luminosity of exposed organs – 20.10

Content Warnings

Implied imprisonment and torture

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“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?”

“Yes. Please.”

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?”

“Fuck no.”

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.

“Evee! Evee!”

“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.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

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 … ?

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.9

Content Warnings

None this chapter.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Houses cannot ‘do’ maths,” Evelyn said for the tenth time in the last two hours.

On every previous occasion she had added a little exasperated sigh — sometimes irritated, sometimes affectionate, sometimes resigned — but that final time she just swallowed. Her voice trailed off, her point unfinished, the rant forgotten. She didn’t look at me. None of us looked at each other.

We were too busy staring across the purple-lit grassy hills of Camelot, at the thing we had brought Outside.

A patented Evee-rant would have done us all a world of good right about then, which was why I said: “This one did.”

Evelyn swallowed again, then took a deep breath, steeling herself like a swimmer about to plunge into cold water. “Houses cannot perform mathematics.” She paused, then: “Let alone self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. They are not brains, or even computers imitating brains. It doesn’t matter if you scratch ‘one plus one equals two’ into a wall, the wall does not add up to anything. You … well … you didn’t ‘imagine’ it. But you’re being inaccurate. Your metaphors are running away with your mouth, Heather.”

Raine forced a chuckle. “Our Heather does have a habit of that, but I think this time is a little different, Evee.”

“It’s not a metaphor,” I said, gently but firmly. “I mean it literally. The house stopped the equation, scrubbed part of it out, changed the values — I don’t know how. And then once I convinced it otherwise—”

“You convinced a house,” Evelyn sighed. “Heather, it’s a building.”

“Yes! Evee, for pity’s sake, why is this so hard to believe? You’re a mage, you’ve seen the supposed rules of reality get broken six ways to Sunday. You’re standing next to a person made of wood, right now.” I gestured at Praem with a tip of one tentacle — then winced at the muscle pain running up the limb like a line of drums. Raine rubbed my back, distracting me with pressure. I hugged the tentacle, nursing myself. “Are you telling me Praem doesn’t think, or have feelings, just because she doesn’t have a human brain?”

Evelyn tutted. “That’s different. Heather, you know that’s different.”

“Why?” I demanded. Then I added, for Praem’s benefit, “I apologise, Praem, I didn’t mean to cast doubt on your sapience or self-determination, or anything like that. I’m just trying to make Evee see sense.”

From a ways behind us, as if a few feet extra distance would impart additional safety, Jan spoke up: “Oh my dears, there is no sense to be seen here.”

Nicole — even further back than Jan, practically ready to fall over backwards through the open gateway — said: “Fuckin’ right hey. Fuckin’ right.”

Everyone else ignored her — except Lozzie, who did a giggle-snort. Laughing at her girlfriend’s terrible jokes, I assumed.

Praem turned her head to glance at me — she was the only one of us other than Lozzie who wasn’t mesmerized by the view down the Camelot hillside. Praem stared, her eyes milk-white and unreadable.

I grimaced an apology. “Sorry, sorry Praem, this isn’t remotely comparable with you. Sorry.”

Evelyn said, low and contemplative, “Technically Praem does have a brain. She’s grown one, in wood-grain and dead cellulose. That’s how demons work; soul-pressure modifies the flesh to better reflect the contents of the vessel. So, yes, Praem has a structure in her head which looks very much like a brain. Though, injuring it wouldn’t injure her like one of us.” Evelyn swallowed again and pulled an awkward half-smile. “Never test that, please, Praem. You don’t have permission to sustain a head injury.”

“Large,” Praem intoned.


“Large and wrinkly. Many folds. Maid brained.”

Raine snorted. Lozzie giggled. Evelyn sighed. I forced a token laugh, the best I could do under the circumstances. Zheng — a few paces to my other side — rumbled like a steam engine in a holding pattern.

Twil said, as if this was all the most natural thing in the world: “Maid brains gotta be more wrinkly and folded than others, right? Right? ‘Cos of all the frills! Eh? Eh? Get it?”

Evelyn sighed again. “Yes, Twil. We get it.”

Raine said, “Gotta work on your joke structure, Twil.”

“Well,” I added, “I thought it was very good. Well done.”

Twil blew out a sigh. Poor puppy, she was trying her best. We were all trying to force a bit of normality, as if following some buried instinct to defend our psyches against the sight in front of us.

“Anyway,” Evelyn huffed. “My point, Heather, is that one requires a brain — a thinking-structure, whatever it’s made from — to affect hyperdimensional mathematical changes to the structure of reality.”

Praem intoned: “Heather, bigger brain. Bulging.”

Twil lost control and snorted. Behind us, Jan sighed very heavily and very sharply, and muttered: “I don’t understand how you lot can joke about this.”

Nicole said, “They’re all fucking nutters. All of them.”

“Mages,” said Amy Stack.

She was standing even further back than Jan and Nicole, her boots only just over the threshold of the gateway from Number 12 Barnslow Drive. She was only standing on Camelot’s soil because there was absolutely no way she was being left back in the house itself with only Tenny, Marmite, and the spider-servitors to stop her doing anything we didn’t want.

“Ah?” said Jan. “Excuse me?”

“Mages,” Amy repeated.

Jan let out a tight little huff. “I am also a mage.”

Stack said nothing.

Raine called back down to Stack: “We laugh because we choose not to cry! Joke or go crackers! You should join in, Amy. Got a place saved for you. Come sit on my lap, hey?”

Amy Stack said absolutely nothing. I didn’t even look, but I could feel her stare like an ice cube dropped down the back of my collar. She was not impressed.

Evelyn sighed again. “Raine, stop antagonizing our pet psychopath.”

“I’m not antagonising her,” Raine said. “I’m sure doing something, but it ain’t that.”

I had to resist the urge to point out there was a word for what Raine was doing: flirting.

Jan was right — we must all have been mad to be having this conversation right then, in the face of this unspeakable thing, with Badger still in danger, less than two hours after witnessing some of the worst violence any of us had ever seen. There was a neat pile of corpses laid out not a hundred feet away, just around the corner of the half-complete Camelot Castle. Some of us were still covered in blood. A row of looted firearms lay on the grass, just as alien and strange Outside as they had been in the English countryside. And here we were, making stupid jokes, and flirting.

Maybe Raine was right. Maybe that’s the sane thing to do — make stupid jokes with your friends and listen to hopeless flirting, to drown out the blood and the bullets. It was better than crying.

Evelyn snapped, “Can we please stay on topic? Heather, my point is, the house did not do mathematics.”

“But it did! How is that harder to absorb than … ” I gestured helplessly, down the Camelot hillside.

Twil clucked her tongue and said: “What if it’s a demon-possessed house?”

Evelyn finally looked away from the sight down the hill and stared at Twil. “What? What are you talking about?”

Twil shrugged. “You can put demons in anything, right? Like, it’s a super bad idea, but it works, doesn’t it?”

Evelyn just stared at her for a long moment, brow creased in one hell of a frown. Then she looked back at the thing we could no longer call a House. She shook her head — but she did it slowly. “No. No, that’s completely absurd. A demon in such a diffuse structure would de-cohere. And the changes it would make to the building would be … well, not unlike what we saw inside Glasswick Tower, with Alexander’s corpse.”

Twil gestured down the hill and pulled a face which said ‘yeah-see-what-I-mean’. “Duh.”

Evelyn shook her head. “This is not the same.”

“Mm,” I agreed, thinking out loud. “It wasn’t like talking to a demon. It wasn’t possessed, it was just … House. It was just a house.”

Evelyn huffed. “My point exactly, Heather. In the end it’s just a house. No brain — demonic modification or organic or otherwise. You couldn’t move it at first, yes, but that must be some layer of trick by Edward. Houses don’t refuse to move. It’s just a house.”

Evelyn worked hard to shore up the failing confidence in her own voice, to pack more quick-drying cement on her denials and justifications. But the evidence in front of us — down the hill and beyond the outline of what would one day be a curtain wall, embedded in the concrete-lined hole we’d dug for Edward’s house, and now sprouting like a mushroom of brick and beam — was a tidal wave of undeniable reality that even Evelyn could not explain away.

Twil went, “Pfffft. Come on, Evee. That’s not a house. Not any more. Looks like there’s about twelve demons in that thing, not just one. Whole damn party down there.”

“Demon party,” said Praem. “Woo hoo.”

Nobody laughed.

Evelyn rubbed at her red-rimmed eyes, too exhausted to argue further. I wet my lips and felt extremely awkward — and more than a little worried about Badger, still somewhere inside the thing. Raine cracked her knuckles and cracked a grin. Behind us, Jan shifted a step closer to July, as if seeking refuge. Lozzie held her hand. Zheng stared down the slope like a statue; even she didn’t want to go anywhere near the thing down there.

We were in Camelot, just shy of two hours after the gunfight at Edward’s House, gathered on the small hillside within the outline of the future curtain wall of the castle. All of us were present, plus Lozzie and Nicole, with some reluctance on the latter’s part — and minus Kimberly. The group call had been terminated once we’d gotten home; there was little to nothing we could do for Amanda Hopton, after all, except attempt to release the bubble-servitors from wherever they had been spirited away to. The gateway to Sharrowford — our way back to Evelyn’s magical workshop — stood open at our rear, guarded on the far side by Evelyn’s spider-servitors, and on this side by a small group of Knights and a single dedicated Caterpillar looming over the comparatively tiny structure. Evelyn had reassured us that no Outsider matter could cross back through the gate; but the House and its contents were not from Outside. We weren’t taking any chances with something escaping back into our own home.

Camelot was just as soothing and placid as always, a strange island of calm refuge amid the endless whirling vistas of Outside. The warm wind carried a scent of cinnamon and the cushion-soft yellow grasses cupped the soles of one’s shoes with every step. Purple nebula-light flooded down from the whorls of glowing crystal orbiting in the dark, cool skies. Camelot was impenetrable, not for the strength of its walls, but for the calm of its nature.

Even arrayed for war, Camelot felt peaceful and calm.

Perhaps that’s what kept the House in check.

Edward Lilburne’s House had arrived exactly where I had originally intended, sat neatly in the concrete-lined pit prepared by the Knights and the Caterpillars. The structure was buffered with great volumes of dirt which had arrived alongside it, and braced with white slabs of shed Caterpillar armour, to stop the whole thing subsiding.

The dirt — the high clay content soil taken from a hidden corner of English woodland — was not something we had considered the importance of previously. Luckily for the rest of us, Lozzie had several Knights down there already on bucket duty, far too close to the House for anybody’s comfort, extracting stray earthworms and random beetles and any other earthly life we’d accidentally transported along with the House.

Not for Camelot’s safety, though. According to Lozzie, it was far too cruel to abandon dozens of innocent earthworms here, where they’d probably run down and die within a day or two, over-exposed to the alien pressures of Outside.

I happened to agree, but we still didn’t think it was worth venturing so close to the House — or, what had been a House, until it had arrived here.

Edward Lilburne’s House had bloomed, like a giant fungal stalk.

The original structure — the one we had faced down in reality, the ordinary looking albeit old house with a frontage that had been reworked to spell out the secrets of the twin prime conjecture — was still there, still intact, sitting in its bed of soil and concrete. The front door stood open, showing nothing but black void. The windows were dark and empty. Like a shell.

It now formed the foundation — or perhaps the roots — of a second house.

A vertical stalk made of brick and beam and smoke-dark glass had exploded upward from the roof of the structure, as thick as the House itself, a jumbled amalgamation of House-parts climbing toward the sky, a perverse beanstalk of domestic matter all mixed together. Fifty feet up in the air it flowed outward, spreading like the branches of a tree — or more accurately like a fungal cap one might find on a cute little woodland mushroom, except made of brick and beam, wood and glass, tile and door frame and windows.

The structure hanging in the air was easily several times the size of the House-seed from which it had sprouted, and impossible to construct or maintain under the pressure of earthly physics and gravity. Tendrils of brick and frills of window hung down from the underside of the curved cap; nodules of roof tile ran in ridges along the top; lines of door frame formed zig-zag patterns up the trunk. Beams stuck out at every possible angle, like thorns or hairs on the stem of a fungal rose.

The thing looked as if it should be swaying in the wind, or flexing with mushroom growth, or perhaps breathing with regular pulses of air. But it was frozen solid, unmoving and stable, as a House should be.

Had we accidentally planted a seed in Outside soil? Or was this like a fish ripped from the deep sea, a corpse expanding under the lack of usual pressure? The others muttered such speculation — that the house had metastasised like a cancer, or it was trying to colonize Camelot, or perhaps that this was what Edward had wanted all along.

But we — myself and my tentacles — could not shake the image of a conjoined twin.

A House with a twin who had been sealed within its House-like body, absorbed in the womb (but what is a womb, for a house?) Only under the vastly different conditions of Outside had that half-dead twin finally bloomed upward into the open air, claiming flesh and reality for herself.

That idea made our skin crawl. We hugged ourselves tight.

At least the House wasn’t screaming, not that I could hear — but perhaps that’s only because it was intimidated by our not-so-little army.

I dislike using military terminology to refer to the Knights and the Caterpillars as a whole. They are not really an army, or if they are it is not the only thing they are, nor the most important component of their concept of self-hood. Inside each Knight is a piece of flesh, earth-born but Outsider-changed by the grace of Lozzie’s biological gifts; the same uplifted spirit-flesh resides in each Caterpillar shell, though multiplied many times over. They are a tiny, embryonic culture and society, non-human, once-of-Earth, now rooted in Outside — group-minded, spread across two different physical forms, and cradled in a symbiotic relationship with both suits of metal armour and the far less earthly biotechnology of the vast Caterpillar machines. Growing, building, talking among themselves, creating language, art, and exploring their environment; they were more than just force. To treat them as such would be a violation of an implicit trust. They had dedicated themselves to my protection and the rescue of my sister, but they had done so because they had once known me as a terrified little girl.

I was not their Queen. They owed me no allegiance. They were not mine to dispose of as I wished.

But they had formed themselves up in front of the house all the same. We hadn’t even asked.

Gleaming chrome stood in stillness and silence, arrayed in loose ranks about fifty feet back from the open front door of the House, ready to repel anything which might emerge from that unyielding black void. They had dug a deep V-shaped ditch to defend their position, and used the resulting bank of earth to give themselves a high ground advantage. Only a token force — less than a dozen — remained on the walls of Camelot castle itself.

Despite the wide variation in armament and occasional vagueness of purpose, the Knights had positioned themselves with expert intention: tower shields and lances to the fore, with halberds and spears and other pole weapons just behind. The flanks of their formation were guarded by axes and great-swords, and I had no doubt they would be capable of rapid shifts of position if need be. Those few Knights with strange crossbow-like weapons stood slightly further back, on a small rise of the landscape, ready to fire over the heads of the others.

“Wouldn’t like to be charging into that,” Raine had said when we’d first arrived and seen the Knights drawn up for battle. “Horseback or not. Bet they’re nigh-on unbreakable. Lozzie? Lozzie, hey, do your lads and lasses in shining armour even know how to run away?”

Lozzie had pulled a big silly shrug. She wasn’t the type to obsess over military matters.

But the infantry were ants compared to the heavy support.

Twelve Caterpillars ringed the House, giants of pitted white carapace with their sides turned to face the ‘foe’. Each of the Caterpillars had several massive black tendrils extended from their face-areas, poised and pointing toward the House, as if waiting for a signal to fire. For all I knew, they really did have living artillery packed into those gigantic barn-sized bodies.

An additional trio of Caterpillars formed a wall between the House and the Camelot castle, just in case. Nobody was taking any chances with this interloper, the Knights least of all.

To see so many Caterpillars gathered in one place was shocking to one’s own scale of self, in the same way as seeing a street of skyscrapers for the first time, or standing amid an airfield of nuclear bombers, or a staging ground full of tanks: their size, the way their bulk blocked out pieces of horizon and redefined the landscape, their caged energy and power and potential, the way their great internal engines set up a resonating hum in the air, just below hearing. I couldn’t help but notice the different shades of mud and dirt around the skirts of white carapace — the Caterpillars had been off exploring Camelot, in half a dozen different and unimaginable places. And they had all returned, to help. And this was only a handful of the giant wriggly friends.

The House was alien and strange; Edward Lilburne was a powerful mage. But out here, Outside, we had made something beyond monsters and magicians.

Well, Lozzie had made them. Then they had made themselves. I couldn’t claim much credit.

Out in reality, we had been woefully unprepared for a siege, surprised by sudden violence, and almost overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Here, we were all too ready to batter down Edward’s walls.

Except Badger was still in there.

We made a sad sight in comparison with the tightly-organised Knights and the impenetrable armour-hulls of the Caterpillars. The gunfight at the House and the slow horror of the aftermath had left us all drained and exhausted.

Raine put on a good front of confidence and energy, but I knew her too well not to see through to the truth: she was jittery and tired, and far too interested in the stolen gun which was now strapped over her shoulder. Twil was odd, her smiles too wide, her laughs too loud. The killing had shaken her. Evelyn was squint-eyed and hunched with effort, clinging to Praem’s arm. Jan and July were not doing too badly, though Jan’s courage and determination had faltered in the face of the fruiting House. Lozzie seemed normal, but very attached to Jan; perhaps she did not want this to go ahead.

Felicity and Nicole had me worried in a very different kind of way. On the way home, Felicity had taken a detour, to drop off Kimberly and the boy from the House at Sharrowford General Hospital. The covert drop-off had gone off without a hitch. Kimberly had even called us to let us know that the boy was being looked at, few questions asked, and Kimberly was passing herself off as a concerned bystander — and just about to leave, on foot, without supplying any identification.

But Nicole had seemed upset, even angry; she’d exchanged a few words with Felicity while everyone else’s backs were turned.

Now Felicity wouldn’t even look at Nicole, averting her eyes with dignified contempt. And Nicole kept glaring daggers at Felicity’s back — or at least she had been doing so, until the shock of stepping through to Camelot had left her speechless and shivering.

Jan was right, the battlefield was no place for lingering romantic jealousy.

Only the demon-hosts — Praem, Zheng, and July — were their usual selves. Amy Stack hadn’t been much affected by the fight and the gore, but standing on the alien soil of Camelot was making her twitchy and tense; she hid it incredibly well, as only a professional could. I was the only one who could see it so openly, but it left her just as compromised as the rest of us.

And me? Myself and myself? All the little Heathers in our shared head-space? We were not having a good time, to put it lightly.

In Camelot, blessed with the altered reality of Outside, our tentacles were visible to the others in all our rainbow-throbbing glory. But we were wrapped around our own stomach and ribs, hugging ourselves tightly to stop from falling over and closing our eyes. We ached with muscle pain all the way down every tentacle, each limb a tube of slow-burning agony.

I was still caked with far too much of my own blood-sweat; the inside of my abdomen throbbed and ached with the aftermath of reactor red-line; only Raine’s arm looped through my own kept me on my feet. We wanted nothing more than to drag ourselves into a nice dark cave, coil up in a ball, and fall into a dreamless sleep.

Not a good condition in which to assault anything, let alone whatever the House had turned into.

Raine had wanted me to rest on the car ride home, but that was impossible. We hadn’t known what had truly become of the House until we’d arrived back at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, bundled everybody indoors — followed by the screeching tyres of Stack’s raggedly blue car — and then waited while Evelyn spent several frantic minutes activating the gateway. Lozzie was forbidden from Slipping to Camelot without the rest of us, just in case Edward had any final tricks up his sleeve.

Out in the woods, we had left little behind except a great big hole in the ground where the House had once stood. The teleport had taken the foundations, part of an underground septic tank, and cut the House off from a set of buried power lines. I’d almost toppled in, but Zheng had darted forward and yanked me back.

