None this chapter.
Anxiety was now sevenfold, shared among seven of myself, seven physical vessels with their roots mingled but their tips distinct; the physical sensation was not the same as before.
Sleep felt different, too.
I’d always been a lonely sleeper, all through my teenage years and into early adulthood, no matter what methods I adapted or which habits I adjusted. Slipping between cold sheets and wrapping myself up tight, alone, singular, without company, was always a depressing feeling, even when I was exhausted and the bedsheets were clean and comfortable. The Eye’s nightmare lessons always threatened to turn sleep into an ordeal, yes, but even during the periods where it was not teaching me the forbidden secrets of reality, I took little pleasure in going to bed. The reason was not difficult to understand: when we’d been children, Maisie and I had often slept together.
We’d had our own separate beds, in the same shared room, but it was a rare occasion that we wouldn’t spend at least part of a night sharing the sheets, partially entwined, or at least holding hands. I would visit her, or she would visit me; sometimes we would wake up in each other’s beds, after swapping positions. We were just children, seeking physical comfort in family, in our mirrored selves. It was normal, constant, just another biological process. Even when we didn’t sleep in physical contact I could always hear her breathing. All I had to do was listen, still my own breath, and I would hear her on the other side of the room, less than six feet away. My other half, my eternal mirror, my twin sister, my Maisie.
On many nights during the long dark purgatory of my teenage years, I had attempted to simulate Maisie with a pillow. Stuck it in the dryer to warm it up, tucked it in bed against my front, gave me something warm to hug. But it wasn’t the same. It was never the same. It wasn’t her.
Sleep was lonely.
Raine changed all that, of course. Raine, and then Zheng, and then Sevens. Even Evelyn on occasion, though in her case I was the one warming her bed with my company, rather than the other way around. But still, even with real, physical companionship snuggled up against either side of me, romantic or platonic or undefined, something was still missing. I knew it was my twin, my missing part. I would never feel right again without Maisie.
But now I was several. Several tentacles and a human core. Six other parts of me embodied in glorious pneuma-somatic flesh. This new experience — being us, instead of just I — was not a consistent thing, just as I suspect that being a single consciousness is not consistent, either. Sometimes I was very much me, Heather, singular, surrounded by a vague cloud of tentacular thoughts which were still identifiably mine, but just a step distant, a hanging swarm of separated notions from which I could select at will. Other times we were seven, seven Heathers, each of us with a different flavour to our thoughts, combining into one set of words and expressions and outward projections. But who was who was not consistent either: a single tentacle might briefly embody Cautious Heather, with all skittish and paralysed thoughts coming from the bottom left, loud and clear, but then the thoughts would move on and the same tentacle an hour later would be Lustful Heather, gripping for Raine despite the blushing of my human core. I might hug a tentacle in the morning, feeling the vulnerability of Pre-Raine Heather like an echo, then find the same tentacle slapping the walls in dancing delight in the evening.
But one thing was consistent: we all slept together. I was waking up wrapped in myself, wrapping myself, wrapped by ourselves. We burrowed and nested. If I woke in the night, there was I, and there I was, and there I was, ready to reassure myself with my own physical reality.
It wasn’t Maisie, but it was the closest we could get. It was the same thing we’d been trying to do since we’d lost her.
That was how I’d woken up that morning, wrapped in our own tentacles, clinging tight against the onrushing tide of anxiety, a belly full of writhing butterflies, and a nervous leaden energy in all our limbs.
Today was the day; the anxiety was a lead weight in my cells.
How could Raine eat breakfast like nothing was wrong? She wolfed down cereal and fruit and bacon, fuelling herself for the potential trials to come, trying to offer me bites of meat or spoonfuls of pear. She takes reality in her stride and keeps going, feeding off her own confidence, always pushing forward; part of what we love about her. At least Evelyn shared our nervous energy; she sat at the kitchen table taking slow, steady breaths, a faint tremor in her muscles, not even sipping her tea. Praem did her best to try to get Evee to have some proper breakfast. She half-succeeded; Evelyn ate a few calories worth of toast and marmite. Perhaps the salt helped her think. We just gave up and scarfed down half a dozen lemons. That would have to do.
“What if it doesn’t work?” we asked.
Evelyn sighed. “Heather, we’ve been over this. We stick to the plan.”
“I know, I know the plan. I know we have to stick to the plan. But what if—”
“Jaaaaaaan!” Evelyn bellowed.
Jan had spent the night here so as to save time and complications this morning. She had also spent it with Lozzie — though Tenny and July had been present too, so no funny business. Not that anybody would have blamed either of them for seeking some privacy and comfort, considering the stress of what we were about to do.
Jan joined us in the kitchen. Sharp-eyed, sharp-dressed, ready. She was nervous too, but she showed it in all-consuming tight self-control. I noticed she held her chin higher that morning, and held her hands behind the small of her back, as if she was inspecting troops, her sight-line gazing at some unseen horizon. There was a surprising steel to her now that she was committed, like a flicked switch deep in her psyche.
“Don’t shout for me like a servant, Evelyn,” she said with a gentle tilt of her head. “I’m a contractor, not your maid.” Her eyes flickered to Praem. “Um, no offense to maids. You’re a wonderful maid. The best.”
Praem looked left. Praem looked right. Praem was still not dressed in her preferred way, lacking a maid uniform to replace the one which had been ruined, despite whatever private conversation she’d had with Jan about clothes and dresses. That morning she was dressed for war — heavy boots, practical jeans, a black t-shirt. The transformation was striking.
Praem intoned: “I see no maids.”
Jan sighed and rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“I see,” Praem repeated. “No maids. No, maids. I see.”
We burst into a fit of giggles, tapping the table with our tentacle tips. It wasn’t even that funny, not really, but the nervous anxiety had us teetering on the edge of an inappropriate outburst. Strung tight, pulled taut, ready to jump at the first needle. We snorted and giggled and had to take several deep breaths. Raine grinned and gently nudged me with an elbow, which set off the giggles again.
Evelyn cleared her throat loudly. “Yes, my apologies, whatever. Jan, Heather is doubting again.”
