luminosity of exposed organs – 20.7

Content Warnings

Blood and gore
Bullet wounds

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Houses can talk.

I learned about that long before I met Raine and Evelyn, long before I discovered magic and monsters, long before I became ‘In The Know’. Houses — all buildings, really — will whisper their secrets to you, if only you know how to listen. Scuffs on the skirting boards, dents in the door frames, gouges from a granite countertop — these are superficial smiles and guarded graces. If you want to know the real secrets, the deep scarring and hidden traumas of the heart, you have to ask, gently, kindly, lovingly, with coaxing hands and soft murmurs spoken into the quivering junction between two walls.

Texture, wood grain, the chemical composition of paint; echoes, brick styles, the height of a ceiling. Run sound waves through concrete and mortar, scrape the surface of a peeling wall, take an expert eye to the curl of an old carpet. Then, one must listen and interpret the whispered echoes returned by the building. Places where no human eyes can see and no human lips can speak will talk back to you in the language of angle and junction, vibration and reflection and sudden silence. In this way, a house will recount to you the history of a limb, the age of the wood, the unseen gaps widened by time and weather, the position of nails and the width of cement, the shearings and shiftings of guts and gubbins.

Houses will talk back to you in your own voice, if you know how to whisper. I’ve always thought that is a beautiful secret.

And that is what I heard, when Edward Lilburne’s house told me in no uncertain terms that it was not for moving.

There were no words in my head, no slow and ponderous voice saying, “Oh no, my dear, I’m far too old to be going on an Outing to Outside. I’m quite happily settled here, thank you very much. Besides, have you ever heard of a house moving? Ho ho ho, goodness me no.”

Actually, that would have been much worse.

A voice could have been anything — the house ensouled, a trick by Edward, a demon speaking through the building, a hidden servitor playing a nasty jape, or just us going completely crackers and talking to ourselves without realising we were doing so. But no, this was communication by and from a building, in the language of a building, a language of brick and beam and tile and mortar and plaster and paint and pipe and wire and glass and frame and the empty spaces between which defined purpose.

And it didn’t sound amused or jolly. It sounded, to us, bitter and cold and lonely and half-dead.

How had it terminated a hyperdimensional mathematical equation? Of that we were far less certain — just that it had, by weight and force and gravity of its own logic, imposed upon the space I was trying to affect.

Houses do not move.

But this one had unfolded itself like a fractal equation, with arms which were not arms and hands which were not hands and a face of time and surfaces and empty holes.

I had, at best, a split-second of frozen time in which to act, still locked in the unstoppable, inevitable mathematical forces of the equation which I had completed. The House had somehow pinched off the final part, but the equation described a piece of reality, a Truth which was being spoken by my neurons and nerve endings and written in the fabric of the universe. The equation would still complete — but what would that mean? Would everything but the house move? Would the house shake like a struck bell but stay here, in reality? Would the effect bounce back on me?

This was new; I had no idea.

All we knew for certain was that I would still be spent. In that frozen second, out in reality, I was bleeding from nose and eye sockets and sweating blood into my hairline, a scream trapped between my clenched teeth, pain flash-burning down all six tentacles. Every additional neuron was turned toward the task of shunting thousands of pounds of earth and brick and wood through the membrane to Outside. The largest thing I’d ever sent Out.

If the House did not move, we would be spent anyway — the last time I had run such a complex piece of hyperdimensional mathematics, our tentacles had collapsed back into invisible pseudo-flesh, our bio-reactor had run hot enough to make our flank glow, and we had bled from every pore. There would be no second shot, not without at least a day’s recovery. And here we were, before the walls of our foe’s fortress.

Was this a trap?

Houses do not move.

We groped for a solution, trying to jam fingers and tentacle-tips into holes in the logic of the House.

What about caravans, mobile homes, camper vans? Those moved.

Those are not Houses. Observe the beam in the middle of the front wall, the black one with the holes plugged by plaster at either end: it was taken from a tree felled in 1546. Oak, two hundred years old at felling. It formed part of a crossbeam in the roof of a Church, in a village called Wenbrook. The roof was damaged by fire in 1812 and the beam was removed and recovered, still sound and strong. The beam was brought here, and used because it had been damaged by a fire in a Church. It became part of the House. The beam has never moved.

The beam moved three times!

The beam has never moved. The beam was a tree, the tree did not move. The beam was a Church, the Church did not move. The beam is a House, the House does not move. The beam has not moved for almost seven hundred years. Houses do not move.

The beam was moved, by people. I’m a person.

But I was not saw and hammer and chisel and rope. I could not deconstruct the House and move parts that are no longer the House. I wanted to move all the House, all at once, as the House.

Houses do not move.

The House had very good logic. Upright walls. Sensible doors. Houses often do.

Houses are just matter, like anything else. I am the daughter of the Eye and I see everything you are, everything you are made of, infinitely reducible to constituent parts, and any of those can move. All of those can be forced to move!

We have eight hands and two eyes and that is more than enough to move you!

At that, the House continued unfolding, reaching into the spaces of the equation, reaching for me, reaching past me and over me for my friends and companions, reaching upward toward the ring of bubble-servitors.

The House was four walls and one, then eight walls and two, then sixteen walls and four, then thirty two walls and eight, then sixty four walls and sixteen, then—

Compound expansion, twinned and twinned and twinned again.

We couldn’t match that.

