pain and confusion, would always be a threat he could use against us. Lozzie would never be safe. Maisie, after her return, would never be safe.
Edward Lilburne had to die. Not because he was evil, not because of the dead children, not because of the attempts to kill us, but because he would keep doing this.
Part of us didn’t like that. The part of us that wanted to see the best in everybody, the part of us that had resisted Evelyn’s paranoia, and given Praem a name of her own. The part of us which had ached to see a person in Zheng, not just an enslaved killing machine. The part of us which had not blamed Kimberly for what she’d done. The part of us which had accepted Sarika’s continued life, and had set about rehabilitating Badger. The part of us which had sat down to really speak with Felicity, to find out if she was a monster or not.
Part of us wanted to believe in forgiveness. We lived forgiveness. Could we imagine some hypothetical future scene in which Edward sat down for tea with us, and had a polite conversation with his niece, with Lozzie, to apologise and heal?
One cannot negotiate when the other side’s goal is your destruction or subjugation. The only response is violence.
Part of us — a part I had tried to deny and suppress for a very long time — was quite satisfied with that answer.
When the meeting broke for dinner, we kept chewing on the resulting gristle of that half-digested problem, like a gallstone stuck inside a tentacle. Chinese food, courtesy of Evelyn and picked up by Praem and Raine, went down a treat, and not just for us; Twil had a huge plate of orange chicken and bamboo shoots, Felicity and Kimberly shared black bean and tofu, and we slathered some fish in lemon juice. Tenny was delighted by a veritable bucket of egg drop soup, and stuck eight tentacles into it all at once. But we kept thinking.
Alexander Lilburne had presented us with this same question, but in a much more immediate fashion; I had a choice back then, in that strange throne room in the castle made from the vast scabbed-over hide of a cosmic refugee, and only seconds in to make it — a choice between killing him and letting my friends get hurt. This was the same choice, just on a longer time scale. The answer was the same. I had made peace with that.
But when we all finished up our Chinese food and returned to the magical workshop — with Twil still carrying half a plate of orange-slathered chicken — my mind was already leaping ahead.
The lesson from two conflicts with two mages was crystal clear. A painful lesson. But a correct one.
But — did this mean we had to fight the Eye?
What were we really going to do, once we could stand amid the black ash of Wonderland and look up at the Eye, without it looking back down at us?
Would we study it for a day, a week, a month, to divine some weakness that we could reach out and exploit? The Eye had never been truly malicious, never truly evil in the way a human being could be; it had hurt me, tortured me even, but — on purpose? Or by accident? As an unconscious by-product of other processes? I didn’t know. Ever since I’d re-grapsed the machinery of hyperdimensional mathematics and realised the Eye was not native to this medium, I had been filled with unspoken doubt. Sevens had made suggestions, now half-forgotten, about the power of lesbian romance and polycules, but she had merely been guessing, projecting her own nature onto the problem. Evelyn was certain that hyperdimensional mathematics itself held the key — but to what?
Confrontation, or communication?
One can only negotiate when the other side’s goal is not one’s destruction or subjugation.
But what was the Eye’s goal?
What did the Eye want?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know if it was even possible to know.
Three hours after Jan had opened by crossing out ‘negotiate’, with bellies full of chicken and vegetables, with sunset’s last gloaming still pouring summer glow into the kitchen behind us, Jan stretched both arms above her head, put the cap back on her marker pen, and tapped the whiteboard with the blunted tip.
Raine spoke before Jan could. “I think that’s it, then. Unless anybody’s got an eleventh-hour brainwave?” Raine glanced around the room, but everyone either shrugged, shook their heads, or looked away. Jan pulled a performatively irritated little smile at Raine.
Only I was lost deep in thought.
“Heather?” Raine said. “You thinking?”
We pulled ourself up from the depths, blinking and sniffing and trying to focus. We had one tentacle wrapped around Raine’s arm in mutual comfort — not least because Evelyn had wordlessly rejected the same.
That was the unspoken reason for being so inwardly philosophical. I’m not actually that clever or good at thinking, I was just trying to avoid asking why Evelyn was avoiding me.
“Um,” I said. “No, sorry, Raine. I was just thinking about … well, nothing important. Jan, please, go ahead.”
“Alright then,” said Jan, forcing some levity into her voice. She turned back to the little whiteboard again. “I think this is all pretty conclusive. I can see three options amid all this. I suspect everyone else in the room can as well, but I’m going to summarize them anyway, so we’re all on the same page.”
Evelyn snorted — not with derision, but with a kind of dry, detached humour. She had been cultivating that tone all evening, like turning her personality into a strip of dried meat.
“Three bad options, you mean,” she said.
Jan shrugged, smiling all too sweetly. “One goes to war with the army one has, not the army one wants.”
Near the back of the magical workshop, a hand went up — Nicole Webb, private eye, well trained by years of police briefing rooms.
Nicky was still recovering from the broken left leg she’d sustained during the siege of Geerswin farm, but she had accepted the invitation to join us all the same, so Raine had driven to pick her up from her flat. Nicky’s entire left leg was wrapped in a stiff cast, lime-green, a colour she had apparently specifically requested. A pair of crutches leaned against the wall next to her. She let the cast-wrapped leg stick out in the most inconvenient way possible for everybody else, getting in the way and blocking other people and generally not allowing anybody to forget about it. Despite the constant inconvenience, she hadn’t let the rest of herself slip at all. She wore a high-collared polo-neck jumper, in black, and rather than resorting to shorts she had cut off the left leg of a pair of jeans. She’d also cut her hair after getting out of the hospital, chopping off most of the soft blonde length and shearing it short, so it stuck up in the middle. She radiated control and satisfaction — probably at confronting us with her leg in a cast.