A mysterious pit, two cars and a fountain pockmarked with massive holes, a lot of blood with no apparent source, and several dozen bullet casings.

We didn’t have time to clean all that up. Let the paranormal investigators and the Sharrowford police believe what they wanted — there was no way to trace it back to us.

So now, all minds were turned to the House.

Evelyn sighed again, more exhausted than exasperated. I looked away from the giant brick-and-beam mushroom of Edward’s house and caught a moment of Evelyn Saye, Mage, lit in profile by the source-less purple glow of Camelot, a gentle frown of intense thought on her brow, her teeth pinching her lower lip as she chewed at the problem. Praem was supporting her arm, keeping her on her feet much like Raine was with me; for a moment the family resemblance between Evelyn and Praem was clearer than ever, their features softened and highlighted by Camelot’s gentle winds.

Then Evelyn frowned harder and the moment passed. She tutted. “Badger’s fucked up all our plans. God damn him, the absolute fool. You better hope you find him before I do, Heather, because if I get to him first I’m going to have Praem hog-tie him.”

Nobody laughed. Evelyn cleared her throat and looked around.

“Joke,” said Praem.

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “I am joking. Of course. Though we probably should tie his hands together to stop him doing anything else so stupid.”

Raine laughed, but even she had to force the sound. “Assumed you were serious, Evee.”

“Yuuuup,” went Twil. “He’s kinda fucked it, hasn’t he?”

Behind us, Amy Stack spoke up again. “What is your plan?”

Evelyn finally tore her attention completely away from Edward Lilburne’s House and our waiting siege forces. She half-twisted in Praem’s grip and fixed a pinch-eyed glare on Stack. Nicole Web got caught in the blast zone, shuffling sideways on her crutches and eyeing Stack like a condemned prisoner.

Evelyn said, low and dangerous with cold anger: “You would know that if you’d bothered to communicate properly with us. You would also know that having one of our own inside the house is a grave liability. You should have told us what Nathan was going to do. You absolute idiot. Surprised you survived five minutes of being a mercenary.”

Stack just stared. Cold eyes shuttered against raging anger.

Jan cleared her throat delicately and lifted her head. “Operation Jericho,” she said, then pulled a self-conscious wince.

Raine laughed. “We really can’t call it that. Come off it, Jan.”

Felicity said, “Yeah, that’s … that’s in bad taste. Kinda messed up.”

“I enjoy a bit of fancy naming,” Jan said. Then she sighed. “But yes, okay. Operation big loud tooting?”

Twil spluttered a laugh.

“Toot,” said Praem.

Evelyn huffed, unimpressed. She nodded sideways, vaguely in the direction of the Caterpillars. “The large-scale Outsider creatures—”

“Not Outsiders!” Lozzie chirped. I grunted in agreement. “Cattys!” Lozzie said.

Evelyn pursed her lips. “The ‘Caterpillars’ can put out a massive amount of directional sound — possibly enough to damage brick and concrete, certainly more than enough to hurt flesh and bone. This step of our plan is — or was — to bombard the house with enough ‘loud tooting’ to render any unprotected human beings very much unconscious, possibly dead.”

“Right,” said Stack. “And now Nathan is in there.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth. “Yes, he is. Isn’t he?”

Stack held her glare. I was mildly impressed.

We cleared our raw and aching throat: “Um. Actually I think that plan would be ruined anyway, Evee. I’m … personally very reluctant to risk hurting the house itself. It doesn’t deserve that. I don’t think it even knows who Edward is.”

Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Twil looked quite uncomfortable. But Felicity nodded and Zheng grunted; I wasn’t alone in this understanding of the House as more than just a structure.

Raine cracked a smirk. “Looks like there’s nothing else for it, ladies. We’ve gotta go in there. On foot.”

Jan cleared her throat again. “That building has no power and no water. I say we give it a day or two — or even better, a whole week. With any luck we starve him out, no need to go assaulting a fortified position.”

“Nathan is in there,” I said. “He might need our help.”


Everybody flinched — except Praem and July. Zheng’s throaty rumble was like the threat of a storm on the horizon. She flexed her massive hands and rolled her neck from side to side, sullen eyes fixed on the House.

“Zheng?” I ventured. “What’s wrong?”

Zheng just blinked slowly, focused on a thought nobody else could see. “The worm is not the only wayward fool.”

“The bubble-servitors?” Evelyn asked, squinting with disbelief. “You’re concerned about those? Seriously?”

Raine murmured, “Evee, shhhhh.”

I said: “The demon-host? The one who ran off?”

Zheng didn’t answer. She just inhaled deeply, straightening up and rumbling again. I couldn’t be sure without asking her in private, but I could have sworn she was grappling with some inner conflict. Whatever she was experiencing, it was too fragile for questions.

“No siege,” she said eventually. “Shaman. I will go alone if you do not.”

“I think we have to,” I said. “Yes, Zheng. We can’t let Nathan do this alone. And not … yes. Not alone.”

Twil blew out a big sigh. “I do not fancy going in there. Sorry, big H. Even out here, like. Just, no. No way. Fuck me. We’re gonna do it anyway, aren’t we?”

Raine flashed a grin. “Can’t leave Nate to his fate.”

“Nooooo,” Twil whined. “Don’t do shit poetry now, Raine. I can’t take it.”

Jan said, a little too high-pitched, “I am not stepping in there. By all the gods of Kadath, I am not stepping in there. Spooky houses and mages are never a good combination.”

Raine laughed. “You should see some of the places we’ve been before. This is nothing.”

“We can’t leave Nathan in there,” I murmured. “And we can’t leave … we can’t, we—”

Evelyn huffed like the brakes on a tractor. “Alright!” she snapped. “Fine! Praem, help me get— that’s it, thank you, thank you Praem.” Evelyn hobbled and huffed a few paces in front of the rest of us, with Praem at her side, then turned around and fixed us all with a razor-sharp glare. Back hunched, clutching her walking stick, framed by the purple light of Camelot and the siege on the grassy plain below, with a few strands of her straw-blonde hair tugged loose by the warm winds, Evelyn could have led me anywhere. She was, in a way. I would follow her to Wonderland, in time.

Evelyn opened her mouth, but Raine got there first: “Evee, Evee, who put you back in command, hey?”

“Raine!” I hissed. Joking to let off steam was one thing, but undermining Evelyn’s confidence was a bridge too far, even for Raine. For a moment I had no idea what she was thinking. Was she trying to intentionally pull us back from the task? Was Raine afraid this was too much for us, but unwilling to speak her mind?

Even after all that time, I still did not fully understand our Raine. She kept surprising me, every time I thought I knew her inside out.

Her words drew Evelyn’s glare to her — and drew Evelyn’s spine upright, Evelyn’s chin higher, Evelyn’s walking stick off the grass of Camelot to brandish at Raine’s face.

“Me!” Evelyn snapped. “I’ve put myself back in charge!” She gestured at Jan. “No offense to our ‘contractor’, but she’s not exactly showing any spine when it comes to walking into supernatural environments. But you and I, Raine?” Evelyn’s scowl transmuted with the force of knowledge, into a savage little grin more at home on Zheng’s face than Evee’s. My heart did a funny little back-flip. “You and me. Twil. Heather. Praem. Even Zheng? We’ve done this enough times before. We know what we’re doing. Now!” Evelyn snapped. “Listen up!”

Twil snorted under her breath. “Yes madam drill sergeant, three bags full ma’am, lickety split ma’am.”

Evelyn ignored that. She looked at all of us at once — a clever trick. I thought I was the only one capable of that.

“If we do this,” Evelyn said, “then we do it right. We’ve screwed up this kind of thing enough times before — Alexander’s castle, the cult’s house, Carcosa, more — but this time is going to be different. We stick together. We go slow. Nobody moves alone. Nobody touches anything, breathes on anything without permission and investigation first. We—”

Zheng rumbled: “You do not command me, wizard.”

Evelyn, to my surprise, didn’t even flinch. She didn’t even look at Zheng. She just pointed at her with the walking stick. “You can shut the fuck up and get in line, or you can fuck off back home.”

Zheng stiffened. I froze, too, ready for everything to go suddenly and terribly wrong. Praem hadn’t been expecting that either — she moved to step in front of Evee, to head off any sudden aggression.

Zheng rumbled, “Wizard.”

“Down,” said Praem.

Evelyn looked at Zheng. “Do you know why you’re going to do what you’re told? No? Because in less than two months we are going to be doing this same procedure for Wonderland.”

My stomach dropped. Zheng paused. “Huuuh.”

Evelyn continued. “When we do that, there can be no mistakes, no misplaced footfalls, no loose cannons. If there are, then we will all die, and it will be particularly horrible. This — this is a dress rehearsal. A dry run. Down there in that house is a dangerous mage, and I do not know why he’s not struck back at us, but compared to the Eye, he is nothing. This is the best practice we’re going to get. So, Zheng, demon-host. Are you one of us, or are you a loose end we can’t stop snagging on sharp objects?”

The aggression flowed back out of Zheng’s posture, replaced with a kind of sullen darkness. She turned to look at us — at me.

“You’re one of us, Zheng,” I said without hesitation. “You’re with us. You are.”

“Huuunnh.” Zheng grunted. “The shaman answers for me. Very well, wizard.”

“Your orders are simple, anyway,” Evelyn said. “Don’t touch anything you’re not supposed to, don’t run off and cause a problem, and … ” Evelyn paused and grinned. “If we need something killing, be quick about it.”

Zheng couldn’t help the replying smile. We breathed an internal sigh of relief. My most beloved really did understand each other, if they only tried.

Evelyn nodded, then turned her gaze back to the rest of us. “This time is going to be different — because we’re going to have an escort. Lozzie!”

Lozzie did a little hop-jump away from Jan, flapping her hands either side of her head like mock rabbit ears. “Yah!”

“I want the Knights with us. Obviously not all of them, there’s far too many to fit into that house. But at least thirty. I want them in the lead, I want them at our rear, I want them flanking us; I want the vulnerable core of human flesh protected by a wall of metal. Can you do that for us?”

Lozzie did a side-to-side head bob, then nodded in one decisive dip of her head. “I can’t!”

Evelyn blinked. “I—”

“But they can!” Lozzie pointed down at the Knights. “I’m not in charge, you know? I just give them suggestions. It doesn’t work like that, Eveey-weevey.”

Evelyn huffed softly. “Thank you, Lozzie, I know, but I’m trying to simplify things here, so—”

“Evee,” I croaked. “Wait. They’re coming to help.”

Down in the formation of Knights, one lone figure split off from the right flank and slowly began hiking back up the hill toward us. A smile grew on my face as I recognised the filigree of designs on his armour, the optical illusion of quasi-floral swirls which brought to mind the depths of a forest seen from the edge of the tree-line, filled with hidden green groves and ivy-wrapped trunks. A gigantic single-bladed axe was slung over his right shoulder. He drew to a stop a few paces from Evelyn, tall and silent and glinting in the purple light.

It was the Forest Knight.

Everyone else watched with curiosity or wariness, but Lozzie bounced up to him and hugged the front of his armour. He didn’t hug back — I’m not sure if the Knights were used to such things — but he did dip his visor-less helmet in greeting.

“Hello, you!” I said, feeling brighter already. “How … how are you? If that question makes sense, I suppose, um … ”

The Forest Knight’s blank helmet turned toward me in acknowledgement. A dip, up and down. Hello. I am well.

Praem intoned, “Good day to you.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and pointed at the Forest Knight, but addressed me: “Heather, this is the one who accompanied you to Carcosa, yes?”

I nodded. “Yes. Yes, he is. Evee, they do understand us, they really do. We can trust them — trust him.”

Lozzie hopped free of the Forest Knight and said, “Ask again!”

Evelyn looked vaguely uncomfortable as she tried to figure out where to point her eyes: in the end she settled for talking upward to the Forest Knight’s blank visor, despite the lack of eye-slit in his perfectly seamless armour. She explained once again what we needed: Knights in front, behind, and to both sides; protection and security; durable scouts and unbreakable defenders.

Before she even finished, the formation of Knights on the hillside below began to shift and break apart. Twenty nine of Lozzie’s shining giants broke formation and stepped back, their places quickly filled as the shield wall closed up to compensate. They pulled back as a group, with shields and lances, pole-arms and axes, and formed a rough U-shape behind the main body of Knights, with space for us to join them.

We all watched, speechless for a moment as the request was filled, our escort made ready.

“Wheeeeeeeey!” Raine cheered. “Good on you, mate. Good on you.”

“Okaaaaay,” went Twil. “Alright. Well. Maybe going in there won’t be that bad, like … ”

Evelyn looked back up at the Forest Knight’s eyeless visor. “Thank you. We are in your debt. As if we weren’t before.”

Praem said, “Suggestion: strawberries.”

The Forest Knight nodded at that. The movement was so slight that nobody else saw. Except perhaps for Praem.

Lozzie gave him another hug, too. Not everybody was so enthusiastic, however. Felicity and Jan both looked terrified, though to slightly different degrees. Stack watched with ice-cold disinterest. Nicole was clutching her own forehead and muttering under her breath. Zheng looked happy enough about this, but she kept eyeing the Forest Knight as if he might make an interesting sparring partner. July watched Zheng. That was a bad sign.

“Right then,” Evelyn raised her voice and turned back to the rest of us. “A show of hands. Who’s coming?”

Stack and Nicole both bowed out in silence; they would stay here with the Knights. Felicity hesitated, then sighed and raised her hand with the rest of us. Jan went white in the face — staring at Lozzie, who’s hand was raised straight up. Jan’s own hand was frozen before her.

“Heather, hey, Heather,” Raine was saying to me, trying to grab my own hand and coax me back down. “Heather, whoa, come on. You’re wiped out. I know you want to come, but you’re exhausted, your tentacles are down and out.”

“I can still do brain-math,” I croaked. “Not high-level things like teleporting a whole house, but I can still turn a bullet. I can. I’m not staying behind.”

Raine smiled, almost sadly, but with such affection.

“Yeah,” Twil said. “I’m not going without big H at our backs.”

Behind us, Jan was saying, “Lozzie, you can’t be serious. Your uncle is in there. It’s like walking into the exact place he wants you to go.”

Lozzie smiled, big and wide and oh-so smug. She spread her arms. “With all my friends to kick him to pieces!”

Jan shuddered and swallowed, a spark of adoration deep in her eyes, her face pale and sweating. “Oh, fine.” She raised her hand. “I’m in. I hate all of you people. I’m supposed to be in the back line, not getting stabbed in the front.”

July said, “You are protected.”

“Easy for you to say!”


Evelyn stepped over to Lozzie, still leaning on Praem for support. When she spoke, she pitched her voice low, almost private. “Lozzie, are you certain? Are you comfortable joining us? Nobody will think less of you if you don’t. You don’t have to watch us do the deed.”

Lozzie nodded, big and bold. “I wanna! And you need more emergency exits along-along, too!”

“We’ll protect her,” we said in a croaking voice, then reached out and wrapped one aching tentacle around Lozzie’s waist. She leaned into the hug.

A dark mote floated in Evelyn’s eyes. She gestured to Lozzie and said, “May I borrow you for a moment? I think we need one more step, here.”

Lozzie nodded. To my surprise, Evelyn took her hand and led her off a little way, only a few paces. They put their heads together for a second, whispering too softly for anybody else to overhear. Praem stood tall, pretending not to listen. Then she turned her head and looked at me. After a moment Lozzie looked up and gestured to the Forest Knight. He joined them too; Evelyn whispered something up to him. Lozzie nodded along.

“Oh no,” said Twil. “She’s got some mad plan. I just know it. Can’t anything be straightforward around here? Ever?”

“Nope,” said Jan. “That’s generally how it goes, once you’re in deep enough.”

Twil snorted. “I’ve been in deep my whole life, thanks.”

Evelyn and Lozzie straightened up. Lozzie was biting her bottom lip, her face a mask of worry. Evelyn looked determined, but also ashamed. They walked back over, the Forest Knight following along behind.

Before I could ask what was happening, one of the Caterpillars down below began to move.

A single Caterpillar broke off from the circle of twelve and moved toward the front of the house. The motion of great engines throbbed through the air. Carapace-skirts ghosted over the yellow grass of Camelot, sliding almost without friction. Great black tendrils arced ahead of the Caterpillar, multiplying from somewhere inside the main body.

“Evee?” I croaked. “What are we doing?”

Evelyn sighed sharply and looked at me with a bitter hardness behind her eyes. “We’re going to have to hurt the house, Heather. Just a little.”

Lozzie made a wide-eyed face of scepticism. “A little? Nopey-nopes. It’s gonna be a little bit more than a little bit more. Evee-weevey, don’t lie.”

“I’m not lying, I’m trying to—”

“Evee,” I demanded in a croak. “What’s happening? What are you doing to the house?”

“Oh shit me,” said Twil, going up on tiptoes for a better look. “It’s gonna pull the door open?”

Evelyn cleared her throat: “It’s going to pull the entire door off. Frame, front wall, the lot.”

“Evee!” I squeaked. “Lozzie! It’s not— it doesn’t deserve—”

Evelyn looked away from me, and said, “Heather, look at that front door. It’s a black void. I won’t send a Knight through there just to find out it kills whatever passes through. They’re not slaves.”

And she was right. I had nothing to say to that. That door itself was an unknown threat, it could do anything, as far as we knew, even to a Knight. Could I have asked the House? Maybe. But any answer I could have gotten would not have been applicable to the world of quick flesh and hot blood, only to brick and mortar.

Down in the gap between the hills, the Caterpillar moved into position.

It was a giant compared to the House — but tiny beneath the towering mushroom-sprout of what the House had become. The barn-sized white grub pulled directly in front of the door, then reached out with a dozen massive black feelers. Each one wrapped around a piece of the door frame, the front wall, the bricks of the entryway, gluing themselves to the surface with a spreading black tar.

The tendrils tightened, taking up the slack. They thickened into throbbing ropes of solid muscle. Behind the great machine, the Knights drew inward, sheltering behind the tower shields.

The Caterpillar pulled.

A great bass throb of machine-power rolled through the air, almost a physical sensation washing over us. The Caterpillar pulled and pulled, trying to move in reverse away from the House — but the resistance was greater than the mere strength of brick and beam.

The Forest Knight turned his visor-less helmet to look down at Lozzie.

“Oh!” Lozzie chirped. She suddenly flapped round in her poncho, waving her hands in the air. “Everyone plug ears and open mouths!”

“Fuckin’ hell,” said Twil.

“I’m gone,” said Stack, and she even helped Nicole back through the portal. Everyone else did as the Forest Knight had asked. Except Praem, who covered Evelyn’s ears for her.

The Caterpillar pulled again, harder.

The wave of pressure or sound or sheer energy was of course none of those things, it was something Outsider, some approximation of an earthly process. But it throbbed through the air like heat and made my eyes water. It made Twil whine and Evelyn wince and Zheng bite the air. It made the Knights down below stoop as if in the face of a great wind. It made the Caterpillar itself sink half a foot into the soil as the front of the House refused to give way.

And then — pop!

It was not the kind of sound one expected from brick and plaster coming apart in a shattering rip of building materials; that came a split-second later, after the pop. The black void in the doorway burst like a soap bubble, or a biological membrane, a sound that was not a sound, heard even through plugged ears.

Then the crash, the cacophony of brick dust and splintered wood and shattered glass; the entire front door of Edward’s house tore free in a welter of debris, along with six feet of brick frontage all around the frame. The Caterpillar rocked in place and let the torn piece of House fall to the ground.

