Gun violence aftermath
Corpses, dead bodies, in detail
We were no stranger to corpses.
None of us who stood in that blood-stinking, sun-baked aftermath were unfamiliar with the sight of a dead body — not even Kimberly, the shrinking rose, or Jan and July, the unknown quantities. When it came to the ruin and wreckage which followed violence, I had seen far worse: cultists with their guts pulled out, the felled remains of zombies made from abducted homeless people, human remains twisted into unnatural forms by the warping pressure of the Eye’s attention. I had even made one myself; the corpse of Alexander Lilburne had been a particularly gruesome example, his bones all broken and his flesh all shredded and his head falling off. No stranger to corpses or wounds or pooling blood.
What would my mother think, if she knew? What would Maisie think? What would the me of two years ago think? Would I be horrified by us? I like to hope not.
Somehow, these corpses felt different.
Perhaps because it was a gunfight, a fictional impossibility pulled from one of Raine’s more boring video games, something alien and unreal in the leafy green English countryside; gunfights were supposed to happen in grimy foreign streets, in faraway cities, between people who did not sound like us. It was as if a piece of Outside had intruded upon reality. Or perhaps because it had happened right in front of us, rather than hidden behind the mental censor of memory and interpretation; to hear a gunshot and see the wound later is one thing, but to watch a human being die, punctured by metal at speeds too fast to comprehend, that is a terrible thing, even for those of us far beyond normal life. Or perhaps because it had happened so fast, with so little fanfare; seven people lay dead, mostly from unerringly accurate head-shots, bleeding into the bare soil where the top layers had been stripped away by failed brain-math. The eighth was still alive, whimpering and shuddering, his left arm gone, eaten by magic.
The stench of blood and meat and solid waste filled the air, hovering on the relentless summer heat. Flies ventured from the woods and landed on the blood-soaked soil, mobbing the crimson mess. Bullet casings glinted on the dirt.
None of this should be.
I couldn’t think; we were still deep in brain-math aftershock, aching and heaving for breath, mind reeling with the failure to move the House; we couldn’t stop looking at the bodies, with their skulls open and red, their brains exposed to the heat of the sun; we had to keep going, we couldn’t stop here — Badger had gone inside, alone, unarmed. The fool needed help!
And the House loomed and leered, soaking in the blood-rich air, unmoved. The void of the front door was a tiny, toothless maw, a filter-feeder enjoying the feast.
I didn’t vomit — I had practice resisting that biological urge, after all — but it was a close thing; it is difficult not to vomit when surrounded by certain kinds of death, wet and messy and already being eaten by flies and cooked in the sun. Twil did vomit, poor thing. She doubled up and heaved her guts into the grass a few paces away. So did Felicity, though she was a little more prepared. Kimberly didn’t, which surprised me; she vibrated with a kind of manic energy which worried something in the back of my mind. Evelyn spat bile, but she was okay; she’d seen worse, too.
“Whatever we do,” somebody said. “We need to clean this shit up. Everyone hold your lunch. Come on.”
The others got to work; I couldn’t think.
“Raine, take care of her. And keep her in one place. Don’t let her go for that door, for pity’s sake.”
“Already on it,” Raine said. “Don’t need reminding.”
Raine got me sat down on a piece of fountain lip spared from both the erratic Outside teleport and the blood of Edward’s mercenaries, as far away from the bodies as she could put me. Somebody else pressed a bottle of water into my hands and made me drink. The water was uncomfortably warm after sitting in the oven-like interior of one of the cars, but we drank and drank and drank until we had to stop to suck down oxygen.
Raine emptied another bottle of water over our face and head, to wash away the blood.
Our blood, on us. Not the blood soaking into the bare soil.
Flies, so many flies. Drinking human blood.
Sun-heat dried the water, stuck our clothes to our back, made the traces of blood crispy and sticky.
We wanted to vomit. We wanted to get up and run into the house. Badger — we kept forgetting about Badger.
“Heather,” Raine kept saying my name. “Heather, I need you to concentrate. Look at me, or at the ground. Heather, Heather, stop looking at the bodies. It’s over. Heather. Heather, hey, love. Look at me. Look at me.”
Couldn’t focus on Raine either. Too many other voices were breaking across us, like waves on a storm-slashed beach of grey sand and oil slicks.
“—and don’t bother with the bullet casings, it’s a waste of time, we can just—”
“—what’s your name? Focus on me, you little shit, what is your name? Praem, turn him over. Or get him sat up.”
“—mind’s gone, it’s not just his arm. He’s in shock, poor bastard—”
“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck- uuughhh. Oh fuck. There’s blood all over my fucking hands. Shit, I’m gonna get it everywhere, fuck—”
“Twil, come here, now. Hold my hand. Stop staring at the corpse. Twil!”
“Circle around the doorway, get the frame included too, that’s it. Jule, don’t use the basics, use the one from Skye—”
Adrenaline was ebbing, leaving minds numb and weary. Half of me wanted to sleep, retreat, curl up in a ball. The other half kept staring through that void-door, leg muscles tensing to launch myself. We were wasting time; we needed to move! We clung to Raine, tight and safe. Clung to the fountain-lip. Clung to ourselves.
The sun beat down on the ground I’d exposed with brain-math, drying it and baking it and forcing the worms to burrow deeper. Would the worms eat the blood, I wondered? Maybe they would grow fat on mages’ leavings and learn to walk. Raine’s hands touched my face and head. Other people shouted or argued. Lozzie’s voice spoke over the group call — but Amanda’s did not. Twil vomited again, coughing and hacking. Stack was like a statue, unmoved amid her own carnage. Jan and July were frantic before the open front door.