In a last desperate effort at communication, we threw human concepts at the House — pleading and promises, questions and queries. Why do this for Edward Lilburne? Why protect a mage who had kept you caged and cold and lonely? Why resist if I promise not to harm you? Why not try something else, with me?

But the House didn’t even know who ‘Edward Lilburne’ was, no more than a stone knows it’s part of a wall. The House simply did as Houses do.

It wrapped and protected inner layers. The House inside the House. Empty, but full.

In truth, we lost our nerve. We had no idea what a House would do, even just conceptually, if it got a grip on Raine, or Evee, or even Zheng or July. What damage would a corrupted home do to an unprotected mind, drawn within itself? What bitterness and entrapment and hate could flow outward from such an abused and misused place?

If only I’d had more time, I could have come here to talk.

As the equation collapsed, I did the last thing which made any sense. We reached out — physically, in reality, with a tentacle and a thought and bundle of neurons, mirroring hyperdimensional mathematics with flesh. We caught one of those hands-which-was-not-a-hand, one of those reaching sets of architectural logic. We caught it and we squeezed and we tried to communicate:

We know Houses! We know a House, anyway. We know a House full of life and safety and warm little spots, and she never moves either, but she’s loved and loves in turn, and you don’t have to be like this, you don’t have to lash out, you don’t have to—

That brief connection may have been what saved us from the worst of the consequences. I couldn’t be sure.

The equation crashed to completion, like a stoppered-up steam engine exploding in one last burst of power. And we crashed out of the frozen moment of hyperdimensional mathematics, slammed back into a body wracked with pain.

And the House did not move.

But the top half-inch of gravel and soil and grass and leaves and dust vanished instantly, shunted Outside, probably to be met by some very confused looks from Lozzie’s Knights and Caterpillars. A circle of ground around the House was suddenly a stripped-clean bed of fresh dry earth, exposed to the blazing summer light and the baking heat. Everything the House considered an inviolate part of itself did not move an inch — but my hyperdimensional equation caught parts of the dry fountain in great semi-circular bites, leaving it pockmarked and war-wounded. The two cars did not fare well either, suddenly shot through as if by giant metal-eating woodworms.

I tumbled backward and landed on my bum with a hard jolt up my spine, flailing and bleeding and crying out through a mouth full of blood and bile. I didn’t vomit — I’d finally mastered the trick of holding onto my stomach acid — but my tentacles collapsed back into pneuma-somatic invisibility, the reality of flesh itself recoiling from the neuron-pain which ruled from root to tip. My vision was a veil of crimson, my mouth was filled with the taste of iron, and my borrowed hoodie was glued to my back with blood-sweat. The sunlight was already turning the blood to a sticky crust.

Hands were grabbing us, holding me up, shouting things for my benefit and their own — but I was too focused on holding our body together, on the step-down slowdown of my bioreactor, of trying not to sob in agony.

And in failure.

Everybody else was shouting.

“It’s still there! It’s still fucking there! What happened, what the hell happened!?”

“Twil, shut up!” Evelyn roared.

Jan, talking too fast: “Eyes up. Everyone, eyes up. Back to the cars, right now—”

Evelyn, panicking: “Zheng, Zheng, pick her up! Zheng! What—”

And somebody was screaming a string of nonsense, incoherent babble about layers within layers and peeling and puncturing and flaying and how she knew exactly what kind of trick this was, about drills and rasping and holding shells in place and—

Hringewindla, in Amanda’s voice, screaming over the group call.

Through my blood-stained vision, I saw the bubble-servitors descend upon the house like a swarm of piranhas on a cow’s carcass.

Spiralling down through the air like a whirlwind coalescing and reaching toward ground-contact, the bubble-servitors joined together in a single gigantic organism, directed at a distance by the will of Hringewindla — the Outsider cone-snail who understood all too well the logic of hiding within outer layers, and how to crack them open with violence. The bubble-angels flowed from behind us, from their station-keeping on the driveway and in the trees, applying every scrap of force Hringewindla could bring to bear. They glinted in the glorious sun, a rolling wave of pneuma-somatic bio-mass. A hammer-blow to a rooftop.

Behind me, somebody shouted into the phone: “Stop! Tell her to stop!”

Too late.

The flying mass of bubble-servitors descended as one, like storm winds blending together and whipping around each other to form a tornado. They struck the roof of the house as one, a lightning bolt in semi-transparent oil-shimmer.

What Hringewindla was hoping to achieve, I had no idea. Smash the house to pieces? Cave in the roof? Give it a good knock? In retrospect I think he got overexcited. Over-invested. Overextended.

And like soap bubbles swirling down a plughole on an invisible current, the bubble-servitors vanished as one.

It took less than half a second. The roof of the house simply swallowed them up, as if they had passed through an invisible gate. Behind me, Amanda was babbling and sobbing over the group call: “What- what- where are- where are- we? We? How inside but out, outside but upside- up- up-”

In half a second we’d lost our trump card, our air cover, and our footsoldiers. If this was a trap it was springing with incredible accuracy.

It didn’t take a strategist to judge this was all going badly wrong; abyssal instinct screamed in my chest that we needed to leave. Now. Go. Now!

“What the fuck? What the fuck?” Twil kept repeating, gaping, staring at the house. Strong hands were hauling me upright, pulling off my squid-skull mask so I could wheeze for breath, trying to wipe the blood from my eyes. But our knees wouldn’t lock, our legs wouldn’t take our weight. There was blood under my armpits and in my hair and it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t worked, the house was trapped, not a trap, a hole, a void over the truth, over—

“Ignore her!” Evelyn shouted. “Ignore Heather!” Was I babbling, too? “Back to the cars, right now. Zheng! Zheng, what are you—”

Twil pulled me upright and got me on my feet just in time to see the front door of the House slam open.

