Implied imprisonment and torture
“Those aren’t server racks,” Felicity muttered. “Those aren’t even close to being server racks.”
She spoke in a soft and stealthy murmur, as if the House itself might overhear us, now we stood within the umbrella of its shadow; or perhaps some inhabitant within the walls might be attracted to sound and motion, some swarm of white blood cells on their way to investigate the gaping wound ripped in the face of the House which was their body.
Twil replied in an equally muffled hiss. “Cheers, colonel obvious.”
Jan cleared her throat as if to banish the unspoken injunction to hushed voices — but then she whispered. “It’s ‘captain’ obvious. That’s how the saying goes. Captain obvious.”
“Nah,” Twil hissed. “Captain subtext. Colonel obvious.”
Felicity tore her eyes away from the sight in front of us so she could squint at Twil. “You’re too young to know that one.”
“I’m what? To what? What are you on about?”
Felicity sighed. “Never mind.”
At the front of our little formation, with the advantage of a viewing gap between our Knightly escorts, so she could examine the sights more closely, Evelyn hissed back at us: “For God’s sake, shut up and let me think.”
Raine laughed softly, at my side. “Yeah, no casual chatter on the combat bands, girls.”
“All quiet in the ranks,” Praem intoned, like the ringing of tiny bells.
From behind, Lozzie whispered: “Yes ma’am Praem-Praem sergeant yes!”
Evelyn rolled her eyes so hard I was worried it might do her an injury. “Yes. Thank you, Raine.”
Silence returned — broken only by the whirring and beeping and scratching of the apparatus before us, echoing as if from the mouth of a cave or the empty maw of a beached whale on a bar of black sand.
“Excuse me,” I said, as clear and clean as we could manage through my raw and croaky throat. “But why aren’t these actual server racks? They look like racks to me. I only ask since, well, this might be important?”
Twil snorted softly and looked back at me as if I was clearly joking, but then she paused and frowned. “Oh, for serious, Big H?”
Felicity wet her lips before supplying an answer. She had both hands firmly on her sawn-off shotgun, her long coat hanging down from her hunched posture, as if she was expecting an attack at any moment. Sensible woman.
“It’s racking, yes,” she murmured. “But not server racks — server racks are a very specific thing, not just metal shelves. And that’s not server equipment. Some of it is, here and there, but most of it is just junk. The logic here isn’t actual computers. It’s … ”
Zheng rumbled, “Wizard dung.”
Felicity grimaced at that judgement, but she didn’t argue.
“Yeah right,” said Twil. She pointed past a Knight. “That’s a string of bloody fairy lights. What does that have to do with anything?”
Evelyn hissed, “Touch. Nothing.” Then she nodded me forward. “Heather, get up here, please. Take a look.”
“Me? Why? I don’t know anything about servers. I barely know much about computers. You know that.”
“Told you,” Felicity murmured. “It’s not a server rack.”
Evelyn huffed. “Mathematics, blind luck, a shot in the dark; take your pick. Just take a look, for fuck’s sake.”
We couldn’t see much past the metal bulk of our Knightly escort and their shields up front, and our tentacles were too sore to lift into the air like a set of rainbow periscopes. Raine was still lending me her arm for support, so she caught my eye, shrugged and winked, then helped me shuffle forward to the front of the group, alongside Evelyn and Praem.
Our little formation of Knights, mages, monsters, demons — and one unaltered human being — was huddled before the ragged brick-fringed wound in the front of Edward Lilburne’s House, where the door had stood only a few minutes earlier. Fragments of masonry and splinters of wood covered the ground, both the bare dirt taken from England and also the soft yellowish grass of Camelot, crunching beneath our trainers and the Knights’ metal-shod boots. The excised front door and its lip of brick and beam lay a few feet away, still in the clutches of the Caterpillar which towered over us from behind, pumping out the throbbing sound of unearthly engines.
I rather liked having the Caterpillar at our backs. At least it was on our side.
We had taken a few minutes to get down in front of the House, slowed by the necessity of briefly sending Praem and Raine back through the gateway; Evelyn had insisted that we make sure Nicole and Stack weren’t about to do anything nefarious back home. Praem had assured us she had dealt with that possibility.
“Good girls will be good,” Praem had said — and that was that.
But then we’d had to hobble down the hillside, slowed by me, by Evelyn, by the mages’ collective exhaustion, by Jan struggling into her massive puffy white coat, by Raine handing out her set of walkie-talkies (just in case), and by the warm grace of Sevens’ yellow robes settling around my shoulders in a silent surprise of unspoken presence and support. We had joined our Knightly protectors, a wall of metal between us and anything that might emerge from the House; the thirty Knights had wrapped around us, in front and behind with tower shields and lances, protecting our flanks with axe and sword. The Forest Knight had taken the middle front of the formation, perhaps so as to better listen to orders from Evelyn.
Descending beneath the upturned mushroom-cup of Edward’s sprouted House made me want to scuttle into a nice cramped hole, away from the sheer size of the thing. The vast fronds of brick and strange fans of windows blotted out Camelot’s ever-present purple glow, casting a deep shadow on the plain directly below.
We passed through the ring of Caterpillars; Lozzie paused to briefly hop away and pat one of them on the side. It responded with a soft-voiced boop. Jan submitted to Lozzie’s insistence, and hesitantly petted the creature as well, which earned us a slightly higher-pitched bewoop. Like a puppy encountering a new friend.
I dearly wished we were taking one with us. But a Caterpillar would not fit down that hallway.
We passed the main formation of Knights still facing the door, and then passed into the shadow of the House.
“Stop looking up at it,” Evelyn had hissed. “Focus on the doorway. Eyes on the danger. That goes for everyone.”
Raine nodded, “Nice and frosty. Keep it clear. Anyone spots anything, speak up.”