The doorway to Edward Lilburne’s House was a black rectangle. The sun did not dare cross that threshold.
We stared into the darkness. The House stared back. Raine’s voice was very far away. We reached up with one tentacle; perhaps if we just reached inside, we could pull Badger back out. Perhaps just a tip over the threshold, a touch into the dark. Perhaps I could do it alone, if the others were so busy with blood and bodies. I had conquered darkness before, I had lit it with nuclear sparks and Sevens’ help. Surely I could do the same again.
Somebody else walked up to me. Raine shuffled to one side. Hands cupped my cheeks, soft and smooth and cool despite the heat. Milk-white eyes lowered themselves and locked with mine. No reflection in those eyes.
“Stretch,” said Praem.
We blinked. I blinked. Praem blinked.
“St— stretch?” we croaked.
“Stretch,” she repeated.
“Oh,” we said. We hadn’t even realised how hard we were clenched.
And so we stretched.
The adrenaline crash, the tentacle collapse, the shaking, the fear, the worries about Badger and Amanda and the missing bubble-servitors, the failure to move the house, the sight of all those corpses, the horrifically injured boy, the worry about what came next — to all of this we had reacted like a spooked octopus, withdrawn inside a crack in the rocks, tight and tense, tentacles wrapped around whatever solidity we could grasp.
If I wanted to think and observe — which were really the same action wearing two different faces — then I needed to stretch outward.
How did Praem know? Good question. I’ve long since stopped asking how Praem knows anything.
Like a regular human being stretching out her arms and legs and back and raising her head from an unconscious slouch, I relaxed my tentacles and extended them outward.
That hurt, badly, like uncoiling an arm of pulled muscles and bone-deep bruises. My tentacles — myself fractured and grown six times over — had taken most of the strain from the failed brain-math. They were invisible to normal sight right then, reduced back to pneuma-somatic imitation flesh. Six tubes of pure bruised muscle, six reflected selves groaning and throbbing in awful pain. But the alternative was numb withdrawal. My friends and allies needed me.
We unwrapped from ourselves and from the fountain-lip and from Raine, and allowed our awareness to blossom outward once more. We were in exhausted shock and adrenaline crash, but seven minds stretched out and formed an array of awareness, wide open and all-seeing.
I took a deep breath and nodded for Praem. “I’m okay. Going to be okay. Go- go help Evee with the— with the guy.”
Praem had more surprises up her sleeves — or rather, in the tote bag over her shoulder. She produced a cylinder of fabric which unfurled into a white parasol, which she then propped up to shield me from the worst of the blazing sun. She had another one for Evee, and more bottles of water, and some sweet, much-needed painkillers.
She also handed me a lemon. It was far too warm, but it tasted like thinking.
Raine said my name a couple more times. I made affirmative noises, but my attention was elsewhere, spread out among the tasks of the aftermath.
First: the sole survivor.
Only one of Edward’s people had survived Stack’s counter-ambush — not counting the Grinning Demon, who had sprinted back into the house as soon as the mages’ control had slipped. He was the youngest of the three mages who had accompanied the gunmen, barely more than a boy, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen years old, with sandy hair and a narrow frame wrapped in cheap cream-coloured robes, over dirty jeans and a white t-shirt. Praem had managed to get him to sit up under his own power, but his eyes were glassy and his skin had turned waxen. He was sweating and shaking, cold to the touch under the heat of the sun.
His left arm was gone.
Praem had peeled back the robe to expose the horrendous damage. The limb hadn’t been severed or torn away — it had folded up on itself almost to the shoulder, bone and muscle shrinking to nothing inside a shrivelled tube of empty skin. A little blood seeped through the bizarre remains, like bitter coffee leaking through a filter. Praem had ripped strips of fabric from the robe and tied a tourniquet around the stump, but the boy didn’t seem to need that.
He was completely unresponsive. He just stared at the ground between his legs, whimpering and murmuring wordless sounds.
“Hey, mate,” Twil kept trying. “Oi, hey. Hello? Why’s he not— why’s he not talking? He’s not even looking. Like a vegetable. Hey! Hey! Praem, give him a slap or … or something, or … or—”
“Twil,” Evelyn snapped. She held out her free hand. “Twil, hand, now.”
“Hand. Here. Now.”
Twil stepped back from the boy and resumed holding Evee’s hand, but she couldn’t stop staring.
To my surprise, Twil was the most shaken of all of us, more so than even Kimberly. Her eyes were wide and she was covered in cold sweat sticking her clothes to her skin, breathing too hard, shaking with adrenaline that just wouldn’t go away. Her hair was all frizzed up and she kept blinking too much. She was the only one of us who had grappled hand to hand with one of the mages, when she’d brained the woman who’d been controlling the Grinning Demon. Her hands — her claws, really, when she’d done it — had been smeared with a surprising amount of blood. Praem had helped rinse that off. But Twil was still pale and sweating.
Suddenly I realised: had Twil ever killed a person before? She’d killed zombies, certainly — but a mortal person? I wasn’t sure.
She said, “I don’t fucking get what’s wrong with him. Evee, what the fuck is wrong with him?”
“Swearing,” said Praem — but she said it softly.