A monster stepped forth.

Six and a half feet of naked glistening muscle wrapped in skin so pale it was almost translucent, painted with blood-ink magic circles and intricate ward sigils over her belly and chest and thighs. She was completely hairless. Her eyes were red, with no whites or irises, just bloody solid balls of crimson. A pair of massive curving horns sprouted from her forehead, coal-black and sharp-tipped. Her mouth had widened and elongated into a skull-splitting grin which ran halfway up both sides of her head, showing a mouthful of teeth each the length of my index finger.

A demon-host. Possibly one that had survived the Eye-driven massacre of the Sharrowford Cult. Maybe one of Edward Lilburne’s own home-made brews. It didn’t matter.

She held some kind of bulky firearm in one hand, swinging it back and forth as she strode toward us.

It was oddly refreshing, to be faced by something one could punch, or shoot, or have a good shout at. But instinct had me scrambling back — or trying to, flailing and spluttering in Twil’s arms.

Raine must have shot at the Grinning Demon with the Sten gun, because a juddering bang-bang-bang came from my left. Flowers of blood and flesh erupted in the demon-host’s flank. She ignored it, grinning like a parody of a skull, striding through the shafts of sunlight with speed and purpose. She came around the side of the fountain.

Consiste et sta!” Evelyn shouted.

The air temperature plummeted by thirty degrees. The ground flash-froze, gravel coated in ice, summer sunlight fighting to melt this strange intrusion; Evelyn with her bone-wand, Felicity backing her up, ready to repel this foolish demon.

But then other figures shot out of the open front door of the House — figures in black, carrying weapons, clad in body armour and robes. The air crackled with static electricity as somebody countered whatever Evelyn was trying to do.

My vision was full of blood. I was still sagging and aching and hissing with pain. This was all happening too fast, too fast to keep track of; Raine had pulled the trigger on the Sten gun again. One of the people from inside the house said words in Latin that made him spit blood onto the bare earth.

And the demon-host stepped closer.

Of course Zheng was at my side. Of course she couldn’t resist the bait.

The Grinning Demon stopped, naked pale feet on the dry ground, that grin splitting the world in two with red lips and white teeth. Zheng was already a blur, shooting toward her in a single arc of lethal intent. There was no doubt who would win — the Grinning Demon was big and strong and deep in the madness of being summoned into a human corpse, but Zheng was a nine hundred years old unstoppable force.

The Grinning Demon raised the bulky plastic gun in one hand. I’d thought it was a toy, or a joke, or some bizarre affectation.

It was a harpoon gun.

Zheng didn’t bother to dodge. She shouldn’t have needed to dodge.

The harpoon took her through the chest, crunching through ribs and mulching part of a lung and bursting out through her back in a welter of blood and chips of bone. Zheng roared with laughter, barely slowed by the impact, one massive hand reaching for the Grinning Demon’s head.

Zheng slammed to a halt in mid-air, flailing for purchase.

The harpoon was stuck in her chest — and the tip was stuck in the air, in nothingness, fixing her in place, like an animal pinned to a tree. All Zheng’s unstoppable muscular power flailed at nothing. She roared with offense and frustration and rage, gripped at the harpoon, tried to yank it out, tried to pull herself off the shaft. But she was pinned. To nothing.

The Grinning Demon grinned at her, inches away from her crushing power.

“Got you,” said the Grinning Demon. Her skull-splitting smile turned past me, presumably to address July or Praem. She said: “Got one for you too. Stay still, puppies.”

Zheng roared in her face: “I will rip your head off and shit down your neck and into your soul!”

“Zheng!” I heard myself splutter — but somebody was holding me back. “I’ll— Zheng! Get her-”

But I could do nothing. We were spent, bleeding into our clothes, flailing just to stay standing, reactor spluttering out.

To the credit of Edward’s people, they’d known exactly which of us was most lethal.

The rest of the confrontation had not erupted into a fight — not yet — but frozen into the horrifying paralysis of an armed stand-off.

I think Edward’s people knew they had us cornered.

There were eight of them, besides the Grinning Demon. Three of them were obviously mages, though I doubted they were anything like Evelyn or Felicity. One of the mages — a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a slender frame — was pointing a series of metal sticks at the back of the demon host, presumably to keep her under a modicum of control. She was panting, covered in sweat, sagging with apparent physical effort, gripping the metal rods in white-knuckled hands.

The other two mages were both men, both young, both wild-eyed and rail-thin. One of the pair looked younger than me, not long out of boyhood; his fingers were held out before him, twisted into an unnatural pose, presumably repelling whatever Evelyn and Felicity were trying to. A scream was trapped behind his lips. The lad was terrified. Beside him was a slightly older man, in spectacles and a shirt, with a huge leatherbound tome open in his arms, shouting bits of Latin and directing the boy.

The other five were men with guns.

Real guns. Black and shiny and ridged, like something out of a science fiction movie, like machine-crabs one might find at the bottom of an alien ocean. Those guns made Raine’s stolen Sten look like scrap metal by comparison. All five of those men were dressed in body armour, like they’d expected a gunfight. Big black boots and bits of camouflage gear and bulky sunglasses. All of them seemed a little old to be soldier boys, a little too experienced. They’d rushed forward and ‘taken cover’ as Raine might put it, hunkering down behind the other side of the stone fountain.