Dust cleared, blown free by Camelot’s cinnamon wind. The Knights straightened up. We all blinked, staring, gathering ourselves. Ears were cleared. Jaws were worked up and down.

A ragged wound gaped in the front of the House, where the door had stood. Past fringes of brick and tatters of wood, we had expected to see an entrance hallway.

Instead, metal racks marched away into deeper gloom, covered in tiny blinking lights.

It was like we’d opened a shell and found a bioluminescent mollusc living inside.

Twil said, squinting down at our first glimpse of the interior of Edward’s house: “Is that a server farm in there? What the hell?”

“A — sorry, a what?” I croaked.

“Never change, Heather,” said Raine.

Jan laughed and said, “Mages. Am I right, or am I right?”

Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Come on. Let’s get down there and have a closer look. And nobody touch anything. Absolutely nothing. Understand? Touch nothing.”

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Cattys are strong! And big! And like to go DOOT. But only small doot today. House is not for heavy dootings. Yet. (While Badger is inside, anyway.) And it’s the Forest Knight! Wonder how he’s been doing. Very professional, those big metal boys and girls, ready for a good scrap. Anyway, this chapter is somewhat of a breather after the violence and aftermath, and before the … well, the descent. But surely Edward would have responded by now, right? What’s even happening in there? Maybe Heather knows more than she thinks she does … 

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Next week, it’s time to go indoors. Inside. Into the H o u s e??? Where Badger???

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.8

Content Warnings

Gun violence aftermath
Corpses, dead bodies, in detail

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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 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.”

“But he’s—”

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.”

Fourth: Badger.

Stack explained.

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.

“Give me—”

“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—”

“—the book—”


“—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.

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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.

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.7

Content Warnings

Blood and gore
Bullet wounds

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Houses can talk.

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, that would have been much worse.

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

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

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

Houses do not move.

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

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

This was new; I had no idea.

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

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

Was this a trap?

Houses do not move.

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

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

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

The beam moved three times!

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

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

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

Houses do not move.

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

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

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

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

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

Compound expansion, twinned and twinned and twinned again.

We couldn’t match that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the House did not move.

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

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

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

And in failure.

Everybody else was shouting.

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

“Twil, shut up!” Evelyn roared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A monster stepped forth.

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

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

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

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

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

Consiste et sta!” Evelyn shouted.

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

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

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

And the demon-host stepped closer.

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

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

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

It was a harpoon gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other five were men with guns.

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

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

And all those guns were pointed at us.

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

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

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

My companions did not agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like fuck you have!”

Accende et purga per voluntatem—”

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

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

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

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

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

We couldn’t deflect bullets without me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes said, For you, Heather.

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

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

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

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

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

They were going to kill us.

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

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

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


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

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

He slumped to the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

Edward’s men hadn’t expected it either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zheng roared and flailed, still stuck on thin air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Amy Stack straightened up from her kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better than dead,” said Praem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I killed her!”

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

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

“What about the bleeder?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

Raine boggled at her.

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

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

Stack ignored that. So did I — for now.

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Stack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

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

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

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.6

Content Warnings

None this chapter.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Anxiety was now sevenfold, shared among seven of myself, seven physical vessels with their roots mingled but their tips distinct; the physical sensation was not the same as before.

Sleep felt different, too.

I’d always been a lonely sleeper, all through my teenage years and into early adulthood, no matter what methods I adapted or which habits I adjusted. Slipping between cold sheets and wrapping myself up tight, alone, singular, without company, was always a depressing feeling, even when I was exhausted and the bedsheets were clean and comfortable. The Eye’s nightmare lessons always threatened to turn sleep into an ordeal, yes, but even during the periods where it was not teaching me the forbidden secrets of reality, I took little pleasure in going to bed. The reason was not difficult to understand: when we’d been children, Maisie and I had often slept together.

We’d had our own separate beds, in the same shared room, but it was a rare occasion that we wouldn’t spend at least part of a night sharing the sheets, partially entwined, or at least holding hands. I would visit her, or she would visit me; sometimes we would wake up in each other’s beds, after swapping positions. We were just children, seeking physical comfort in family, in our mirrored selves. It was normal, constant, just another biological process. Even when we didn’t sleep in physical contact I could always hear her breathing. All I had to do was listen, still my own breath, and I would hear her on the other side of the room, less than six feet away. My other half, my eternal mirror, my twin sister, my Maisie.

On many nights during the long dark purgatory of my teenage years, I had attempted to simulate Maisie with a pillow. Stuck it in the dryer to warm it up, tucked it in bed against my front, gave me something warm to hug. But it wasn’t the same. It was never the same. It wasn’t her.

Sleep was lonely.

Raine changed all that, of course. Raine, and then Zheng, and then Sevens. Even Evelyn on occasion, though in her case I was the one warming her bed with my company, rather than the other way around. But still, even with real, physical companionship snuggled up against either side of me, romantic or platonic or undefined, something was still missing. I knew it was my twin, my missing part. I would never feel right again without Maisie.

But now I was several. Several tentacles and a human core. Six other parts of me embodied in glorious pneuma-somatic flesh. This new experience — being us, instead of just I — was not a consistent thing, just as I suspect that being a single consciousness is not consistent, either. Sometimes I was very much me, Heather, singular, surrounded by a vague cloud of tentacular thoughts which were still identifiably mine, but just a step distant, a hanging swarm of separated notions from which I could select at will. Other times we were seven, seven Heathers, each of us with a different flavour to our thoughts, combining into one set of words and expressions and outward projections. But who was who was not consistent either: a single tentacle might briefly embody Cautious Heather, with all skittish and paralysed thoughts coming from the bottom left, loud and clear, but then the thoughts would move on and the same tentacle an hour later would be Lustful Heather, gripping for Raine despite the blushing of my human core. I might hug a tentacle in the morning, feeling the vulnerability of Pre-Raine Heather like an echo, then find the same tentacle slapping the walls in dancing delight in the evening.

But one thing was consistent: we all slept together. I was waking up wrapped in myself, wrapping myself, wrapped by ourselves. We burrowed and nested. If I woke in the night, there was I, and there I was, and there I was, ready to reassure myself with my own physical reality.

It wasn’t Maisie, but it was the closest we could get. It was the same thing we’d been trying to do since we’d lost her.

That was how I’d woken up that morning, wrapped in our own tentacles, clinging tight against the onrushing tide of anxiety, a belly full of writhing butterflies, and a nervous leaden energy in all our limbs.

Today was the day; the anxiety was a lead weight in my cells.

How could Raine eat breakfast like nothing was wrong? She wolfed down cereal and fruit and bacon, fuelling herself for the potential trials to come, trying to offer me bites of meat or spoonfuls of pear. She takes reality in her stride and keeps going, feeding off her own confidence, always pushing forward; part of what we love about her. At least Evelyn shared our nervous energy; she sat at the kitchen table taking slow, steady breaths, a faint tremor in her muscles, not even sipping her tea. Praem did her best to try to get Evee to have some proper breakfast. She half-succeeded; Evelyn ate a few calories worth of toast and marmite. Perhaps the salt helped her think. We just gave up and scarfed down half a dozen lemons. That would have to do.

“What if it doesn’t work?” we asked.

Evelyn sighed. “Heather, we’ve been over this. We stick to the plan.”

“I know, I know the plan. I know we have to stick to the plan. But what if—”

“Jaaaaaaan!” Evelyn bellowed.

Jan had spent the night here so as to save time and complications this morning. She had also spent it with Lozzie — though Tenny and July had been present too, so no funny business. Not that anybody would have blamed either of them for seeking some privacy and comfort, considering the stress of what we were about to do.

Jan joined us in the kitchen. Sharp-eyed, sharp-dressed, ready. She was nervous too, but she showed it in all-consuming tight self-control. I noticed she held her chin higher that morning, and held her hands behind the small of her back, as if she was inspecting troops, her sight-line gazing at some unseen horizon. There was a surprising steel to her now that she was committed, like a flicked switch deep in her psyche.

“Don’t shout for me like a servant, Evelyn,” she said with a gentle tilt of her head. “I’m a contractor, not your maid.” Her eyes flickered to Praem. “Um, no offense to maids. You’re a wonderful maid. The best.”

Praem looked left. Praem looked right. Praem was still not dressed in her preferred way, lacking a maid uniform to replace the one which had been ruined, despite whatever private conversation she’d had with Jan about clothes and dresses. That morning she was dressed for war — heavy boots, practical jeans, a black t-shirt. The transformation was striking.

Praem intoned: “I see no maids.”

Jan sighed and rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“I see,” Praem repeated. “No maids. No, maids. I see.”

We burst into a fit of giggles, tapping the table with our tentacle tips. It wasn’t even that funny, not really, but the nervous anxiety had us teetering on the edge of an inappropriate outburst. Strung tight, pulled taut, ready to jump at the first needle. We snorted and giggled and had to take several deep breaths. Raine grinned and gently nudged me with an elbow, which set off the giggles again.

Evelyn cleared her throat loudly. “Yes, my apologies, whatever. Jan, Heather is doubting again.”

Jan turned her eyes to me. That killed the straggling giggles. I shrugged, heart fluttering too hard. “What if it doesn’t work?”

Jan cocked an eyebrow. “Are you doubting that you can achieve the teleport?”

I shook my head. Several tentacles shook with me. “No. I don’t think so. I can … I can do it.”

Raine spoke between mouthfuls of chocolate cereal. “She zapped a whole car Outside, once. She ever tell you that? Nah, our Heather can do it, no question.”

Jan blinked. “A car? While moving?”

“A wreck,” I explained. “From a junk yard. As an experiment. That was almost a year ago, now, when I still didn’t really know what I was doing, or my own limits. With all of us—” We all waggled in the air, all together “—I have no doubt I can teleport something the size of a house. It’ll take a lot out of me, it’ll almost certainly force us — our tentacles, I mean — back into pneuma-somatic non-corporeality. I may bleed a lot, or possibly overheat. I might pass out. So, I’ll only get one shot. But I’m pretty certain I can do it, on a technical level, yes. I might have to walk around the perimeter of the property first and—”

Jan interrupted with a click of her lips. “You already said that part, Heather. You already said all of this.” She looked at Raine with a frown. “Have Twil and Zheng been in contact yet? It’s almost nine.”

Raine nodded, picked her phone up from the table, and checked the open message log again. “Both of them, yup. In position. Still no movement at Eddy’s pad. Both cars are still right where they’ve been every day since. Twil says she’s hungry. Zheng says kiss the shaman — that’s directed at me, by the way.”

Evelyn sighed. “Useful information, I’m certain.”

Raine leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, then waggled her phone at Jan. “Ready when you are. I can start the group call whenever.”

Evelyn huffed again. “I would still prefer walkie-talkies.”

“Me too, but this is gonna be more reliable for all the parties we gotta include. This will work, Evee, this isn’t going to be a weak link.”

Evelyn tutted. “It better not be.”

I raised my voice over the conversation, repeating myself: “But what if it doesn’t work?” I glanced at Raine, at Evee, at Praem, at Jan — and at Lozzie, who was pattering in through the kitchen doorway on her bare feet. Behind her were red eyes and black lace, peeking around the door frame in her wake — Sevens and Aym paying as much attention as they always did. “What if I try, and it doesn’t work?” I said. “Or something happens and we can’t do it? What happens? I need … I need to know I’m not our only hope. I’m … I’m having trouble with the pressure.”

“Retreat, regroup, rethink,” Jan said softly. Lozzie wrapped her arms around Jan from behind, which earned her a gentle pat on the hands. “If this doesn’t work, we try something else. We try again. First we do a lot of running away, sure, but then we try again. But you know all this. We went over this. What’s wrong?”

We swallowed — too dry. We tried to still the nervous energy in all our tentacles, but couldn’t. Raine reached over and closed a hand around one of mine. I squeezed back.

“I’m just anxious,” I admitted. “I’m not used to all this build up. This waiting. And I can’t do anything but wait. I wish we were there right now, in front of the house already. I can’t deal with this.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said. She squeezed my hand again. “Focus on me, yeah? Focus on where we are right now. I’m gonna be right with you, the whole way.”

But Jan let out a knowing sigh. She nodded, hands on her slender hips. “Hurry up and wait. The soldier’s curse. I wish I had better advice, but that’s all you can do.”

“What’s all you can do?” I asked.

Praem answered for Jan: “Hurry up. And wait.”


Summer heat baked the fields and hedgerows beyond the trailing edges of the Sharrowford suburbs. The blue sky washed distant copses of trees with a suffocating blanket of sunlight, their leaves so bright and green that they hurt the eyes to stare at for too long. Deep summer turned cottage roof tiles into sizzling hot-plates and cooked the road surface until the asphalt turned soft and sticky beneath tires and shoes alike. Raine’s battered old red box of a car did not possess the luxury of air-conditioning, so we drove with all the windows cracked, the summer air rushing by in a great endless stream as we plunged into the countryside.

Raine was at the wheel, focused on the road. Praem sat in the passenger seat, in charge of an opaque bundle of plastic bags in her lap. Evelyn and I sat in the rear; Evee had her phone out, connected to the group call to keep us all in contact. Her scrimshawed thigh-bone wand lay across her legs, gripped tight in one hand.

And I hurried up, and waited.

Chewing my tongue. Tying my tentacles in knots. Trying not to itch at the sigil-paper affixed to my belly with costume glue. My Outsider octopus-skull helmet-mask sat in my lap, a comforting metallic weight staring up at me with empty eye sockets, asking me if I was going to be okay. I was trying to be. Two tentacles held the mask tight, clinging to this scrap of physical self-definition. Another tentacle was half-snaked toward Evee, seeking a hand to hold — but she was occupied with wand and phone and her own internal fires.

Besides, she couldn’t even see us reaching for her right then; our tentacles were hidden away in pneuma-somatic invisibility. For safety, for ‘operational security’, for hiding from normal eyes who might have panic attacks at the sight of us.

‘Operational security’ can, as Raine would so delicately put it, ‘sit and swivel’.

Though I’m not one hundred percent sure what that means.

Proximity — both spatial and temporal — was ratcheting the anxiety upward to near-unbearable levels.

It was a physical sensation, a paradox of weight and lightness in all our limbs, tentacle and human alike. Adrenaline, cortisol, stress, muscle tension, a throbbing in our head, a flutter in our lungs, a throb in our bio-reactor. I knew this was only a normal reaction, I knew everyone else was feeling it too — well, perhaps not the bio-reactor part. Anxiety was clear in the slow bob of Evelyn’s throat, in the unwavering focus of Raine’s eyes on the road, in the occasional snippet of communication which came over the group call.

“Still nothing?” Jan asked. Her voice was tinny and twisted by the speaker on Evee’s phone.

“Naaaaah,” came Twil’s voice, replying from elsewhere on the connection, a sound-ghost in electronic crackle. “Nada, zilch, zip. Nothing moving out here. ‘Cept the bubble lads up in the sky, I guess. Both cars still in the driveway. Which is kinda weird, you know?”

Evelyn snapped: “No chatter, Twil. Keep it only as necessary. Clear the line.”

A sigh came from the phone. In my mind’s eye I could see Twil miming a mock-salute. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, three bags full ma’am.”

Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “Keep your eyes on that fucking house!”

Another voice cut in. Lozzie, back home: “Tenny is here too, you know?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes. My apologies. Perhaps she shouldn’t be present?”

A soft trilling, then nothing. The line was clear.

Even Praem showed the anxiety we all felt. Sitting ram-rod straight in the front seat, she kept taking one hand off the plastic bags in her laps and smoothing the fabric of her jeans, though it was already perfectly smooth.

Distracting myself was impossible. How could I not think about the task which was only minutes away? How could I not focus on all the things which might go wrong, all the things which we might not have accounted for? I was surrounded by powerful mages and unstoppable demon hosts and I would be flanked by Raine, who we still regarded as categorically invincible, despite the fact she was only human.

Looking out of the window didn’t help. The countryside was drenched in the brief burst of oppressive summer that sometimes graced the North, thickening the air and pushing down on the landscape like a bronze hammer. Cloudless skies seemed like a bottomless pit over the beetle of the car. I felt a little sick whenever I looked upward for too long.

The spirit-life didn’t seem to care. The endless profusion of strange creatures out on hilltops or wandering the valleys didn’t give a hoot about the sun or the heat. A giant bird-like thing of hanging meat and soft-velvet flesh nested atop a clutch of trees, incubating an egg the size of a building. A little herd of imitation-trees like clusters of reaching tentacles marched off across the fields, vanishing into the blazing landscape. A hopping horror — a thing of dozens of joints and several separate slavering dog-like heads — kept pace with the car for a while, then veered away when I raised a tentacle in greeting. Stick insects as large as cows clicked and clacked along distant ridges. Far, far, far to the west, perhaps out over the Irish sea, a true giant towered and plodded with exacting slowness, a plate of life made of insect chitin and black expanses, barely a line on the furthest horizon, only visible from our own highest climbs.

And we drove deeper, heading for the house that should not be.

Felicity’s battered old range rover followed a little way behind us, a green-washed ghost in the sunlight downpour, keeping pace without crowding Raine’s driving. Kimberly, Jan, and July rode with her. I had been surprised that Jan was accompanying us directly. We’d expected her to stay in Number 12 Barnslow Drive, with Lozzie, tucked away nice and safe.

“Oh I won’t be rushing that house,” she’d said, when we’d voiced the query. “Don’t kid yourself, I’ll be safely in the rear. But I am a mage, for however much that counts. Four versus one is better odds than three versus one. I would never live with myself if you all got killed and I wasn’t there to … well. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Twil and Zheng were already at the house — hanging back at a safe distance, hidden in the woods, watching the driveway and the cars for any sign that Edward knew we were coming.

Zheng had not been happy, last night.



“I am not your scout. I am not your cats-paw. I will be your left hand, but as a fist. I will tear the head from any wizard and offer you the heart, but this skulking … ”

“I know, Zheng. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry to ask so much of you, and everyone else, but we have to do this. I need this. I need you to do this for me. Please.”


“After this, after Edward, we can … the Eye. It will be the greatest possible fight, I— no, I don’t know that. I’m talking nonsense. I’m sorry, Zheng. I just need your help.”

Zheng had grinned all the same. “No, shaman. You do not know what the dark reaches will bring. But it will be a fight. Hnuh. So be it.”

Lozzie and Tenny were safe at home, alongside Marmite for company. And, unexpectedly, private eye Nicole Webb, along with her dog, Soup. She’d turned up in the early morning, full of demands.

“I’m not sitting this one out, Saye,” Nicole had said.

“Evelyn,” grunted Evelyn. “Drop the respect. And you have a broken leg. You’re not pulling any heroics on crutches and a cast.”

“Oh yeah? Will you?”

Unexpectedly, Evelyn had smiled at that. “I’ve been hobbling a lot longer than you, detective. And you don’t need both legs to do magic. We’re not taking you.”

“What about Kimberly?”

“Huh? What about Kimberly?”

“She’s going with the rest of you lot, right? She’ll be unprotected.”

“Kimberly Kemp is a mage, detective. She is—”

“Don’t you say she’s more than capable of protecting herself, because she isn’t and we both know it.”

“We are more than capable of protecting her.” Evelyn had sighed. “And she won’t be expected to do anything much at all. She’s there to help me and Felicity if we have to use real magic. Which we likely won’t, because Heather is going to teleport the entire house. She won’t be expected to come to Camelot. She is peripheral. Relax.”

“Then I’m joining the wire.”

“The … what?”

“The wire. The call. The thing Raine is setting up. I’m in. At least let me see this one through with a front row seat. Even if it’s radio. Come on, it can’t hurt.”