Her control only wavered when she saw my tentacles, physical and undeniable, on full display.
“I’m just like this, now,” I’d said. “I can hide them when I go outdoors, but … not in here.”
Nicole had recovered quickly, nodding to me, somehow getting it. “Sure thing, Heather. You do you.”
She had also brought along her dog, who we’d not previously met. ‘Soup’ — short for ‘super’ — was a little bit Siberian Husky, a little bit German Shepard, and a little bit something nobody could identify, perhaps Irish Wolfhound, or maybe just actual wolf. Big, grey as a snowstorm in a wildfire, and responsibly trained as a puppy by Nicole herself, Soup sat obediently next to Nicky as if guarding her from all these strange unknown people, ears standing straight up, eyes roving around the room almost like she could understand what we were all saying.
Soup was also a very good girl though; she endured much petting from Tenny completely without complaint, probably because Nicole made a conscious effort not to show any discomfort or fear of Tenny. And she wasn’t bothered by my tentacles, not at all. Dogs are good people, as Raine might say.
Jan indicated Nicole’s raised hand with a jab of her marker pen. “Miss Webb, yes.”
Nicky laughed softly as she lowered her hand. “We’re not on the force, you can just call me Nicky.”
“Nicole,” said Jan.
Nicole sat up a little in her chair. Praem stood by to help, but Nicky didn’t actually need any assistance.
“Can’t help but wonder,” she said. “What would be the army you want, for this? Dream team, limitless resources. What do you wizard weirdos do when the gloves are really off? Paint me a picture here.”
Jan smiled, sweet like lead paint chips. “Miss Webb, the gloves are all the way off, I assure you.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. Evelyn was sitting on the other end of our little gathering, next to Twil, about as far away from me as she could get. I was trying not to think about that. She said: “Answer detective Webb’s question, please. I’m curious too.” Evelyn shot a sidelong look — and a little smile — at Nicole. Evelyn had been sharing little smiles in her direction since the moment she’d clomped through the front door in her cast, clutching her pair of crutches, intentionally getting in everybody’s way. A kindred spirit, if only temporarily.
Jan resisted a moment longer, then let her smile curdle. “Evelyn, you of all people should know that question has infinite variations. Ask ten mages, get eleven answers. What’s the point?”
Felicity — who was near the rear of the room, alongside Kim — added her own agreement: “Yeah. Too much variation to answer that.”
Evelyn sighed sharply. “Then what would you desire for this, Jan? I want to understand your thinking, before we come to a decision.”
Jan considered the air, lips pursed, then clacked her pen down on the table. She looked down at her hands, adjusted the hem of her pleated grey skirt, and sighed.
“The army,” she said.
“Oh,” Felicity murmured from the rear. “Good answer.”
Raine spoke up. “You mean your ‘army of the third eye’ people, the ones you were working for?”
Jan rolled her eyes. “No, not them. The army. The military. The British Army, I suppose. If I had infinite resources I would roll up to a safe distance from that house — preferably several miles away — with a bunch of artillery, and then just drown the building in explosives until it’s a crater. Why not?” Jan spread her hands.
Twil, around a mouthful of chicken, said: “Hell yeah! Girl’s got sense. Blow that shit up!”
“Shiiiiiiiiit,” Tenny trilled from the doorway, imitating the bad word. Twil almost choked on a piece of chicken. From the sofa, Lozzie shook her head in the please-don’t-repeat-that gesture. Tenny fluttered her tentacles and puffed out her cheeks.
Praem intoned: “No swearwolf.”
“Sorry!” said Twil, now de-chickened once more. “Sorry, sorry, my bad. Sorry.”
“The army, then,” Jan repeated. “That’s my answer.”
Nicole said, “Aw come on, that’s cheating.”
At the other end of the magical workshop, Amanda Hopton spoke up too: “I actually agree with that.”
Everyone stopped to listen. Some preferred not to look. We did though, three tentacles bobbing upward to see who was really speaking.
Amanda’s voice was a slow slurry, half-mumbled and sliding. Her eyelids were uneven. Her pupils massively dilated. Her god spoke through her.
“We don’t want anybody else to get hurt again,” said the giant Outsider cone-snail who was reading her thoughts. “Better to end it from a distance, hands off, hands away, hands … yes, hands. Rather than rush in and somebody get … hurt?”
She trailed off. Evelyn cleared her throat and said, “Thank you, Miss Hopton.”
Amanda took a deep breath and blinked several times, like a heavy sleepwalker trying to rouse herself. When I looked at her eyes, I could see a coiling vastness behind her dilated pupils, blurred by the indistinct colour of her irises. Her golden retriever — Bernard — sat across her feet, panting softly, keeping her grounded. She had responded to our invitation with dutiful attendance, but unfortunately her sister, Christine Hopton, was busy with other matters, so the representative of Brinkwood’s cosmic cone-snail had to come alone. But she was never alone, was she? A quartet of bubble-servitors had accompanied her; when she’d arrived, we had all assumed the pneuma-somatic bubble creatures would stay beyond the property line, as one of them had before. But as Amanda had entered the house, her bodyguards had settled on the roof, to watch, and wait.
We did trust them now, sort of, after the events at Geerswin Farm. I trusted Hringewindla, anyway. And the house didn’t buck them off, so we let them stay.
Nicole repeated herself, running a hand through her recently shortened hair. “It’s still cheating. Come on, I thought you’d have a magic solution to this. Animate some broomsticks. Summon a dragon. Turn him into a frog.”