Jan turned her eyes to me. That killed the straggling giggles. I shrugged, heart fluttering too hard. “What if it doesn’t work?”
Jan cocked an eyebrow. “Are you doubting that you can achieve the teleport?”
I shook my head. Several tentacles shook with me. “No. I don’t think so. I can … I can do it.”
Raine spoke between mouthfuls of chocolate cereal. “She zapped a whole car Outside, once. She ever tell you that? Nah, our Heather can do it, no question.”
Jan blinked. “A car? While moving?”
“A wreck,” I explained. “From a junk yard. As an experiment. That was almost a year ago, now, when I still didn’t really know what I was doing, or my own limits. With all of us—” We all waggled in the air, all together “—I have no doubt I can teleport something the size of a house. It’ll take a lot out of me, it’ll almost certainly force us — our tentacles, I mean — back into pneuma-somatic non-corporeality. I may bleed a lot, or possibly overheat. I might pass out. So, I’ll only get one shot. But I’m pretty certain I can do it, on a technical level, yes. I might have to walk around the perimeter of the property first and—”
Jan interrupted with a click of her lips. “You already said that part, Heather. You already said all of this.” She looked at Raine with a frown. “Have Twil and Zheng been in contact yet? It’s almost nine.”
Raine nodded, picked her phone up from the table, and checked the open message log again. “Both of them, yup. In position. Still no movement at Eddy’s pad. Both cars are still right where they’ve been every day since. Twil says she’s hungry. Zheng says kiss the shaman — that’s directed at me, by the way.”
Evelyn sighed. “Useful information, I’m certain.”
Raine leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then waggled her phone at Jan. “Ready when you are. I can start the group call whenever.”
Evelyn huffed again. “I would still prefer walkie-talkies.”
“Me too, but this is gonna be more reliable for all the parties we gotta include. This will work, Evee, this isn’t going to be a weak link.”
Evelyn tutted. “It better not be.”
I raised my voice over the conversation, repeating myself: “But what if it doesn’t work?” I glanced at Raine, at Evee, at Praem, at Jan — and at Lozzie, who was pattering in through the kitchen doorway on her bare feet. Behind her were red eyes and black lace, peeking around the door frame in her wake — Sevens and Aym paying as much attention as they always did. “What if I try, and it doesn’t work?” I said. “Or something happens and we can’t do it? What happens? I need … I need to know I’m not our only hope. I’m … I’m having trouble with the pressure.”
“Retreat, regroup, rethink,” Jan said softly. Lozzie wrapped her arms around Jan from behind, which earned her a gentle pat on the hands. “If this doesn’t work, we try something else. We try again. First we do a lot of running away, sure, but then we try again. But you know all this. We went over this. What’s wrong?”
We swallowed — too dry. We tried to still the nervous energy in all our tentacles, but couldn’t. Raine reached over and closed a hand around one of mine. I squeezed back.
“I’m just anxious,” I admitted. “I’m not used to all this build up. This waiting. And I can’t do anything but wait. I wish we were there right now, in front of the house already. I can’t deal with this.”
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said. She squeezed my hand again. “Focus on me, yeah? Focus on where we are right now. I’m gonna be right with you, the whole way.”
But Jan let out a knowing sigh. She nodded, hands on her slender hips. “Hurry up and wait. The soldier’s curse. I wish I had better advice, but that’s all you can do.”
“What’s all you can do?” I asked.
Praem answered for Jan: “Hurry up. And wait.”
Summer heat baked the fields and hedgerows beyond the trailing edges of the Sharrowford suburbs. The blue sky washed distant copses of trees with a suffocating blanket of sunlight, their leaves so bright and green that they hurt the eyes to stare at for too long. Deep summer turned cottage roof tiles into sizzling hot-plates and cooked the road surface until the asphalt turned soft and sticky beneath tires and shoes alike. Raine’s battered old red box of a car did not possess the luxury of air-conditioning, so we drove with all the windows cracked, the summer air rushing by in a great endless stream as we plunged into the countryside.
Raine was at the wheel, focused on the road. Praem sat in the passenger seat, in charge of an opaque bundle of plastic bags in her lap. Evelyn and I sat in the rear; Evee had her phone out, connected to the group call to keep us all in contact. Her scrimshawed thigh-bone wand lay across her legs, gripped tight in one hand.
And I hurried up, and waited.
Chewing my tongue. Tying my tentacles in knots. Trying not to itch at the sigil-paper affixed to my belly with costume glue. My Outsider octopus-skull helmet-mask sat in my lap, a comforting metallic weight staring up at me with empty eye sockets, asking me if I was going to be okay. I was trying to be. Two tentacles held the mask tight, clinging to this scrap of physical self-definition. Another tentacle was half-snaked toward Evee, seeking a hand to hold — but she was occupied with wand and phone and her own internal fires.
Besides, she couldn’t even see us reaching for her right then; our tentacles were hidden away in pneuma-somatic invisibility. For safety, for ‘operational security’, for hiding from normal eyes who might have panic attacks at the sight of us.
‘Operational security’ can, as Raine would so delicately put it, ‘sit and swivel’.
Though I’m not one hundred percent sure what that means.
Proximity — both spatial and temporal — was ratcheting the anxiety upward to near-unbearable levels.
It was a physical sensation, a paradox of weight and lightness in all our limbs, tentacle and human alike. Adrenaline, cortisol, stress, muscle tension, a throbbing in our head, a flutter in our lungs, a throb in our bio-reactor. I knew this was only a normal reaction, I knew everyone else was feeling it too — well, perhaps not the bio-reactor part. Anxiety was clear in the slow bob of Evelyn’s throat, in the unwavering focus of Raine’s eyes on the road, in the occasional snippet of communication which came over the group call.
“Still nothing?” Jan asked. Her voice was tinny and twisted by the speaker on Evee’s phone.
“Naaaaah,” came Twil’s voice, replying from elsewhere on the connection, a sound-ghost in electronic crackle. “Nada, zilch, zip. Nothing moving out here. ‘Cept the bubble lads up in the sky, I guess. Both cars still in the driveway. Which is kinda weird, you know?”
Evelyn snapped: “No chatter, Twil. Keep it only as necessary. Clear the line.”