And it couldn’t, so there she was, listening along with the rest of the peanut gallery.

Aym was folded away inside whatever method of spacial compression she used to accompany Felicity without being physically manifested. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was similarly hidden away; I didn’t quite understand that, despite her explanation earlier that morning.

“I’ll be with you, kitten. Wherever you are.”

“Sevens,” I’d sighed and blushed. We had hugged for a long, long time, tucked away in my bedroom while others were getting ready. The Yellow Princess had demanded an embrace with nothing but her cold blue eyes and a tilt of her chin, and we had obeyed. “You’re supposed to stay here,” I said. “It took a terrible toll on you last time you broke your new set of self-definitions. Please, prioritize yourself. For me.”

“You are my self-definition, kitten. I prioritize myself by prioritizing you.”

“I’m … not sure that’s healthy. Are you serious?”

Seven-Shades-of-Paradoxical-Process had tilted her head ever so slightly, allowing her sheet of precise blonde to shift to one side. “I am not sure anymore. Only that I am becoming. And if I did not protect you against a stereotypical evil wizard, then I would not like what I become. I will not harm myself, kitten. You have my promises. But I will be ready to harm others. For you.”

All of us were protected against esoteric harm — all of us ‘in the field’ — by the sigil papers that Evelyn had prepared, similar to the ones she’d made us all use when we’d first met Jan. Mine was glued to my stomach, a slip of magical figures and interlocking patterns that would act as ablative armour against several types of ‘common’ magical assault. Evee had one herself, as did Raine, and every other human in our group. Even Praem wore the protection, tucked beneath her clothes.

Only Zheng had refused.

A certain somebody was tucked away out of danger, as far away as I had been able to get him to go; Badger had wanted to join the group call, had wanted to be part of this. I had told Raine to refuse the request, turn him down, tell him no. Too much of a coward to do it ourselves. But I couldn’t bear the thought of his second chance evaporating into smoke if Edward tried something unexpected. I didn’t need to worry about my unwanted, devoted disciple, amid all of this.

One other person lacked a sigil-seal, however: Amanda Hopton was on the group call Raine had set up — but she was at Geerswin farm, along with Twil’s mother, some of the Church muscle, and a full half of Hringewindla’s bubble-bud servitor-angels. She kept mostly quiet, content to act as a conduit to her god.

Four bubble-servitors rode with us — two on the roof of Raine’s car, two on the roof of Felicity’s range rover. I tried not to think about the surging sludge above our heads.

In Camelot, the Knights and the Caterpillars had stopped work, ready to ‘repel boarders’, as Raine said.

The gateway was closed. Lozzie had instructions on opening it when needed.

Everything was ready.

Halfway to our destination, on a lonely countryside road between the village of Horstramp and the tiny hamlet of Endsway, Raine slowed the car and turned her head to address the back seat.

“Evee,” she said, clipped and quick. “Phone.”

Evelyn’s head snapped round, eyes wide. My heart leapt in my chest. I started to stammer, but Evee got there first.

“What?” Evelyn spluttered. “I can—”

Raine carried right on. “Tell Felicity to pull into the lay-by just ahead, around this next corner of hedgerow. Tell her to go right, pull the car close to ours, close the gap.”


Felicity’s voice floated up from the phone in Evee’s hands: “I hear you, Raine. Lay-by on the right. Why are we stopping?”

“We’re being followed.”

Nobody said anything for a heartbeat. The wheels churned on the road surface. The engine rumbled. The sun beat down on the green hedges and baked fields. My heart fluttered like a caged bird.

“Shit,” Evelyn hissed. “How can you tell?”

“We knew this might happen,” Raine said, focused on the road ahead. “Two cars, one black, shiny, new, the other is an old battered thing in blue. The latter was with us since Sharrowford, I just wasn’t sure. The other one swapped in when the blue one fell behind. It’s a tail, no question. The black one is right behind us.”

“Yo yo yo yo,” came Twil’s voice over the phone. “What, hey? You’re stopping, why?”

“Force a confrontation,” Raine said. She said it so plain and level, with such confidence. “We don’t want them surprising us from behind once we reach the house.”

Felicity said, through the phone: “Got it. Coming to a stop right behind you, Raine.”

The lay-by was right where Raine said it would be — nothing but a twin pair of asphalt bulges in opposite sides of the road, both with enough space for several cars or a single lorry to pull to the side and stop, out of the flow of traffic. Not that there was any traffic on this quiet country road except us. Ragged hedges and farmland fences marched off over the little hills. The right-hand lay-by was sheltered by a few towering trees, leaning outward from the edge of a field, but even that shade was thin comfort.

“How the hell did you know this would be here?” Evelyn muttered.

Raine said, “Because I checked the route on Google Maps. Prep work, Evee, it’s all in the prep work.”

Raine pulled the car to a stop and turned off the engine. Felicity’s green range rover joined us seconds later, nuzzling in close so the two machines formed an effective wall of cover. Raine twisted, grabbing the carrier bag off Praem’s lap, and turning to me.


“I’m not staying in the car,” we blurted out. “No. And we’re not hidden in some pocket dimension, Raine. If you fire that thing off in the middle of the English countryside, people are going to call the police.”

Raine grinned, beaming with pride. “I was gonna say ‘stay behind me’, but hey.”

I pouted. “You should be the one staying behind me. I’m the one who can deflect bullets.”

“I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

Evelyn huffed. “I’m not staying in here either. Praem, if you please, help me out of the car.”

We all climbed out of the cars and into the sizzling sunlight of high summer, to await sight of our pursuer.

Well, not quite all of us. Despite her firm words, Evelyn stood just behind the open back door of the car, shielded almost entirely by Praem. Her thigh-bone wand was tight in her fists. Felicity and July got out of the range rover, nodding to us. Felicity had her concealed shotgun over her shoulder, hidden in the sports bag. July strode forward with confidence; if Jan hadn’t called to her sharply, I suspect she would have stood in the road and braced to physically catch the car with her bare hands. Kimberly sat on the edge of the car seat, her legs out but her feet not touching the ground; Felicity made a gesture to keep her back. Jan did not emerge, but I could see her peering out of the back window of the range rover.

Everyone without pneuma-somatic sight slipped on a pair of modified seeing-glasses, just in case. The quartet of bubble-servitors rose from the roofs of both cars, hovering over us and waiting in perfect stillness.

“Nice to have air cover, hey?” Raine said with a grin and a wink. “Amanda, your boys see anything?”

From several different phones, Amanda Hopton’s voice answered: “Nothing that should not present is present or perfect or … no. No. Sorry.”

Evelyn hissed: “Shut up and concentrate, Raine.”

Summer heat was like a physical weight, melting muscle tension, turning nerves to exhaustion, coaxing sweat from every back and forehead — except Praem, who stood with her chin high and her feet together. Even Evelyn was only in a skirt and t-shirt, her shawl left on the back seat of Raine’s car. The air was full of insects, flies and midges and more than a few irritating mosquitoes, the grass verge buzzing with hidden life. The others had all applied insect repellent; Praem hadn’t, and neither had I. Something about my altered biochemistry was no longer appealing to terrestrial bloodsuckers.

Shadows were completely still in the windless day. All eyes turned to the road up the distant hill we’d just descended.

Felicity hissed over her shoulder: “Think they’ll come say hello?”

Nobody answered. I swallowed. “I hope not.”

“They will,” Raine said. “They weren’t being subtle about following us. The black car, I mean. The blue one was trying to hide. Wasn’t very good at it.”

Seconds crept by, oozing hot. Shoe soles stuck to the melted tarmac. Evelyn huffed and puffed; Praem handed her a bottle of water.

“Hey, Raine,” Felicity whispered.


“Not gonna get your home made junk out?”

“It’s not junk,” Raine said. “And no. Too risky. Also too damn hot.”


Then, like a shiny-shelled beetle scuttling over the edge of a leaf, a black car appeared in the road.

It didn’t slow or pause, but just puttered on down toward us without a care in the world. Sunlight glinted off the curve of the roof. The wheels were shiny and clean, recently washed. The whole thing shone.

“That’s the one,” said Raine. “Everybody brace.”

Felicity swallowed, hard and dry. “You don’t think they’d just do a drive-by shooting, right?”

We said: “I’m ready for that.”

I spread my tentacles — still pneuma-somatic, invisible, hidden away. I was wearing a spare hoodie which belonged to Raine — thin, orange, with a band logo on the front of a laughing giraffe — and nothing underneath, because of the heat. We’d cut slits down the sides of the hoodie, secured with velcro, ready for exactly this eventuality. It was a rough job, the best we could do under the circumstances, but it was essential.

The car dipped down the hill, slowed for the corner, then approached us at a crawl. Raine raised the plastic-wrapped package in her hands.

If this was a mistake and that was an innocent in there, God alone knew what we looked like. University girls out for the worst summer holiday experience in history. We must have all looked ready to leap behind the cars and start screaming. July radiated focused menace. I probably looked constipated. Evee could have scowled a hole in the road. Felicity was obviously more than a bit dodgy.

The black car pulled to a stop in the opposite lay-by. The engine kept running.

Raine aimed her hidden weapon. Evelyn’s fingers moved across the bone-wand. I stretched out my limbs, ready to catch anything. Felicity wasn’t even breathing.

A door cracked open — on the opposite side of the car, out of sight. A boot scuffed the grass. A head popped up over the roof of the car.

A squinting, smiling, smarmy face greeted us with a broad, drunken wink. Curly dark hair formed a sweat-stained crown over an olive-coloured complexion. Wide shoulders followed, atop a big barrel chest, muscled and toned and well-trained, wearing a plain white t-shirt with a little sweat at the armpits.

“Hooooooo, it is one hooooot day,” said the man, in a slurring, drunken voice.

Evelyn hissed: “What the fuck?”

Raine snorted a laugh, but she was not amused. “Really? You wanna get shot, mate? ‘Cos you’re going the right way for it.”

Felicity was confused. “Who is this? Who is this? Who are we dealing with?”

“Hey there girlies!” The man waved a casual hand. “Thanks for stopping for me, yo?”

Evelyn raised her voice: “You promised we’d never see you again.”

“Ah ah ah,” said the man. “I promised you’d never see me again — if you let me go! I had to like, fucking escape, you know? I had to run! You didn’t let me go. So heeeeey, this ain’t breaking no promise!”

“This man is a living shit,” said Raine.

“He’s a mage,” Evelyn snapped. “We’ve dealt with him before. He’s … ”

Mister Joe King didn’t look like a dried and mummified corpse anymore. Somebody had watered him, filled out his skin, made him look like a normal human being. He shot Evelyn a broad wink, mocking and self-conscious.

Truth be told, I barely remembered the man.

‘Joe King’ was almost certainly not his real name. And the grinning, cheeky, mock-drunk mannerisms were almost certainly not his real personality either. Mister Joking was the mage who had somehow infiltrated the cult’s castle-dimension long after we’d taken possession of it, ostensibly to perform some kind of communication ritual with the giant sphere-children left behind by the star beneath the castle — but actually to steal the secrets of the gate to Carcosa for Edward Lilburne, his employer or master or one-time contractor; their relationship wasn’t clear. The only time we’d encountered this man, he’d shown at least two distinct personalities, perfect disguises for the mage beneath.

He’d also fought like a supernatural martial artist, and nearly done us a lot of damage.

As if reading my mind, Raine spoke slowly and carefully: “You stay where you are, friend. And keep those hands visible.” She pointed with the plastic-bag bundle in both hands. “I think you can guess what this is. Mages don’t always hold up well to bullets.”

Joe King grinned that lazy, cheeky, wide-boy grin, and waggled all his fingers. “Wouldn’t dream ‘o coming over there, sweetheart. Nah, don’cha worry. I’m not poking a single toe out from behind this here car. And you don’t have to come over here either, see? Just a few words, that’s all I’m here for, and then I’ll be on me way. Cross my heart!” He cast his eyes up at the blazing sunlight. “Not like it’s a good day for an outdoor fight anyway, right? This heat, man!”

Raine turned her head without looking away from the mage. Felicity openly glanced at Evee. Evelyn was gritting her teeth.

“Down,” said Praem, softly.

“Right,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t engage him. Too much risk. Amanda, you hear that? Servitors off him. Don’t do anything.”

I kept my tentacles pulled to maximum extension, just in case. In the corner of my eye, in the back of Felicity’s range rover, I spotted Jan frowning very hard at Mister Joe King.

Raine said, suddenly casual and easy: “Are we rumbled, then, mate?”

“Eh?” King made a silly face, the sort of face one makes when pretending to be deaf but knowing that everyone sees through your nonsense. “Ehhhh? Rumbled? As if you were ever un-rumbled, girlies! Ha ha!”

“What do you want?” Evelyn snapped.

Joe King waggled his fingers again. “To let you know that he knows, and he knows that you know. And now both of you know the other knows, so everybody knows, and nobody’s going into knowing without knowing that the other side knows what they know.”

A grin, a shit-eating, cheek-tensing, tooth-showing grin.

On the group call, Twil snorted; she must have heard that.

“I will send you Outside,” I said. “I can touch the road right now, send you, your car, and a ten-metre area Outside, to wherever I choose. Would you like to meet the King in Yellow? Or the Eye? Or shall I drop you into a lake of boiling mercury?”

Joe King did a big mock-cringe. Next to me, I felt Evelyn grin with satisfaction, which made me flush with pride.

Of course, everyone but King knew I was bluffing; we probably had one shot and one shot only at such a large teleport. Recovery might take a whole day. I needed to conserve my energy and the distributed brain-math potential of my tentacles for Edward’s house.

“Nah nah nah nah,” Joe King said, hand half-raised over the roof of his car. “I’m serious, like. Came to warn you off. He knows you’re coming.”

Raine said: “And why do you care?”

Joe shrugged. “‘Cos I’m just such a nice bloke? Can’t a guy give a shit anymore?”

Evelyn huffed. “This is absurd. He is a delaying tactic.”

“Nah, look, look, ladies, gimme a sec, hey, hey?” Joe King’s smile got wider and wider and wider — and then snapped back into nothingness, like a rubber band pulled too far. All the drunken, laddish mannerisms flickered off, like a light going out. He straightened up, unamused, dead-faced; the shift in posture and expression added about ten years to his age.

Felicity nearly pulled out her shotgun. July jerked forward, a falcon eager to leave the gauntlet.

“Hold up!” Raine shouted. “Fliss, this is just what he does. Stay cool. Stay cool. You too, July. Cool it.”

Felicity was shaking. “I’m cool. Cucumber cool. Right.”

Joe King stared at us with unimpressed eyes. “Forgive my youthful exuberance,” he said in that absurdly rich Welsh accent, a completely different voice to his laddish trick-personality. “I am informing you that my association with Mister Lilburne is over. I am leaving. I am already gone. He has gone too far in his efforts to protect his property and I wish no part of what is about to happen, because I do not believe I would survive the process.” He nodded curtly, to Evee — and then to me. “Goodbye, Miss Saye. Goodbye, daughter of the Eye.”

He ducked, already slipping back into his car.

“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. She raised her bone wand. Raine gestured with the hidden weapon. I almost — almost — hissed.

Joe King paused. He looked at us like we were already dwindling in his rear view mirror. “This car is warded and armoured. I will repel any assaults with ease. If you fire a weapon all you will achieve is some nearby house calling the police.”

Raine just laughed. “Mate, come on, why even stop and tell us all this? You gotta see how transparent this looks, right?”

Joe King’s eyes flickered quickly — to me. He said, slowly, picking his words with care: “The daughter of the Eye is intriguing. The world will be a more interesting place with her in it. And a less interesting one if Mister Lilburne wins this conflict. I warn you off, because … I am an old and sentimental fool. That is all. Good day to you.”

“Explain what you meant,” Evelyn snapped. “What efforts? What’d Edward done? If you give a shit, warn us properly. What are we walking into?”

Mister King sighed. “That is proscribed by the bounds of the geas on me. No.”

“Bullshit,” Evelyn hissed.

Raine said, “What about the second car?”

Joe King paused. A serious frown flickered across his brow.

“He doesn’t know,” I felt us say. “He doesn’t know. That’s not a lie. He doesn’t know.”

“There is no second car,” he said. “Only me. You are playing games.”

Raine shook her head. “There was absolutely a second car, friendo. Blue, old, bit of rust on her. You took over from it.”

“Then it was nothing to do with me. We’re done here. I suggest you attempt to live. Good luck.”

From the phone, I heard Twil say: “Yeah great advice, dumb-fuck.”

A final nod — and I caught that tiny, brief twist of his eyes, one last look, different from all the others so far, furtive and shy and maybe even a little afraid.

Joe King finally looked at Jan.

Then he ducked into his car, slammed the door, gunned the engine, and roared off down the country road, breaking the speed limit and leaving us all behind.


No way we were turning back.

Fifteen minutes later we reached Edward’s house, deep in a heavily wooded stretch of otherwise unremarkable countryside. We’d passed only two other vehicles on the road since we had stopped for Joe King — a single car driven by a little old lady, and a tractor moving between disconnected plots of farmland. We were in the far reaches of the rural countryside now, but in a totally different way to Brinkwood with its picturesque looks, or the forest-wrapped secrets of Geerswin farm. This area of woodland — closer to Stockport than Sharrowford — was somehow sterile and empty. There were no villages for miles and miles, just empty heathland, scattered fields, and now these sickly-looking trees vanishing into the distance on either side of the road. Their trunks were too far apart, too pale and smooth, their leaves up in the canopy almost seeming to wilt in the powerful summer heat.

The property itself was set far back from the public road, at the end of a very long gravel driveway — or at least, the memory of a gravel driveway. It was more a dirt road that hadn’t seen any repair in years, perhaps decades. Raine and Felicity drove halfway up that battered old track, then parked the cars once we were beyond sight of the main road.

“Still clear?” Raine asked the group call.

“Nothing moving, still,” Twil said with a sigh. “You here, then?”

“We’re here. Get ready.”

Twil and Zheng came to meet us on the driveway. We all piled out of the cars, ready in a way we hadn’t been when confronted by the unexpected figure of Joe King. Evelyn took Praem’s arm in lieu of her walking stick, so she could hold her thigh-bone wand with both hands if she needed to. Twil was vibrating with energy, bouncing on the balls of her feet, aching to transform but holding back for now. Raine opened the boot of her car and pulled out her hidden stash — black combat knife, home-made riot shield, motorcycle jacket, helmet, the full works. She’d further modified the home-made shield by plastering the front with Evee’s sigil papers. She stripped down to a tank top in the heat, then quickly shrugged into her gear. Only then did she unwrap the plastic-bag package.

She hefted Amy Stack’s Sten gun, checked the mechanism, and held it in one hand, shield braced in the other.

“Heather?” she asked me from inside the muffled confines of the helmet. “You holding up alright?”

“Raine, you look so cool.” I laughed despite the nerves juddering through every cell — or perhaps because of them.

She struck a little pose for me, but only briefly. Now was the time for concentration.

Zheng briefly cupped the back of my head, purring her approval. Felicity did a series of strange exercises with her fingers, then pulled her shotgun out and made sure it was loaded. Kimberly lurked behind her, looking terrified but determined to help if needed. Jan and July stuck close together — but Jan paused to pluck something out of her hidden extra-dimensional pockets, some kind of miniature hand-fan. I didn’t ask about that. But we did meet her eyes for a moment, asking a silent question — then an overt one.

“Jan,” we said. “Do you think Mister Joe King really left?”

Jan almost jumped, but she caught the meaning in my eyes. I know he recognised you, Jan. But I don’t care, I’m not asking about that right now. I’m asking if we’re safe from him.