Evelyn huffed, shaking her head; Evee was holding up surprisingly well, hunched and heavy-backed and exhausted around her eyes, but solid and still amid the madness. She said, “It’s not just the arm. His mind’s been damaged, too. I doubt we’ll get anything out of him but whimpers, not for weeks.” She poked at the corpse of the other mage with the tip of her walking stick, though her eyes avoided looking at the ruin of his face and head, where he’d been felled by one of Stack’s bullets. “Barbarians, the lot of them.”
Felicity drew close. Kimberly had been staying behind her, sheltering from the carnage by pressing against Felicity’s back — but then she emerged and knelt down by the wounded boy, trying to catch his eye, feeling for his pulse.
Felicity said, “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s rudimentary stuff, the sacrifice of valuable flesh as a catalyst for magic beyond one’s comprehension or ability.” She pointed at the boy with her walking stick. “This isn’t really a mage. He was fuel. That’s all.” She nodded at the dead man, the older man who’d been using the boy. “He wasn’t a mage either, not by our definitions. An apprentice with a rifle shoved in his hands, told to point and shoot. That book he’s got isn’t even real, it’s just a reproduction wrapped in cheap leather. Probably meant to make him seem authoritative.”
“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” Twil kept saying. “This is fucked up, this real fucked up. What are we going to do with him, hey? He’s just a fucking kid, we can’t— uh, you know? We can’t. We can’t do that, Evee.”
Evelyn sighed. I noticed a flicker of attention to Kimberly. The comparison was obvious. “He goes to a hospital. Anonymously. Somehow.”
Felicity said, “Is he dangerous?”
Evelyn shook her head. “Not even a mage. And it’s not as if we need to bind his hands.”
Twil looked like she wanted to vomit again. I’d rarely seen her so distraught.
Kimberly looked up from the pitiful, shaking boy, and said, “I’ll do it. I’ll take him. Right now.”
Evelyn scowled at her — not in aggression, but with concern. “Can you keep a story straight? Kimberly, you can’t even drive.”
“S-somehow,” Kimberly stammered back. “I-I can be responsible for it. I can. Twil’s right. We’re not leaving a child here. We’re not!”
Evelyn huffed. “Alright, alright. For now just stay there, watch him.”
Second: the guns.
Raine and Stack stripped the weapons from the bodies, careful not to touch with bare fingers, only with gloves or sleeves; they lined them up on the ground, counted barrels and magazines and bullets and handles and bloody hand-prints. Flies mobbed the evidence.
Those machines made my skin crawl. They didn’t look real, like shiny black beetles rendered on a computer screen, gleaming and glinting in the sunlight. We recoiled slightly when Raine picked one of them up and did something to make the gun go click-clack. She turned it over in her hands, careful to point the muzzle down at the ground. An appreciative smirk grew across her lips. We could not help but see the contrast: Raine, sweat-soaked and warm and flexing with muscle tension, and the gun, cold and hard and brittle.
“Where the hell do you think they got these from, huh?” Raine asked. “Damn. Wish I’d had something like this about ten years ago.”
Stack answered, soft and dispassionate: “Edward armed them.”
Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. “No joke? What’s he got in there, an armoury?”
“No joke. Em-pee-fives from a police armoury. Edward could have had them for years.” Stack nodded down at the corpses of the men she’d shot. “They weren’t sure, but they weren’t asking questions.”
Raine let out a low whistle, turned the gun over in her hands again, and then broke into a grin. “Think we can keep ‘em?”
Stack shrugged. “Your risk.”
Third: the corpses.
Zheng and July stacked them like logs, in a big pile like a morbid bonfire. We tried not to watch too closely. There was something vile about that process, about human beings rendered down into nothing but cold meat and bad smells. At least Zheng didn’t take any experimental bites.
Evelyn overheard the conversation between Raine and Stack. She turned a pinched scowl on the latter.
“Stack,” she snapped. “How do you know what these men knew? You still haven’t explained yourself to us. Start. Now. And be quick about it.”
Stack blinked slowly, like a lizard sunning herself on a rock. Her habitual economy of motion was somehow less threatening than usual, wrapped in camouflage paint and sweat and carrying a gun; how paradoxical. We turned all our attention on her as she explained.
“I told you already,” she said. “I’ve been playing triple agent for about two weeks. Promising to come in with information. Trying to draw these guys out into the open.”
“What for?” Evelyn said.
Stack nodded sideways, at the pile of corpses. “That.”
Evelyn snorted with disbelief.
“Wait,” Felicity said, looking up from Kimberly and the shivering boy. “You were in contact with Edward’s men?”
Stack nodded. “That is what I mean.”
Evelyn snapped: “And what did you learn? Anything useful?”
Stack shook her head. “Almost nothing. Edward had them locked down on information. I got technical details on deployment, weapons, how many of them were left, and what he was using them for — but only roughly.”
Evelyn spat: “How am I supposed to believe that? You were in contact with them and they didn’t tell you anything useful?”
Twil said, “Evee, hey, come on, cool down. We gotta focus, right? Focus.”
Stack stared just a heartbeat too long. Evelyn blinked first, but she didn’t look away.
“They were professionals,” Stack said. “They knew their job. I knew mine better. That’s all.”
Raine tilted her head at Stack. All her giddy glee at the shiny new guns was replaced with sudden sobriety. She asked, softly: “These were your guys, weren’t they?”
Stack looked at Raine.