Jan gave Nicole the smile of the con woman who knows she has been rumbled, but lives the role too much to give it up. “Never apply a magical solution when you can just rely on mundane reality. It’s so much safer.” Jan sighed. “The artillery method doesn’t solve the problem of getting your book, though, so it’s a moot point anyway. Have I answered the question to your satisfaction, officer?”
Nicole stared at her, as if considering standing up. “Not an officer anymore.”
From her comfy seat on the sofa, Lozzie said: “The only good kinda cop!”
Nicole sighed and rolled her eyes. Jan pulled an awkward smile, but she nodded. Raine reached over and patted Nicole on the shoulder.
“Alright,” said Jan. “Can we get on with a summary now? Any further objections?”
Evelyn nodded. “Go ahead.”
Zheng rumbled, from by the sofa: “Get on with it, wizard.”
“My pleasure,” said Jan.
She glanced back at the borrowed whiteboard. She had it propped up on the table, leaning against a small stack of books. It was nowhere near as impressive as the board on wheels which we’d used before the spell at Geerswin Farm, but then again, Christine Hopton was a school teacher, so she had that sort of thing knocking around. This tiny little whiteboard had been volunteered by Kimberly; it had formerly been covered with really quite sweet self affirmations, a few little notes about a writing project which she quickly erased, and a drawing of an alien who was also a wizard and an elf. She’d been eager to scrub it all so she could contribute: “I don’t mind, I’ll just take a picture first.”
We were all gathered in the magical workshop — and I do mean all of us, not just me myself and I. Nicole and Amanda had both responded to our invitations. Twil and Zheng had returned together from the stakeout, apparently after a bit of a race back to the house; Twil seemed none the worse for wear, still happily tearing into her orange chicken, but Zheng was brooding, quietly irritated by the presence of July. The other demon host kept shadowing her around the room like a lost puppy. Zheng was currently leaning on the wall next to the sofa, shadowing Lozzie in turn. Sevens and Aym sat a little apart, perhaps indicating that they couldn’t really help very much. Felicity and Kimberly stuck close to each other.
And Evelyn had pointedly and wordlessly detached herself from the comfort of my tentacle.
I couldn’t work out why and I was trying not to worry myself, but the correlation was clear; earlier, when having a good shout at Jan, Evelyn had been perfectly happy for me to hold her arm close, hold her back from poor decisions, and entwine my tentacle with her.
But then she’d been critiqued for her failures — and separated from me.
She sat right next to Twil, closer than I had expected; one or two of my tentacles kept drifting upward to examine them together, sending little tingles of jealousy back down into my torso.
Praem attended to all, as usual. Raine was by my side. Lozzie was comfy on the sofa. Tenny was still crammed in the doorway, but she had been allowed one tentacle inside the workshop, to wrap around ‘Lozz-mum’s’ arm. She needed a hand to hold, with all these scary subjects of discussion.
The only one missing was Amy Stack.
Raine had called her earlier, to see if the missing mercenary had wanted to be involved. But she’d gotten the same response as before Geerswin farm: fifteen seconds of silence on the other end of the phone, followed by a dial tone. Stack was listening, but refused involvement.
“She’s doing this her own way,” Raine had said, when both I and Evelyn had expressed concerns. “I trust her.”
Evelyn had almost spluttered at that. “You trust her?! Raine, I do not trust that woman an inch. I believe she will do as she’s told because we’re protecting her boy, nothing else. I have her leash, not her trust.”
“Still,” Raine had said. “She’s more like me than I wanna admit. Let her do this her own way. It’ll pay off.”
Evee had huffed and stomped off at that. But I’d wanted to believe. Raine was often right about these things.
Jan uncapped her red marker pen again and drew three wobbly enclosures — it would be far too charitable to call them circles — around three different areas of the little whiteboard, around the notes she’d already made. Then she tapped the largest one.
“Option number one,” Jan said. “Frontal assault. You march up to the house, knock down the front door, and go room to room. Simple, straightforward, and very risky.”
Raine pointed double finger-guns at Jan, flicking her thumbs like the hammers of twin revolvers. “My kinda style, babe.”
Soup — Nicole’s dog — followed the finger-gun gesture, ears perking up. So did I. The dog and I looked at each other for a long moment. Ah, I thought, I have become dog-like.
“Mmmm!” Twil agreed around a mouthful of half-chewed chicken, then swallowed before speaking. “Yeah, I’m with Raine on that. We can take him. We’ve taken worse.”
Felicity sighed heavily. Zheng just rumbled, like the underground echoes of volcanic motion.
Evelyn snorted again. “You make it sound so simple.”
Jan pulled a delicate little grimace. “Yes, it wouldn’t be as straightforward as all that. I do hope that’s been made clear to the more hot-headed members of this little alliance. This isn’t going to be like playing a computer game where nobody shoots back at you.”
“Ha,” Evelyn barked. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the sigil.”
She pointed at the photograph which Jan had tucked into the top right of the whiteboard — it showed a front view of Edward’s house, the grandly crooked structure framed by dense woodland, the gravel driveway in front and a hint of the gardens behind. The heavy black beams and tiny metal-latticed windows of the house charted a secret word in an unspoken language.
I could almost read it, if I squinted hard enough. Two of my tentacles rose and bobbed next to my head whenever we tried, adding their neurons to the task. But after a few seconds the effort spiked into a headache. Edward Lilburne had baked something subtle and strange into the fabric of his home.
Jan nodded. “Yes, I know. We’d have to damage the front of the house first. Break a beam, maybe two. I’m not sure.”
Evelyn leaned forward in her chair, one hand heavy on her walking stick. “We have no idea what that sigil does. Disrupting it—”
“Is dangerous, yes,” Jan admitted. “But as far as a frontal confrontation goes, it’s our only option for dealing with the problem.” Jan put one dainty little hand out before Evelyn could interrupt. “The point is to summarise. Yes, it’s dangerous.”