A sigh came from the phone. In my mind’s eye I could see Twil miming a mock-salute. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, three bags full ma’am.”
Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “Keep your eyes on that fucking house!”
Another voice cut in. Lozzie, back home: “Tenny is here too, you know?”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes. My apologies. Perhaps she shouldn’t be present?”
A soft trilling, then nothing. The line was clear.
Even Praem showed the anxiety we all felt. Sitting ram-rod straight in the front seat, she kept taking one hand off the plastic bags in her laps and smoothing the fabric of her jeans, though it was already perfectly smooth.
Distracting myself was impossible. How could I not think about the task which was only minutes away? How could I not focus on all the things which might go wrong, all the things which we might not have accounted for? I was surrounded by powerful mages and unstoppable demon hosts and I would be flanked by Raine, who we still regarded as categorically invincible, despite the fact she was only human.
Looking out of the window didn’t help. The countryside was drenched in the brief burst of oppressive summer that sometimes graced the North, thickening the air and pushing down on the landscape like a bronze hammer. Cloudless skies seemed like a bottomless pit over the beetle of the car. I felt a little sick whenever I looked upward for too long.
The spirit-life didn’t seem to care. The endless profusion of strange creatures out on hilltops or wandering the valleys didn’t give a hoot about the sun or the heat. A giant bird-like thing of hanging meat and soft-velvet flesh nested atop a clutch of trees, incubating an egg the size of a building. A little herd of imitation-trees like clusters of reaching tentacles marched off across the fields, vanishing into the blazing landscape. A hopping horror — a thing of dozens of joints and several separate slavering dog-like heads — kept pace with the car for a while, then veered away when I raised a tentacle in greeting. Stick insects as large as cows clicked and clacked along distant ridges. Far, far, far to the west, perhaps out over the Irish sea, a true giant towered and plodded with exacting slowness, a plate of life made of insect chitin and black expanses, barely a line on the furthest horizon, only visible from our own highest climbs.
And we drove deeper, heading for the house that should not be.
Felicity’s battered old range rover followed a little way behind us, a green-washed ghost in the sunlight downpour, keeping pace without crowding Raine’s driving. Kimberly, Jan, and July rode with her. I had been surprised that Jan was accompanying us directly. We’d expected her to stay in Number 12 Barnslow Drive, with Lozzie, tucked away nice and safe.
“Oh I won’t be rushing that house,” she’d said, when we’d voiced the query. “Don’t kid yourself, I’ll be safely in the rear. But I am a mage, for however much that counts. Four versus one is better odds than three versus one. I would never live with myself if you all got killed and I wasn’t there to … well. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Twil and Zheng were already at the house — hanging back at a safe distance, hidden in the woods, watching the driveway and the cars for any sign that Edward knew we were coming.
Zheng had not been happy, last night.
“I am not your scout. I am not your cats-paw. I will be your left hand, but as a fist. I will tear the head from any wizard and offer you the heart, but this skulking … ”
“I know, Zheng. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry to ask so much of you, and everyone else, but we have to do this. I need this. I need you to do this for me. Please.”
“After this, after Edward, we can … the Eye. It will be the greatest possible fight, I— no, I don’t know that. I’m talking nonsense. I’m sorry, Zheng. I just need your help.”
Zheng had grinned all the same. “No, shaman. You do not know what the dark reaches will bring. But it will be a fight. Hnuh. So be it.”
Lozzie and Tenny were safe at home, alongside Marmite for company. And, unexpectedly, private eye Nicole Webb, along with her dog, Soup. She’d turned up in the early morning, full of demands.
“I’m not sitting this one out, Saye,” Nicole had said.
“Evelyn,” grunted Evelyn. “Drop the respect. And you have a broken leg. You’re not pulling any heroics on crutches and a cast.”
“Oh yeah? Will you?”
Unexpectedly, Evelyn had smiled at that. “I’ve been hobbling a lot longer than you, detective. And you don’t need both legs to do magic. We’re not taking you.”
“What about Kimberly?”
“Huh? What about Kimberly?”
“She’s going with the rest of you lot, right? She’ll be unprotected.”
“Kimberly Kemp is a mage, detective. She is—”
“Don’t you say she’s more than capable of protecting herself, because she isn’t and we both know it.”
“We are more than capable of protecting her.” Evelyn had sighed. “And she won’t be expected to do anything much at all. She’s there to help me and Felicity if we have to use real magic. Which we likely won’t, because Heather is going to teleport the entire house. She won’t be expected to come to Camelot. She is peripheral. Relax.”
“Then I’m joining the wire.”
“The … what?”
“The wire. The call. The thing Raine is setting up. I’m in. At least let me see this one through with a front row seat. Even if it’s radio. Come on, it can’t hurt.”
And it couldn’t, so there she was, listening along with the rest of the peanut gallery.
Aym was folded away inside whatever method of spacial compression she used to accompany Felicity without being physically manifested. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was similarly hidden away; I didn’t quite understand that, despite her explanation earlier that morning.
“I’ll be with you, kitten. Wherever you are.”
“Sevens,” I’d sighed and blushed. We had hugged for a long, long time, tucked away in my bedroom while others were getting ready. The Yellow Princess had demanded an embrace with nothing but her cold blue eyes and a tilt of her chin, and we had obeyed. “You’re supposed to stay here,” I said. “It took a terrible toll on you last time you broke your new set of self-definitions. Please, prioritize yourself. For me.”
“You are my self-definition, kitten. I prioritize myself by prioritizing you.”
“I’m … not sure that’s healthy. Are you serious?”
Seven-Shades-of-Paradoxical-Process had tilted her head ever so slightly, allowing her sheet of precise blonde to shift to one side. “I am not sure anymore. Only that I am becoming. And if I did not protect you against a stereotypical evil wizard, then I would not like what I become. I will not harm myself, kitten. You have my promises. But I will be ready to harm others. For you.”
All of us were protected against esoteric harm — all of us ‘in the field’ — by the sigil papers that Evelyn had prepared, similar to the ones she’d made us all use when we’d first met Jan. Mine was glued to my stomach, a slip of magical figures and interlocking patterns that would act as ablative armour against several types of ‘common’ magical assault. Evee had one herself, as did Raine, and every other human in our group. Even Praem wore the protection, tucked beneath her clothes.