They seemed totally out of place in the English countryside in the middle of summer. There was something horribly unreal about that moment. Like we’d fallen into a video game.

And all those guns were pointed at us.

Their leader — he must have been their leader, because he was the only one who spoke — was a bulky, taller, older man, with a bit of bushy red beard, his eyes hidden behind those absurd shades.

He was shouting things, repeating himself over and over: “Put your weapons down! Weapons down! On the floor! On the floor, now! All of you! On the floor!”

It was so absurd I could have laughed. I think we did, lost deep in brain-math haze.

My companions did not agree.

This exact situation had come up during Jan’s planning session — what if Edward just has a bunch of men with firearms? What if he has mages, doing mage things? What if he combines the two and has mages with guns? We’d made plans, made sure everybody knew what to do, when to duck, who to look to for direction. We should have been prepared.

What we hadn’t expected was Zheng pinned to thin air — and me flailing, semi-conscious, covered in blood, the House still there.

We’d lost our best fighter and our best shield.

A moment of horrible confused shouting rocketed back and forth. Raine got that makeshift shield and her own body in front of me, shielding me from whatever might be about to happen. Behind me, Evelyn spat a string of words that seared the air in an arc of burning orange — and Felicity screamed in sudden pain as the young mage on the other side broke his own left thumb to counter whatever effect they were trying to create.

“Weapons down! On the floor! That means you, the bitch in the motorcycle helmet! Put that gun down or we will open fire!”

“Back to the cars! Just back away! Raine, get Heather on her feet, for fuck’s sake!”

“Fuck ‘em!” That was Twil, dropping me and raging, her flesh wrapping itself in werewolf-spirit-flesh.

“I’ve got silver bullets for you too, werewolf bitch, don’t you move!”

“Like fuck you have!”

Accende et purga per voluntatem—”

“If you start backing away, we will open fire!”

“Bullet ain’t gonna do shit, shit-eaters! We can deflect bullets! Fuck you!”

The woman controlling the demon-host was screaming something about murdering us, twitching the sticks in her hands, trying to get her charge to attack me and Raine — but the Grinning Demon just stood there, staring at Zheng, locked in a silent contest of wills.

“Your trump card is down and out,” that was the leader, loud and clear. “Miss Morell there has shot her load. You can’t deflect shit right now.”

We couldn’t understand why Raine wasn’t shooting. They had guns, but she had a gun too. We had a gun, and two demon-hosts, and four mages, and-

We couldn’t deflect bullets without me.

It took a precious second of cognitive processing for me to realise that they had us out-gunned. We could — would — win a confrontation, even with Zheng pinned and raging. But somebody might get shot — somebody would get shot. All it took was one bullet to remove Evelyn or Raine or myself from the world, forever, with no take backs.

That’s why Raine wasn’t opening fire. I think I saw it in her posture, in the way her finger wasn’t on the trigger of the Sten gun as she balanced it on her shield.

But they weren’t shooting either. They had instructions.

The leader shouted again: “We’ve got you covered from enough angles. If you pull that trigger, we’ll paste you. Now, weapons down.”

“Then what?” Raine said, voice muffled inside the motorcycle helmet.

Behind us, Evelyn crunched out a deep, throat-breaking non-human word. One of the two mages on the other side, the one with the book, rolled his own eyes into the back of his head and started to bleed from his nose.

One of the other gunmen, one who hadn’t spoken yet, said: “Boss, they’re buying time for the fucking wizards to finish their shit.”

“I can see that,” said the leader, short-tempered and sweating. He asked over his shoulder without taking his eyes off Raine: “Andrew, how long can you hold them?”

The slightly older mage with the book replied in a strangled croak: “Two-three minutes. Hurry up. Shoot them, for God’s sake.”

Another armed man spoke up as well, his head on a swivel, glancing left and right though the summer blaze. “Where’s the guy? I don’t see the guy. Where is he? We need the guy.”

A third mercenary nodded to the left, to the tree-line at the edge of the property.

“There he is.” He raised his voice in a friendly shout: “Mate, get inside the house!”

Everyone looked. They must have looked. How could they not? Even Raine allowed a flicker of her eyes, in curious shock.

A figure was limping and hobbling out of the tree-line, metal walking stick scuffing on gravel and then sinking into the bare dirt. Dark curly hair caught the sun. Stress-sweat glistened on his face and neck. His eyes stared, flickering to us in horror, and to the gunmen with almost equal fear.

Badger stepped out of the woods and hurried to join the mercenaries.

“You fucking—” Twil spat an insult I won’t repeat. I think everyone else was too shocked to speak.

Badger hobbled behind the men and the mages, going straight for the open door of the house.

But at the last second, right on the threshold, he paused. He turned and glanced and said: “Does this lead to—”

The leader of the gunmen shouted back over his shoulder: “The real one, yeah. Old man’s waiting for you. Go on, off you fuck, let us deal.”

Badger didn’t even nod. He looked up and made eye contact — with me.

And I knew, caught in the reflection inside those watery puppy-dog eyes, that Nathan had not and was not betraying us.

There was nothing in those eyes but devotion to the angel who had saved him. Perhaps it was because I’d been inside the man’s head, perhaps because I’d rebuilt him with pieces of myself, but as Badger’s eyes touched mine, I knew exactly what he was thinking. I saw the twin layers of faith that had driven him to this moment: one, an unshakable belief that we — me and the others — would win and be unharmed, whatever he did; and two, so much worse — a determination to sacrifice himself.