Evelyn hurrumphed, making clear her objection.
Jan continued, “As for once we’re in there, well.” She cast a look around the room, deep-sea eyes bright with optimism for once. “We have a small army of pneuma-somatic blob monsters, courtesy of the … um … Church.” She nodded to Amanda. “In addition, three demon hosts, one regenerating werewolf, four mages, one trigger-happy butch—” Raine cheered softly “—and Heather. Lozzie, Tenny, detective Webb, Miss … Seven, and ‘Aym’, we are assuming will not be involved in direct hostilities.” Jan paused, then pulled a sort of funny reverse-smile, tilting her head at the same time. “You know what? That’s actually not bad. I’ve been involved in fights with far worse odds than that. This is really quite a lot of terrifying, dangerous people all gathered in one place.”
Evelyn said, slowly and dangerously, “We have no idea what he has inside those walls. We know from bitter experience that he’s not afraid to summon physical entities from Outside, warp them and torture them into killing machines, and then throw them at us. This is real magecraft, not a play fight with a toy gun.”
Raine said, “But we’d be the ones on the front foot. I like those odds too, Evee. I really like ‘em.”
Evelyn snapped, “And I don’t. I object to any plan which requires us to put any person in this room in danger.”
At the rear of the room, Felicity muttered: “Gonna be hard to find a way that doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” Raine said, “Evee, we can’t do this without some risk.”
Evelyn’s gaze bored into Raine, so hot and hard that I thought even Raine would back up or flinch. But she held firm, relaxed and easy, as always.
Evelyn said, “Would you be willing to risk Heather? Should I risk Praem? How about you, Felicity, are happy to put Kimberly there in harm’s way? You, Twil, are you happy with me standing in the way of a bullet?”
Twil paused, mouth full of chicken, eyes wide as she was pinned to the spot. “Um. No?”
The argument skipped back and forth but we tuned it out; this option was always disfavoured. For what it was worth, we agreed with Evee. We could never forgive ourselves if somebody died walking up to that house, for me, for Maisie. We tried to imagine Evelyn not coming back, or Raine getting shot — again — or Praem ending up in a bottle like before, trapped and alone. None of those things were acceptable outcomes. We had to find a better way.
And we knew all too well what it was going to be. Jan was just taking her sweet time getting there.
But as Jan had listed our forces, I felt something new creep up from the base of my gut. I looked around at the others — at Zheng and Praem, at Amanda on the far side of the room, at Sevens sitting daintily with Aym perched in her lap, at Felicity and Kimberly quite close together. A year ago I could not have imagined this — this gathering of supernatural power, this loose alliance of found family and hangers-on, all of us aimed at the same target.
And I was the closest thing they had to an angel, somebody who could protect and bypass all of them.
Jan was in the middle of listing potential downsides: “—inevitable violence, of course, possibly close and personal, and—”
Evelyn butted in again. “And we will still have to deal with the mage himself.”
Jan nodded slowly. At the rear of the room, Felicity cleared her throat, but said nothing. Over on the sofa, Lozzie chewed on her lower lip. Tenny’s tentacle tightened on Lozzie’s hand. The dogs both perked up, sensing the tension in the room. Bernard closed his eyes when Amanda scratched under his chin, but Soup stared — at me.
“We’ve killed a mage before,” I said, talking to the dog for some reason.
Jan glanced at me, then sighed. “You put down a relatively young and inexperienced magician. But … we have four mages in this very room. I don’t like the idea of a magical duel any more than Evelyn does. But, four versus one. Again, I like those odds.”
Evelyn said, voice crackling like a fire: “There are mages and there are mages.”
Felicity said, “Yeah. True.”
Jan winced, slowly. “True, but four on one … ”
Evelyn carried on. “Every mage in this room is mostly human. Even you.”
“Oh, thank you,” Jan said with more than a touch of sarcasm. “But I take your point. We know very little about Edward’s possible … changes.” She shot a glance at Lozzie, but Lozzie shrugged beneath her poncho, shaking her head. “Alexander was capable of resisting physical trauma. It’s likely the uncle is too. So, yes. It would come down to a magical duel.”
“Or mathematical,” I said.
Jan puffed out a big sigh. She didn’t want to think about that. I almost retreated back into my shell — but in the corner of my eye, Evelyn glanced at me, then looked away. Even a mote of her interest was enough to rouse me.
I swallowed, and said: “If you can get me face-to-face with him, with all his protection stripped away, with nothing to distract or trick me, then I can just … I can … ”
We glanced at Tenny, with head and all tentacles. Tenny looked back, placid with understanding. She knew what I was talking about.
“Booooooom,” she fluttered.
I blushed faintly, nodding along. “Yes. If I could just touch him. Or maybe not even touch him, I may be able to do it at a distance. I’ll just … render him down, at the atomic level.”
Sevens suddenly said, “No splitting the atom, not again. Bad kitten.”
“Tch!” we tutted, blushing horribly. “Sevens! This is a serious meeting.”
“And I am serious,” she said. “No splitting the atom.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “I’m with yellow, don’t go blowing anything up so close to your face, hey?”
Jan was frowning in wordless concern. We decided it was better not to explain that I might potentially be able to set off a nuclear chain-reaction.
Evelyn spoke up and killed the brief frivolity. “He will be protected.”
She wasn’t looking at me. She wasn’t looking at anybody. She was staring at a point on the far wall, eyes somewhere far away. Her knuckles were turning white on the handle of her walking stick.
We knew, without needing to ask, that she was thinking about her mother.