Then we had drawn to a stop, right at the threshold. The Knights had parted for Evelyn — and for Zheng, who stalked forward and peered into the shadows. The rest of us craned to see over and around our metal escort; away from Camelot’s natural light their shining armour had turned dull and quiet. The sparkling and flickering from inside the House-wound traced eerie patterns on their shields and helms.
And now Raine helped me to the front, for a better look. My tentacles — my other selves — uncoiled slightly for their own benefit, their own view of the shell we had opened.
The doorway-wound was wide enough to admit four Knights abreast and tall enough for Zheng and a half; we should have seen part of an upper floor ripped away, perhaps the beginnings of some kind of entrance hall, even if it was stuffed with server racks and computing equipment. Instead, the first part of Edward Lilburne’s house was a massive hallway, leading off into the twinkling gloom, with a ceiling twenty or thirty feet up. Both walls were lined with metal racking, the kind one might find in a hardware shop; some of it was painted, some just bare metal against the dark green wallpaper.
Every shelf was crammed with electronics — blinking computer blocks and whirring fans, flashing LEDs in console fronts, little LCD screens in antique machines. All of it moving, flickering, humming, all wired together, all nonsense.
Some of it was what I would later learn did belong in a real server rack; there was some actual computing going on here, though it was not connected to anything. The rest of it was madness, the product of an obsessive mind collecting and linking together hundreds or thousands of unrelated functions. Dead screens were plugged into machines that produced no visual output. USB sticks were wired into ports that did not accept data. Car radios ripped from dashboards were connected to state-of-the-art sonar set-ups stolen from expensive boats.
All of it was connected together into one massive network of nonsense, with cables here and wiring there and even some raw, exposed copper in a few places. Fairy lights in bright white climbed some of the racking, but others were sporting digital clock readouts, stolen train timetable boards filled with gibberish, or displays covered with what Twil explained was ‘command line stuff’.
Cables looped overhead, connecting the two sets of racking. Yet more wires vanished into tiny holes drilled in the walls. Screens flickered. Hard drives buzzed and clicked. Fairy lights and LEDs danced and pulsed, casting lifeless glows deep in the House-artery.
“So?” Evelyn asked through clenched teeth, after I’d been standing there in silence for a minute. “Mean anything? You see anything at all, Heather? Something mathematical?”
“Uh … n-nothing. No. I don’t … ”
We shook our head, numb and confused and more than a little intimidated; we ached to pull our squid-skull mask up and down over our face, to hide away from this visual cacophony. Magic — with circles and blood and ritual knives, with human sacrifice and demons in flesh and cultists meeting their grisly ends — had just begun to make sense in my life, as something that I recognised and understood.
Or at least I could pretend I understood magic. I could pretend it was becoming normal.
But this wasn’t even remotely recognisable as magic. We couldn’t see a circle or a sigil or a dot of blood anywhere. Just machines, talking to machines, talking to machines, talking to machines, talking to machines, talking to machines—
“Tssss!” Evelyn hissed — and slapped at one of our tentacles.
We blinked and recoiled, shocked beyond words; but then Raine grabbed a second tentacle and Praem reached out to restrain a third.
“Heather!” Evelyn snapped in my face. “What did I say about touching things!? You’re as bad as Twil, sometimes.”
Twil snorted. “Cool, thanks.”
“O-oh, I … we … ”
Several of my tentacles had been reaching for the bare-brick edges of the wound in the House — no, we had been reaching out, for contact. In the lingering aftershock of distributed brain-math, with our tentacles still not manifested as true flesh, we were fuzzy-headed and dissociated from ourselves, from the actions of our own body. There were still seven Heathers in here, but we were reduced to operating as a soup of undifferentiated thought, all jumbled up on top of each other. We’d been reaching out to check on the House without realising.
We wanted to apologise, to say sorry for threatening it, sorry for hurting it.
And we wanted to touch the pulsing, flickering edge of what we could only see as a nervous system, exposed and raw and ineffable to human eyes.
“Sorry,” I croaked. “Sorry. We wanted to check, see if the house is … okay? Wounded?”
Evelyn sighed, sharp and frustrated. “Heather, we will build the house a lovely new front door with a proper step and a patio, and lights and bells and a bloody Christmas wreath if it wants — after we have found and removed the occupant. Now, do — not — touch — anything. Understand? If you can’t restrain yourself — yourselves, then we will leave back home.”
I nodded, sheepish and embarrassed, wrapping my tentacles in tight to avoid further temptations. I coiled one around Raine’s waist, like an anchor.
Twil peered over Evee’s shoulder from behind. “Why is all this stuff at the front of the house? If this is some weird magic go-go-gadget server bullshit, wouldn’t it be tucked away somewhere safe?”
Felicity answered: “Magic gets more bizarre the further you stray into innovation.”
Evelyn tilted her head without actually looking round. “How would you know that? You’ve not seen anything like this before, I’m willing to bet on that much.”
Felicity let out a cowed sigh. “This is innovation. You don’t have to look hard to figure that out. I doubt we want to know what any of this does. You want my real opinion?”
Evelyn grumbled, “Not particularly.”
Jan said delicately, “Give us your opinion anyway, please, Felicity.”
Felicity nodded, a little embarrassed by Evelyn’s rejection. “If I was seeing this anywhere else, any other place — I would burn it. I don’t want to know what any of this does. I don’t want to find out. I would burn it and forget it and move on. I suspect if we go in there and go deeper, we’re going to run into much worse.”
“Then tighten your belt,” Evelyn hissed. “Because that’s exactly what we’re doing. Now, everyone stay within the protection of the Knights. Move slowly and deliberately. Keep an eye out for stairs, especially stairs leading up.”