Without needing to be told, I knew that Badger had a plan to kill Edward Lilburne, and that to execute it he needed to get inside that house, under the pretences of being a traitor.

His eyes said, For you, Heather.

He turned and limped over the threshold, swallowed up by the dark.

“Nathan, no!” I screamed — or I tried to. My throat and head were too much of a mess by that point. The sound we made was horrifying, a screech-howl from an otherworldly creature; three of the five gunmen flinched. A small satisfaction.

“Right,” the leader said, attention back on us. “We’re done here. Guns down, all of you on the floor. Wizards shut your fucking mouths or you’re dead first! Now! Right now!”

Fingers slipped onto triggers. Muscles tightened. Eyes narrowed behind dark shades. Evelyn was shouting at the top of her voice, throat raw with effort; on the other side, the young mage had no left arm anymore, the bones had simply folded up on themselves, devouring flesh as fuel for magic beyond his power. He was paying a terrible price for keeping us at bay.

But this was going to be solved with guns, not magic.

They were going to kill us.

We would win, of course. We had plans, we had power, we had backup. I even knew which way everybody was going to move. But somebody was going to get shot in the process.

Deep down inside my belly, I did the one thing I shouldn’t have done, at least not without a kilo of lemons close to hand. Manually, like threading a piece of wet spaghetti through a needle made of flesh, I slid a control rod out of my aching, throbbing bioreactor. I raised my tentacles, ready to make them real once more, ready to pay the price in blood and thoughts and overheating to protect my friends. There was no bathtub heat-sink to save my life out here, but I would burn myself out to protect my own.

Adrenaline pulsed through veins. Somebody shouted: “Three, two—”. Jan was howling a string of words in a language I’d never heard before. I rammed six tentacles and two hands down into the base of my soul.


A single shot echoed through rustling leaves, the sound somehow warped by the summer heat. There was something beautiful and unearthly about that echo.

The left side of the lead gunman’s head fountained with a little spray of blood and brains.

He slumped to the ground.

By that point in my life I’d been involved in more than a few violent confrontations; I’d even been at the centre of one or two. I had learned through bitter experience that fighting was nothing like in films or books. In reality any fight was confusing and messy, impossible to keep track of while it was happening, a whirl of sensations and impressions and reactions. Unless one is trained or born for this, one cannot keep an accurate account of what is happening in the moment.

A real life gunfight was a thousand times worse; the world exploded into confusion and shouting and air-splitting cracks and bangs and screams.

I actually saw very little of what happened, because the first thing I knew was Raine throwing me to the ground and covering me with that makeshift riot-shield. I clung to her with all our extra limbs, like I could pull her into the safety of the dirt. I reconstructed the actual events later, rebuilt from impressions and other people and snatches of sound.

And from a single sneaky tentacle, peeking up above the shield to take a look.

Nobody had expected the opening gunshot. We — all of us except for Zheng, who was pinned to the air and raging at the unmoving demon-host in front of her — reacted the same as Raine. Everybody ducked and hit the ground, or got bundled to the dirt by somebody else. Evelyn and Felicity’s efforts at magical assault were cut off, because Praem pulled her mother behind a piece of wall, and Felicity pushed Kimberly to the ground.

Edward’s men hadn’t expected it either.

One of them rose to his feet, firing wildly into the woods. Another two were sprinting for proper cover, behind the remains of the cars. The fourth was pinned, shouting, “You bitch! You fucking bitch! You fucking—”

Bang — the man on his feet took a bullet to the head. He fell down too. His gun went silent.

The pair of mages were turning to the woods on the left. The one with the book opened his mouth wide, as if to say a word too large for a human face.

His head popped next — bang — neat and clean. He crumpled.

Without his support, encouragement, or bondage, the young man with the bone-stripped arm went down in a tangle of limbs, screaming in pain.

The mage who was controlling the Grinning Demon, with the rods in her hands, tried to duck down behind the fountain. Bang — the bullet just missed her, hitting close enough to make her scream and flinch.

“You fucking cunt!” the pinned man was shouting, trying to get an angle with his weapon. “You little bitch, I’ll fucking kill you, I’ll—”

Bang. The bullet passed through his skull, neck, and spine. He sprawled, body twitching in a pool of blood.

The two gunmen who had fled behind the cars tried to return fire, but they had nothing to shoot at. The mystery sniper was invisible, and very, very skilled. Two bullets plinked off their cover, keeping them pinned.

All this happened so fast, faster than I could believe.

Twil took the initiative. A ball of fur and claw and snapping teeth exploded past Raine and me — and slammed into the mage controlling the Grinning Demon. I didn’t watch that bit too closely. Twil bounced her head off the side of the fountain. Blood went everywhere. The metal rods fell from her limp hands.

In a bizarre sideshow to the unfolding gunfight, the Grinning Demon dropped her spent harpoon gun, filled her lungs, and said: “Mine.”

Zheng screamed back into her face. “Free me, dung filth! Together!”

“Mine,” the Grinning Horror repeated — then, with her control broken, she turned on her heel and sprinted like a cheetah, shooting across the bare dirt and through the open door of the House. The interior shadows swallowed her up, like a stone falling into a pot of ink.

Zheng roared and flailed, still stuck on thin air.