“Oh, I should think so,” she said. “Sensible fellow, getting out of the way of all this. I would do the same.”

To my surprise — and apparently Jan’s too, from the way she flinched — July echoed: “Sensible fellow. Good runner.”

“Quite,” Jan said through gritted teeth. She met my eyes again, letting me know we would talk of this later.

The bubble servitors rose from our cars, rising up and up and up, to join the cloud-ring of their fellows which surrounded the property. Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were everywhere, hundreds of the things, lining the driveway, speckling the trees, hanging in a massive circle around the house itself. We had crowded Edward in with monsters of our own.

We slipped our squid-skull helmet on over our head, a last line of personal defence and security. I rolled up my sleeves, too; the heat was unbearable, a blur of sunlight smeared across my senses, full of summer insects. Sweat was running down my front and my back. The others were saying things — chattering over the group call, checking in with Lozzie, with Amanda, with all the other points of our plan. But I was wrapped tight in the unbearable tension of my own body, staring up the driveway at the house hidden just beyond the rise of the landscape.

I wasn’t even aware of manifesting my own tentacles into full physical flesh. The first I knew of it was the scratch of the velcro against my skin. We all waited, poised, aching for action.

“Glasses on, everyone?” Raine said. “We cool? We cool. It’s eleven in the morning in rural England and we’re all wearing shades. Yeeeeeeah baby.”

Twil snorted, but I could tell she was struggling with nerves too, trying to discharge the anxiety with too much laughter.

“Shut up and focus, Raine,” Evelyn hissed. Then, to my surprise, she said: “Fuck me. I didn’t think we’d get this far.”

“Evee?” we said.

“I thought he would have reacted by now. I thought we’d have pulled back. This is going too smoothly, we’re just walking up to the front door. He hasn’t even reacted.”

Jan said: “I agree. However, he may simply have fled. We keep going until there’s a reaction.”

“How are you not afraid?” Evelyn hissed at her. “I thought you were a habitual coward?”

“I am.” Jan sighed. “But when you’re already this deep, fear can just get you killed. Everybody ready? Right, stick together then. Here we go. Off into the woods.”

I barely felt my own legs as we all walked up that gravel driveway and onto the property.

The house was exactly like in the pictures, exactly as I had seen several days ago through the matrix of brain-math interpretation: crooked, squat, compact, old. Brick and beam, black and brown. Tiny latticed windows peered out, full of darkness, with nothing visible inside. The front door was a slab of wood like a little puckered mouth, sheltered by an overhang of tiles. Walking up the curve of the hill and seeing the thing leering back down at us was like making eye contact with a bleary giant.

I couldn’t place the style, the era, the provenance of the building. Then again, perhaps I was just too preoccupied.

We passed inside the low remnants of a perimeter wall, just stones lost amid long grass. Raine and Felicity pointed their guns all over the place. Twil stalked ahead, claws exposed. Zheng walked at my side, a bodyguard with her eyes tracking back and forth. Jan and July hung back slightly, alongside Evee and Praem.

The dry fountain was worse than in the pictures: it was in a terrible state of disrepair, filthy with dried gunge and full of fallen leaves and animal nests and owl droppings. The once-graceful statue of a naked woman was cracked and worn.

The others exchanged a few words — “Watch the windows, watch the windows, watch for movement,” “There’s nobody here. Nothing magical either,” “Getting the fucking creeps, I tell you what,” “This place is empty, how long have those cars been sitting there?” — but I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the house. My stomach was a fist. My head throbbed. My tentacles tingled.

Two cars stood close to the house — the expensive, dirty range rover, and the low, anonymous black car. Neither had moved since we’d finally discovered the location of the house.

“Close enough,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Hold here. Everyone hold up.”

Everyone halted, a good ten feet shy of the fountain. Throats bobbed. Breath came too rough in too many throats. Jan whispered several things over the group call, to Amanda and Lozzie. Affirmative answers came back. Twil growled with tension. Praem said, “Calm. Still.”

“Heather, it’s time,” said Evelyn.

“I know,” we said. “I know, I just—”

“No, Heather,” she grunted. “It’s time. Take this thing, dammit, before it causes a problem.”

“I’m sorry?” We twisted to look at her through the eyes of my squid-skill mask. Evelyn was rigid with tension, clinging to Praem’s arm, and holding out a lump of white quartz. “Oh! Oh! The stone!”

Evelyn huffed — irritation covering for nerves. “Take it. Quickly. The longer we take to do this, the more chance of something going wrong. Take it!”

I grabbed the Fadestone in a tentacle. I disliked touching the thing, there was something vaguely offensive about it, but it would give me some extra protection, on these final few steps, even if I didn’t really know how to use it like Evelyn could.

Raine said: “Heather, you ready?”


“You can do it. You can. I know you can. You need to circle the place, or not?”

We shook our head. “No. No. I’m ready. There’s nothing else to do.”

“We’ve all got you covered. The second you’re done, I’m gonna scoop you up. Well, Zheng’ll scoop you up.”

Evelyn grunted: “We all scoop her up. Heather, go.”

I stepped forward five paces. My trainers crunched on the thin gravel. Sweat rolled down my skin. Two tentacles helped move my legs.

Back home, last night, I’d had all sorts of questions. What if there was anybody else in the house? What if Edward Lilburne has a family? What if he’s harbouring other mages, or the remains of his half of the cult? Do you think he’s married? What if there’s an innocent in there?

When I’d asked those things, Raine had said: “You did promise to fuck his wife, Evee.”

Evelyn had snorted. “And fuck her I shall, if that needs doing. Anything to make this work, anything to make it safe. I’m serious, Raine. If it comes to that. Which it won’t.”

But then, with the hateful, twisted lump of a house in front of me, and the whirling, bobbing cloud of bubble-servitors all around, and my friends at my back, all I could think of was the task, the brain-math, the equation to go Out.

Anxiety flowed away. Homo Abyssus reared up.

I was here to protect my pack. Jan was right — why be afraid now?

Five paces. We stopped. We crouched. Touched the ground with both hands and half our tentacles.

This was too easy. Evelyn and Jan had a point — why had Edward not retaliated? It wasn’t as if this could be a trap. The ‘twin prime’ trick with the beams wasn’t affecting any of us like it had with Badger. It wasn’t warding us off or keeping us back. He wasn’t capable of countering hyperdimensional mathematics. He should have been throwing everything he had at us to keep us away from the building itself, to keep me out of range, to stop me from dumping him and his Outside.

Why let us get this close? Had he really fled his fortress, abandoned the siege? Part of me hoped he had, saving us the trouble. Part of me hoped he hadn’t, because we needed to kill him, remove him as a threat.

Either way, we had to try this method. It was the best we had.

I plunged my mind into the dripping black machinery down in the base of my soul, grasping the jury-rigged and rewired lessons of the Eye with eight hands. Burning pain shot outward along all our tentacles, a distributed load of effort and agony climbing in intensity as I used hyperdimensional equations to define the fountain, the cars, the gardens, the soil, the leaves, the gravel — and the house.

It was the first equation I had ever learned, the first piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I had ever made work. And it was simple. Here, and there. Reality, and not. Select a thing, an object, a definition, and then make it not-here, make it elsewhere, push it through the membrane to Outside.

Out you go! Easy as pie. With a little blood and pain and screaming and passing out, of course.

This was simply the same thing, but larger than ever before. The same equation, just with a bigger set of brackets. My nose ran with blood and my head spiked with pain before I was even done, but seven of us took the effort of one now, and I could do this without passing out before I was finished.

The fountain, the cars, the gardens, the soil, the leaves, the gravel, the—


And here was Edward’s little secret.

When processed through the perfect mathematics of the substrate of reality itself, there were two houses. Not one building. Two houses. Identical. Twins.

If the brain-math had not happened at the speed of thought, I would have smiled in triumph. I might even have cheered.

I’d expected this.

Edward had used the twin prime trick to double a concept, double a definition, but I could see both! I could see everything, anything, all! I was the angelic daughter of the Eye and nothing could slip away out of my sight, my observation, my power to define. I simply expanded the equation by another notch, encompassing the whole house, the two-in-one house, the twin house.

And with that — Out!

The last piece of the equation slammed into place. Pain flared outward through our tentacles like molten iron in feverish veins as we held the equation complete and whole; this was heavy, and complex, and expansive, and the pain would take a great toll as it completed. Our bio-reactor flared with heat, glowing hot to supply the energy. Tentacles screamed and stretched and my head split with pain, but there was no stopping it now, all this soil and brick and beam and stray leaves and dirt and animal bones and paint and air and slate and wood and the largest object we had ever teleported—

The house unfolded itself, reached out with a hand that was not a hand, and pinched off the end of the equation.

Old and crooked and brick and solid and staying.







Previous Chapter Next Chapter

You know what, I genuinely think Heather and the others were pretty well prepared here, for almost – almost – anything that Edward might try to throw at them. Well, maybe; I’m certain they couldn’t take on absolutely anything, though at least they would be prepared to retreat in good order. But in the end, houses are actually quite difficult to move, right? This one … this one might have something to say about that.

No patreon link this week! It’s almost the last day of the month and I really dislike accidentally getting anybody double-charged, so if you want to subscribe to the patreon and get two chapters ahead, feel free to wait until the 1st of the month! In the meantime, why not check out my other story (about zombie girls and guns and cannibalism), or the various recent additions to the Katalepsis art page, or the … uh … memes. Hooray! Also, you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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And, most importantly, thank you for reading my story! There’s no way I could possibly do this without the readers and audience and all my supporters – that means you! As always, this story is for you. Thank you so much.

Next week, houses don’t move. But was this a trick, a trap, or just a mistake? And what does mister Lilburne have up his sleeves? Any final lines of defense? Probably.

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.5

Content Warnings

Implied ableism

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“A prosthetic hand. Half a hand! Two fingers and a piece of palm—”


“The bones don’t even have to articulate, not at first. I can start with an experiment — a prototype! That’s what they’re called, yes. Once—”

“Heather, stop.”

“—I’ve figured out how to detach it from our own flesh and make it comfortable for you—”


“I … I really want to help. Evee, I want to do something for you.”

“I know. But—”

“And I think it’ll work. If I can make a piece of self-sustaining pneuma-somatic flesh, then there’s no reason I couldn’t make it more complex, fill it with nerves, muscles, make something you could move with your own—”



“Heather, you already help me, more than you could understand. But this is not helping.”

“But it might work!”

“Heather. Please. Stop.”

“I’m … I’m sorry. I apologise.”

“Heather, for fuck’s sake, don’t be such a martyr. I’m not completely rejecting the offer, but that’s a lot to think about. A hell of a lot! You want to attach part of your body to mine? That is something I have to consider, carefully, at length. Not something to rush at the end of an already busy day, when we’re facing down a complex and dangerous task. Slow down. Give me some time to think. Bloody hell.”

“Yeeeeeah, Heather. Let a girl prepare her heart before you go talking about injecting her with your meat, hey?”


“Shut up, Raine. I will hit you with my walking stick. I will.”

“Just sayin’.”

“Then, Evee, can I at least begin figuring it out, or—”

“I forbid it.”

“You … pardon?”

“We are about to make preparations to have you teleport an entire house — a house which belongs to an exceptionally powerful and dangerous mage. No. Jan was right. I won’t have your skills and intellect distracted by a personal project to make me a rubber hand. Stop thinking about it. Right now.”

“But, Evee—”

“I insist.”

“ … okay. Okay. I’ll … I’ll stop.”

“Good. Concentrate on what’s in front of us.”

“And we’ll return to this later?”



“I think it’s a proof for the twin prime conjecture,” said Badger. “Of course, I can’t be sure, yeah? Because it’s not written like a standard mathematical proof, it’s written using a building. Which is, uh, a little unorthodox.”

Badger — Nathan Sterling Hobbes, ex-cultist, once-brilliant mathematician, one-time mental prisoner of the Great Eye of Wonderland, my first-and-hopefully-only trepanation victim, and most likely a budding disciple of Squid Angel Heather Morell (that’s me, for those who haven’t been paying attention) — looked up from our kitchen table, lifting his eyes from the photograph of Edward Lilburne’s house meet to a ring of puzzled faces peering back down at him.

He wet his lips and cleared his throat, radiating awkward self-consciousness. “At least, um, that’s what I … see … here.”

Raine nodded along as if this made perfect sense, arms folded, eyebrows raised in appreciation. “Twin prime conjecture,” she echoed. “That’s a number theory thing, right?”

Nathan lit up with the sudden enthusiasm of recognition. He nodded — slowly, carefully, cautious of moving his head too fast. “Yes, that’s correct.”

On the far side of the table, sitting with her cast-wrapped leg sticking out, Nicole Webb sighed. “Please don’t tell me we’re gonna need a maths crash-course to understand all this. ‘Cos if yes, I’m out.”

“Naaaaah,” went Twil. “Number theory is easy. Promise. Serious.”

From the corner of the kitchen, squatting on the floor amid what was now a trio of dogs, Tenny suddenly trilled: “Easy, easy! Numbers easy!”

Evelyn just grunted, dead-eyed and aggressive: “Explain.”

Nathan flinched a little, though his mouth was still curled in his newly habitual easy smile. His eyes searched for me, for support or approval — I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I was standing stiffly a few paces away, tentacles wrapped in a tight ball around my torso, a self-hug against shame and embarrassment. We were completely unable to concentrate on what we were meant to be doing right then. All seven of us were still bent toward thoughts of Evelyn, mortified by the way the conversation upstairs had ended, wishing we could have more time in private.

At least she was standing next to me again, close enough to touch.

Jan spoke up before Badger could embarrass us both by asking for my permission — or worse, for my blessing.

“Twin prime conjecture,” Jan said delicately. She’d been using her good-girl pitch, her smartly-dressed sixth-former voice, since the moment Badger had limped through the front door. “Nathan, if you could start by explaining what exactly that means, it would go a long way to helping us understand what you’ve discovered.”

Badger glanced at Jan instead of me — but then returned to me again, his eyes reaching out with that silent smile.

We sighed softly, then said, “Go ahead, Nathan. Maybe start at the beginning?”

Badger nodded, happy to be questioned; he turned back to the photo on the table, to the picture of the front of Edward Lilburne’s house. He gestured with both hands as he spoke, which made it impossible not to notice the faint tremor in his right arm.

It was always there, shaking and twitching, a constant flaw in his misfiring nerves.

“Twin prime conjecture,” he resumed, quickly warming to his subject. “Raine was right, yeah. It’s an open question in number theory, something that hasn’t been proved, though there’s been some attempts. A twin prime is a pair of prime numbers separated by a non-prime number. So, three and five are primes, separated by the number four. Five and seven, with six in the middle. Eleven and thirteen, and so on and so on. That’s how twin primes work.” He blinked three times, far too hard, fighting against something inside his own nervous system. Nobody hurried him. “Are you all following this so far?”

Badger’s voice was stronger than when I’d last seen him, full of the energy of a healing body and improving mind, but also laced with all the self-doubt of a prodigious intellect who did not believe in himself. I’d not seen him like this before; he was barely recognisable as the lumpy, greasy, bitterly aggressive ex-cultist.

As he spoke, I silently willed him more confidence. He deserved it, after all; he’d figured this out where we’d all been blind.

The others probably just thought I was squinting at him.

Nathan looked undeniably healthier, too; we hadn’t clapped eyes on the man since the aftermath of his cranial operation, when we’d all crowded into his tiny flat to interrogate him about the identity of the corpse I’d discovered out in the Shambleswamp, which turned out to be the body of another ex-cultist who Badger was able to positively identify. Back then Nathan had been like a walking corpse, a terminal cancer patient held together by nothing but the spark of life released at the moment of cell-death. He’d seemed so fragile, so pitiful, so desperate for purpose and meaning, but also infused with all the potential of a new start in life.

His hair had grown back in, no longer thin stubble across his scalp, but a thick dark thatch, stuck up all haphazard and wild. It didn’t quite hide the massive angry-red surgical scar across half his skull, but he seemed completely at ease with that. I couldn’t be certain, but I had the distinct impression his hair had not been such a dark shade prior to the operation — or rather, prior to me repairing and rewriting his soul. Nobody else mentioned that though, so perhaps we were just imagining things. He’d also allowed his beard to grow — nothing more than a scraggly covering of whiskers, but it suited him, the shape of his face, his strangely easy and mobile smile, and his naturally puppy-dog eyes.

He dressed the part of the genius mathematician too, though that was probably an accident; as a cultist, either when working for Alexander or desperately trying to survive in the aftermath, Badger had seemed to me like a low-level drug dealer, all baggy jeans and over-large jackets, constantly greasy and dirty and uncomfortable. Now he was dressed in an old black sweater, something that had obviously been in storage for a while, clinging to his newly lean frame. He blinked from behind thick glass to help with his post-surgery vision issues.

He was walking unaided now, despite the regular tremors and the persistent difficulty with muscle control. He’d purchased himself a walking stick: a practical piece of lightweight metal with a plastic handle, none of the romance of warm wood for our Nathan. He’d arrived at the front door ahead of his escort, stick in one hand and Whistle’s leash in the other, his eyes bright and alive with strange discovery.

Part of us — me, myself, and my tentacles — felt an intense rush of pride at seeing Badger like this.

We hadn’t mentioned it as he’d limped and hobbled over the threshold of the front door, as Whistle — his Corgi — had warily greeted Soup and Bernard, the other two dogs briefly in residence. We had returned his cheery, smiling greeting as best we could. We hadn’t felt too uncomfortable at the barely concealed quasi-religious devotion in the way he looked at us. We were an angel now, after all, sort of. Maybe.

All we’d said was: “You’re looking well, Nathan. That’s good to see.”

And he had beamed like the sun had blessed him with warmth after a year trapped underground.

But that was the truth. It was good to see. We had saved this man — from death, from soul-destruction, from a cult, from his own slide into depression and lack of purpose. That fact had been harder to see when he’d been quivering and shaking in the aftermath of the operation on his skull, enraptured by the sight of me and by his own new-found clean slate. But to see him up and walking, getting stronger, doing things with his mind, smiling that odd, dazed, totally relaxed smile?

All that work had been worth the effort. Lozzie and Sevens and I had gone the extra mile to pull him out of the Eye’s grip. We had saved a human being who deserved a second chance.

Even if he hadn’t returned to help us with this problem, it all would have been worth doing.

Strangely, he’d taken the sight of my flesh-born tentacles entirely in his stride. He’d seen them once before, when we’d allowed him to briefly look through one of our pairs of modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses; but seeing them with one’s own naked eyes and knowing that they were undeniably real was a very different experience. He’d simply paused, looked me over, and nodded with that same beatific smile of deep acceptance.

“You look well too, Heather. I can see. I can see.”

We hadn’t asked him what he’d meant by that; probably better to not encourage that line of thought.

The others had decamped from the magical workshop to the kitchen, apparently in silent agreement that it was better for Badger not to go in there. After all, that was the spot where he’d almost died and I’d had to rummage around inside his skull to save him. He probably didn’t want to be reminded. Praem had even shut the door after us.

Whistle, Badger’s sweet little Corgi, was in the corner of the kitchen, getting acquainted with Soup and Bernard. Tenny was overjoyed to have three entire dogs all to herself, and mostly lost interest in the conversation.

Nobody commented on the results — or lack thereof — from my time upstairs alone with Evelyn. Raine had already said her bit, mostly teasing. Twil watched Evee with a curiously neutral look. Ah, we thought, we were going to need to talk with Twil again, before this was all over.

Badger had accepted a cup of tea, but barely touched it, too fascinated by the discoveries he had to unfold. Outdoors, the summer night pressed down with a black weight upon the house.