“And zombies,” Twil muttered. “And demons. And ghosts and ghouls and all that other weird shit, right?”
Jan sighed. “Please, don’t jinx us with ghosts. I am not dealing with ghosts.”
Twil looked back at her, suddenly a little pale. “Wait, no. Are ghosts real?”
Jan shrugged, looking exhausted already.
Evelyn snorted. “Mostly keep an eye on each other. Edward Lilburne was one half of the top leadership of the Sharrowford cult — do not forget that. It was him and Alexander who mastered their bullshit technique of folding space to create pocket dimensions, all over Sharrowford. It was him who had that cult castle wired up to a moat made of impossible labyrinth. If this is his inner sanctum, he’s going to try to lead us into a maze, he’s going to try to separate us from each other, he’s going to try to confuse us and get us turned around. Do not step away from the group.”
“Wait, what?” said Jan.
Lozzie chirped: “Janny-Janns, holding hands! Hold hands and don’t get lost!”
“Oh,” said Jan. I couldn’t see her face, so far in the rear — far, far in the rear, too afraid to take the lead. “Oh, great. Oh, you could have mentioned that part earlier. And we’re stepping into this?”
“All together!” Lozzie chirped. “Sticking together!”
Jan gulped, loudly.
“Lozzie has the spirit of it,” Evelyn said. “Stick together. Now, after me — or, after the Knights, rather. If you would lead on, please. And slowly. Stop when we stop. Do not advance alone.”
The Knights vanguard entered, shields raised and legs braced, taking slow steps over the threshold of the House. Nothing jumped out from the shadows or toppled the racking, so in we all went, into the belly of the beast.
As Evelyn and Raine had both pointed out earlier, we had been inside more than a few spooky houses and paradoxical mazes over the last year: the outworks of the Sharrowford Cult’s castle, the castle itself, the doomed house where they had attempted to negotiate with the Eye, the library of Carcosa, Geerswin farm under the influence of Hringewindla’s hallucination; the list went on and on. Apparently this specific kind of nonsense was simply an occupational hazard when one was a mage, or a friend to mages. We were practically old hands, and this time we had far more support and security than ever before.
We crept down the entrance hallway, staying in formation, flanked by flashing LEDs and fairy lights and machines whirring and pulsing to themselves. It was like plunging into the guts of some great bioluminescent mollusc or a hive of flickering insects, moving so as not to disturb walls of phosphorescent wings and throbbing veins of toxic lymph.
The Knights guarded us from all angles, a wall of metal in front and behind. Only Zheng dared walk unprotected, in the vanguard, almost as big as our Knightly escort. Evelyn plodded with hunched spine and walking stick, leaning on Praem, her face set in a determined scowl; she hissed for a halt every few meters, pausing to examine the contents of the metal racking, scowling at the inscrutable machinery, hands slick and sweaty on her scrimshawed bone-wand. She received no reaction from Edward’s machines, found no answer, uncovered no secrets.
Twil stuck reassuringly close to Evelyn’s rear, as if she wanted to protect her. Wisps of werewolf spirit-flesh gathered about her forearms and hands, threatening to coalesce into claws. She ducked and bobbed, head on a swivel, twitchy and impatient without something to grapple or punch. She seemed much more comfortable than in the aftermath of the gunfight.
“Must have a generator somewhere, right?” she hissed. “How else is all this shit still on?”
Jan cleared her throat, much further in the rear. “You really think that’s the weirdest thing going on here?”
Felicity seemed somehow more confident without Kimberly present; I wasn’t sure what that meant. She held her head high, eyes up and alert. Gloved hands pointed her magically-altered sawn-off shotgun firmly at the ground, fingers flexing and adjusting as if ready for the slightest motion. There was a nervous readiness about her. Perhaps paranoia was best relieved by actually being in an incredibly dangerous place, knowing that at any moment she might be facing down another mage.
Jan and Lozzie stuck to the rear, holding hands. Lozzie was, for once, quiet and careful, walking with measured steps, eyes wide as she could force her sleepy lids, her other hand firmly inside the ride. She was wrapped in her poncho, a jellyfish tight in her own frills. Jan was like a little penguin beside her, buried by her puffy coat — but the diminutive mage had drawn a strange object from within the extra-dimensional folds of her secret pockets: a water pistol, in bright pink and garish yellow. She waved it about like a real water pistol too, uncaring of who she was pointing it at. I assumed it was exactly what it appeared to be.
July stalked behind her adopted sister, tall and owlish, watching everything with great care. Hands free, ready for violence. Jan’s sword-box rode on her back. I wondered if there were any implications of taking that thing Outside.
Raine was with me, supporting one of my arms, helping me walk. She was still dressed in her motorcycle jacket, helmet hanging from her belt. But the jacket was open now, showing her thin black tank-top beneath, and the glistening sweat on her muscles, sticking the fabric to her stomach. She only looked at me to smile or wink, letting me know everything was going to be okay.
“How you holding up, my tired little squiddy?” she whispered to me.
I bobbed my head from side to side and pulled Sevens’ yellow robes tighter around my shoulders. “Fifty percent good, fifty percent please-sleep-now.”
A stolen gun — a machine of black metal and hard edges — was slung over Raine’s opposite shoulder. She held the thing like a lover, like me, cradled in the crook of her arm. The sight of it would have made me shiver, if anybody but her had been holding the thing.
The Forest Knight marched on my opposite side. Tall and silent. I wrapped a tentacle around his arm, too. He didn’t complain.
More security than ever before. Experienced, organized, and sticking together. How could an opposing mage not see what we were and run screaming?
But this place was wrong in a whole new way: there were patterns in the machines, just not ones that I could make sense of.