Only Zheng had refused.
A certain somebody was tucked away out of danger, as far away as I had been able to get him to go; Badger had wanted to join the group call, had wanted to be part of this. I had told Raine to refuse the request, turn him down, tell him no. Too much of a coward to do it ourselves. But I couldn’t bear the thought of his second chance evaporating into smoke if Edward tried something unexpected. I didn’t need to worry about my unwanted, devoted disciple, amid all of this.
One other person lacked a sigil-seal, however: Amanda Hopton was on the group call Raine had set up — but she was at Geerswin farm, along with Twil’s mother, some of the Church muscle, and a full half of Hringewindla’s bubble-bud servitor-angels. She kept mostly quiet, content to act as a conduit to her god.
Four bubble-servitors rode with us — two on the roof of Raine’s car, two on the roof of Felicity’s range rover. I tried not to think about the surging sludge above our heads.
In Camelot, the Knights and the Caterpillars had stopped work, ready to ‘repel boarders’, as Raine said.
The gateway was closed. Lozzie had instructions on opening it when needed.
Everything was ready.
Halfway to our destination, on a lonely countryside road between the village of Horstramp and the tiny hamlet of Endsway, Raine slowed the car and turned her head to address the back seat.
“Evee,” she said, clipped and quick. “Phone.”
Evelyn’s head snapped round, eyes wide. My heart leapt in my chest. I started to stammer, but Evee got there first.
“What?” Evelyn spluttered. “I can—”
Raine carried right on. “Tell Felicity to pull into the lay-by just ahead, around this next corner of hedgerow. Tell her to go right, pull the car close to ours, close the gap.”
Felicity’s voice floated up from the phone in Evee’s hands: “I hear you, Raine. Lay-by on the right. Why are we stopping?”
“We’re being followed.”
Nobody said anything for a heartbeat. The wheels churned on the road surface. The engine rumbled. The sun beat down on the green hedges and baked fields. My heart fluttered like a caged bird.
“Shit,” Evelyn hissed. “How can you tell?”
“We knew this might happen,” Raine said, focused on the road ahead. “Two cars, one black, shiny, new, the other is an old battered thing in blue. The latter was with us since Sharrowford, I just wasn’t sure. The other one swapped in when the blue one fell behind. It’s a tail, no question. The black one is right behind us.”
“Yo yo yo yo,” came Twil’s voice over the phone. “What, hey? You’re stopping, why?”
“Force a confrontation,” Raine said. She said it so plain and level, with such confidence. “We don’t want them surprising us from behind once we reach the house.”
Felicity said, through the phone: “Got it. Coming to a stop right behind you, Raine.”
The lay-by was right where Raine said it would be — nothing but a twin pair of asphalt bulges in opposite sides of the road, both with enough space for several cars or a single lorry to pull to the side and stop, out of the flow of traffic. Not that there was any traffic on this quiet country road except us. Ragged hedges and farmland fences marched off over the little hills. The right-hand lay-by was sheltered by a few towering trees, leaning outward from the edge of a field, but even that shade was thin comfort.
“How the hell did you know this would be here?” Evelyn muttered.
Raine said, “Because I checked the route on Google Maps. Prep work, Evee, it’s all in the prep work.”
Raine pulled the car to a stop and turned off the engine. Felicity’s green range rover joined us seconds later, nuzzling in close so the two machines formed an effective wall of cover. Raine twisted, grabbing the carrier bag off Praem’s lap, and turning to me.
“I’m not staying in the car,” we blurted out. “No. And we’re not hidden in some pocket dimension, Raine. If you fire that thing off in the middle of the English countryside, people are going to call the police.”
Raine grinned, beaming with pride. “I was gonna say ‘stay behind me’, but hey.”
I pouted. “You should be the one staying behind me. I’m the one who can deflect bullets.”
“I don’t think it’ll come to that.”
Evelyn huffed. “I’m not staying in here either. Praem, if you please, help me out of the car.”
We all climbed out of the cars and into the sizzling sunlight of high summer, to await sight of our pursuer.
Well, not quite all of us. Despite her firm words, Evelyn stood just behind the open back door of the car, shielded almost entirely by Praem. Her thigh-bone wand was tight in her fists. Felicity and July got out of the range rover, nodding to us. Felicity had her concealed shotgun over her shoulder, hidden in the sports bag. July strode forward with confidence; if Jan hadn’t called to her sharply, I suspect she would have stood in the road and braced to physically catch the car with her bare hands. Kimberly sat on the edge of the car seat, her legs out but her feet not touching the ground; Felicity made a gesture to keep her back. Jan did not emerge, but I could see her peering out of the back window of the range rover.
Everyone without pneuma-somatic sight slipped on a pair of modified seeing-glasses, just in case. The quartet of bubble-servitors rose from the roofs of both cars, hovering over us and waiting in perfect stillness.
“Nice to have air cover, hey?” Raine said with a grin and a wink. “Amanda, your boys see anything?”
From several different phones, Amanda Hopton’s voice answered: “Nothing that should not present is present or perfect or … no. No. Sorry.”
Evelyn hissed: “Shut up and concentrate, Raine.”
Summer heat was like a physical weight, melting muscle tension, turning nerves to exhaustion, coaxing sweat from every back and forehead — except Praem, who stood with her chin high and her feet together. Even Evelyn was only in a skirt and t-shirt, her shawl left on the back seat of Raine’s car. The air was full of insects, flies and midges and more than a few irritating mosquitoes, the grass verge buzzing with hidden life. The others had all applied insect repellent; Praem hadn’t, and neither had I. Something about my altered biochemistry was no longer appealing to terrestrial bloodsuckers.
Shadows were completely still in the windless day. All eyes turned to the road up the distant hill we’d just descended.
Felicity hissed over her shoulder: “Think they’ll come say hello?”
Nobody answered. I swallowed. “I hope not.”
“They will,” Raine said. “They weren’t being subtle about following us. The black car, I mean. The blue one was trying to hide. Wasn’t very good at it.”