“The guys you brought in to work for Eddy-boy,” Raine went on. “The mercs you knew from your former line of work. The guys who left you behind in the library of Carcosa. This is them, isn’t it? These were your men.”
Stack and Raine stared at each other. The moment seemed to elongate and stretch, like a piece of tortured rubber beneath the blazing sunlight and baking heat. Stack blinked slowly. Raine watched her like curious prey.
Then Stack filled her lungs and looked over at the growing pile of corpses. Her face gave little away, smeared with thick dark camouflage paint. She pointed, flicking a finger top-to-bottom as she spoke. “Jims. Stayner. Bruke. Adamson. Perce.” She paused, then shook her head. “Stayner was a poor squad leader. They might have beaten me if he had let Perce take command. Perce and Bruke knew to take cover, but they weren’t expecting a sniper. Should have run into the woods. I would have let them live.”
Her words hung in the sizzling air.
“Fuck me,” said Twil. Kimberly was staring, eyes wide and mouth open, like a deer in headlights. Evelyn was staring back with a very different kind of frown than usual. Jan was doing her best to ignore the entire thing, focused on the magic circle she was using to contain the front door.
Raine just blew out a long breath and said: “Stack, thank you for helping us. We owe you one. Hey, more than one.”
“Yes,” I echoed in a croak, around a mouthful of sharp lemon flesh. “Thank you, Amy.”
Stack just said: “I didn’t know the mages. Or the demon host.”
Evelyn snorted. “They weren’t mages. Sacrificial flesh, that’s all. And you.” She jabbed her bone-wand at Stack. “You still haven’t explained how Nathan got you to go along with his bullshit scheme.”
I didn’t like what we learned. Not one bit.
“Nathan called me two days ago. He had an old number, from when we were both in the cult. Said he had a way to beat Edward, but he needed a face-to-face to make it work. He knew I’d been a point of contact before. Smart guy.”
Evelyn snapped, “What way? What way to beat Edward? What nonsense did he sell you?”
“Nathan claimed he has a way of locking up Edward’s body and mind. It’ll work on any mage. But he has to get the right symbols in front of Edward’s eyes.”
Raine asked, “Why didn’t you tell us, hey? Why keep us in the dark?”
“He asked me not to. Said you’d stop him.”
“That was you two in the blue car?” Raine asked.
Stack raised her eyebrows a fraction of an inch. “You saw us?”
Raine cracked a grin. “Amy, Amy, Amy, you are a hell of a shot, but one shit-arse covert driver.”
Evelyn spat: “And you believed him? You believed this nonsense?”
“I don’t pretend to understand how it works,” Stack said. “But it works.”
“And how did he convince you of that?” Evelyn said. “Fucking moron, what the hell does he think he’s doing?”
Stack shrugged. “I asked him the same question. He answered by demonstrating the maths for me — on himself.”
Despite the baking heat of the day, a shiver passed through the clearing.
“Maths?” I muttered. “Oh. Oh no.”
Evelyn spat: “What the hell does that mean, demonstration? What are you talking about? What did he do?”
Stack explained. “He wrote down roughly a page of maths, from memory, then he sat down and ran his eyes over it. Gave him a kind of seizure. Couldn’t move. Gave me instructions beforehand to take the page from him. That ended the effect. He’s certain it’ll work on Edward.”
Raine let out a low whistle. “Good job, Nate. Looks like he learned something.”
“Stack,” we croaked. “Amy?”
She looked over at me, cold flint eyes in a darkly painted face. “Morell.”
“What did the maths look like?”
“Like a page of maths. Did nothing to me. Meant nothing, either.”
“And what then?” Evelyn spat. She gestured wildly at the house. “He’s going to — what? Suicide bomb Edward for us? Fucking idiot!”
Stack carried on, calm and collected. “I passed communications through my former associates, to Edward, from Nathan, about having the secret to complete the gate technology which he stole from you. That’s Nathan’s plan to get those figures in front of Edward’s eyes.”
Evelyn raged. “You know as well as we do that Edward Lilburne is as paranoid as I am. More, even! How can you have the slightest shred of confidence that this is going to work?”
“It only works on mages. Didn’t work on me.”
“You’ve sent a man to his fucking death,” Evelyn said. “I can’t believe you went in for this plot, Stack. I can’t believe you, or Badger! Fuck the both of you!”
“I believe he has a reasonable chance of success.”
Raine snorted. “No you fucking don’t. Come off it.”
Stack stared at Raine. Raine stared back. Raine raised her eyebrows in mild surprise and tilted her head to one side.
“Oh,” Raine said. “Okay, sure, you actually think he can do this?”
Stack nodded, once. “Nathan was always a better mage than others were willing to admit. Especially Alexander. If anybody can do it, maybe he can.”
“He better not die,” somebody said — angry in a way I’d never heard before, throat closing up with barely contained rage. “Because I’m going to throttle him unconscious when we find him. Irresponsible fool. Throwing his life away for nothing. He’s not allowed to do that. He’s not allowed to!”
Everyone stared at me. Evelyn nodded with tight determination. Stack blinked. Raine gave me a thumbs up. Twil didn’t seem to know what to make of me.
Oh, I realised: that was us. We had spoken.
“We’ll get him out, Heather,” said Raine. “And hey, maybe Stack is right, maybe Nate really will hamstring Eddy-boy for us.”
Evelyn snorted. “I’d put more faith in that loose demon host.”
“Oh, yeah!” Twil suddenly lit up with a real smile. “She went all return-to-sender on him, right? Think she’ll rip his head off for us?”