The corridor went on and on and on, straight on, for a very long way — which was spooky and stupid but nothing new. At the end, three very ordinary doorways invited us into a trio of different rooms. Behind us, the gaping wound back to Camelot was a tiny, fuzzy hole in the distance. The purple light was barely visible.
Twil looked back and gulped, loudly. “Oh fuck me. I hate this shit.”
Felicity just frowned, curious and professional. “Spatial distortion inside a building. No attempt to conceal it, either. That’s not even plausible. Because we’re … mm, ‘Outside’? Or just because?”
Despite her tone, she was sweating. Being Outside, or being in here?
A whisper of rust-flaked voice came from seemingly inside Felicity’s coat, from nothing but an inch-wide gap of shadow: “Just because,” Aym hissed in a voice of quivering distaste. “And I am not coming out, not here! Absolutely not!”
“Keep her quiet,” Evelyn snapped. “And ignore the distance from the front door. It doesn’t matter. We’ve seen this nonsense before. Twil! Concentrate!”
Twil nodded, more to herself than to Evelyn’s command. “Right, right, right. On you, Evee. On you.”
The three doorways were made of oak, expensive and antique, but not overly ornamented. There were no doors in the doorways, but also no gaping lightless black voids.
Evelyn sighed, shaking her head as she searched for traps. “Badger could have left us a marker. A trail. Anything. Bloody fool.”
Raine said, “Perhaps he couldn’t. Had an escort, maybe. Eyes on him.”
Jan agreed. “Horribly likely.”
Evelyn grumbled: “Keep an eye out for anything scratched on the door frames or dropped on the floor. He may have left us a sign.”
On the right was a dining room, fancy and broad, carpeted in rich sea-green, with a massive wooden table and deep sideboards, but no windows. Every surface was covered in yet more random electronics: decades-old stereo systems standing like towers of black rock wired up to dead televisions tuned to muted static beaming their messages into IR receivers plugged into computer graphics cards manually looped into the eviscerated guts of vintage laptops piping the heat from their cooling fans onto digital thermometers outputting their readings with tiny LCD screens harvested from children’s games plugged into—
“What does any of this shit fucking do?” Twil said.
“Exists,” Praem intoned.
“Stop swearing,” Evelyn muttered. “Touch nothing.”
“It’s ritual,” Jan offered, though she didn’t sound very confident. “Not magic in the sense of formula and form, like we’re all used to. This is … large scale exploratory magic. Making new formulas by experimenting. I’ve done a little — a very little — myself, before. Lozzie? Do you think … ”
Lozzie just shook her head, poncho pulled tight, being very careful where she put her feet.
Twil snorted. “Fucker could be mining bitcoin for all we know.”
Felicity sighed. “That would be slightly less dangerous, at least.”
The middle door led to a T-junction corridor, wallpapered in musty old green, peeling at the edges and framed by dark oaken wainscotting. The space was crammed tight with more metal racking, each shelf filled with machines: computer parts, dead screens, wiring, little lights, and a hundred other pieces of electronic equipment all wired together in a maddening web. A small, flexible person might have squeezed their way through the gaps in the racking, but there was no way we were getting through there with the Knights.
“Smash it all out the way?” Twil suggested. “Knight boys here would make short work of this with a shield or two, right? Or how about you, Zheng?”
“Wizard dung,” Zheng repeated with a snort.
“No touchy,” intoned Praem. “Touchy, no.”
“Yeah yeah,” Twil sighed.
As the others turned away toward the final door, on our left, I kept staring into that ticking, buzzing, blinking, whirring nest of nonsense machines, all piled on top of each other. My tentacles fanned outward despite their aching muscles, as if we were desperate to re-establish a proper array to process the implications of what we were seeing. There was no meaning, no image here in the noise, no secret held in the joining of an empty, spinning record player to a wall-mounted electronic lock-box, or in the marriage of silently turning computer CPU fans to a stack of early-2000s mobile phones; the idea that Edward Lilburne could have baked a hidden image into this jumble was absurd. There was no magic-eye picture to be seen.
Yet we flexed our tentacles upward, outward, tilting our head back and forth. If we could just squint the right way, we felt as if meaning would blossom before us.
“Heather?” Raine murmured. I blinked several times and snapped my head around. The Knights were paused around us, unwilling or unable to leave us behind. “Heather, you doing okay? You’re real quiet and real intent.”
We swallowed hard, glanced back at the web of machines, and shook our head. “There’s a pattern here, but I can’t quite see it … ”
“Stop,” Evelyn said, stomping back over to me. “Heather, I asked you to tell us if anything makes sense. Do not keep it to yourself. We need every scrap of information we can get.”
“It’s nothing.” I shook my head.
“No, it’s not nothing. Stop and look.”
I stared again, into the network which was not a network. But squint and blink and strain my eyes — and my tentacles — I couldn’t make it out. I shook my head again. “I need to … touch it. I think.”
Evelyn sighed. “Okay, well. Don’t do that. Come on.”
The left-hand door led to a small kitchen. Every surface was caked with further electronic parts, wired together and joined up in nonsensical ways; some of them spilled over onto the floor, trailing cables and parts down onto smart grey tiles. In one corner there was even a partially disassembled motorcycle, with bits of wires stuck into it from all directions. The little kitchen would have been beautiful if not for the bizarre electrical detritus — it was true rustic and amazingly well preserved, with ceiling beams overhead, wooden countertops in perfect condition, and a scrubbed metal sink, just beneath a stretch of bricked-up wall where a window should have looked out on a little garden.
In that kitchen we found the first dead demon-host.