We reached out to her with a tentacle, uncoiling toward Evelyn with the hope of soothing her fears. But Twil was so much closer. Twil was right next to her. The werewolf closed a hand over Evelyn’s knuckles. I felt the most unworthy pang of jealousy in my chest.
“Evee,” Twil said. “Hey hey hey, Evee? Cool it, okay?”
Evelyn huffed, snapping around to stare at her, unimpressed, shaking off her hand. “Yes. Fine. Still, the point stands. He’ll be protected.”
I cleared my throat, swallowing bile that Twil did not deserve. “You mean against hyperdimensional mathematics? Evee? Is that what you mean?”
Oh, please look at me, Evee. What have we done wrong? Was it our tentacles?
Evelyn’s eyes traced private patterns on the floorboards. “Against anything and everything. Mages do not reach such an advanced age without extreme caution. You should not assume that self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics will be a trump card. Don’t get complacent.”
We swallowed. Evee would not look. Why would she not look? “Okay, Evee. I promise. I won’t rush in alone. I promise you.”
Evelyn took a deep breath, nodded awkwardly, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “That rules out option two, then. Doesn’t it?”
Jan spoke before I could say anything. “Actually,” she said with a delicate click of her lips, “I think option two is the most viable.”
“No,” said Evelyn.
Zheng grunted. “Mm. I agree with the wizard. No.”
“Yeah, nah,” said Raine.
We said nothing. The burden lay heavily across our shoulders. We knew option two was the sensible option, the one which kept everybody else safe, the one way of doing this which was so self-evident that I had waited all through the strategy meeting for Jan to suggest it. And she had. She’d written it up, asked the right questions, and even outlined some of the problems and pitfalls.
But now, faced with a barrage of objections, she sighed. “Can I summarize it anyway?”
Evelyn opened her mouth to say no, but I spoke first, goaded by more than jealousy and spite: “Please do, Jan. Please do.”
Jan gestured at the second bubble on the whiteboard. It was the smallest. Option two needed no calculations or complex planning. “Option two. Heather uses her very illegal teleportation powers and goes in alone, then—”
“Or,” Evelyn demanded.
Jan paused, pursed her lips, and added: “Or alongside Lozzie. In case one of them is incapacitated.”
Lozzie offered nothing. She seemed to shrink inside her poncho. Zheng reached over and placed one massive hand atop Lozzie’s head.
“Like I said,” Raine repeated. “Nah. No way.”
“Raine … ” we said, softly. “It might be the safest way.”
Evelyn snapped without looking at me, “We have no idea what is inside that house. He trapped you once, he can do it again. And that sigil could do anything. It could turn you inside out. No.”
We took a shuddering breath. We did not want our friends to get hurt. And we were robust now, in a way we were not before. “We only need the book, Evee. If I can pinpoint it—”
“Which you can’t,” Evelyn said, “because we don’t even know what it looks like.”
“Mmmmmmm,” went Seven-Shades-of-Soft-Disagreement. “We will not have you and little Loz wander the dark places for hours, searching for a book, or a library, or a hidden safe. Too much of a risk.”
Evelyn nodded to Sevens. “Thank you.”
Amanda Hopton spoke up again, channelling her god: “Heather doesn’t deserve to face this alone. And the sigil … sigil. Sigil? It’s not safe. My … he agrees. This is a bad point. I mean, bad choice. Not good. Let’s not.”
Everyone waited for her to finish.
Jan stood there with pursed lips. Evelyn levelled a stare at her. Jan rolled her eyes and gave up first. She said, “If you’re not willing to risk anybody, then we’re not going to get anywhere.”
“I am aware of that,” Evelyn said. “But no. Nobody goes in alone. Nobody does this alone. Not Heather.”
I hung my head, face burning with shame and confusion. I had promised no self-sacrifice, no charging in by myself — but the alternative was to risk injury, pain, and death among my friends and family, my closest, my pack. Abyssal instinct and all seven of me rebelled against that notion with all my soul. I would not let others sacrifice themselves for me. I should be there to walk through any danger.
An angel of the Eye, but bound by too much love. I could not reconcile these promises.
And Jan was right — Evee would brook no risk, to anybody. Especially me.
Was that why she wouldn’t look at me? Why she’d rejected my touch? Because she felt it too, she knew the truth, that me going in by myself was the most sensible option?
Jan clacked her pen against the whiteboard. “Option three, then!” she said. “Option three. Oh, how I love this one. It’s been a long time since I got to blow anything up.”
Raine made purring noise deep in her throat. “I like me some option three.”
Twil snorted. “You would.”
Nicole sighed. “Yeah, steady on, Haynes. Seriously. This is risky stuff we’re talking about here. This would be domestic terrorism.”
Raine laughed and cocked an eyebrow at Nicky. “You helped me suggest it, detective. Take responsibility, hey?”
I raised my voice, “This is a group effort. If we agree on this, it’ll be a group effort too. Please, Raine?”
Raine spread her hands in gentle surrender. “I’m just saying. Plus hey, Nicky, that’s not terrorism, by definition. Don’t be teaching Tenny wrong.”
“Option three,” Jan repeated over the blossoming argument. “Car bomb.”
Felicity said, “I really don’t like this one either.”
Kimberly made a little squeak, and said, “Me as well. Um. I don’t think we should be doing this.”
Jan glanced at the numbers scrawled across one third of the whiteboard, the ones Raine had added, with an expertise I’d never expected. “Well, more like ‘truck bomb’. We steal a lorry — a big one — load it up with a lot — and I do mean a lot — of explosives, and then drive it into that house.”
Raine grinned wide, loving every second of this. “The ol’ spicy Beirut embassy special.”