Seconds crept by, oozing hot. Shoe soles stuck to the melted tarmac. Evelyn huffed and puffed; Praem handed her a bottle of water.
“Hey, Raine,” Felicity whispered.
“Not gonna get your home made junk out?”
“It’s not junk,” Raine said. “And no. Too risky. Also too damn hot.”
Then, like a shiny-shelled beetle scuttling over the edge of a leaf, a black car appeared in the road.
It didn’t slow or pause, but just puttered on down toward us without a care in the world. Sunlight glinted off the curve of the roof. The wheels were shiny and clean, recently washed. The whole thing shone.
“That’s the one,” said Raine. “Everybody brace.”
Felicity swallowed, hard and dry. “You don’t think they’d just do a drive-by shooting, right?”
We said: “I’m ready for that.”
I spread my tentacles — still pneuma-somatic, invisible, hidden away. I was wearing a spare hoodie which belonged to Raine — thin, orange, with a band logo on the front of a laughing giraffe — and nothing underneath, because of the heat. We’d cut slits down the sides of the hoodie, secured with velcro, ready for exactly this eventuality. It was a rough job, the best we could do under the circumstances, but it was essential.
The car dipped down the hill, slowed for the corner, then approached us at a crawl. Raine raised the plastic-wrapped package in her hands.
If this was a mistake and that was an innocent in there, God alone knew what we looked like. University girls out for the worst summer holiday experience in history. We must have all looked ready to leap behind the cars and start screaming. July radiated focused menace. I probably looked constipated. Evee could have scowled a hole in the road. Felicity was obviously more than a bit dodgy.
The black car pulled to a stop in the opposite lay-by. The engine kept running.
Raine aimed her hidden weapon. Evelyn’s fingers moved across the bone-wand. I stretched out my limbs, ready to catch anything. Felicity wasn’t even breathing.
A door cracked open — on the opposite side of the car, out of sight. A boot scuffed the grass. A head popped up over the roof of the car.
A squinting, smiling, smarmy face greeted us with a broad, drunken wink. Curly dark hair formed a sweat-stained crown over an olive-coloured complexion. Wide shoulders followed, atop a big barrel chest, muscled and toned and well-trained, wearing a plain white t-shirt with a little sweat at the armpits.
“Hooooooo, it is one hooooot day,” said the man, in a slurring, drunken voice.
Evelyn hissed: “What the fuck?”
Raine snorted a laugh, but she was not amused. “Really? You wanna get shot, mate? ‘Cos you’re going the right way for it.”
Felicity was confused. “Who is this? Who is this? Who are we dealing with?”
“Hey there girlies!” The man waved a casual hand. “Thanks for stopping for me, yo?”
Evelyn raised her voice: “You promised we’d never see you again.”
“Ah ah ah,” said the man. “I promised you’d never see me again — if you let me go! I had to like, fucking escape, you know? I had to run! You didn’t let me go. So heeeeey, this ain’t breaking no promise!”
“This man is a living shit,” said Raine.
“He’s a mage,” Evelyn snapped. “We’ve dealt with him before. He’s … ”
Mister Joe King didn’t look like a dried and mummified corpse anymore. Somebody had watered him, filled out his skin, made him look like a normal human being. He shot Evelyn a broad wink, mocking and self-conscious.
Truth be told, I barely remembered the man.
‘Joe King’ was almost certainly not his real name. And the grinning, cheeky, mock-drunk mannerisms were almost certainly not his real personality either. Mister Joking was the mage who had somehow infiltrated the cult’s castle-dimension long after we’d taken possession of it, ostensibly to perform some kind of communication ritual with the giant sphere-children left behind by the star beneath the castle — but actually to steal the secrets of the gate to Carcosa for Edward Lilburne, his employer or master or one-time contractor; their relationship wasn’t clear. The only time we’d encountered this man, he’d shown at least two distinct personalities, perfect disguises for the mage beneath.
He’d also fought like a supernatural martial artist, and nearly done us a lot of damage.
As if reading my mind, Raine spoke slowly and carefully: “You stay where you are, friend. And keep those hands visible.” She pointed with the plastic-bag bundle in both hands. “I think you can guess what this is. Mages don’t always hold up well to bullets.”
Joe King grinned that lazy, cheeky, wide-boy grin, and waggled all his fingers. “Wouldn’t dream ‘o coming over there, sweetheart. Nah, don’cha worry. I’m not poking a single toe out from behind this here car. And you don’t have to come over here either, see? Just a few words, that’s all I’m here for, and then I’ll be on me way. Cross my heart!” He cast his eyes up at the blazing sunlight. “Not like it’s a good day for an outdoor fight anyway, right? This heat, man!”
Raine turned her head without looking away from the mage. Felicity openly glanced at Evee. Evelyn was gritting her teeth.
“Down,” said Praem, softly.
“Right,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t engage him. Too much risk. Amanda, you hear that? Servitors off him. Don’t do anything.”
I kept my tentacles pulled to maximum extension, just in case. In the corner of my eye, in the back of Felicity’s range rover, I spotted Jan frowning very hard at Mister Joe King.
Raine said, suddenly casual and easy: “Are we rumbled, then, mate?”
“Eh?” King made a silly face, the sort of face one makes when pretending to be deaf but knowing that everyone sees through your nonsense. “Ehhhh? Rumbled? As if you were ever un-rumbled, girlies! Ha ha!”
“What do you want?” Evelyn snapped.
Joe King waggled his fingers again. “To let you know that he knows, and he knows that you know. And now both of you know the other knows, so everybody knows, and nobody’s going into knowing without knowing that the other side knows what they know.”
A grin, a shit-eating, cheek-tensing, tooth-showing grin.
On the group call, Twil snorted; she must have heard that.
“I will send you Outside,” I said. “I can touch the road right now, send you, your car, and a ten-metre area Outside, to wherever I choose. Would you like to meet the King in Yellow? Or the Eye? Or shall I drop you into a lake of boiling mercury?”
Joe King did a big mock-cringe. Next to me, I felt Evelyn grin with satisfaction, which made me flush with pride.