He — the remains looked vaguely male, though it was exceptionally difficult to tell — was lashed to a frame made of thin metal girders, propped against one wall at forty-five degree angle, in between a slender fridge and an under-counter dishwasher. The body was naked, massively overgrown as if covered in runaway cancers and blackened tumours; some of the growths had hardened into chitinous plating, then sprouted thorns and tusks, while others had collapsed into sagging, misplaced stretches of pale fat. The feet had turned into claws, clutching at the metal frame to which he was bound, and the hands had lengthened and sharpened almost into blades, bent back toward the body in a long-term project for freedom.
He was wired into the greater web of machinery. Cables punctured his abyss-mutated flesh, leading to now-empty readout screens and monitors; wires were threaded beneath his collarbone, linking him to gutted video game consoles and complex pieces of industrial switchboard sitting on the countertops. Numbers had been written on his distended, partially armoured belly: 13/7/2016.
His head was pulverized, a mass of pulped brains and shattered skull fragments. The blood on the wall was still wet.
The Knights flanked the corpse as we investigated.
Raine stated the obvious, “This is fresh. An hour or two at most.”
“Uh,” went Twil. “What the fuck are we looking at? What was this … this … uh, guy?”
Felicity got far too close, peering at the connections between flesh and machine, muttering to herself. “Essential component of whatever this machine does. Revenant hosts as what, batteries? What would be the point, over a regular human being? Why demons?”
Jan hung back. “Poor fellow was here a long time. Three years, if that date on his belly is correct.” July loomed behind her, stone-faced and quiet, one hand on Lozzie’s shoulder. Lozzie looked away from the grisly spectacle.
Zheng just stared. We glanced up at her. “Zheng, are you … okay?”
It felt like an absurd question. But Zheng’s stare was one of muted anger behind a wall of iron.
Raine glanced up at her too. “Think this was done by your new friend who surprised us earlier? The stray demon-host? Freeing her fellow prisoners on her way to kill the jailer?”
Zheng just stared at the corpse.
Felicity muttered, still peering too closely at the body: “If she’s going for revenge, why not free him and take him with her?”
“Too much damage,” I croaked.
“Too much damage,” I repeated. “He was wired into this for three years. Used up. Mutated to try to protect himself, or get away, I don’t know. He wouldn’t have been able to leap to his feet and go help kill Edward. He was probably insensible. Mad. Worse.”
I didn’t say the rest out loud; there was no need. But I did look over my shoulder at Lozzie — the only other person who had seen first-hand what Edward had done beneath the cult’s castle: children wired into a machine with which to talk to a fallen Outsider god. We’d seen this before, this kind of technique, though not exactly the same, and applied for different purposes.
Lozzie looked pale and still. She met my eyes and bit her lower lip. Perhaps bringing her had been a mistake after all.
Evelyn drew in a deep breath. I assumed she was going to snap at us to touch nothing, keep moving, keep our eyes peeled. But she surprised me.
“Once this is over and Edward is dead, we will give any victims a proper burial. Demon-host or human or whatever else. Leave him here, for now. I’m sorry, Zheng.”
Zheng grunted, turned away, and helped the Knights lead us on.
A single door stood in the far wall of the little kitchen, but it just led into another green-wallpapered corridor, lined with yet more conjoined machinery crammed onto endless metal racking. Fairy lights winked and danced in silent mockery. Hard drives clicked and whirred inside their casings, humming and buzzing against the metal. Tiny soft beeps and boops pinged from buried speakers. Whole shelves of circuit-board lay inert, joined up to disassembled lamps and pieces of bulging laptop battery.
Luckily this corridor was not crammed so tight that we couldn’t squeeze through; the Knights had to go two abreast, leaving us briefly exposed as we passed doorways into more rooms.
A sitting room, another dining room, a room with two pool tables and a large television, a guest bedroom, another sitting room — all of them in genuine rustic style, with exposed beams and tasteful dark furniture, leather upholstery, perfectly polished skirting boards, and shaded light-bulbs pointed at the ceiling for soft illumination.
And electronic, mechanical nonsense coating every surface, spilling inward across the carpets, joined up to itself in meaningless loops, flickering and ticking and glowing like exposed guts pulled from some abyssal beast.
And more demon-hosts.
We found three more just like the first, one male, two female, bloated and mutated in unique ways, lashed to steel frames with steel cables, plugged into this vast house-sized machine. All three had dates on their bellies, all from 2016. All three of them had been killed in the same way as the first, with a single crushing blow to the skull.
“This is obscene,” said Jan as we stood in front of yet another dead demon-host, in the machine-littered mess of the second sitting room. “This is obscene. Even by mage standards—”
Evelyn grunted. “The inevitable result of keeping demons as slaves. My own mother’s work was not too far off. Don’t kid yourself, Jan.”
Jan was pale and shocked. Lozzie kept squeezing her hand, but to little effect. Zheng and July both hung back from the ruined corpse of the demon-host; perhaps they both felt a kind of kinship with the unfortunate victims.
“Why no windows?” Twil kept saying, peering at the blank stretches of wall. “There should be windows here, right?” She glanced back at me. “Big H, what do you think?”
“Mm,” we grunted, nodding along. “The length of the wall there. And over there.” We gestured with tentacles. “Doesn’t make sense not to have windows. There should be windows.”
“Don’t think about it,” Evelyn grunted. “This house doesn’t follow the logic we expect.”
Felicity said, “We’ve gone too deep. Way too deep into this place. Evelyn, my own house is … complex, but it’s nothing like this. We’ve gone three, four hundred meters straight into this structure. We should have passed the back wall already.”
Evelyn hissed, “Don’t think about it. Just put one foot in front of the other. And stay alert.”
To my surprise, Twil clapped Felicity on the back and forced a chuckle. “Yeah, come on, Flissy. Bigger on the inside than the outside? That’s old hat, for us.”
But it wasn’t the spatial distortion; who cared about that, Outside? We’d seen far, far worse, in far worse places.