Two things happened at once: Praem appeared and put her hands on the harpoon; and Raine got off me, levelled the Sten gun at the two men still taking cover, and squeezed the trigger.

She timed it to absolute perfection, a trick I didn’t understand until much later: her shots were wildly inaccurate, but they forced the pair of men the other way around the car for a few crucial seconds.

Bang — a man dropped, head a ruin of blood and skull.

The final gunman did his best to go to ground. He stayed low, crammed behind the car. He stowed his rifle and pulled out some kind of handgun. He shouted things — “Bitch!” “You can’t fight me up close, you fucking coward!” “We were on the same side, we were on the same side, you bitch!” — but it did him no good. Raine sent a few more bullets in his direction. Praem eased the harpoon out of Zheng, but too slow to help, too slow to let Zheng end this with raw strength.

A flicker of dark green and muddy brown ghosted from the edge of the tree-line and vanished behind the house.

The man was still shouting insults when the assassin stepped around the side of the car and shot him in the head. The body slumped, slid to the ground, and lay still.

An eerie silence fell across the forest clearing, the echoes of gunshots ringing in every ear. Insects still buzzed, far off in the woods. The younger mage was still whimpering and clutching his destroyed arm, writhing in the dirt. The air stank of blood and shit — pardon my language, but it did. Corpses do that. Everyone was panting and gasping. Zheng finally slumped off the harpoon; Praem stuck the hateful weapon into the ground.

And Amy Stack straightened up from her kill.

She was dressed in camouflage gear — not the flashy, self-consciously overcomplicated pouches-and-webbing stuff the mercenary gunmen had been wearing, but a simple form-fitting t-shirt and pair of trousers, with a long shapeless cape-poncho thing hanging from her shoulders, wreathing her form in dark greens and muddy browns. Her head and face were smeared with green camouflage paint as well, leaving no pale white flesh on which the sun might catch. She carried a simple bolt-action rifle loose in her hands, a heavy old thing with a wooden stock, the metal parts covered in black grease, for stealth.

I recognised it as the same rifle she’d once used to shoot at Raine, many months ago, in the Willow House Loop.

Raine was laughing. She pointed the Sten at the ground. “Nice shooting, Tex.”

Stack barely glanced at us. She shouldered her rifle and drew a revolver from somewhere inside her cape. The handgun was small, old, almost rickety looking. But she used it to methodically put two more rounds into the chest of every man she’d killed. The gunshots were deafening in the adrenaline-filled silence. Stack walked from corpse to corpse, pulling the trigger twice each time. Then she stopped to reload, shaking spent casings from the revolver’s cylinder, sliding fresh rounds into the chambers.

Raine helped me up. I staggered to my feet, half-supported by a clutch of aching tentacles, wobbly and dazed and panting with adrenaline and shock. I was caked in my own blood, steaming with heat, shaking all over from shock.

“I-is everybody … ” we croaked. “ … are we … ”

Everybody was indeed in one piece, which seemed like a minor miracle considering the amount of lead which had been flying through the air. Then again, none of it had been flying toward us.

Raine was untouched, though I could tell she was hopped up with adrenaline. She pulled the motorcycle helmet off, hair wet with sweat, desperate for a breath of fresh air. Twil was in some kind of shock — she was still more wolf than woman, standing over the body of the mage she’d killed, paws and claws painted with crimson. She kept swallowing and staring out over the corpses, flinching as Stack made sure they were dead.

Zheng was bleeding from the ragged harpoon-wound in her chest, gritting her teeth and growling, flexing her shoulders and ribs.

Behind us, the mages were picking themselves up off the floor. Evelyn looked like absolute hell; she’d been doing real magic, in opposition to Edward’s badly-trained magicians. Her skin was grey, she was drooling and spitting blood, and caked with cold sweat. Praem hurried back over to pick her up.

“Yes, yes,” she grunted in a voice like a dying lizard, as Praem helped her to her feet. “Thank you, thank you, Praem. Not so hard next time, hmm? Mmm?”

“Better than dead,” said Praem.

Felicity had bundled Kimberly to the ground. Fliss looked rough as well, like a woman who’d run a marathon and then been forced to drink a pint of vodka. Blood was smeared all around her mouth from the strain of pronouncing non-human words. She was unsteady on her feet and kept squinting, as if she couldn’t see properly. Kimberly, to our surprise, looked almost normal; she was a bit shocked and wide-eyed, but blinking and smiling with all the euphoric release of a car-crash victim emerging untouched from a twisted wreck.

July and Jan were the most quick to get back to their feet. July was completely unruffled. Jan was shaking all over, fists clenched tight, but when she spoke her voice was firm and clear: “Confirm we’re all uninjured, one by one.” She pointed at me. “Heather?”

I just stared at her, blank and confused. Behind me, Amy Stack pulled the trigger of her revolver twice more, putting another pair of bullets into a dead chest. I flinched. “S-sorry?”

“Heather,” Jan repeated, hard and clear. “Are you injured?”

I shook my head. “N-no. No. I’m … alright. I think. I-I’m sorry it didn’t work, w-with the house, the—”

Jan ignored me and moved on. “Raine, injuries?”

“None,” Raine said. She blew out a huge breath and ran a hand through her sweat-soaked hair. “I’m clear. Hooooo, that was crazy.”