Nicole huffed so hard that her dog flinched. “See? Definitionally terrorism, Haynes.”
Twil snorted into her last piece of chicken. “Oh fu— fiddlesticks. Come on, you two, stop it.”
“Boooooooom,” said Tenny.
“No, Tenns,” Lozzie said, gently. “No funny boom.”
Jan cleared her throat. “A couple of hundred pounds of explosives should level the entire building. Nothing would be left standing.”
Evelyn drawled, “The sigil might.”
Jan cleared her throat. “Except the sigil. Um.” She pulled a grimace. “I have to admit, I don’t much like this plan either. It’s … well. Difficult. Flashy. Risky. Loud. All bad things.”
Raine said, softly, “We can do it.”
Lozzie, surprisingly, said, “Yeah!”
Raine shot Lozzie a wink and a finger gun. Lozzie giggled and blew a kiss back at her, with a flap of poncho.
Nicole sighed. “On a technical level, sure, it’s not actually that hard. If you lot really can get in and out of places without being stopped or detected, building a really big bomb is very simple. Dangerous though.”
Jan nodded curtly to the detective. “Well put. If this was to go wrong, somebody would lose more than a hand or an eye.”
Raine turned back to her. “It’s easy. I know how to do it.”
Jan pursed her lips and stared at Raine. “You don’t have any real demolitions experience. What you have is a half-remembered pdf file of the US Army Improvised Munitions handbook.”
We winced, expecting an argument. But Raine burst out laughing and spread her hands in a shrug. “You got me there.”
Felicity, to everyone’s surprise, said very softly and very gently: “I know how to make bombs.”
Raine turned and raised her eyebrows. “You serious, Fliss?”
“Yes. Scaling up is not too hard. As long as we have good quality equipment, I could do it safely. I would … ” Felicity paused, swallowed, and glanced at Kimberly. Kim did not look comfortable, half frozen. “I would rather not. I vote against this plan. But I thought you ought to know. That’s all.”
Evelyn watched the exchange, detached and frowning. We cleared our throat and said, “Evelyn, what do you think?”
Evee glanced at me, just for a moment, then looked away again. She sighed heavily. “I prefer it to a magical duel, but Jan is correct. The chances of blowing ourselves to kingdom come is too great. Plus we risk attention from mundane authorities.”
“Mmhmm,” Jan agreed. “We don’t know how well his house is ‘insulated’, magically speaking. We let off a giant bomb in the middle of the English countryside, we’re going to make the news.”
We sighed. “A bomb like that might also destroy the book,” I said. “That’s the reason for all this in the first place.”
Jan nodded. “Quite, Heather. Quite right.”
“It’s no better than me just sending the entire building and all the contents Outside.”
Jan continued nodding, radiating false sagely wisdom. Raine clapped me on the back, congratulating my good point, though her face was lined with disappointment. Somebody — Felicity I think — muttered: “Scary.” Zheng grunted. Sevens tutted delicately.
Twil, though, let out a big sigh, slumping back in her chair and gesturing with her now-empty plate. “Ahhhh come on, Evee. You can’t veto all three plans, right? Right?” She gestured with the plate again — Praem plucked it out of her hand before it could go flying across the room. “We gotta do something. We gotta do one of them.”
Evelyn muttered: “No, we don’t.”
And there was light in her voice. Light, and hope, and energy. Because of Twil? Because of Twil. Because of Twil’s hand on her shoulder, Twil’s encouragement. The roots of my tentacles twisted with a jealousy I dared not show; what right did I have, anyway? What right did I—
But then Evelyn looked up.
I blinked back at her, flustering under the sudden scrutiny. I was so obvious, three of my tentacles went stiff with embarrassment. “E-Evee?”
“Heather,” she said. “What if you do that anyway?”
“Send the whole house Outside.”
“But we’d lose the book. We’d—”
“To Camelot.” She sighed, and for the first time that day I saw a hint of something other than bitterness in her face. She smiled, ever so slightly. “That name is so stupid, I hate it.”
Lozzie said, “Noooo, it’s great!”
Tenny agreed. “Cammy-lot!”
Praem intoned, “Camelot.”
Raine cheered: “Camelot!”
Jan winced and rolled her eyes. “Please don’t break into song.”
“Camelot,” said July, like a knife coated with ice.
Evelyn waved them down, gesturing with the head of her walking stick, then focused on me again. “Is that possible, Heather? Could you send the entire building, foundations and all, to Camelot?” Her eyes bored into mine, twin jewels in a soft, round face. We felt like an insect, about to be pinned. She must have misunderstood my hesitation, because she added: “Be honest. Don’t tell me you can if you can’t.”
We stared at her. A trio of our tentacles began to twist and whirl, their neurons considering the mathematics, the implications, the logistics of such a task. My mouth went dry. My scalp began to tingle. My palms felt suddenly sweaty — and not just because of the sheer intimidating effort of what Evelyn was suggesting, but because of the way she looked at us in that moment.
Look at me! Look at us! Look what we’ve become!
For the last three days, every day since we had emerged from the dream whole and complete, Evelyn had looked at me as if something about me was wrong now, but she couldn’t bring herself to hurt me by putting it into words. She hid it well, and her objections to the plans made it clear she valued my safety even above her own, but she couldn’t entirely conceal her distance, her reticence, her lack of certainty in me.
I didn’t understand why. And it hurt, more than a little.
But now, she stared back into my eyes with a twinkle of mischievous victory. Because of me.
I would send the world Outside, if she asked.