Of course, everyone but King knew I was bluffing; we probably had one shot and one shot only at such a large teleport. Recovery might take a whole day. I needed to conserve my energy and the distributed brain-math potential of my tentacles for Edward’s house.
“Nah nah nah nah,” Joe King said, hand half-raised over the roof of his car. “I’m serious, like. Came to warn you off. He knows you’re coming.”
Raine said: “And why do you care?”
Joe shrugged. “‘Cos I’m just such a nice bloke? Can’t a guy give a shit anymore?”
Evelyn huffed. “This is absurd. He is a delaying tactic.”
“Nah, look, look, ladies, gimme a sec, hey, hey?” Joe King’s smile got wider and wider and wider — and then snapped back into nothingness, like a rubber band pulled too far. All the drunken, laddish mannerisms flickered off, like a light going out. He straightened up, unamused, dead-faced; the shift in posture and expression added about ten years to his age.
Felicity nearly pulled out her shotgun. July jerked forward, a falcon eager to leave the gauntlet.
“Hold up!” Raine shouted. “Fliss, this is just what he does. Stay cool. Stay cool. You too, July. Cool it.”
Felicity was shaking. “I’m cool. Cucumber cool. Right.”
Joe King stared at us with unimpressed eyes. “Forgive my youthful exuberance,” he said in that absurdly rich Welsh accent, a completely different voice to his laddish trick-personality. “I am informing you that my association with Mister Lilburne is over. I am leaving. I am already gone. He has gone too far in his efforts to protect his property and I wish no part of what is about to happen, because I do not believe I would survive the process.” He nodded curtly, to Evee — and then to me. “Goodbye, Miss Saye. Goodbye, daughter of the Eye.”
He ducked, already slipping back into his car.
“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. She raised her bone wand. Raine gestured with the hidden weapon. I almost — almost — hissed.
Joe King paused. He looked at us like we were already dwindling in his rear view mirror. “This car is warded and armoured. I will repel any assaults with ease. If you fire a weapon all you will achieve is some nearby house calling the police.”
Raine just laughed. “Mate, come on, why even stop and tell us all this? You gotta see how transparent this looks, right?”
Joe King’s eyes flickered quickly — to me. He said, slowly, picking his words with care: “The daughter of the Eye is intriguing. The world will be a more interesting place with her in it. And a less interesting one if Mister Lilburne wins this conflict. I warn you off, because … I am an old and sentimental fool. That is all. Good day to you.”
“Explain what you meant,” Evelyn snapped. “What efforts? What’d Edward done? If you give a shit, warn us properly. What are we walking into?”
Mister King sighed. “That is proscribed by the bounds of the geas on me. No.”
“Bullshit,” Evelyn hissed.
Raine said, “What about the second car?”
Joe King paused. A serious frown flickered across his brow.
“He doesn’t know,” I felt us say. “He doesn’t know. That’s not a lie. He doesn’t know.”
“There is no second car,” he said. “Only me. You are playing games.”
Raine shook her head. “There was absolutely a second car, friendo. Blue, old, bit of rust on her. You took over from it.”
“Then it was nothing to do with me. We’re done here. I suggest you attempt to live. Good luck.”
From the phone, I heard Twil say: “Yeah great advice, dumb-fuck.”
A final nod — and I caught that tiny, brief twist of his eyes, one last look, different from all the others so far, furtive and shy and maybe even a little afraid.
Joe King finally looked at Jan.
Then he ducked into his car, slammed the door, gunned the engine, and roared off down the country road, breaking the speed limit and leaving us all behind.
No way we were turning back.
Fifteen minutes later we reached Edward’s house, deep in a heavily wooded stretch of otherwise unremarkable countryside. We’d passed only two other vehicles on the road since we had stopped for Joe King — a single car driven by a little old lady, and a tractor moving between disconnected plots of farmland. We were in the far reaches of the rural countryside now, but in a totally different way to Brinkwood with its picturesque looks, or the forest-wrapped secrets of Geerswin farm. This area of woodland — closer to Stockport than Sharrowford — was somehow sterile and empty. There were no villages for miles and miles, just empty heathland, scattered fields, and now these sickly-looking trees vanishing into the distance on either side of the road. Their trunks were too far apart, too pale and smooth, their leaves up in the canopy almost seeming to wilt in the powerful summer heat.
The property itself was set far back from the public road, at the end of a very long gravel driveway — or at least, the memory of a gravel driveway. It was more a dirt road that hadn’t seen any repair in years, perhaps decades. Raine and Felicity drove halfway up that battered old track, then parked the cars once we were beyond sight of the main road.
“Still clear?” Raine asked the group call.
“Nothing moving, still,” Twil said with a sigh. “You here, then?”
“We’re here. Get ready.”
Twil and Zheng came to meet us on the driveway. We all piled out of the cars, ready in a way we hadn’t been when confronted by the unexpected figure of Joe King. Evelyn took Praem’s arm in lieu of her walking stick, so she could hold her thigh-bone wand with both hands if she needed to. Twil was vibrating with energy, bouncing on the balls of her feet, aching to transform but holding back for now. Raine opened the boot of her car and pulled out her hidden stash — black combat knife, home-made riot shield, motorcycle jacket, helmet, the full works. She’d further modified the home-made shield by plastering the front with Evee’s sigil papers. She stripped down to a tank top in the heat, then quickly shrugged into her gear. Only then did she unwrap the plastic-bag package.
She hefted Amy Stack’s Sten gun, checked the mechanism, and held it in one hand, shield braced in the other.
“Heather?” she asked me from inside the muffled confines of the helmet. “You holding up alright?”
“Raine, you look so cool.” I laughed despite the nerves juddering through every cell — or perhaps because of them.
She struck a little pose for me, but only briefly. Now was the time for concentration.
Zheng briefly cupped the back of my head, purring her approval. Felicity did a series of strange exercises with her fingers, then pulled her shotgun out and made sure it was loaded. Kimberly lurked behind her, looking terrified but determined to help if needed. Jan and July stuck close together — but Jan paused to pluck something out of her hidden extra-dimensional pockets, some kind of miniature hand-fan. I didn’t ask about that. But we did meet her eyes for a moment, asking a silent question — then an overt one.