Jan went through us, one by one. She omitted Zheng — Zheng was obvious. She said something into her mobile phone and we heard Lozzie reply, checking that she was okay too. Amanda was off-line, which was a bad sign, but mostly expected. By then, Amy Stack was striding over to us. Jan pointed at her. “And who is this?” she demanded. “Thank you, thank you for the help, but who is this?”

“Amy, Amy, Amy,” Raine was saying, shaking her head. “Well done, good shooting. Did I already say that? Haha, think I did. Thanks, Amy. Thank you.”

“Amy Stack,” Evelyn supplied in a low growl. “What the fuck are you doing here, Stack? How did you know we’d be here, how did you—”

Stack ignored the question. She pointed her revolver at the dead mage in front of Twil. But Twil lashed out and caught her wrist. Stack didn’t even flinch, just looked up at Twil’s snarling snout with her cold, flint-hard eyes.

“No,” Twil grunted. “Come on, she’s fucking dead, okay?”

“She was a mage,” Stack answered, calm and soft. “Let me make sure.”

“And I killed her!”

Evelyn said: “Twil. Twil, back away. Come here, now.”

Twil growled — then let go of Stack and stalked over to Evelyn. Stack shot the corpse in the chest, twice. We flinched again. Raine winced. Evelyn sighed. Kimberly looked away, sheltered behind Felicity. Then Stack looked over her shoulder, back toward the house.

“What about the bleeder?” she asked.

She meant the young man, the sacrificial mage, bleeding from a stump of an arm.

“Don’t,” Evelyn snapped. “He’s alive. Praem, go—”

But Praem was already off, striding across the bare earth toward the downed man — barely a boy, really — to stem the bleeding or stop his tongue.

Stack finally looked up at Raine. “Thanks for the assist.”

Raine boggled at her.

“I mean it,” Stack said. Her voice betrayed nothing, no emotion. “Good work with the covering fire. I would have had to work my way around otherwise.”

Raine broke into a grin. “Heeeeeeey. I finally got your attention, huh?”

Stack ignored that. So did I — for now.

“Thank you, Amy,” Evelyn spat, not sounding particularly thankful. “But—”

“No,” I croaked. I was still clinging to Raine for support. “Thank you. Really. They had us. Almost. Sort of. Thank you, Stack.”

Stack looked me up and down. “You hit?”

We shook our head. “Bleeding from pores. Long story.”

“Okay,” said Stack.

Evelyn spat: “How the hell did you know we were going to be here? And—”

“Badger!” Twil snarled. “Badger, it was him! That fucking bastard turned on us! You all saw him, right? I wasn’t imagining that?”

I shook my head, wild with revelation. “No, Twil, no. He wasn’t, he wasn’t betraying us. I don’t know why, but he wasn’t— he was—”

I panted and burbled and tried to explain. The others listened, but I don’t think they fully understood. But to my surprise, Amy Stack interrupted me.

“Nathan Hobbes had me bring him here,” she said. “Also I’ve been playing triple agent for the last two weeks, waiting for a chance to deal with my old friends.” She nodded sideways, indicating the corpses of the dead men. “Opened the way. You’re welcome.”

“You brought Badger here?” Evelyn spluttered. “Why the hell didn’t he come to us?”

I croaked again, “Evee, he needed- he was trying to trick- I saw it-”

Jan cleared her throat, loudly: “This is not the time for standing around and talking. We can debrief later. Right now — we need to leave.”

“Not until I understand,” Evelyn grunted. Her eyes flashed back to Stack. “You explain what he—”

We answered in Stack’s place, because we already knew.

“Nathan is trying to kill Edward Lilburne, personally,” we croaked. “He had to pretend to betray us, to get inside. And you helped him, Stack, because you’re betting on both plans, you’re betting on him, but also on us. And you don’t care if he dies in the attempt, as long as one of us succeeds. Isn’t that right?”

Stack blinked at me, from deep within a camo-painted face, cold and hard. “Correct.”

“Wait wait wait,” Twil said. “Badger’s hoodwinked Eddy, not us? On his own? He’s going up against that guy, on his own? What the fuck!”

Stack pointed back over her shoulder, past the corpses and the screaming man down on the floor, past the pools of sun-kissed blood and brains, to the open front door of the house. It was black and empty. A void cut in the face of reality.

“He was very insistent that he had a plan.” She shrugged. “I believe him.”

My mind was reeling; we were completely exhausted and still covered in blood, shaking all over, clinging to Raine with half our tentacles. We had not expected any of this, Badger least of all. The House stood there, open and glowering in dark silence. The woodland clearing stank of corpses. Insects buzzed and chirped in the undergrowth.

“What the hell happened to the bubble lads?” Felicity wondered out loud.

Jan stepped forward. She was shaking, too. When she spoke, her voice came out like that of a nervous teenager: “Excuse me, hello? Do I need to point out to everybody that we are now standing in the middle of a gigantic crime scene? That dozens of gunshots have just echoed out across the English countryside? We need to leave, right now. The police will be here shortly. Somebody will have called them, after hearing all that racket.”

Stack stowed her weapons and said, “Police will take days to get here. Who are you?”

“None of your business, Miss assassin, though thank you for the support. What do you mean the police will take days?”

Twil said: “Local acoustics, like. Woods are like that.”

Jan frowned. Stack nodded and explained, “Shots are hard to trace this far into the countryside. Police might respond, but they’ll have to check every property one by one. If they even care. And this isn’t on any maps. We have hours, at least. Probably more.”

Evelyn snorted. “For what?” she gestured at the house. “It’s still there. Heather, what happened?”