“Um,” I stammered, wetting my lips, trying to gather my thoughts. “It’s not impossible. In theory. In theory, I could send the whole house to Camelot, yes. I’d need to be close, close enough to touch the ground, I … think. I think it would be easier to send it along with as much ground, or dirt, or earth as I need. A-and … and it would hurt, a lot. I think it would probably put me ‘out of action’—” I did little air quotes with two tentacles “—for a day, maybe two, in a similar way to when I located the house. It would … collapse my … um, tentacles.”
Evelyn’s eyes left mine for a split-second. I wouldn’t have noticed, had I not been staring. Her eyes left me and graced all the other me, the six tentacles hanging in the air, bobbing and ducking, some already reaching toward her in subconscious hope.
And something inside her eyes froze over.
She hid it well.
And then back to me — me.
“But you could do it?” she asked.
I nodded, quivering slightly, still half-reaching for Evee with a tentacle — but she ignored the gesture, hands planted firmly on her walking stick. “Evee, what are you thinking?”
Evelyn stood up.
Praem helped her stand, but once she was up, she stood straighter than she had in days. The frustrated anger was gone from her face, replaced with something more amused and confident. She stepped over to Jan and the whiteboard and held out her hand.
Jan handed her the pen.
Evelyn crossed out options one, two, and three, and wrote a phrase in the middle of the board: combined arms.
“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said. Her voice glowed with admiration. I swelled alongside her — but I couldn’t get Evee’s look just now out of my head, the way she had looked at us, swallowing something she dared not speak. “What are you thinking?” Raine asked.
Evelyn nodded to Jan, then to the rest of the room. “We do a little bit of all three plans: mundane blunt force, frontal assault, and perhaps even a little bit of infiltration. But not here.” She shook her head. “We do it in Camelot. We get Heather close enough to translocate the entire house, the grounds, all of it.” Evelyn chopped the air with a hand. “She dumps the whole thing into a specifically prepared area out in Camelot. We have the Knights, and the Caterpillars.” Evelyn’s eyes flickered to Lozzie. “Loz—”
“They can do it,” Lozzie answered before the question was even asked. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide as they could go in their sleepy sockets, a touch of awe on her face. She nodded. “They can surround the house. They can do it! The cattys are amazing! I promise!”
Evelyn nodded, curt and confident. “They need a shakedown before Wonderland, anyway.” She was speaking so hard she was almost panting. “So, we put the entire house in Camelot. Out there we don’t have to worry about mundane authorities. We hit the front with a a bomb — or a Caterpillar?” Lozzie was nodding along. “Disrupt the sigil, break whatever it does. Then we can enter, or sit back and wait. We can rely on the Knights, or demand Edward show himself. We will have so many more options. We can bury him at our leisure.”
Felicity started clapping. Evelyn frowned, and for a moment I thought the clapping was sarcastic. But then Felicity said, “Good. Yeah.” Raine joined in. Twil threw a fist in the air and went: “Yeah!” Tenny made an excited trilling noise.
Zheng rumbled, “The shaman opens the way.”
Amanda Hopton muttered: “I approve too. This is, safer? It is much safer. And away from us. We will lend what we can.”
Nicole crossed her arms, then uncrossed them so she could pet her dog, scratching behind her ears. Soup made a happy whine. “You people are terrifying,” Nicky said. Jan gave her a sympathetic look. Nicole nodded back.
Evelyn stood up even straighter, forcing her weight onto her walking stick. “Then we’re agreed.”
Praem intoned, clear as a little bell: “Well done.”
Jan sighed a tight little sigh. “Why didn’t you say any of this earlier?”
Evelyn snorted. “Because I didn’t think of it earlier. Because I’ve barely had time to think at all. Because I was … compromised.”
A cold feeling blossomed in my chest, ice in my heart. Compromised by me.
Raine said, “You’ve gotten your mojo back, Evee.”
Evelyn pulled a face. “Don’t put it like that. And hardly. I still don’t know what to do about that sigil. We can’t identify it, let alone prepare for it. I don’t like that. We need countermeasures, prepared for the worst. Besides, we’re hardly done, this is still going to need a lot of figuring out, a lot of going over details. How to get Heather close to that house without putting her in danger, that’s the biggest problem. We’re still going to be walking up to that bloody place—”
“Bloody!” Tenny trilled. She knew that word already.
Lozzie told her off, gently. Twil started laughing. Nicole too, finally relaxing a little bit. All throughout the room, the tension began to lift, for everyone except me. Evelyn and Jan fell into a discussion over details, but I was tuning out, barely even aware when Raine stood up and detached herself from the arm-embrace of our tentacles. I was dimly aware of her wandering over to the whiteboard, phone in hand, and taking a picture of the photograph of Edward’s house. Her fingers flew over the screen.
Evelyn had been compromised — because something about me had changed.
I wanted to leave. We wanted to go upstairs and sit in the dark.
Or go Outside.
Up at the front of the room, Raine was fiddling with her phone, but Jan suddenly turned and clicked her fingers in my direction. “Heather?”
Evelyn was saying, “—not necessary, Jan. We’re fine. It’s not needed. Stop it. Stop.”
But Jan was already gesturing at me, and gesturing at Evelyn. “You two are coming with me, alone, right now, to the nearest private room. Whatever is going on, you’re talking it out.”
Evelyn opened her mouth to snap. My tentacles coiled inward, to hide me inside a protective ball. I did not want to know.
“Ah!” Jan said before we could lash out or retreat. “I’m not having the two linchpins of this plan staying buried in a sapphic feud. You’re talking it out, now. Or I’ll request Praem and Zheng carry you for me.” She clicked her fingers again. “Now. Private room. Chop chop.”