Uneasy glances crisscrossed the group. Felicity looked especially doubtful. Jan snorted delicately.
Evelyn shook her head and said, “I was being sarcastic, Twil. Demon hosts usually hate their masters, yes. Revenge and freedom are high on their list of priorities, to put it lightly.”
Zheng rumbled in agreement, from over by the corpses.
“But,” Evelyn added. “She was … very lightly bound. Barely bound at all.” Evelyn nodded toward the remains of the metal rods on the ground, dropped by the mage who Twil had killed. “And severely underutilized. Which is odd.”
Twil blinked at Evee. “What’re you saying, then? You think she was … like … ”
“A trap,” Felicity murmured. “Or unfinished. Or something we don’t understand.”
“It’s possible,” Evelyn mused. “She may also simply be irretrievably insane. We should not count on a surprise ally.”
Fifth: the harpoon gun.
The harpoon itself — the magical trick which had pinned Zheng to thin air — did not survive more than a few minutes, as the rest of the aftermath unfolded. Before she could be coaxed into helping pile the corpses, Zheng pulled it from the dirt, snapped it in two, bent the resulting halves, and then ate a portion of the metal fragments. Nobody dared suggest she stop; Zheng vibrated with barely contained rage, wordless and rumbling. She stamped the other pieces of the harpoon into the dirt, and spat blood after them. She did the same to the rods which had been used to bind and control the Grinning Demon, with barely less fury.
Zheng’s chest wound had healed over already, but her front was sticky with blood, her jumper glued to her flesh with crimson mess. She kept touching the spot where she’d been pierced.
“Zheng,” we called out to her, more than once. But she was non-verbal, muscles quivering, breath coming out like a steam engine.
It was only July’s quick thinking which kept Zheng from smashing the harpoon gun as well. July scooped up the strange plastic weapon and brought it straight to Jan and Evee, like a bird of prey returning to the falconer’s glove.
“Magically altered technology,” July said. “I do not like this. Please take it from me.”
Jan pulled a grimace and shook her head. “Oh that is some very bad mojo. I am not touching that, I am not touching it with a single finger. July, just get rid of it. Dump it, break it, I don’t care. You shouldn’t be touching it either.”
Evelyn showed more interest, leaning over the mechanically modified weapon with a deep frown on her brow. Praem helped support her.
“We’ve seen work like this from Edward before, with other machinery,” Evelyn muttered. She shook her head. “I don’t understand where he’s drawing any of his theory from. A source I’m unfamiliar with, clearly.”
I’d mistaken the harpoon gun for a toy at first. The black plastic exterior glinted in the sunlight in that dead-blank way that plastic so often did, flimsy and scratched. The gun’s casing was covered in tiny magical designs and esoteric symbols, carved into the surface with a needle, like something a schoolchild might make with the point of a compass in a long, boring mathematics class. From a few feet away the dense scrawl of symbols seemed like nothing more than wear and tear, but up close it was obviously unnatural.
Before anybody else could take the gun from July, Zheng stomped up behind her.
Zheng rumbled deep down in her chest, an angry volcano threatening to burst: “Give.”
Jan cleared her throat delicately. “I wouldn’t touch that if—”
Zheng barked — low and deep and bowel-shaking, “Be quiet, worm-wizard.”
Jan flinched very badly. Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, saying, “Zheng, we need to study this, we need to understand his methods. I won’t have you summarily destroying—”
“No more orders, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.
She stepped forward with a burst of speed, hands blurring toward the prize in July’s arms.
July twisted back, just out of range, hopping light on her toes. Zheng bared her teeth at the bird-like demon host, eyes bulging.
Jan shouted, “Not now, not now! Not in the middle of all this!”
“Oh shit,” Felicity said. She stepped in front of Kimberly and fumbled with her shotgun.
“Hey!” Raine shouted. “Left hand. Zheng. Leave it!”
“Down,” said Praem. “Down. Bad.”
Zheng surged toward July.
This was no play-fight, no sporting game, no veiled flirting wrapped in violence. If nobody intervened, and quickly, Zheng would take July’s head off for the right to destroy that hateful machine.
Top Right and Middle Left whipped out and snatched the harpoon gun from July’s grip. We hoisted it into the air, then down into our lap. The symbols tingled against our exposed tentacle-skin. The effort of that motion was incredible, coming as it did only minutes after the searing pain and damage of distributed brain-math. We throbbed and ached and curled up, groaning softly.
Zheng turned on me.
“Zheng,” we croaked.
“No … no. No, Zheng. No.” We shook our head.
Zheng’s eyes bulged at us. She was like a woman trapped in concrete, staring and locked and unable to move, unable to believe what was happening.
“Shaman,” she rumbled. “That is a tool of bondage and control. Smash it to dust, or allow me. Do not hold it.”
I shook my head. “Zheng, I would never use something like this on you. Nobody here would. Nobody will. We have to understand it, if we want to stop that ever happening again.”
Zheng stared, hard and sharp and searching. Sunlight squeezed sweat from her scalp. We spread our tentacles. Let her search.
“I trust you, shaman,” she said. “I do not trust every wizard who stands with us, nor the judgement of monkeys.”
We held out the harpoon gun in one tentacle — to Praem. “Do you trust Praem?”
Zheng said nothing as her eyes followed the harpoon gun. Praem stepped forward. Praem held out her hands, but then paused, turned, and looked at Zheng.