“Yes, get on with it,” Evelyn grunted.

Raine agreed. “We follow, Nate, yeah. Go ahead.”

“Think I’ve heard of twin primes before,” Felicity muttered under her breath. “Maybe. Back in uni or something. Too long ago now.”

Badger nodded along, trying to include everyone in his side-to-side glance. There was more than a touch of the eager teacher about him. He even acknowledged the faces he didn’t know — Amanda Hopton, Felicity — and the terrifying faces — like Zheng, who watched him as one might watch a condemned animal. Back by the door to the front room, Kimberly fidgeted with the hem of her t-shirt. She was the one person who genuinely didn’t want to see Nathan, an unwelcome reminder of her time in the Sharrowford Cult. We’d asked if she would prefer to leave during this, to retreat upstairs and get some much deserved rest after her day at work, but Kim preferred to stay close to Felicity’s side. Badger had acknowledged her with a polite nod, but not addressed her directly; that was good. Hopefully he recalled my explanation that Kimberly was happier not knowing him, despite their shared experiences.

Sevens and Aym, to my wordless surprise, had folded themselves away somewhere. Perhaps Sevens was restraining her friend from emotionally assaulting our guest. Badger was probably vulnerable to Aym’s techniques, after all.

“So, the twin prime conjecture,” he carried on, making little gestures of explanation with his hands. His right hand still shook, the tremors reaching all the way up his right arm and into his shoulder and neck. Whenever that happened, he would pause and clench his fist very hard, fighting down the results of my work on his brain. “Twin primes get rarer as numbers get larger. Prime numbers get rarer anyway, so it stands to reason that as the range increases, the lower the chances of discovering another pair of twin primes.” He held up a finger, pausing and swallowing three times in quick succession. The intense focus on the mathematics seemed to be helping him, but also driving his nervous system to further extremes. “But, but, but—”

“Nate, hey,” Raine said gently, in a much softer tone than I’d heard her use for Badger before. “Slow down, take a sec, yeah? Take a sip of your tea, buddy. Breathe. Nobody’s going anywhere, we’re all really interested.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and Twil pulled a grimace; Zheng grumbled, Nicole sighed. I almost tutted at this lack of patience. Only July didn’t react at all, standing wordlessly behind Jan and staring down at Badger as if he was a piece of wood.

Badger halted, nodding at Raine’s suggestion. “Yes, yes, of course, okay, yes.”

“Badger. Sip your tea,” Raine repeated with a laugh. “Come on mate, chill out.”

“Sip sip,” said Praem. “Sippy.”

“Quite,” Jan agreed. “Better to take your time and be clear than rush and risk confusion.”

Nathan took a long swig from his rapidly cooling mug of tea. Then his right hand and arm shook with one of those barely contained tremors again. He clenched his fist, his biceps, then his shoulder, all in sequence. It was as if he was holding on too tightly to some invisible handhold, anchoring himself in control of his own body. The tremors were different to how I recalled — more regular, more localised, but thankfully more easily controlled. We all waited politely. Lozzie peered over Jan’s shoulder. Badger smiled at her before he carried on.

“But,” he said. “Though twin primes are rare, they do keep occurring, even as the range of numbers gets extremely large. The question — the ‘conjecture’ — is whether or not they are infinite. Are there an infinite number of twin primes?” He paused, hands wide, then caught himself. “Um, there’s been a few efforts to prove this, by people working in number theory, but nothing conclusive.”

“Alright,” Evelyn said, in the tone of a woman who had been holding her tongue for far too long. She practically bristled with impatience and irritation, but Badger appeared to be immune to that, turning his eyes to her with that bright, fascinated smile still plastered across his face. “Alright,” she repeated. “What does this have to do with the house?”

Badger pointed at the photograph of Edward’s house, lying in front of him on the table. Black beams crisscrossed inside red brickwork, punctuated by tiny metal-latticed windows. The trees behind the house were frozen in a moment of wind rustling their leaves.

“The beams,” he said. “I think they’re a mathematical proof, for the twin prime conjecture.”

Evelyn frowned at him, then down at the photograph, her brow pinched hard with concentrated scepticism. Felicity stepped closer to get a better look as well, though she also looked unconvinced. Kimberly did not follow, hands clutched to her own chest like something was horribly wrong; we noticed that — Top Right noticed that, bobbing gently toward Kimberly. What had she sensed?

Jan tilted her head sideways, lips pursed. The mages did not see it. Neither did I; we bobbed two tentacles over the top of the picture, going up on tiptoes for a good look. If the sigil on the house was written in mathematical perfection, it was regular maths, normal maths, nothing to do with the self-implementing hyperdimensional variety. I had no idea what I was looking at.

Raine sucked her teeth. Twil pulled a face. Zheng looked supremely uninterested. Amanda Hopton was miles away, her mind busy with her god’s perception.

But Nicole Webb, of all people, leaned forward across the table and tapped the picture. “I don’t see it, sorry there fella. Are they numbers? Like, hidden numbers? Is that what you mean?”

“Yes!” Badger lit up again with sheer delight. He was loving this; he wanted us to know — needed us to understand. He gestured for some space around the picture, then traced one of the beams with a fingertip. “See this big beam here? Take this as representing all the numbers between one and ten. And the smaller beams that intersect with it, here, here, and here.” Tap-tap-tap. “Those are the three prime numbers below ten — three, five, and seven. Then, imagine the beam stands in for the next set of ten numbers as well, but reverse the order of connection with the smaller beams. And!” A finger shot into the air; Badger was practically vibrating. “You have to account for the angles at which the beams connect with each other. I’ve studied the picture over and over and there are always four different angles of connection.”

“This isn’t making any sense,” Evelyn grunted. “Dumb this down.”

“Yeah mate,” said Twil. “Sorry, but like, none of us here are that good at maths. Not real maths.”

Badger did a sort of double-take, as if he was amazed this wasn’t obvious to any casual observer. “I … um … well, the big beams and the smaller beams can be thought of as a sort of invented mathematical notation. The intersection between a large beam and a small beam, that defines a number — like three, or five. I only noticed it because it starts with primes, up here in the top left corner of the house’s front wall. See? And then I just followed the logic. And- and- and- and you can just repeat it! Infinitely! It’s infinite!”

Badger spoke so hard he almost spat. He was enraptured. His eyes were too wide. His right hand was quivering.

Kimberly shuffled backward, toward the door to the front room. Felicity shot her a curious look, but Kim was just staring at Badger. Zheng tilted her head. July stared and stared and stared. Jan took a single decisive step back.

The rest of us shared a worried glance.

“Uhhhhhhhhh,” Twil made a sound like an error buzzer in a TV game show. “Nate? You alright there?”

Nicole hissed under her breath, “This is some weird magic shit again, isn’t it? You people are gonna be the death of me.”

But Badger was already ploughing on, rambling at speed. “Yes, yes, I know.” He smiled wider and almost laughed. “That’s not a traditional mathematical proof, I’m mangling my own terminology. It’s practically a disrespect to mathematics, but it’s so beautiful, it’s so brilliant! Whoever made this must be a genius. Listen, please, I promise this makes perfect sense. I believe that if I could see all four walls of this house, the junctions and angles of the beams would allow the reproduction of every single pair of twin primes.”

He banged his hands together as he spoke, bone on bone. The tremor was all the way up the right side of his torso now.

Nobody moved.

Evelyn swallowed, then said, very carefully. “Okay. Okay. Nobody say anything. Raine, I want you to take Nathan here and—”

“But I’m onto something here!” Badger laughed in easygoing confusion. “Miss Saye, I swear, I’m onto something. I don’t think this is dangerous or anything. There’s no magic being transmitted by a picture, is there?”

Raine put a hand out to stall Evelyn, and said: “But there’s an infinite number of these twins, right? That’s the point of the conjecture, yeah? I’m no mathematician, but I think I understand that part.”

“Yes, that’s correct.” Badger nodded. He squeezed his fist tightly, holding on to his invisible support, trying to strangle the tremor in his arm. “I-I-I think this symbol, this sequence, this … this new way of recording numbers, it— it’s perfect, it’s revolutionary. If I could only see more sides of this building, I could— I could— do you have more photographs?”

His eyes were too bright, his words too aflame. The shaking was in his neck now, his face, his scalp. Badger started to grit his teeth. Losing his grip.

Raine said: “Mate, you gotta take a minute. Relax for a sec. Alright?”

“I’m fine! Fine!” He smiled and laughed, almost panting. “Just ignore this. The— the pictures? Please? The pictures! I must see more!”

A wave of silent alarm passed through the gathered group. Nobody said anything, but postures were shifting, hands were rising, muscles reorientated for action. Jan swallowed loudly and shuffled further back, searching for Lozzie with one hand. Felicity, who was just beyond Badger’s peripheral vision, raised both her gloved hands, ready to grab the back of his head — or worse. Raine braced herself, one hand reaching for the rear of her waistband. Nicole eased herself away from the table. Twil caught on a little slowly, glancing around in confusion — but Zheng didn’t. Suddenly my beautiful rippling demon-host was striding forward, parting the small crowd like wheat, reaching for Badger. Evelyn opened her mouth to give an order.


The hiss made everybody flinch — well, not Zheng. She just stopped, statue-still, staring at me in mute and unreadable interruption. Raine didn’t flinch either, but she didn’t draw whatever she had stashed in the back of her jeans.

We hissed long and loud, a clear warning. We threw up a protective cage of tentacles, warding off mage and monster and maid alike — around Badger.

Which wasn’t really fair to the poor man. He flinched worse than anybody else, with no idea what was going on, stammering and blinking and almost falling out of his chair. I allowed Praem to duck through my protective cordon to stop him sliding to the floor.

“Heather, Heather, whoa, whoa,” Raine was saying, reaching for me with one gentle hand.

Felicity had stumbled back, crashing into the kitchen cabinets. Kimberly rushed to her side. Evelyn had flinched quite badly, but she wasn’t really afraid of me, not deep down, so she was safe and steady on her feet. Nicole had jumped. Amanda Hopton had merely blinked; she’d probably seen it coming. Jan had scrambled back into Lozzie’s arms, eyes wide, looking like she wanted to run. July, worryingly enough, was staring at me in — was that approval? In the corner, Tenny was letting out loud trilling noises of shared alarm. All three dogs were whining and barking, little Whistle adding his tiny doggy lungs to the larger nosies from Soup and Bernard.

“No!” I managed to squeeze out, trying to explain myself. “It’s not his fault! Nathan is not a risk.”

“Down, girl,” said Praem.

Felicity stammered badly, clutching her own hands. “I-I was o-only going to— I wasn’t— I didn’t mean—”

“Down. Good girl,” Praem repeated.

“Everyone back off … or I shall … shall … ” I was struggling to find a way to de-escalate this moment. Over in the corner, Lozzie had gone to Tenny and joined her in the task of calming the dogs. Tenny’s many silken black limbs were busy speed-petting all three animals. She was fluttering under her breath, saying ‘dogs dogs dogs dogs shush shush shush shush.’

That gave me an idea.

“Everyone leave Badger alone,” I croaked out of a barely-human throat. “Or I shall have to slap you. All of you. I have enough tentacles for that now, too. I’m not joking! Please.”

Throats were cleared, sighs were puffed, heads were shaken. Evelyn grumbled, but she gestured for Felicity to back away from Nathan. Some guilty looks were exchanged. Jan seemed very white in the face, still staring at Nathan as if he was an unexploded bomb.

Zheng didn’t move. She rumbled at me. “Shaman.”

“Zheng. I’m certain. Don’t hurt him. I won’t forgive you.”

Zheng turned slit-narrow eyes on Badger. He stared back with naked terror, mouth hanging open, completely lost as to why he was the centre of such dangerous attention.

“Zheng!” I snapped.

She grunted and straightened up, but didn’t back away. Good enough for me. “Shaman.”

“Thank you,” I croaked.

“Down,” Praem said for a third time. “Good girl. Down.”

We breathed a shaking sigh of relief, slowly lowering our tentacles. Badger still looked utterly bewildered.

“Yeah,” Twil added with an amused snort. “Big H has got a mean slapping hand, you know?” She mimed a casual backhand. “Wa-chow!”

“No slap!” Tenny trilled. “No fight!”

“Yes,” Evelyn grumbled. She was still staring at Badger as if examining a curious and unknown artefact from Outside. “Heather is correct. So is Tenny. There will be no violence here. I don’t think this is … ” She trailed off, wetting her lips.

I repeated myself, “It’s not his fault. And I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

Wide-eyed, his face stained with cold sweat, Badger stared around at the rest of us. “Excuse me,” he said slowly. “But … what’s not my fault? I’m s-sorry, I’m deeply confused. I don’t know what I’ve done to offend, or … annoy?”

Raine shared a look with Evee, then with me. Evelyn shrugged and muttered: “Can’t hurt.” I nodded.

At the rear of the room, Jan bared her teeth in a grimace, then said, “Be ready to catch him.”

Raine leaned down to Badger and pointed at the picture on the table, at the exposed front of Edward Lilburne’s house. “There’s only four exterior walls of that place, right?”

Badger was utterly lost. He looked around at the other faces in the room again, as if this was some kind of trick question.

Raine tapped the picture. “Nate, I’m trying to help you. Four walls, correct, or not?”

Badger swallowed, then nodded. “Four walls. Of course.”

“Four walls. Infinite numbers.” Raine spoke very slowly and carefully, her eyes searching his. “How can you get infinite numbers from a finite space?”

Badger blinked. Then again. Then a third time. His eyes creaked as he turned them from Raine’s face to the picture on the table. His throat bobbed, a painful motion.

“I don’t … but … oh.”

The seizure hit him like a tidal wave, washing over his body in a single spasmodic jerk which started in his right hand and shot upward through his arm. In the moment before his eyes rolled into the back of his head, his pupils dilated wide, eyeballs bulging from his skull, and he looked straight at me. Pleading for help.

So help we did. Before Badger could smash his fingers against the table or fracture his own spine, we grabbed him with all our tentacles and held him as still as we could manage, supporting his skull and his neck, grabbing his wrists to immobilize his hands, wrapping one tentacle all the way up his right arm. Praem helped — a kitchen towel appeared in her hand, as if from nowhere, swiftly rolled into a tube and deftly inserted between Badger’s teeth, to stop him from biting off his own tongue or cracking a molar. He jerked and shook and spluttered as his body — with more than a little help from the soul-framework I had gifted to him — purged whatever invasive structure Edward’s mathematical trick had been trying to insert into his mind.

“Give them space!” Raine shouted. “Give them space, come on, everybody out of the way.”

She herded everyone else back — except for Whistle, who was allowed to come close enough to whine for Nathan’s safety.

In the end the seizure itself didn’t last more than sixty seconds. Badger came out of it as quickly as it had struck, blinking and panting and clinging to both myself and Praem for support. But the aftermath was slow and painful. His eyes were unfocused, his speech slurred, his movements clumsy and uncoordinated. A relapse, a struggle for the surface.

Raine knew what to do — she had memorized his regimen of medication. Felicity and Jan had brought a carrier bag full of his pills when they’d picked him up from his flat. Raine rummaged, producing bottles and pills and forcing him to drink and swallow. Praem made more tea, despite the late hour. Whistle was allowed to sit in his lap, keeping him company.

But even when Praem had stepped away, I stayed close to Nathan. I kept a tentacle wrapped around the back of his neck and the rear of his skull, giving him something to swim towards.

Eventually, almost forty five minutes later, Badger was able to use full sentences again.

“I’m sorry,” he said, glancing at me with a guilty, hangdog look in his eyes. “I-I didn’t … I should have realised, it was … getting into my head. I … it’s hard to tell the difference these days, I—”

“Don’t apologise,” I said. No please. No reasoning. No debate. I just stared down at him. He needed an angel to absolve his mistakes.

“Nate, hey,” Raine said. “It’s not your fault, mate. It’s mine. I sent you that picture.”

Nicole snorted. “You lot need to learn some proper information security.”

“Quite,” said Jan, through clenched teeth. “Nobody think about maths.”

Twil puffed out a sigh. “That was some spooky shit.”

“Spooooooky shit,” Tenny trilled. Lozzie gently stroked her fluffy white fur and suggested she stop using that word.

Evelyn, who was by now sitting on the other side of the table, hunched over her own cup of tea, said, “I’m going to have to ask you some more questions. Are you capable of answering them?”

Badger nodded — but he pushed away the picture of Edward Lilburne’s house, closing his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see it again.

“Be gentle, Evee,” I said. “Please.”

Evelyn sighed and nodded. She met my eyes for a moment and seemed suddenly guilty, then focused on Badger again. She said: “Nathan, how did you figure all that out in the first place?”

Badger shrugged. His shoulders seemed out of sync with each other, slow and weak. “It just hit me. When I was looking at the picture, the front of the building, it was all just … there. So clear. So obvious. I … I never stopped to think about the internal contradiction. Infinity … ”

His head twitched. I tightened the tentacle against the back of his skull. “Stop thinking about that part,” I said.

“Y-yes. Yes, Heather. Yes.” He nodded slowly, blinking too hard.

Leaning against the wall next to the door, back with Kimberly again, Felicity added: “Don’t go looking at magical mathematics, I suppose. Can’t say I’ve had to worry about that before.”

Evelyn sighed. “This still doesn’t explain what this is. What we’re looking at here.”

I chewed my lip, holding back nonsense words that wouldn’t help anybody.

This was my fault.

Of course, it wasn’t actually my fault — I was not responsible for Edward Lilburne building that house and constructing a weird sigil with the support beams. But I was responsible for Badger.

Last time I’d seen Nathan, in the aftermath of his cranial surgery to repair the damage done by my emergency trepanation, I had been worried about how much I may have unintentionally modified him. Parts of the mathematics which defined him had been damaged by the Eye, smeared and ruined as if by a giant, clumsy, sweat-stained fist, so I had replaced them with patches copied from the only model I had — myself. Nathan lived, free from the Eye, but the cost might be a lingering sense of wrongness in his own body, a ghost of my own abyssal dysphoria, a longing for tentacles and fins and the embrace of an abyssal deep he had never known. I’d made him promise to call me if he ever felt such things. I didn’t want anybody else to go through what I had without any support.

What I hadn’t expected was brain-math by osmosis.

Badger had no access to the Eye’s lessons. When I looked at the picture of the house, I felt nothing, no instinctive understanding, no automatic recognition of genius or beauty. But Badger did.

Had I given him a different part of myself than the one I had worried about?

Perhaps it was just because he had been an accomplished mathematician prior to being involved with the Sharrowford Cult. Perhaps he simply saw in ways I couldn’t. Maybe I’d given him that shove in the right direction. We weren’t sure how to feel about that — pride, guilt, concern?

And there was the second way in which this might be my fault.

Before Evelyn could continue her questioning, I wet my lips and said: “I was thinking about this recently.”

Everyone glanced at me. Raine raised her eyebrows. Jan looked far more worried than was warranted.

Evelyn said, “Thinking about what, Heather?”

I hesitated, unsure if this would make any sense.

Praem spoke up. “Numbers paired. Numbers apart.”

I nodded a thank you. “Yes. Specifically twin primes. Back when I first used all of me to do more expansive brain-math for the first time.” We raised ourselves, our tentacles, to indicate what we meant. “It was just a metaphor I was thinking about in the moment, when I was sorting all these impressions about mathematics and brain-math. But I recall specifically thinking about twin prime numbers, though I didn’t know that’s what they were called, then. I … I don’t know if that means anything. I’m sorry, I just thought I should mention this.”

Evelyn frowned. “You mean twin primes are a core component of self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics?”