A number of very messy options, some of which are really too dangerous for a bunch of non-professionals to be messing around with! Bombs, really? Probably not a great idea. Clearly the safer option is to teleport an entire chunk of rural England to a parallel dimension. Yes, very sensible, very proportional. Heather can probably do it, though! Jan turns out to be actually a pretty good organiser, even if she would rather not be. Meanwhile, what the hell is going on with Evelyn? Well, Heather is about to find out, and so are we!
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Next week, it’s time for a very difficult heart to heart. Will Evee and Heather finally discuss the giant elephant in the room? Or is Evelyn feeling uncomfortable about what Heather has become?
On second thought , let’s not go to Camelot. ‘Tis a silly place
I was one or two stray lines away from actually having somebody say this, or at least a variation on it. But I resisted the urge!
Now I kinda wish you had someone say it.
Thanks for the chapter.
Now hand over Amy Stack. I really want to know what she’s been doing.
You’re very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
As for Amy Stack, I’m certain we’ll be hearing from her very soon indeed.
Heather is just now realizing she is a slightly feral domesticated puppy-squid with dommy-sub fetishes. Ha, she is a switch. Nice
On another note the pain one feels when they realize their Ship has been lost in the sapphic sea and possibly sunk is really painful. Damn.
Thank you for the chapter.
She is a puppy-squid! She has become rather doglike, and that is okay.
Oh dear! Which ship is that?
You’re very welcome for the chapter! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.
…….Heather x Evelyn……
Thank you for replying.
Ohohoho! Has it sunk? Has it really? Wait and see what their little chat brings!
Ha, that was a lighthouse comment, but I’ll follow it. 🙂
Oho, a ‘lighthouse’ comment?
A comment that grants a guiding light in this fog of uncertainty.
Ooooh, I see!
Great chapter! Hopefully these silly ladies will work it out!
Thanks for the chapter!
Thank you very much! Hopefully Evee and Heather will have a fruitful talk, yes! And you are so very welcome, really glad you’re enjoying the story so much.
It occurs to me that one of the defining characteristics of a powerful mage, to Evelyn, is that they are no longer human (“Every mage in this room is mostly human. Even you.”).
With her tentacles, Heather is now visibly inhuman.
Exactly. She might be onto something there, but the important thing is that Evelyn believes it to be so – mages do not remain human if they continue to develop. But Evee is surrounded by non-human people who are parts of her family now (Praem, Heather, etc) and doesn’t seem to judge them for not being human. Perhaps this is more about her fears for herself and what she might become?
Something about the behavior of Soup strikes me as peculiar. Too intelligent for a dog, perhaps.
…aaand now I can’t help but worry that Nicky might be a mole. We’ve never seen Ed Lilburne; don’t know what he looks like; don’t even know that he is still in fact a “he”. And it would be easy enough for Edward to fake Nicky’s investigations: rather than ransack the lawyer’s office, just request the documents as a client; rather than wander all over the Pennines, just walk a couple towns over and cast a confusion spell on oneself/accomplice-Nicky.
I think if Nicky were a mole, she would have sabotaged the Morell organization previously (during the confrontation at Geerswin farm, maybe?). But I’m not sure, mainly because much Edward’s goals remain mysterious.
We know that he wants to prevent nearby mages from achieving comparable puissance (much like Evelyn might feel), that he resists Lozzie’s gender (although on unclear grounds), and that he is ruthless in his rapacity. But there is no clear ideological lodestar for his strategy, unlike Alexander’s self-justification as a guide to cosmically secure (post-)humanity. Without that, I’m not sure if he isn’t (still!) playing some sort of long game.
We have actually seen Edward Lilburne! Once, near the start of the story, he and Alexander and Lozzie were all encountered together, in pursuit of the Messenger Demon from Maisie. He was likely drawn out of hiding due to the sheer impossibility and potential of such a creature being manifested into reality.
Furthermore, he is Lozzie’s uncle and she did known him earlier, as a child, so we can be reasonably sure who he is; the two times he’s been encountered since, in disguise during the meeting at the pub and then when trying to capture Heather, his description does match what Lozzie knows about him.
Whatever his ideology is, it seems to be entirely self-serving. Alexander had an ideology beyond his self (as vile as he may have been), but Edward? Perhaps there’s nothing there except a pure lust for power and knowledge, a mage distilled down.
I note that, without making a big deal of it, Jan went from agreeing to help with strategy, to counting herself and July among the attacking army
I doubt she’s willing to put herself on the front lines! Or if she is, she’ll be safely in the back. Leading from the rear! A time-honoured tradition of staying alive.
“Ever since I’d re-grapsed”
“Felicity, are happy to put Kimberly there”
are YOU happy
Thank you for spotting those errors! Some still slip through. Much appreciated.
“Raine made purring noise deep in her throat.”
Raine made A purring noise…
Thank you for spotting that typo! Much appreciated!
Competent Jan is a lot more compelling than the other faces she’s put on previously. Which is good; I was starting to wonder what Lozzie saw in her.
Turns out that Jan is actually really good at certain kinds of things – leadership, perhaps? It’s just that she really, really doesn’t want to take that responsibility, or put herself in danger.
“One cannot negotiate when the other side’s goal is your destruction or subjugation. The only response is violence.”
Oof. I see this was posted just a few days before the shooting in Nashville, where a trans man murdered three children and three adults at a private Christian school he attended decades earlier. The motive is still under investigation and a “manifesto” the killer left behind has not been released, but there is speculation that it’s along the lines of the quoted text at the top of this comment.
It’s unfortunate and clearly unintentional given the timing of the post, but I had a visceral reaction to the above-quoted line in light of that event.
On a brighter note, looking forward to seeing Evee and Heather work out what’s going on between them!