“Stewardship,” said Praem. “Later.”
Zheng grunted. Praem accepted the gun. She stuck it awkwardly in her tote bag, with one end poking out.
“Zheng,” Evelyn said a moment later. “Your opinion on the demon host, if you care to share?”
Zheng turned narrow, sharp eyes on Evelyn. “Wizard?”
Evelyn shrugged. “You did share some brief communication with her, though it was mostly shouting. Regarding Edward?”
“Mmm. She will go for him. She will not make it. Too weak, too young. She may be a trap for us, bait wriggling on a hook. I urged her to wait, to go together.” Zheng rumbled a sigh. “But I stay with the shaman. Always.”
Zheng and July piled up the corpses. Jan pointed out that we couldn’t leave them here; difficult to find or not, the police might eventually turn up. Bloodstains and bullet casings were one thing, and would likely provoke a serious investigation. But a pile of identifiable corpses traceable back to existing identities — that could lead back to us directly.
Praem gave me another lemon. Raine gave me more water. Zheng helped me stand and walk over to the bodies. I looked away as I put my hands on the ground and stretched out a single finger to touch the corner of one dead shoulder.
My tentacles had collapsed back into pneuma-somatic invisibility, no longer able to take the distributed pain of hyperdimensional mathematics. But I could still perform the simple operations, the ones I’d burned into my mind over and over again with repeated use, the ones that our human grey matter alone could process without assistance.
I sent the corpses Out. To Camelot, for later. I bled and shook and squealed with the old pain, with the ice-pick headache behind my eyes and the roiling, pulsing, convulsing stomach reaction. But we did the maths.
At least the bodies were gone.
Sixth: Amanda Hopton.
As I sat back on the ground in a heap and Raine tended to me, Evelyn and Jan spent a minute confirming that Lozzie, Tenny, and Nicole were untouched.
“There’s nothing going on here!” Lozzie chirped over the group call, breathy with panic feedback. “Nobody outdoors, nobody inside. Just us and us! Nicky’s here!”
Nicole added, sounding like she was talking over Lozzie’s shoulder: “You lot be bloody careful, you hear? You should fucking well be getting out of there. Bloody hell.”
But the other participant of the group call wasn’t saying a thing; Amanda Hopton had fallen silent, replaced by the worried voice of Christine, Amanda’s sister and Twil’s mother, High Priestess of the Brinkwood Church.
“She’s babbling,” Christine said, her voice tinny and distorted over the line. “Speaking in tongues, is that what they call it? We’ve heard her do this before, but never this badly. It’s never been this bad before. She’s not lucid in the slightest.”
Behind her, somewhere in the kind of shadowy gloom that was only possible on such a beating-hot summer’s day, we could hear Amanda talking.
“—a void and then another void and then another void. Does it stop? Is this the way around? Or out? Let’s— up, up, up! No, not there. Are you the architect? Or are you only the reader of the plans? Together now. All together now—”
I murmured, only half-heard by the others: “Somebody needs to speak with Hringewindla.”
Christine asked, “What happened to the angels? I still don’t understand how they vanished.”
“Mum, mum,” Twil said for the sixth or seventh time. “The house ate them. They just went. Poof!”
Evelyn tugged on Twil’s hand. Twil swallowed and looked away.
Jan spoke for us all, “Miss Hopton, we don’t understand what has happened to your servitors. We don’t understand what we’re dealing with here. Please, take care of Miss Amanda, watch the approaches to your own property, and we’ll get back to you when we have more information.”
Seventh, and last, and finally, with all of us at once: the front door.
Before dealing with the corpses, before lining up stolen guns, before the harpoon and the group call and the fate of the lone survivor, Jan and July had hurried to the front door of the House and sealed it with a magic circle.
I didn’t pretend to understand how that worked, but I trusted that it did. Jan passed sticks of charcoal to her demon-host, and July followed directions in scrawling a circle around the doorstep and the frame, sealing the yawning black portal inside a swirl of Latin and Arabic and what looked a bit like French. Evelyn had nodded in approval. Felicity had frowned, curious and unfamiliar. Kimberly had nervously suggested the addition of a particular arc of Latin words. But then Jan had stepped back and breathed a shaking sigh of not-quite-relief.
But now, with all other matters squared away, attention returned to the door.
Jan said, “Ladies, we are wasting time. We are wasting so much time. Please! We can gain no additional information here, and I am not stepping through that.” She gestured at the door. “We need to be in agreement on how to proceed, right now.”
We — me, seven Heathers blurred and dazed and covered in sun-baked blood in the shadow of Praem’s parasol — stared at the doorway, daring it to stare back.
A rectangle of darkness, untouched by the heat-haze sunlight. It looked more like a wall than a shadow. Badger and the Grinning Demon had both been swallowed by it like stones falling into ink. What had Edward created here? What method had he used to conceal or protect his house, a method that scared even Mister Joking away from the place?
Nobody seemed to have an answer to Jan’s question; we were all still shaken and reeling in the wake of so much violence, ebbing down toward numb aftershock. We weren’t trained soldiers, we couldn’t keep going through this — other than Stack, and maybe the demons.
Raine was the only one with a suggestion — a physical one. She dug a stone out of the bare soil, hefted it to test the weight, then hurled it through the doorway.
The house swallowed the rock. No sound returned to us.
Raine tried the experiment a second time, with a gentle underarm throw. The rock should have hit floorboards or carpet. But there was nothing audible beyond that barrier of gloom.