It was the silence, broken only by the ticking, whirring, softly beeping machinery; not a creak or a footstep apart from ourselves, not a groaning beam or a muffled cough. Nothing moved in these illuminated guts but us. Nothing crept these halls. And part of me was starting to wonder if they were even halls at all. Lighted arteries and glowing veins led deeper into a living, breathing creature.
We pushed on, down the corridor and around to the right. The Knights’ tower shields filled the hallway, in front and behind. My feet dragged. Raine kept one hand on her looted gun. Evelyn gripped her bone-wand. Lozzie stayed quiet and cowed. Zheng stalked like a caged tiger.
The corridor led us around and into another kitchen — much grander and older than the practical rustic one we’d passed through closer to the front of the house. Great brick ovens lined one wall, flanked by stone countertops and a little door which opened into an empty pantry. The middle of the grand kitchen was dominated by a double island, a very fancy kind of set-up that I’d never seen in person before, all stone surfaces and highly polished wood, atop a floor of tessellated flagstones. I wished with all my heart that I would have a chance to explore this House again later, without the pressing need to not touch anything.
The grand kitchen was also significantly less crammed with electronics, like a bone-cavity inside a body. A few cables led from the doorway, linking the greater web to a pair of monitors tuned to static, facing each other, and a bread-making machine welded to a piece of exposed circuit board. Additional wires led off through the opposite door, into the deeper organs of the house.
Large enough for our little group to fan out, with plenty of room for the Knights, the grand kitchen was the most spacious room we’d encountered so far.
It would have been even larger if it wasn’t bisected by a wall of pure void.
Running down the middle of the room, impervious to light, was a flat surface of empty void — exactly the same as the one which had filled the front door, before one of Lozzie’s Caterpillars had pulled it out of the wall.
“Nobody touch that!” Evelyn snapped before we even had a chance to finish fanning out into the kitchen. The Knights stepped into position, guarding us from the black void as much as from the open doorways. “Absolutely nobody touch that thing!”
Twil snorted. “Yeah I don’t think you need to tell us that, yo.”
Felicity frowned at the void. “Shadow play, or physical barrier? I don’t understand what he’s been working with here. I’ve seen similar things with self-sealing boxes and soul-locked containers, but they’re small, palm-of-the-hand small, there’s no way to get something on this scale.”
“Evelyn,” said Jan, tight and controlled. “Evelyn, wandering through this house is getting us nowhere.”
Evelyn snapped back at her. “We’re not stepping through that! I will not order a Knight through there! No!”
“Removal,” Praem intoned. “Pop.”
Jan nodded. “Yes, quite. Could we do enough damage to the walls to get it to pop, like the one on the front door? I suspect it is intended to separate the house, to protect internal layers of whatever Edward Lilburne has done here. Do you think with enough force, the Knights could—”
We weren’t listening.
We stared into the black, into the void, into the mirrored surface of abyssal oil. Barely three feet from our face. Tentacles tingled to reach out and touch. Black shifted on black, threatening to reveal meaning amid the darkness.
We knew this, did we not? We knew it every time we reached down into the sump of our ruined, pollution-flooded soul. A humming, quivering, sensitive membrane, to touch and grace and pass through, to the other side, the other side of—
I flinched, blinking up at Zheng. “Zheng? Zheng?”
She had one of my tentacles wrapped around her arm. “You know what you see. You see what you know.”
“ … Zheng, do you mean you recognise this?”
She shook her head. “But you do, shaman. It is in your eyes. Speak.”
Raine said, “You getting that feeling again, Heather?”
“M-maybe,” we said. “I feel like I’ve … seen this before. This black void. I don’t get it though, I’ve never seen anything like this, either in reality or Outside. Maybe in a dream or something?”
Evelyn was hissing orders to the Knights: “Puncture the wall there and there, please. Don’t touch anything else, especially not this ridiculous shadow. Keep clear, try not to—”
The Knights were in motion. Raine and Zheng were both looking at me. Lozzie was pulled in tight, poncho flat and limp. Felicity was frowning at the void, shotgun pointed at the floor. July was turning her head, like she saw it coming.
My head rang like a bell struck from the inside, a note down beyond hearing, beyond my gut, beyond my bone marrow. A ding of transition.
A figure stepped out of the void.
Perfect transmission from oil to water, in one short step; the membrane flexed and flowed, like a biological valve admitting a plug of congealed fat into the chambers of a violated heart.
Short and squat. Bushy eyebrows; wild tufts of grey hair. Liver-spotted skin. Owlish glasses over beady eyes. White shirt-sleeves rolled up to show thin, aged forearms. Clutching a loaded harpoon gun.
Edward Lilburne — or something that looked very much like him — stepped right into the middle of us.
We were ready, of course. The Knights closed ranks in an instant, before the figure had a chance to raise the harpoon gun. Weapons came up; shields made a wall; Evelyn shouted a snatch of Latin and raised her scrimshawed thigh-bone. I allowed a low, dangerous hiss to clamber up my throat.
Why would such a paranoid and cautious mage confront us himself? This couldn’t be the extent of his defences, this couldn’t be it, we could not possibly have reached his inner sanctum.
But we couldn’t take that risk; which is why Zheng did the right thing. She made the right choice, in the heat of the moment. To do otherwise would have been negligent.
The harpoon gun came up in liver-spotted hands.
Zheng moved like a lightning bolt.
She was smarter this time, no longer blinded by rage, but made canny and swift by experience. Evelyn was still shouting and Raine was struggling to get an angle with her stolen gun, but Zheng darted out from behind the Knights’ shield-wall and invited that magically-altered harpoon with her own flesh. Edward — it couldn’t be him! It couldn’t! — pulled the trigger with a mechanical click.