We just shook our head, at a loss for words. We almost laughed. “Houses don’t move.”

“Alright,” Jan said. She clapped her hands together. “Plan B, we blow the place up.”

“No!” I almost shouted, half-lurching out of Raine’s grip. “It needs care, it was trapped, it was—”

Evelyn spoke over my incoherent panic: “I don’t think blowing it up will make a damn bit of difference. Jan, look at that door. You tell me that leads to the inside of a house. Go on. Look me in the face and tell me.”

Jan glanced at the black void inside the front door frame. She coughed awkwardly.

“Thought so,” Evelyn said. “Besides, the bubble-servitors are inside. As is Badger. Fucking fool.” She spat. A whimper came from past the fountain, from the injured man Praem was trying to help. “Right.” Evelyn pulled herself up. “Let’s go interrogate the survivor, see what we’re dealing with.” Then she glanced at me. “Somebody pass Heather some water so she can wash her mouth out. Now. Come on, chop chop, let’s move. And somebody pile up the bloody corpses before they start to stink.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Don’t fuck with Amy Stack. Even if you’re a life-long old friend who once had her back in a warzone. Probably a bad idea. On the bright side, the police might turn up and ruin everything! On the other bright side, corpses! On the other other bright side, uh, Badger has an awful habit of going off half-cocked on brave, stupid schemes by himself (it’s kind of how he got captured by the spookycule in the first place, remember? And how he made a contract with OJ, and maybe even how he got involved with Alexander???). Maybe this time he can use this habit for good? Wait, none of these things are bright sides. Everything here is bad!

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Next week, cleanup’s a messy job, but somebody’s gotta do it. None of these people are professionals (okay, maybe Stack is). And the House is still right there … waiting. Being sulky. Any ideas, Heather?

24 thoughts on “luminosity of exposed organs – 20.7

      • Ohohohoh, indeed. Amy isn’t even Raine’s usual ‘type’, nothing like Heather. But Raine seems to respect her on some deep level of personal identification. Perhaps she should leave well enough alone.

      • I love Raine’s type of Alpha Dom, but I agree, Amy is one she should probably leave alone.
        Are Raine’s and Amy’s personalities similar, yet different?
        I mean in that where both seem to have undefined or muted personalities or (is it identities?)
        Raine seems to have crafted one where Amy decided not to. Could the two’s current situations have been a possibility for the other if not for that decision? ( Or is it choice?)

      • Amy might prove too much of a dom for Raine to out-dom!

        Yeah, way back the first couple of times they met, Raine and Stack seemed to recognise they are kind of similar in some ways. Raine has too much of a sense of morality to end up exactly like Stack, but she could have gone similar if not for Evee. And with the right influences perhaps Stack wouldn’t have ended up doing the kinds of things she did.

    • Hooray for Miss Stack! I’ve been planning her return for such a long time, I really like her as a character even though she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Glad she got to do this!

      And you are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!

      • Amy Stack is an interesting character.
        Thank you for the replying.

      • You’re very welcome!

        I really want to explore Amy some more in the future, too.

  1. F*CUK YES! AMY STACK YES!! When there was the gun shot from nowhere, I knew it was her. Also amazing with sentient houses. And we learn here more about Heathers’ eye power, she can talk to houses direct. Maybe the older the house, more lived in, the more it has presence? Cathexis? And Badger is doin something but I hope he lives because sacrificial woobies are not fun.

    • Stack is back! Yeah! I’ve been looking forward to her return for a while.

      Heather’s house-talking power here seems more like she’s just reading and interacting with the sheer weight of self-definition gained by simply being a house.

      As for Badger, he does has a habit of this! Getting himself into extremely dangerous situations and then living despite all the odds – with the cult, with Orange Juice, with brain surgery, with his heart literally stopping. He’s put himself in terrible danger again, for a (potentially?) noble cause. He must have a pretty good plan in mind.

  2. Magnificent! I knew Stack would come in to save the day at some point but the extent to which team Heather was countered was impressive. Edward don’t mess around

    • Thank you! I really enjoyed Stack’s return here, it’s been planned for a while. I really really like her as a character and I’m delighted how she came back on screen here. Glad it worked!

      Edward doesn’t mess around, indeed. And I doubt this is his final line of defense.

  3. Whew.

    Well that was close. Turns out the gang was actually incredibly under prepared for this. Edward was as wall prepared as expected, with counters for pretty much everyone.

    For half a second I thought the mystery shooter was Sevens flitting about with a gun, Stack is much less alarming.

    • Edward is nothing if not very prepared and very paranoid. Though, if Heather had not been down and out, Edward’s men would likely not have stood a chance. Which means they were probably instructed to wait for this opening. Very worrying!

      Sevens with a gun would be … well. It probably wouldn’t be a human gun.

  4. I freaking LOVE Amy Stack! I’m glad she’s back. I wonder when we’ll see from her point of view. I recall you mentioning you may do that. I also hope you’ll show how she interacts with Will, her little boy. And thank you, you magnificent author, for creating this story (mainly Amy Stack, hehe).

    • Amy Stack to the surprise rescue! I really like her too, she’s a lot of fun on screen and really unique and different. Thank you so much.

      Oh! Stack’s own POV? Maaaaybe? Book Two of Katalepsis is gonna be several different POVs, structured very differently to Book One. Stack could be one of them, or perhaps a major character during another. We’ll see! And you are very welcome indeed, I’m delighted you’re enjoying the story, thank you.

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