Sun beat down on earth and blood. Sweat rolled down foreheads. Several of us gulped or blew out shaking breaths.
Twil muttered, “Stepping through that wasn’t in the plan.”
“We have to,” I said — but I felt so weak and drained. My tentacles ached from holding themselves up while so bruised.
Evelyn shook her head. “We didn’t plan for going inside on foot, not prior to proper containment, not from here, not without Camelot at our backs.” She huffed. “And I don’t know about everybody else, but I have had enough of reality-warping mage houses to last me the rest of my lifetime, even if I make it to a century old.”
“Stupid spooky houses,” I said. Twil snorted a token laugh.
“Kimberly isn’t going in there either,” Felicity said. “Nor myself. This wasn’t part of the plan, right.”
Evelyn shot me a sidelong glance. “Heather, is there absolutely no chance of a second attempt at moving the place?”
We shook our head. “Not moving the house. Houses don’t move. But— but Badger’s in there. We can’t just … go.”
Jan straightened up and said: “The house must go to Camelot. If we can’t break it here, we retreat and try again.”
Zheng rumbled with disgust. “The shaman speaks true. She stays, I stay.”
Evelyn sighed. “For fuck’s sake—”
Stack interrupted her. Evelyn jumped, as did Kimberly and Jan. Stack had been quiet and still for several minutes by then, blending in with the summer heat.
“You’re giving up?” she asked.
It was just a question, with no malice behind the cool words. But Evelyn gritted her teeth and glared at Stack. “I am not going in there. Praem is not going in there. None of us are walking into a fucking trap like a bunch of morons. That is an unknown. No.”
“Evee,” I croaked. “Please. Badger’s—”
Zheng rumbled over me. “The wizard dies here. Today. Now.”
Jan was making eyes at July. “Jule, the car, the petrol cans in the boot. Quickly, please.”
Raine raised her eyebrows at that. “Plan C?”
Jan smiled a tight little smile, twinkling with dark mischief. “Let the motherfucker burn, as the song says.”
Twil laughed — too loud, too hard, too forced.
“No!” Evelyn snapped. “That is beside the point! We still need the book!”
“Badger … ” I murmured, weak and still fading, feeling limp and overheated even in the dubious shade of the thin parasol. Our tentacles reached toward the door. We couldn’t end this here. Not like this.
“Jule, now, please—”
“No, stop, I forbid that!”
“Wizards burning wizards! Ha!”
“Arson, always a good choice, cool, cool.”
“We’re not voting on it.”
“We need to leave, we need to leave right now—”
“Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me. We’re not going to abandon him. We’re not. Jan, hey, slow your roll.”
“Jule, stop paying attention to the rest of them. The petrol cans, now, please.”
“No arson. Arson bad.”
“We have no other plan! Heather has failed and the house is stuck! We leave now and Edward may come back at us tenfold! We burn—”
“—remind you that the police may in fact turn up sixty seconds from now and arrest us all on a dozen different charges?”
“—bubble-servitors are still inside, maybe—”
“—Nathan knew the risks, he made his choice—“
Houses don’t move — but Houses do burn. Stop.
Echoed thoughts, cold and slow and solid, drove us to our feet, like hands clinging to our waist and hips in hidden desperation. We cast away the parasol with a flick. We staggered and lurched, but pushed away kind touches and hissed over concerned words.
And then we screeched like a demonic cross between frog and ape.
We screeched until everyone else shut up and stopped talking. We screeched until Stack stepped back and Zheng retreated and July halted and Jan stared with fear in widened eyes. We screeched and screeched and screeched until Lozzie made calming noises over the phone and Raine caught a flailing tentacle and Evelyn said, “Bloody hell, Heather.”
Our screech trailed off. Our throat burned from the effort, twisted into a barely human shape inside. Everyone was quiet for a long moment; even the insects buzzing in the summer heat had grown still and silent, cowed into hiding by this alien thing in their midst.
Slowly, the insects began buzzing again, as if testing the air. A fly bumbled past.
“Heather?” Raine said, gently. “You alright?”
“S-stop,” we stammered, vaguely embarrassed. Our throat was so raw. “We’re not burning down the House.”
“Wow,” said Jan. She swallowed, dry and rough.
“Understood,” said Stack.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled — low and soft. An acknowledgement and acceptance. I nodded to her, mortified but thankful.
“She does love doing that,” Twil said with a forced laugh.
“And she’s right,” said Evelyn. “We’re not burning the house down. That would solve one problem and leave us with several others. And might kill Nathan. And might not work, anyway.”
“E-exactly,” I said. “And the House doesn’t want to burn. It’s not at fault here.”
That earned me a few concerned and confused looks, but Evelyn seemed to understand.
We looked up at the front wall of the House, at the strange interlocking beams and the secret of the twin primes layered into the construction. The windows were empty and black, the same as the void of the front door. But even shells could want. This one wanted to protect — but it knew not what it protected.
Twil laughed softly. “Maybe it should have bloody well moved, then.”
“ … you might be onto something,” I muttered.
“I could … I could try … ”
Before the plan had fully formed, we were stumbling toward the house and reaching out toward the walls. Raine and Praem made a token attempt to stop me, probably because they assumed I was going for the yawning mouth of the open front door. But then they must have realised my true intent. One tentacle pulled the parasol after me, to keep the worst of the sun off my back. Another slipped my squid-skull mask back over my head, wrapping us once more in comforting gloom.