Zheng jinked to the side, a flicker of motion so fast it hurt the eye and probably gave her a micro-concussion. The harpoon missed; Zheng’s hand whipped out and snatched the projectile from the air in mid-flight.
Then she went for ‘Edward’.
She landed on him like a missile on a garden shed. The harpoon went through the belly of his white shirt and into his gut, hoisting him into the air. Zheng’s other hand blurred like a drill and rammed into his mouth, shattering teeth and splitting cheeks. She wrenched her hand back and flung a flopping wet blob onto the floor: a mage’s tongue.
Before the tongue had even gone splat, Zheng grabbed both of Edward’s hands and snapped his wrists back and forth, crushing and mangling, splintering every bone she could grip. She slammed both of his arms back for good measure, dislocating elbows and shoulders with a wet, meaty crunch.
She lifted him up by the throat, grinning and bloody in sudden triumph.
For a split second the demon-host and the mage stood frozen. De-tongued and broken-armed, a mage robbed of any power to speak or signal. He wouldn’t be doing any magic like that.
I hissed at the top of my lungs, because this was all wrong; my gut and my tentacles already knew. We whipped out to grip those closest to us at random, to hold on tight. The Knights were already bracing, covering us with their tower shields. The frozen moment seemed to go on forever, in slow-motion.
Evelyn shouted, somewhere to my right — too far to my right, I couldn’t reach her: “It’s not him! It’s not the real Edward!”
‘Edward’ split his face with a cracked and bleeding grin. He pursed his lips. We all realised he was showing no pain.
With no tongue and mouth full of broken teeth, he said: “Boom.”
Zheng hauled her arm back to hurl the body away from her — but it was too late. A wet crack split the air.
The bomb was probably somewhere inside his belly.
All I saw was the first split-second of explosive detonation, an air-burst of gore and guts backed by a pressure-wave and a spark of flame. Then the Knights were on top of us, shielding us, absorbing the worst of the shock wave and the shrapnel. I had wrenched Raine to my side, hissing and holding her close. Somebody else shrieked and crashed into me.
We went tumbling over together, Knights and all.
If you’ve never been in a confined space with an explosive device, it’s not like in video games, with a neat little explosion that doesn’t damage you if you’re standing beyond some hypothetical safe distance. Even a small bomb will knock you on your backside, make your head ring like a gong, and leave you reeling in shock.
The bomb inside the Edward-puppet was not large, but it was more than powerful enough to knock us all flat, send us all flying, and toss us sideways.
Right through the wall of shadows, through the lightless void, to the other side.
It was a moment of nothingness, of pure membrane, of neither this nor that, but only transition.
And then the tiled floor beneath my face. A ringing, ringing, ringing in my ears. Tentacles flapping at the ground. A Knight — the Forest Knight — standing over me, axe braced, armour charred. Raine’s face, blurred by tears in my eyes. A coughing in my chest, thick and hard.
“Heather, Heather,” Raine kept saying, though I could barely hear her through all the cotton wool in my ears. “Heather, whoa, whoa, just sit, just sit.”
Raine was pale and shaking, too. In shock. A bomb? My mind was too slow, everything was too slow, too muffled, too loud, too thick.
Recovery from almost getting exploded is not easy. Again, real flesh is not like a computer game. For a long, long moment, Raine crouched and I sat. The Forest Knight was intact and right next to us, as were two of his siblings, both with tower shields and lances. Their shields and exposed armour plates were blackened from the explosion, caked in burned gore, steaming gently in the ringing air.
But looking around the kitchen, there was only—
“Praem!” I said — my throat was raw and sore. I realised I was shouting, but I didn’t care.
Praem stood up, expressionless and unmoved with her clothes blacked and torn, her blonde hair all in disarray but no blood from her bloodless wounds. Another trio of Knights flanked her, already on their feet and ready to keep fighting. Praem gently helped a white-faced, terrified Evelyn to her feet.
“H-Heather,” she replied in a quivering voice. She was shaking all over. “What … what … ”
Our eyes all asked the same impossible question.
The black void-wall we’d tumbled through was gone, popped or vanished — by the force of the explosion? But there was no soot on the floor or walls, no scorch marks or burns or pieces of bloody flesh littering the surfaces. The other side of the kitchen, where we had stood, did not look the same. It was a different layout, a different set of ovens — metal, not brick. And there were more electronics. Three doors, not two.
“ … teleported?” Raine said, then swallowed painfully.
“Fuck,” Evelyn spat. “Fuck. Fuck!”
Everyone else was gone. Everyone who had not been knocked through the void by the explosion. Twil, Lozzie, Jan and July, Felicity, Zheng, and twenty four Knights were nowhere to be seen.
“The fucking bastard,” Evelyn spat, cold and pale with shock and rage. “He split us up! He—” She paused to cough and pant and spit bile onto the floor. Praem helped her stay on her feet.
Raine tried the walkie-talkie, but got only static in return. Evelyn spat and heaved and groped for Praem’s support. The Knights stood in silence, guarding us even in crisis.
Slowly, painfully, I got to my feet. I had to use tentacles for extra support. Raine helped. My head was all jarred and jumbled inside. My face was wet with cold panic-sweat.
“Heather!” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, are you … alright? Heather … ?”
But I was staring at the windows.
I stumbled over to the glass. Knights followed, covering my back. Raine hauled herself after me, gun in her hands. Praem helped Evelyn hobble up alongside us.
Two windows stood in the wall of this duplicate kitchen, not three feet from each other. The right-hand window looked out over a swamp, green and rancid, boiling with vegetable motion and buzzing life; two moons, fatted like rotten oranges, hung over the landscape. The other window showed howling desert, as far as the eye could see, the sand grey and thick with unnatural swirls, formed by tiny twists of wind that could not possibly be making those shapes without intent; on the horizon was a vast structure of spires and spikes, climbing into the dust-choked heavens.