I shook my head. “No. Only in metaphor. I was thinking about a metaphor.”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth in thought. Raine shrugged. Jan and Felicity both took this quite seriously, but didn’t seem too concerned. They didn’t have the context.

In the end, it was Amanda Hopton who spoke sense. “Heather. Heather.” She spoke my name in her wavering, sleepy, half-slurred voice, the translated thoughts of her god. “That building is too old to have been formed in response to you and yours and you. I think it’s a coincidence. An overlapping metaphor. Nothing more.”

Evelyn growled, “Or it could be a trap for Heather, personally.”

Raine nodded. “Yeeeeeeah, could be. Could be.”

“This changes nothing, though,” Evelyn snapped. “Heather isn’t going in there alone anyway, and she’s absolutely not touching the building directly.” Evelyn sighed heavily and gestured at the photo again. “This still doesn’t explain what we’re looking at. Prime numbers or magical notation or otherwise.”

Badger rallied himself, making a visible effort to sit up straight and fill his lungs. His eyes were unfocused and his breathing was rough, but he did his best. He scratched at his beard stubble as a preamble to making a point. “Actually, I … I have an idea. If I may? Heather?”

“You don’t have to ask me for permission,” I said.

“I’m more comfortable when I do.” His voice shook with surprising vulnerability.

I suppressed a sigh. “Go ahead, then. Please.”

He turned back to Evelyn. “I never learned much magic. And … and frankly I don’t want to, now, I—”

Surprising everybody, Kimberly hurried out of the kitchen and into the front room, hand to her face. Trying not to burst into tears, poor thing. Felicity was torn for a second, between helping Evelyn with this problem and going after Kim. Footsteps hurried up the stairs.

Evelyn jerked her head. “Go.”

Fliss nodded in thanks, then hurried after Kimberly. Badger watched this all happen with a look of distant melancholy.

Raine said, gently, “Never mind her, Nate. It’s her stuff to deal with. Go on.”

Evelyn added: “Just get to the point.”

Badger nodded. Without looking, he gestured at the photograph. “I think it might be magical language. You know far better than I do, Miss Saye, how magic circles work, sigils and the like. They’re built from like, language elements. But not used as a language. I’m pretty certain I’m correct about the junctions between the beams actually being numbers. So what if instead of real mathematics, it’s using numbers in place of words, like in a magic circle?”

Evelyn frowned hard at this explanation, then back down at the photograph.

Jan said slowly, “I’ve never heard of that before, but I can’t see any reason it shouldn’t be possible. In theory.” She sighed. “I’d rather not meet whoever built it.”

Evelyn scoffed. “Bullshit. Impossible.”

Twil puffed out a sigh. “You have been known to be wrong about that, Evee. Sometimes. Now and again.”

Evelyn shot her a dark glower, but Twil just shrugged.

“A magic circle made of maths,” I echoed softly. “What would be the point? What would it even do? It’s not brain-math, it’s just regular maths, after all.”

Jan said, “We have no idea. It may be a method of concealment, perhaps, concealing some other spell by making it out of numbers?”

Badger cleared his throat softly. “I have an educated guess about that, too.”

Raine shot a finger-gun at him. “On a roll, Nate my mate.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Go ahead, then.”

Badger said, “It’s all full of twin primes. That’s real, that’s not a delusion I was having.” He raised both of his hands, steady as he could keep them, and extended both index fingers, holding them parallel. “Two things, similar but separated by one value. They can’t touch, but they’re close. Whatever that spell does, I think that’s a clue. Sort of. Maybe.” He cleared his throat again, pulling an awkward closed-lipped smile.

Twil said, “Cheers, Mister Sphinx.”

Evelyn huffed and leaned back in her chair. “Yes, that is a bit of a nonsensical riddle. It hardly helps.”

“Sorry,” Badger said. “But it makes sense to me. It lines up with what I was feeling earlier, with what I felt when I looked at the picture. I just … I just really want to help. I really want to help.”

I’d heard those words earlier, upstairs, from my own throat: I want to help. My skin crawled with discomfort. Evelyn wasn’t looking at me.

“You have helped,” I said.

Badger shot me the most fragile, earnest, longing look. He wanted to help, so badly. I stared back, silently pleading for him to reclaim his own life. You don’t have to be involved anymore, I willed him. You don’t have to be one of us, or follow me around, or do anything I say. But he didn’t look away, not until a question struck him.

“So, um,” he said, casting around at Evelyn and Raine and the others again. He gestured at the photograph. “Who’s house is this, anyway?”

“It belongs to Edward Lilburne,” said Evelyn.

Badger stared, dumbstruck. Then: “Oh. Oh, well. I suppose that makes sense.”


“Purple,” said Tenny.

Her fluttery moth-voice, a deep-tissue trilling buried inside her chest, made the word sound like ‘purrrrpllll.’ I felt it as much as I heard it; the vibration passed down our pair of intertwined tentacles, as well as through the purple-tinted air. Tenny was clinging very hard to two of my tentacles with two of her own, as if the jewels of the sky might tempt her away from us if she let go.

“Purple?” I echoed. “Do you mean the sky?”

“Brrrrt. Yes. Purple. And pretty? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnmmmmnnn.” Tenny twisted her lips in a thinky face, a little ghost of Lozzie’s mannerisms. Her shiny all-black eyes stared up at the alien sky of Camelot, at the purple whorls like scattered nebulae on an ink-dark deepness.

“Pretty, yes,” I agreed. “I’ve always thought it’s pretty out here. Camelot really isn’t anything to be afraid of, Tenny.”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out. “Scary.”

“Do you want to go back? The gate’s right there. We can go home. I don’t have to be here for this part of the process. I just wanted to come and look.”

But Tenny shook her head. “Nope! Scary but … pretty.”

“Outside can be like that, yes.”

I watched Tenny’s face as she watched the sky. It was sometimes difficult to tell exactly where she was looking, because her eyes were all-black, like those of a deep sea creature or an exotic insect. It wasn’t quite the same as with Praem’s pupil-less, milk-white eyes; with Praem it was almost impossible to tell what she was looking at. I privately suspected that was why she often moved her whole head to address somebody. With Tenny the effect was more subtle, more biological. She was, after all, a fully biological person, even if not human.

But I could tell when her eyes wandered down from the sky to rest on the distant horizon. Her free-floating silken-black tentacles adjusted their angles as well, as if following her thoughts.

Gently, probing without prodding, we said: “Camelot might be scary, Tenns, but it’s not dangerous. You could try flying again, here, if you wanted to?”

Tenny pulled a very serious little frown. “Danger-danger. We don’t know.”

“Your mother knows, I’m pretty certain about that. She wouldn’t tell us this dimension was safe if it wasn’t.”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out, did a big hurrumph, then tilted her head to give me a very human look, deeply sceptical and a little amused. “Brrrrt. Auntie Heath-er. Lozz-mum’s definition of ‘danger’ is fuzzy, hmmmmm? Biiiiiig hmmmmm. Hmmmm!”

We spluttered with laughter, try as we might to contain ourselves. Tenny’s expression just got worse; she made her eyes wider and pressed her lips together, a very knowing look.

“Okay! Okay!” We spluttered. “Yes, Tenny, that’s a very fair point. Lozzie has a slightly different threshold for danger. But she wouldn’t ever put you at risk. She loves you very much. And so do I. If you wanted to fly, out here, I’d be right here the whole time.”

Tenny wiggled half a dozen tentacles back and forth. She tightened her grip on our interlinked limbs. “Mmmm. Maybe maybe.”

But I saw her wings twitch and flex, her cloak of flesh ruffling with muscular tension. She wanted it so very badly.

“What if you had a target?” I asked. “A destination, I mean. One of the Cattys, perhaps, out on the plain, bringing materials back to the castle. You could fly out to one, and then ride the caterpillar back here. Fifteen minutes, probably. If you want to, of course.”

“Pbbbbbbbbt,” went Tenny. She gazed out across the soft rolling yellow-grass hills of Camelot, glowing beneath the purple sky. “Need to be bigger, here.”

“You want to be as big as a catty?”

“Mmm-yes!” Tenny nodded with great enthusiasm. “Bigger!”

“Maybe flying will help you feel bigger,” I suggested.

“Yaaaaaah. But not yet,” she trilled — then pointed down the hillside with a clutch of tentacles. “Can’t fly here for that. Can’t be here, Heath?”

I sighed and nodded, sobered by Tenny’s all-too-sharp perception. She knew exactly what was going on. “Yes, Tenns. You won’t be in Camelot for that. Your job will be to watch the house and look after Lozzie. You can do that for us, yes?”

“Lozz-mums doesn’t need me for that.”

I winced inside. “She does, Tenny. Maybe not practically, but emotionally. This is going to be hard on her. Please, be there for her?”

Tenny did a little pout. But she didn’t argue. Her eyes finally left Camelot’s wonders and returned to the ground, to ugly practicality — to the bloody great hole we’d dug in the soil.

It was thirty six hours — two nights and the day in between — since Badger’s flying visit to Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Tenny and I were standing on the tall-ish hilltop which formed a vantage point, within the outline of the walls which would one day ring the castle.

Camelot was much the same as when I’d last visited this auspiciously-named Outside dimension; the Knights had been busy at work extending the castle upward, adding turrets and wings and outward-projecting defensive bastions, covered walkways and connecting bridges and little pathways surrounded with bare soil ready for what I assumed would one day be flowerbeds. Their construction works, their block-cutting and mortar-mixing and hand-made cranes, were all still in full swing. The outline of the walls had been filled in only a little — the work of bringing the big sandstone-coloured blocks from the ancient city on the horizon was very slow going.

But sadly we weren’t here for them. I would have loved to spend a day or two wandering the half-finished castle, climbing up into the gestating towers, exploring the underground dungeons which Lozzie had assured me the Knights had added.

No, we were here for the pit.

Beyond the outline of the walls, set in a hollow between hills, the Knights had dug us a hole. They had paused their castle construction work, peeled off a couple of the gigantic Caterpillars from their back-and-forth stone-ferrying duties, and spent half of yesterday excavating a giant, featureless wound in the landscape.

Lozzie had been very specific about our needs. The Knights had understood. The Caterpillars had helped. The hole had opened.

Then they’d spent further hours lining the thing with quick-drying mortar, hard as concrete but dusky-brown. The material was made partially from the Knight’s own internal secretions. Evelyn was insistent that the soil of Camelot must be protected, the landscape here must not be infected, not play host to whatever filth we might bring with us. And she wasn’t talking about earthly bacteria and worms.

With the hole made secure, Evelyn, Felicity, Jan, and Kimberly had gotten down to work. Kimberly hadn’t ventured through the gateway herself; she was exempt. Felicity hadn’t asked any questions. And Jan was terrified, but still she helped.

The mages had spent all yesterday evening and most of the night ringing the hole with the second largest magic circle I’d ever seen Evelyn create, closely behind the one in the field at Geerswin farm. It wasn’t particularly complex, it didn’t need chicken’s blood or ash from burned Bibles or any other such nonsense. It was just eleven successive rings of containment, etched and dug and painted into the soil, copied onto the Knight-mortar, made inviolate and unbreakable.

Praem did most of the painting. She was down there right then, doing the last checks with Evelyn and Jan. July trailed behind them. Lozzie flitted from Knight to Knight, sharing silent thank yous or praising the sheer speed of their construction work.

Five Caterpillars stood in a rough ring around the hole, further out than the magic circle itself. Each of them had been blessed with a magic circle of their own, drawn around their bases and cut into the soil. Protection, not containment.

Evelyn was taking no chances when it came to the safety of our allies.

We — I, me, us a concept I was still struggling with — approved of that, deeply. We simply could not have achieved this plan without the Knights and the Caterpillars, Lozzie’s hidden army tucked away in a secret we had named after Arthurian legends. The necessary preparations would have been beyond us.

Just like with the Eye. I tried not to think too far ahead. One problem at a time.

In the middle of that wide concrete basin, dead centre of the concentric rings of magic circles, was a small pile of junk: a rusty spoon, a couple of pieces of rotten fruit, an old t-shirt. The pile was barely visible from this distance, just a smudge against the floor of the hole. I’d been teleporting stuff there all morning. ‘Calibrating’, as Raine called it. The first dozen objects had gone wide, appearing in the grass or on the hillsides, but we had to get this perfect. There could be no error.

My tentacles ached gently from the repeated effort. But we’d continued until I could land a spoon in the middle of the circles, every time.

I wasn’t the only one who’d been preparing, either. Lozzie had spent three whole hours yesterday down inside the underground shell of a certain Outsider cone-snail, down there with Amanda, discussing the bubble-servitors, their role, their limits. She’d returned bright-faced and quite bouncy. At least somebody was enjoying this.

Evelyn had spoken of nothing but the task and the circles since yesterday. Not a peep about my prosthetic hand suggestion. I felt vaguely ashamed, but this wasn’t the time to dwell on that.

The circles were ready. My teleportation trick was ready. The Knights and the Caterpillars and the bubble-servitors were ready. The journey was mapped out. The destination was understood.

And my stomach was churning like I’d eaten a bowl full of worms.

The concrete-lined hole was for Edward Lilburne’s house. We were going to shove him in there and murder him. If everything went to plan, it would serve as a grave.

“Mmmmmmmmm,” Tenny made another thinky-sound. We knew it was because she could feel the tension, transmitted down my tentacles. She knew I was riddled with anxiety over this. “Heath-er?”

“Yes, Tenns?”

“Ed-ward is Lozz-mum’s uncle. Mmhmm?”

Oh, I didn’t like where this was going. I felt deeply unprepared for this particular conversation. But I wouldn’t disrespect Tenny’s intelligence. “Yes, Tenny, that’s correct.”

“Sooooooo,” she fluted. “If Lozz-mums is my mum, and Ed-ward is Lozz’s uncle. Then Ed-ward is Tenny’s … great … uncle?”

“I think that’s the technical relation, yes.” We nodded, trying to feel less pale.

“Prrrbbbbt,” she trilled. “Why is he so bad?”

I needed a lemon.

“Well … ” I tried. “Some people just choose to be that way. Some people choose to do things that hurt others, because they value certain things more than they value other people. Or other people’s lives. They treat people as things, not as people.”

Tenny tilted her head, watching Lozzie giving hugs to Knights, down by the grave-pit.

“Okay,” she said.

I almost said That’s it? But I managed to resist the urge. Tenny waggled a clutch of tentacles toward Lozzie and glanced at me.

“Is it all ready?” she asked.

I felt myself swallow, then I managed to nod. “Yes, Tenns. It’s ready. We’re all ready. The preparations are done. We’ve got until tomorrow morning, that’s when we’re doing it.”

“Play with Lozz-mums?”

A smile. That was what we needed, to ease the nerves. “Yes. Yes, we can go play with Lozzie. We’ve got time for that.”

Until the morning.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather jumped the gun on that prosthetic idea; still, it’s a good one, just perhaps when Evelyn hasn’t got so much on her mind. Donating a part of one’s own body is an intensely intimate act. At the other end of the spectrum of dangerous notions, it’s Badger! He’s back! And doing mathematics that are best left untouched. I must admit a terrible soft spot for Badger; much like Heather, I don’t want to see him come to harm. But he’s so determined to keep helping these dangerous people. Meanwhile, Tenny wants to get bigger …

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Next week, it’s time. Plans are ready. Prep is done. The spooky house awaits. And Edward? He must know they’re on their way. He must do.

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.4

Content Warnings

Ableist language
Drug use and addiction
Discussion of infidelity

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

With grandiose grumpiness guarding a grit-speck of grudging guilt, Evelyn led the way upstairs. She stomped, she grumbled, and she banged her walking stick against every step, entirely on purpose.

I trailed far behind, not brave enough to push into the flaming corona of Evelyn’s cold smoulder. Praem was unfettered by such concerns, close at Evelyn’s side with an implicit offer of assistance, though Evee rejected that with a wordless grunt. Praem kept her hands folded neatly in front of her skirt — ready at the slightest stumble to catch her wayward mother. Jan, the cause of all this, climbed the stairs between Evelyn and I. She held her chin high and her shoulders back, seemingly unaffected by either Evelyn’s silent rage or my cringing anxiety; then again, perhaps she had chosen the middle spot so she didn’t have to watch me using my tentacles to pull myself up the stairs against the reluctant drag of my feet.

Nobody else made an attempt to follow, not even Lozzie or July; some quality had combined in Jan’s words, in my slumped shoulders, and in Evelyn’s blaze-eyed anger, to ward off jokes and audiences alike. We all knew this was serious.

Which was why I wanted to run away.

We almost did run, once we reached the top of the stairs. The upstairs hallway was gloomy with the evening’s weight, a dead-fire glow visible on the horizon through the window. A little way down the corridor, Evelyn stomped to halt and banged the tip of her walking stick against a closed door.

“My study,” she snapped at Jan. “Private enough?”

Jan bobbed her messy little head in a tiny bow. “That will do nicely, thank you.” She turned and gestured with both hands, encompassing both of us. “Now, Evelyn, Heather, inside please, if you will? Praem—”

But Evelyn was already shoving the door open and stomping inside, with Praem sweeping along at her heels. She hadn’t even looked at me.

Jan’s smile was stretched like a mask of flesh. She repeated the gesture and said, “Heather, inside, please? I don’t want you running off, now. Please. Don’t make this any more of a nightmare than it already is.”

We tried to laugh, but managed only a flicker of nervous smile. “Ah. Right. You can tell, then.”

Jan raised her eyebrows. “That you want to run away? It was an educated guess. But, yes. Please don’t.”

“I wouldn’t have to run,” we said. Heart thudding. Palms sweaty. We did not want to confront any of this. Our tentacles were spread out wide, tips brushing the walls and floor and ceiling, like an octopus in a tunnel of rock, ready to jerk backward into the shadows. “I could step Outside. Go anywhere.”

Jan let out a little sigh; I wondered if the exasperation was real, or a show, or both. “Heather, if you do that, I will convince Lozzie to go fetch you back for us. There is no running away.”

The smile on my face twitched a little wider. “I think I could convince Lozzie to stay out there with me.”

“You’d be surprised.”

Jan gestured at the dim and shadowy doorway. We took a deep breath, reeled ourselves in, and wrapped myself in my tentacles. A true self-hug, now there were so many of us. And then I accepted Jan’s invitation.

I dearly loved that study; of course, I loved every part of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, even the places in the bathroom which were difficult to clean, the dusty corners of the cellar, the roof tiles so badly in need of replacement, and the ivy-eaten brickwork of an old and sagging face. But that study was special — and not just because I was a lifelong bookworm surrounded by a miniature private library, not just because this was the sort of safe haven and hidden retreat I had dreamed about as a child.

This was the place where I had first truly gotten to know Evelyn, where she had cried in front of me, and reattached her prosthetic leg, and told me who she really was.

History sat heavy in that room, on the twin sentinel-rows of tightly-packed shelves, on the ranks of jumbled books within, on old magazines shoulder-to-shoulder with hardback classics and modern pulp fiction and everything in between. Here there was no distinction between high and low literature, no false class of division between pages. At the far end of the study stood a lamp and the desk, a huge meaty slab of wood like something carved from a god of the forest, a single piece of foot-thick living tree. Notes and books were spread out over that desk even now, but had lain untouched for a few weeks. Oddly, a small stack of manga sat on top of the notes, less dusty than the rest. Had Evelyn emotionally and mentally moved all of her magical work downstairs, and finally given this space over to her person-hood?

Faint light spilled into the room from the single long, thin window, high up on the wall opposite the door. Sunset was almost dead, suffusing the space with gloomy orange, painting the walls and books with bloodish haze.