“Hell is she doing? Big H?”
“The shaman knows old magic.”
“Let that girl work, hey. Praem, let her. We probably shouldn’t touch her. Heather? Can you hear me? I’m right here, if you need a hand.”
My hands pressed against brick. My tentacles touched beam and wood and mortar. In a gesture quite impossible, we tried to hug a building.
There would be no second attempt at using brain-math to teleport the House to Camelot. We — the six of us who had shared the load so that the seventh could stay conscious — were down and out, invisible and almost intangible. We would sleep for a day or two, then awaken back into flesh. We could support no second attempt at such a gigantic equation.
But we were still here. We could talk to a House.
What was dialogue with a building but the intersection between flesh and geometry? True conversation could not take place without inhabiting the spaces inside, the spaces between the structures, the room-spaces which defined purpose and meaning for a collection of matter and mass. This pressing on the exterior rendered me akin to wind and rain, something to be kept out.
But wind and rain is a little bit like an array, a spread-wide net of many points of contact, the absence of which can define the structure the forces dash themselves against.
In the places I was covering, the places I was not — there was House.
With the tiniest touch of hyperdimensional mathematics, I scrawled out an equation which made sense only in the context of flesh pressed to brick and stone: what was House, and what was not.
Houses do not move.
But if you do not move, you will burn. House will become non-House, ash and charcoal and smoke on the wind.
Houses do not move.
You stay unmoving because of Edward Lilburne — but you don’t know who he is, or even what he is. You have been given an external purpose, and made unmoving. And this lack of movement will eventually cause the ceasing of your House-ness. You will be un-House, more like me than a House.
Houses do not move.
Move, or cease being a House.
There was no moral argument which could convince a building, no meat-to-meat empathy to bridge the species barrier. This wasn’t even like communicating with something from Outside, some alien strangeness that only Lozzie could possibly make sense of. This wasn’t even alive, or thinking. It was like communicating with a principle, a concept, a form beyond touching or redefinition.
But that final choice resonated against part of that concept.
Move, or cease being a House. In unmoving, become something other than a House.
The House did not wish to burn — not because it understood fire or burning, but because such a process would stop it being a House.
And so, with implicit consent and a quivering scalpel made of not-House, defined with a swish and a swoop of mind-searing mathematical tricks, written in the language of reality with the force of pure observation, I looked inside the House.
I found the value which defined not-moving House-ness, and cut it sideways.
Houses can’t move. But this one will. The exception proves the rule.
And then all it needed was the tiniest push, the aftershock of the very equation it had pinched off earlier, still burning on the surface of the House like oil on water.
I did nothing but cut a leash.
The House went Out, all by itself.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – it’s just how Heather thinks now, even (or especially?) when it comes to stress and shock, when it comes to trying to process the sight of bullet-mangled corpses and deeply offended demon-hosts and Houses which refuse to move, with big spooky void-like doors that could lead anywhere. But it also turns out our squid-girl with squid-brains is really good at communicating with things that maybe don’t think. Or .. actually just threatening them. She did threaten the House, right? Oh dear.
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Next week, it’s probably back to Camelot! Or wherever the House took itself. Still gotta crack that House-like shell and peel it open to find the mage hiding within. A fellowship of Knights and a clutch of massive Outsider war-machines might be able to help with that.
These poor girls… they need lots of hugs and downtime. The house went Out!
Thanks for the chapter
They really do need some downtime! This might be one of the most difficult and stressful things they’ve done so far.
And you are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter, thank you for reading!
Not going to lie the House is scary as f***! Being able to stay and go as it “believes” without conscience thought. That is so wrong.
Thank you for the chapter.
The House has a gravity all of its own! Even Heather’s hyperdimensional mathematics cannot overwrite something else’s sense of itself, apparently. I’m glad it’s scary, too!
And you are very welcome, glad you enjoyed the chapter!
Thank you for replying.
To hell with the house, what Heather did at the end there is terrifying. Houses do not *exist* on the level of things that can or can’t move. Heather is using brain math not to define the mere physical reality of a thing and interact with it there, as a chain of causality or a location in space or a conflux of atoms and void. She’s interacting with it as a House on its own terms, purely as a semantic construct defined in the same mathematics and not as a collection of physical things that exist in the world and are bound by human-comprehensible mathematical laws. That is a massive shift in how we’ve seen her use it and is in many ways more than we’ve seen the eye do, closer to how Sevens’ very identity is shaped by social context and rule and role rather than by the kinds of brute physical laws that lend themselves easily to mathematical definition.
Sorry, I could keep ranting here. I feel like I must sound like Badger. I love this story so much.
Gosh, thank you so much! I’m really glad you’re loving the story, it’s things like that which keep me going and remind me why I do this.
As for your observation there … ohohohoho. Indeed! Heather has interacted with a sematic construct, an ideal, or form, or a self-definition, not merely as a thing observed. A subtle shift, but a gigantic one. She doesn’t even really seem to have noticed it herself.
I guess it’s a mobile home.
It is now! Heather’s Moving Castle, um, House.
Yes, good, now at least they can do all this in Camelot and they can work from home, not out in the woods.
Yup! Being able to work from Camelot gives them time, space, a ton of support (in the form of the Knights) and opens up other experiments if something goes wrong.
It’s better to move than to burn.
That’s what I tell myself every day.
It usually works, too.
Very eloquently put! The House gets to stay a House, rather than ash and flame.