Evelyn stared at one window, then the other. “What the hell has he done here?” she breathed. “What is this house?”
“Outside,” I croaked. “They’re both Outside places.”
“Yes, I can see that. But … ” Evelyn’s voice trailed off in awe.
“Well,” said Raine. “One thing’s for sure.”
Evelyn laughed without humour. “How can there be anything for sure? This is far beyond gateway technology. He stole the formula for a gateway to Camelot, that was all, and he’s made … ” Evelyn’s eyes lifted, to the beams of the house, the plaster, the brick. “This? What is this? This isn’t a house.”
I reached out and squeezed Evelyn’s hand. Her fingers were limp and clammy.
Raine made her gun go click-clack. “One thing’s for sure. We ain’t in Camelot anymore.”
Kablooey! What’s stronger than magic? IEDs! Mages never see ’em coming. They’re all expecting magic missile, so hit them with the ol’ spicy backyard special. Meanwhile, ‘Outside‘ has never been more literal. Just beyond the windows …
On a more serious note, I actually got quite a bit of critique behind the scenes for this chapter and the next one; they’re far too slow, this part of the arc actually suffers a bit from some pacing issues. But! I’m aware of that, and I’ve made extra special sure to correct that from hereon out, after 20.11. Just thought I better let any readers know, if you’re feeling that too across the next couple of chapters, like things are too slow.
No Patreon link this week! It’s almost the end of the month, after all! How about taking a look at the Katalepsis fanart page, the many, many, many memes, or my other story, still going strong, Necroepilogos? If you’re looking for something else to read in the meantime, I would like to once again recommend the wonderful Feast or Famine, by VoraVora.
And hey, thanks for reading! I couldn’t keep doing this without you readers, even if you just quietly read along and never say anything. Thank you so much. This story is for you. Hope you’re enjoying it!
Next week, Heather plunges deeper into the House, but surely that can’t have been the only puppet dancing at the end of Edward’s strings … ?
Captain Subtext and Colonel Obvious? I didn’t get what Felicity or Twilight meant and Google on gave me some BBC show called Coupling. Can you explain this one please?
Thank you for the chapter.
*Twil* autocorrect is really something.
Ah, the reference is indeed to the old BBC show, but the reference itself isn’t actually important. Twil’s picked it up because she watches a lot of old TV, she’s just being goofy – but Felicity is suspicious of her, thinking something like “why does a teenager know that old show?” The point is to show that Felicity is twitchy, paranoid, and cataloging the others around her even in the middle of this, even over small things that don’t really matter.
You did well with Felicity, nice job.
Thank you for explaining and for replying.
Thank you! I’m glad that made sense! And you’re always very welcome to ask questions.
Crazy mess all around! What is Eddy boy up to here?
Thanks for the chapter, amazing as always!
Thank you so much! Really glad you enjoyed this one! Edward’s magical work is very esoteric and bizarre, perhaps something better left unexamined, or at least not examined too closely …
Maybe it’s more magic shenanigans, but I don’t get how they were blown through the void if Cloneward came from that direction.
Honestly? Probably a failure of my descriptions. Heather, Raine, and Evee are all pretty close to the void-wall at that moment, because Heather got close to have a good peer into it. Edward steps out further into the room, then Zheng rushes forward and grabs him, so he’s a good 2-3 feet further out from the wall, throwing them toward it when the bomb goes off.
I probably could have done a better job of ‘blocking’ for that moment!
Okay, I was right, he built a TARDIS gateway house thing! Should I feel bad I was right? Is he in any these houses still or is he gone gone gone? Also, I think the sand dimension is the one Heather and Evee shifted into in the first arc.
You should feel good for being correct! Probably means I did something right when it came to all the slow foreshadowing of his intent, interests, and magical obsessions. As for Edward being present, well … he has seemed unwilling to leave behind his home before, Outside or not.
Oho! The sand dimension might actually be the same one, maybe. That was on the back of a huge creature, but it could indeed be the same place.
If 13/7/2016 was three years ago that means when they’re done saving Maise they’re gonna get hit by good ol’ 2020. That’s a big oof right there.
Funnily enough this very point actually came up a few days ago in a comment on RR, and also today in the discord (was that you?) The short version is, well, I still don’t know what angle I want to approach 2020/covid from. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, but it’s a very delicate and difficult decision to make.
Ye that’s me on discord. I wanted to change my nick to the one I use here but it seems I don’t have access to that 😛
I just checked and you should be able to change your nickname on a per-server basis in the Katalepsis server. I’ve got it set up so that’s accessible to everybody!
Very very spooky, well done!
I’ve got a silly little theory about what Eddy might be doing with all these electronics.
While it’s possible that these gizmos are all carefully placed and all serve a grand purpose, I don’t think they are. This house is impossibly huge, spans multiple dimensions, and can probably grow more rooms. How do you even start to keep track of all that, a regular map won’t cut it. I think these gizmos serve as a mapping tool. With enough random devices connected together in the perimeter of a room, the room gets a unique energy signature, allowing it to be differentiated from other rooms. Plug em all together, make the gizmos magically generate when a room is created, and keep track of the signatures, and you can put together a weird ass map. Maybe you can even use it to move rooms around in a planned way? Anyway this theory is too long and probably isn’t right, but it’s fun!
Thanks for the chapter!
Thank you very much! Always delighted when I can actually draw on some really spooky, creeping atmosphere and get it across in a chapter.
Ooooh, I love that theory though! I’ve seen a few theories from readers about what is actually going on here, from something made by Edward intentionally, to automatic processes growing this stuff, to a mathematical trick. I’m sure Heather is on the verge of figuring it out.
And you are very welcome indeed! Glad you enjoyed the chapter!