“Jan,” we said. “Do you think Mister Joe King really left?”
Jan almost jumped, but she caught the meaning in my eyes. I know he recognised you, Jan. But I don’t care, I’m not asking about that right now. I’m asking if we’re safe from him.
“Oh, I should think so,” she said. “Sensible fellow, getting out of the way of all this. I would do the same.”
To my surprise — and apparently Jan’s too, from the way she flinched — July echoed: “Sensible fellow. Good runner.”
“Quite,” Jan said through gritted teeth. She met my eyes again, letting me know we would talk of this later.
The bubble servitors rose from our cars, rising up and up and up, to join the cloud-ring of their fellows which surrounded the property. Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were everywhere, hundreds of the things, lining the driveway, speckling the trees, hanging in a massive circle around the house itself. We had crowded Edward in with monsters of our own.
We slipped our squid-skull helmet on over our head, a last line of personal defence and security. I rolled up my sleeves, too; the heat was unbearable, a blur of sunlight smeared across my senses, full of summer insects. Sweat was running down my front and my back. The others were saying things — chattering over the group call, checking in with Lozzie, with Amanda, with all the other points of our plan. But I was wrapped tight in the unbearable tension of my own body, staring up the driveway at the house hidden just beyond the rise of the landscape.
I wasn’t even aware of manifesting my own tentacles into full physical flesh. The first I knew of it was the scratch of the velcro against my skin. We all waited, poised, aching for action.
“Glasses on, everyone?” Raine said. “We cool? We cool. It’s eleven in the morning in rural England and we’re all wearing shades. Yeeeeeeah baby.”
Twil snorted, but I could tell she was struggling with nerves too, trying to discharge the anxiety with too much laughter.
“Shut up and focus, Raine,” Evelyn hissed. Then, to my surprise, she said: “Fuck me. I didn’t think we’d get this far.”
“Evee?” we said.
“I thought he would have reacted by now. I thought we’d have pulled back. This is going too smoothly, we’re just walking up to the front door. He hasn’t even reacted.”
Jan said: “I agree. However, he may simply have fled. We keep going until there’s a reaction.”
“How are you not afraid?” Evelyn hissed at her. “I thought you were a habitual coward?”
“I am.” Jan sighed. “But when you’re already this deep, fear can just get you killed. Everybody ready? Right, stick together then. Here we go. Off into the woods.”
I barely felt my own legs as we all walked up that gravel driveway and onto the property.
The house was exactly like in the pictures, exactly as I had seen several days ago through the matrix of brain-math interpretation: crooked, squat, compact, old. Brick and beam, black and brown. Tiny latticed windows peered out, full of darkness, with nothing visible inside. The front door was a slab of wood like a little puckered mouth, sheltered by an overhang of tiles. Walking up the curve of the hill and seeing the thing leering back down at us was like making eye contact with a bleary giant.
I couldn’t place the style, the era, the provenance of the building. Then again, perhaps I was just too preoccupied.
We passed inside the low remnants of a perimeter wall, just stones lost amid long grass. Raine and Felicity pointed their guns all over the place. Twil stalked ahead, claws exposed. Zheng walked at my side, a bodyguard with her eyes tracking back and forth. Jan and July hung back slightly, alongside Evee and Praem.
The dry fountain was worse than in the pictures: it was in a terrible state of disrepair, filthy with dried gunge and full of fallen leaves and animal nests and owl droppings. The once-graceful statue of a naked woman was cracked and worn.
The others exchanged a few words — “Watch the windows, watch the windows, watch for movement,” “There’s nobody here. Nothing magical either,” “Getting the fucking creeps, I tell you what,” “This place is empty, how long have those cars been sitting there?” — but I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the house. My stomach was a fist. My head throbbed. My tentacles tingled.
Two cars stood close to the house — the expensive, dirty range rover, and the low, anonymous black car. Neither had moved since we’d finally discovered the location of the house.
“Close enough,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Hold here. Everyone hold up.”
Everyone halted, a good ten feet shy of the fountain. Throats bobbed. Breath came too rough in too many throats. Jan whispered several things over the group call, to Amanda and Lozzie. Affirmative answers came back. Twil growled with tension. Praem said, “Calm. Still.”
“Heather, it’s time,” said Evelyn.
“I know,” we said. “I know, I just—”
“No, Heather,” she grunted. “It’s time. Take this thing, dammit, before it causes a problem.”
“I’m sorry?” We twisted to look at her through the eyes of my squid-skill mask. Evelyn was rigid with tension, clinging to Praem’s arm, and holding out a lump of white quartz. “Oh! Oh! The stone!”
Evelyn huffed — irritation covering for nerves. “Take it. Quickly. The longer we take to do this, the more chance of something going wrong. Take it!”
I grabbed the Fadestone in a tentacle. I disliked touching the thing, there was something vaguely offensive about it, but it would give me some extra protection, on these final few steps, even if I didn’t really know how to use it like Evelyn could.
Raine said: “Heather, you ready?”
“You can do it. You can. I know you can. You need to circle the place, or not?”
We shook our head. “No. No. I’m ready. There’s nothing else to do.”
“We’ve all got you covered. The second you’re done, I’m gonna scoop you up. Well, Zheng’ll scoop you up.”
Evelyn grunted: “We all scoop her up. Heather, go.”
I stepped forward five paces. My trainers crunched on the thin gravel. Sweat rolled down my skin. Two tentacles helped move my legs.
Back home, last night, I’d had all sorts of questions. What if there was anybody else in the house? What if Edward Lilburne has a family? What if he’s harbouring other mages, or the remains of his half of the cult? Do you think he’s married? What if there’s an innocent in there?
When I’d asked those things, Raine had said: “You did promise to fuck his wife, Evee.”
Evelyn had snorted. “And fuck her I shall, if that needs doing. Anything to make this work, anything to make it safe. I’m serious, Raine. If it comes to that. Which it won’t.”
But then, with the hateful, twisted lump of a house in front of me, and the whirling, bobbing cloud of bubble-servitors all around, and my friends at my back, all I could think of was the task, the brain-math, the equation to go Out.
Anxiety flowed away. Homo Abyssus reared up.
I was here to protect my pack. Jan was right — why be afraid now?
Five paces. We stopped. We crouched. Touched the ground with both hands and half our tentacles.
This was too easy. Evelyn and Jan had a point — why had Edward not retaliated? It wasn’t as if this could be a trap. The ‘twin prime’ trick with the beams wasn’t affecting any of us like it had with Badger. It wasn’t warding us off or keeping us back. He wasn’t capable of countering hyperdimensional mathematics. He should have been throwing everything he had at us to keep us away from the building itself, to keep me out of range, to stop me from dumping him and his Outside.
Why let us get this close? Had he really fled his fortress, abandoned the siege? Part of me hoped he had, saving us the trouble. Part of me hoped he hadn’t, because we needed to kill him, remove him as a threat.
Either way, we had to try this method. It was the best we had.
I plunged my mind into the dripping black machinery down in the base of my soul, grasping the jury-rigged and rewired lessons of the Eye with eight hands. Burning pain shot outward along all our tentacles, a distributed load of effort and agony climbing in intensity as I used hyperdimensional equations to define the fountain, the cars, the gardens, the soil, the leaves, the gravel — and the house.
It was the first equation I had ever learned, the first piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I had ever made work. And it was simple. Here, and there. Reality, and not. Select a thing, an object, a definition, and then make it not-here, make it elsewhere, push it through the membrane to Outside.
Out you go! Easy as pie. With a little blood and pain and screaming and passing out, of course.
This was simply the same thing, but larger than ever before. The same equation, just with a bigger set of brackets. My nose ran with blood and my head spiked with pain before I was even done, but seven of us took the effort of one now, and I could do this without passing out before I was finished.
The fountain, the cars, the gardens, the soil, the leaves, the gravel, the—
And here was Edward’s little secret.
When processed through the perfect mathematics of the substrate of reality itself, there were two houses. Not one building. Two houses. Identical. Twins.
If the brain-math had not happened at the speed of thought, I would have smiled in triumph. I might even have cheered.
I’d expected this.
Edward had used the twin prime trick to double a concept, double a definition, but I could see both! I could see everything, anything, all! I was the angelic daughter of the Eye and nothing could slip away out of my sight, my observation, my power to define. I simply expanded the equation by another notch, encompassing the whole house, the two-in-one house, the twin house.
And with that — Out!
The last piece of the equation slammed into place. Pain flared outward through our tentacles like molten iron in feverish veins as we held the equation complete and whole; this was heavy, and complex, and expansive, and the pain would take a great toll as it completed. Our bio-reactor flared with heat, glowing hot to supply the energy. Tentacles screamed and stretched and my head split with pain, but there was no stopping it now, all this soil and brick and beam and stray leaves and dirt and animal bones and paint and air and slate and wood and the largest object we had ever teleported—
The house unfolded itself, reached out with a hand that was not a hand, and pinched off the end of the equation.
Old and crooked and brick and solid and staying.
You know what, I genuinely think Heather and the others were pretty well prepared here, for almost – almost – anything that Edward might try to throw at them. Well, maybe; I’m certain they couldn’t take on absolutely anything, though at least they would be prepared to retreat in good order. But in the end, houses are actually quite difficult to move, right? This one … this one might have something to say about that.
No patreon link this week! It’s almost the last day of the month and I really dislike accidentally getting anybody double-charged, so if you want to subscribe to the patreon and get two chapters ahead, feel free to wait until the 1st of the month! In the meantime, why not check out my other story (about zombie girls and guns and cannibalism), or the various recent additions to the Katalepsis art page, or the … uh … memes. Hooray! Also, you can still:
Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!
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And, most importantly, thank you for reading my story! There’s no way I could possibly do this without the readers and audience and all my supporters – that means you! As always, this story is for you. Thank you so much.
Next week, houses don’t move. But was this a trick, a trap, or just a mistake? And what does mister Lilburne have up his sleeves? Any final lines of defense? Probably.
I love how Heather had to come up with an excuse for why she wasn’t wearing anything under her hoodie. Ha, that’s cute.
Thank you for the chapter.
The weather is so hot in Sharrowford right now that even a single layer of tiny hoodie would be far, far too much in the sun. Heather is probably feeling very overheated!
And you are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!
Thank you for replying.
You’re always welcome!
Ahhhh! Such a tense chapter and then that ending! Your writing is amazing.
Thanks for the chapter.
Thank you! You’re very very welcome, glad you enjoyed this one. I put a lot of effort into trying to ramp up the tension and keep it high, and I’m delighted it paid off like that.
Yes! More with sentient houses! This one is not a good house. It is more like Stephen King’s evil houses. But if she can ask the Sharrowford House for help, maybe she can overcome it.
Mages do seem to have an affinity for spooky houses with strong personalities of their own! But perhaps Heather loves houses so much that she can figure out how to come to some kind of arrangement?
Another stellar chapter! I wasn’t sure what I was expecting as a cliffhanger but a sentient invisible second house sure wasn’t it!
Thank you so much! Really glad you enjoyed this! And thanks for reading! Haha, indeed, this one was a bit of a surprise; I’ve been slowly seeding a lot of themes about sentient houses and places with personality. This is another part of that, I suppose!
Oooo what a chilling ending. That effect to denote the house ‘speaking’ is good.
Thank you very much! I always get a bit hesitant to use wacky prose effects like that. It’s easy to overuse them. But here I felt it was important, a nice little touch of structural strangeness. Really happy it worked!
The house fucking denied her magical math???
The house said Nope
Yup! House beats squid?! House beats maths?! The ‘house’ always wins. Or maybe it’s just too … ‘heavy’.
I’ll be suprised if it doesn’t turn out that Edward has all of their phones hacked. He’s a rich guy and dabbles in technology, I think it’s a perfectly logical assumption that digital methods of communication could be compromised, either by his own effort or just by hiring a hacker.
The best solutiom to magical problems is usually to not use magic.
Indeed! If, of course, he really thinks he’s up against opponents worth expending that effort on. And if he does have their phones hacked, he probably knows they’re coming.