The study always seemed larger than it actually was, despite being only a single, rectangular room; one could stand at any spot on the old floorboards and see everything else in the room, peer into every nook and cranny. There was simply nowhere to hide except either side of the desk — a trick which Sevens had pulled on me, once. But the illusion persisted, the tickle in the back of the mind; imagination whispered that if one was to peek around the corner of any bookshelf, another entire wing would open up beyond, stacked with books, receding into the depths of the house.

That had never happened, not yet, but I found the notion comforting.

The study was a good place — in part because I had rescued Evee here once before, from the depths of her own self-loathing.

I doubted that was what she needed now, but I tried to take courage from that shared history.

Evelyn had already stomped deeper inside and turned around to face Jan and I as we followed her in. Praem dragged the ancient wooden swivel chair over from the desk, but Evelyn made no move to sit down. She just stood, hunched and heavy on her walking stick, blood-lit by the dying sun. She glared at Jan as the petite mage closed the door behind us with a soft click, her fingers brushing the brass handle.

Jan pressed her own back against the door, hung her head, and let out a most terrible sigh.

“Oh God,” she said.

We blinked at her in surprise. “Jan?”

Evelyn huffed. “What’s the matter with you now? You’re the one who’s forced us into this nonsense, Miss January.”

“Just Jan, please,” said Jan, in the most dead-end voice I’d ever heard. She stared at her own feet.

“Oh,” we said. “Oh, Jan. You’re exhausted.”

Jan raised her head and gave me an expert look in studied placidity. Her right eye twitched. Her voice came out sweet as lead paint. “Exhausted by terror, perhaps. Let’s say I’m holding it together in front of the troops, shall we? It’s been a long, long time since I’ve even contemplated going to war against another mage, and I make a very rusty general. This is — exquisitely — stressful. So, forgive me for relaxing a little in private. Understand me?”

Evelyn snorted. “Is that what this is about? You could have just asked for a moment’s privacy, you didn’t have to make up some excuse.”

Jan looked at Evelyn. Her left eye twitched. “No. I was being serious. You two really do need to talk this out. You’re in deep and I’m not strapping myself into the emotional diving suit to help you. You two are doing this yourselves. I’m not an agony aunt.”

Evelyn spat: “Talk what out? ‘Sapphic feud’, don’t be ridiculous, you sanctimonious little—”

I was stammering, actually stammering, the words caught in my throat, tentacles creaking and twitching: “It’s— it’s— it’s— it’s— n-n-nothing, we d-d-don’t need—”

Jan stood up from the door and raised her chin. In the strange blood-dark light she seemed more stark than usual, her black leggings and pleated skirt in deep contrast to the starched white of her shirt collar and cuffs. Her pale round face peered out from beneath a blood-black helmet of artfully messy hair. She looked at Praem.

“Stop,” Praem intoned, like the ringing of a tiny silver bell.

Evelyn and I both shut up. I hugged myself inside my tentacles, silently asking the house if she would please swallow me up between the floorboards. Evelyn glanced at Praem, tutting with the irritation of gentle betrayal.

“Who’s side are you on, anyway?” she hissed to Praem.

“My own.”

“Come off it,” Jan said, plain and reasonable, but a little sharp. She crossed her arms over her slender chest. “Both of you. Look, I don’t know what’s going on between you, and frankly I’m not sure I want to know, but it’s incredibly obvious that it’s a mess.” She gestured at Evee with a fingertip. “You’ve spent the entire afternoon avoiding even looking at Heather, and then when you do, you look at her like a piece of week-old chicken you’ve dragged out of the bottom of the fridge.”

I whined, squeezing my eyes shut. Part of me really did not want to know.

“And you!” Jan nodded at me in turn. “You may as well get down and roll around on the floor at Evee’s feet, you’re acting like a spurned puppy.” We gaped at her. Tentacles paused. Top right even turned her point to aim at Jan, as if offended. Jan sighed. “I’m amazed none of the others has pointed it out. Have you got them all trained to pretend not to see this? Look, I’m not having the core of your polycule arrangement fall apart in the middle of an operation—”

“Polycule arrangement? Core?” Evelyn snapped — but she was blushing. “Heather and I are not like that!”

“We’re— um— we— I don’t—”

“Could have fooled me,” Jan said with a teasing tut. “Whatever’s going on, I am not having it blow up — or implode, whichever — in the middle of this plan to entrap and kill Edward Lilburne. We’re not having battlefield confessions, or last-minute kisses before doomed charges, or any of that shit. That is a liability! I will not have it!” Perhaps it was my imagination, but Jan’s ire seemed to flow from bitter experience. “Either you two can work this out, here and now, or I am gone.” She thumbed over her shoulder. “I will take Lozzie and Tenny and run back to my home — my actual home, where you won’t find me in a million years. And you can do this without me. No romantic sub-plots in the middle of combat. Sort this out.” She sighed, forcing her frustration back into a bottle. “This isn’t a comic book. Kiss and make up first, then we go into battle.”

Evelyn stared at Jan. I stared at the floorboards. Jan stared at Evelyn. Praem stared at the wall. The sunset stared at the house. The house stared back.

We swallowed. We sweated. Our palms were moist. We squeezed ourselves so tight that the muscles inside our tentacles creaked.

Then Evelyn said, “Heather. Yes or no?”

We glanced up at Evee, eyes wide, but she was still fixed on Jan like she wanted to punch her.

“E-Evee?” I croaked. “What do you mean?”

“Yes or no,” she repeated. “You know what I mean. I insist. I’ll follow your lead.”

I’ll follow your lead.

Without those words, I would have said no. I would have fled, preferring not to know what Evelyn really thought of me, of us, of our new and changed and beautifully multiplicious state. But Evelyn Saye would follow my lead. She insisted.

“Then, yes!” we said.

At length, grumbling like a dying steam engine, Evelyn said to Jan: “This is none of your business.”

Jan gestured as if to put her face in one hand, then thought better of it. “Did you listen to nothing I said? If I’m consulting on fighting another mage, I think this very much is my—”

“No,” Evelyn said, with admirable control. “I mean fuck off.” She gestured at the door with the head of her walking stick. “Make yourself scarce. We’re not having this conversation with an audience.”

Jan raised her eyebrows, then nodded with relief. “All right then. Can I leave Praem in here with you, to make sure you two actually make up, rather than just conspire to pretend?”

“Yes,” I said — at the exact same moment Evelyn said: “No.”

We looked at each other. Praem turned her head and regarded her mother with those blank, milk-white eyes, dyed orange and bloody by the sunset glow. Seeing them next to each other, bathed in the reflected gloom-haze, made it more obvious than usual just how much Praem’s body was based on Evelyn’s own physique and facial structure. Healthier, unscarred, standing tall, but cut from the same pale stone.

I had named Evelyn’s daughter for her. What did that make us?

Evelyn cleared her throat and repeated: “No. I’m not comfortable discussing this in front of anybody, even you. I would … I might … self-edit. I’m sorry, Praem, but you’ll have to leave Heather and I to our own devices.”

Praem stared. Evelyn looked away. Jan sighed, and said: “Praem, you and I don’t actually know each other very well, but I have no choice here but to trust your judgement. Do you think they’ll actually … you know?”

Praem declined to answer. Instead she raised two fingers and touched Evelyn briefly on the elbow. Then she turned and crossed the room, to join Jan by the door.

“Let us leave,” Praem said, her voice a soft calling in the gloom.

Jan sighed. “Very well, demon maid.” She looked Praem up and down, at her casual clothes and distinct lack of her usual outfit. “Though, you’re not much of a maid right now, are you? How about we solve that? I’m sure I can help hook you up with some nice new threads, as the kids say these days.”

Praem opened the door and helped usher Jan and herself back out into the corridor, with Jan chattering about dresses and fabrics in an unexpected sudden flow. Praem shut the door after herself. Her clicking footsteps and Jan’s voice trailed off down the corridor; ah, I realised, the talking was to make it clear that she wasn’t eavesdropping.

And then we were alone — me, and six other of me, coiled inside my tentacles in their long stringy gristle-wrapped packages of pneuma-somatic neurons, wrapped around me to keep me from flying apart. Us, and Evee.

In the shadowy heart of the rapidly darkening study, Evelyn seemed so fragile and slender, despite her layers of puppy-fat and the soft bulk of her hips beneath her layers of comfortable clothing. She was wearing one of her favourite jumpers, a great heavy mass of cream white with repairs made at the collar and cuffs in slightly different coloured thread. A shawl — actually a little throw blanket — lay over her shoulders, despite the summer heat lingering into this dying evening. She had a skirt on, as usual, long and purple and thick and comfortable, some of the brightest colour I ever saw her wear, but she made no effort to conceal the matte-black intrusion of her prosthetic leg or the blade-structure of her artificial foot. Her shoulders were kinked, her good hand heavy on her walking stick, her blue eyes stained black in the blood-light. Her cheeks looked so soft. Her hair was pulled back, golden yellow gone dull.

Part of us wanted to go over and just hug her — but she looked at me like a woman about to be led to her own execution; I didn’t know what that expression really meant, only that she was—

“Evee,” we said. “Don’t be … afraid? Are you afraid?”

Evelyn took a big, grumpy sigh, then cast about the room. “There’s only one chair. Do you want it?”

“Pardon? Oh, um, no, thank you. You should take it. I can actually sit using my own tentacles, I think. I tried it out yesterday.”

“Of course you can.” She didn’t sound impressed.

I unwrapped two of my tentacles and braced them behind me, lowering myself until the weight was off my legs. “It’s not perfect, but we could hold this position for hours before getting tired. Um, Evee, please, please take the chair, please.”

“I’ll stand,” she said.

I hurried to stand up as well. I hadn’t felt this awkward and timid in months. Evelyn just stared at me, glum and unspeaking. Our throat threatened to close up. Why wouldn’t she say anything? I half reached toward her, feeling pathetic and needy, desperate for her reassurances.

“Evee, do you want … want to go … ”

Outside? Why was I even asking that? What was I thinking?

Evelyn sighed and closed her eyes briefly. “Heather, just spit it out. Jan is correct. I’m compromised. We need to fix this.”

“Fix?” The word sounded so hollow. “Like— like we’re two parts of a machine? Like we’re broken?” I shook my head. “Evee, what’s wrong? What’s going on between us? What … what did I do wrong?”

Evelyn stared and stared and stared. She opened her mouth but couldn’t get at the words. She had something to say, but she didn’t want to say it.


“Watching you bleed was … distressing. In the bathtub. And … earlier. And … ”

She squeezed the words out, barely parting her teeth. They weren’t the right words. She stared right through me as she said them. Not lies, but only one step removed.

“Evee, you’ve just asked me to do that all again, with this plan to teleport Edward’s house. That’s not it.” I shook my head. “I … I saw the way you looked at me earlier, at my tentacles. At … at us.” My voice almost choked to a stop. “You don’t … you don’t approve, do you? Y-you don’t have to say it yourself, I’ll say it for you. It was okay when you— when you didn’t have to see them every day, because they were hidden away, invisible. O-or maybe you don’t like that there’s six more of me now. Maybe you don’t like that. Maybe you think it’s wrong, or disgusting, or you think I’m ugly or insane or—”

Evelyn exploded: “You’re beautiful, you fucking moron!”

Red in the face, quivering with spitting rage, panting for breath so hard I thought she might slip on her walking stick and fall over, Evelyn shouted me into silence with five words, and nothing more. I had been balanced on the verge of tears, but they dried instantly; my distress was not the issue here. I had gotten this all wrong, all turned around somewhere inside my own head. Evelyn stood there in the gathering gloom, heaving for breath with a species of anger I’d never seen on her before. I was speechless.

“Look at you,” she carried on, still angry but no longer shouting. “You’re beautiful. You look so happy, Heather. I’ve never seen you as happy as you have been the last few days. I’ve seen you go through so much, so much, but never like this, never this happy. You look … complete? Almost complete? I don’t know! I don’t have the fucking words!”

I took a step toward her, reaching out with both hand and a tentacle. “E-Evee—”

She stumbled back a step, retreating from me, in fear. She spat, eyes staring wide: “And I’m jealous.”

I stopped. “Oh. Oh, Evee, I’m sorry—”

“No!” she snapped. “Don’t fucking well apologise to me! Don’t apologise to me for my own jealousy. It’s not yours.”

“ … alright. Okay. But it’s okay, Evee. It’s okay to feel that.”

“That’s easy for you to say.” She seemed like she was sinking into the shadows, into the depths of the house itself. The library was swallowing her up. “You’re getting what you want, what you need. Your body is changing, you’re remaking yourself, and you’re so fucking beautiful. But me? I want my leg back, Heather. I want the fingers on my left hand. I want my spine unbent and my shoulders set right. I want my bowels to function properly, and my sight to not be all fucked up. I want not to be in pain all the time. All the time.” She rose into another shout, a scream of frustration. “And it never fucking goes away!”

Silence, except for Evelyn’s panting. She looked away, ashamed, hanging her head, grimacing. I couldn’t find the words.

“Evee, I love you.”

“I know.” She huffed. “And I love you too. And I see you, like this, everything you wanted to be, everything you deserve to be, and I’m happy for you, yes. I’m happy for you. But I’m so, so, so fucking jealous. And it hurts. You get to have six other versions of you. Great. Good for you. I’m glad you’re happy. I had a demon in my head, and it left me a cripple.”

We were both crying now. Not a lot, but more than enough to blur the air between us.

“Evee. Evee, let me … ”

“I’m sorry, Heather. I’m sorry that I’m like this.” Evee’s voice was shaking. She backed up another step as I reached for her. “Being disabled isn’t something you get over, something that gets better, that you move on from. I thought I’d accepted this, but I hadn’t. I’m sorry that I’ll never get better, I’ll never change, I’ll never regrow my missing parts. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve researched and I’ve read and I can’t do it.” She raised her maimed hand, with the missing fingers and the chunk gone from the palm. “This? It’s too old and too much a part of me now. Did you know that? Wounds become a part of you. You can’t deny them. You can’t pretend they’re not there, or you … you stop being … I … I won’t!” She banged her walking stick against her prosthetic leg with a dull clunk of wood on carbon fibre. “I won’t stop being human! I will not be like my mother! I refuse! I—”

Middle Left arced out from my side — not upward, but around and across, presenting herself to Evelyn in pale rainbow strobes. An offer.

I could feel the bio-steel needle forming inside the tip, hardening with promise, hollowing to a thin point, the base thickening into those three alchemical bladders, preparing themselves to contain the distilled and purified essence of me. The tentacle quivered; we all quivered, with something akin to lust.

I said nothing. We couldn’t have spoken even if I had wanted to. I just stared and panted and cried softly.

Evelyn stared at the injector tentacle, at our offer. She knew what it was. She didn’t resist when we slid another tentacle gently up her opposite arm, finally stepping closer.

“Why—” she managed to choke out, cheeks stained with tears. “Why didn’t you ever offer this before?”

“You told me not to use it on humans. On people. You said not to.”

“I know that. But you could have done.”

The tip of the injector began to peel open, just a few millimetres at first, slick and delicate flesh rolling apart to reveal the soft white innards. Blood-dark sunset glinted off the needle inside.

“I will,” I said, my face wet with tears too. “If you want. I’ll try it, I’ll try anything. Maybe it’ll help your chronic pain, or maybe it—”

Evelyn took a great shuddering breath, sniffing hard — and shook her head. “Heather, stop.”


“Heather. Heather, listen.” Evelyn had to close her eyes, as if seeing the offer might break her resolve. “Stop tempting me. That injection is just as likely to give me rapid super-cancer as it is to regrow my bloody leg. And it won’t. It won’t regrow anything.” She sniffed harder now, but her tears were slowing. “I wasn’t joking when I said I’ve researched everything I can. It can’t be done. Just, stop. Please.”

“I can help.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I insist.”

With a great force of will, I closed the tip of the injector tentacle. It was not easy. Instinct was screaming at me to join together with Evee, to flood her with me, with my enzymes and juices and white blood cells, with the alchemical purity of the abyssal thing I was. It was half sexual desire, half something from elsewhere, meat-body urges mated together with transcendent knowledge. I had to take several grunting, heaving breaths.

“Evee, I—I really want to.”

“I can see that.”

“Sorry … ” we lowered the tentacle, and went to pull away.

But Evelyn clung on with her other arm. She clung onto my tentacle, with what little strength she had.

“I didn’t say let go of me,” she said. “For fuck’s sake, Heather. Gods, I must sit down or I’m going to fall. And what are we doing, doing this in the dark? Get the bloody light on, will you? Feel like I’m going blind as well as mad.”

We managed a tiny laugh; Evelyn snorted too, wiping the drying tears from her eyes. This was going to be okay, we were going to be okay, one way or another.

Evelyn finally sat down in the aged wooden embrace of the old swivel chair, slowly and gently easing her weight off her walking stick, letting out a soft grunt of spinal pain; the chair suited her, a battered relic from the fifties or sixties, wrapped in decades of wood polish and peeling varnish over the dark bones of a long-dead tree. It was worn and eroded by time and use, but sturdy in its core. With care and attention, that chair might last another seventy years. Evelyn sighed as she relaxed back into the seat. She propped her walking stick against the armrest and stretched out her prosthetic leg, massaging the place where the socket met her thigh.

We reached over and flicked on the lights, angling the desk lamp upward to spread soft warmth over the wall and ceiling and back down on Evelyn and myself. The gloom retreated to the corners where it belonged, far from my Evelyn’s heart.

I sat next to her, using the same tentacle-trick I had demonstrated earlier. But we also kept one tentacle tightly hugged around Evee’s arm, cradling her maimed hand with the tip. None of us wanted to risk letting go.

For a few moments we just sat in companionable silence, watched by the rows upon rows of books. Evelyn’s eyes fluttered shut. I could tell she was concentrating on pain. I watched the tiny motions of her lips and eyelids, her tightening jaw muscles, her suppressed wince. I almost reached out to brush a strand of golden blonde from her forehead.

“Why are we always such a mess, Heather? Hm?”

I shrugged. “I think everybody is a mess. Sort of.”

Evelyn opened her eyes again. The lamplight turned her skin to pale cream and her eyes to blue skies. “Be a dear, will you, and check the desk drawer — second drawer on the left. I think I’ve got some co-codamol stuffed down there.”

We reached over with a tentacle without getting up. The old desk drawers were thick and heavy, great slabs of wood held together by nails the size of my hand. Evelyn was correct: there was a small bottle of over-the-counter codeine and paracetamol at the back of the drawer, tucked behind rubber bands and paper-clips and some dusty old files. We fished it out and dropped it into Evee’s hand.

Evelyn squinted at the use by date, grunted an affirmative, then shook two tiny white pills out onto her palm. She swallowed them without water.

“I wish you didn’t have to do that,” we said. “Rely on painkillers, I mean. You deserve better.”

Evelyn’s turn to shrug, shoulders uneven. “Plenty of people do. Painkillers are just a fact of life. There’s nothing shameful in it.”

“Of course there’s not!” we blurted out. “We didn’t mean that. I just … I’ve always wondered … Evee, are you addicted to codeine? To opiate painkillers?”

Evelyn sighed heavily, but she seemed more exhausted than irritated. “Not currently.”

“Not … currently?”

“I’ve been physiologically addicted to codeine before, yes. Never for more than a few months at a time.” Evelyn spoke to the floorboards and the far wall, to the books and the shadows, but she didn’t seem ashamed, which was probably a good sign. “My body gets used to it, but the pain doesn’t go away. Can you call that an addiction? An addiction to not feeling pain? Ha.” She spoke the laugh, without any humour. “I think … six, seven times, maybe? Last time was when Raine and I first came to Sharrowford. Got too stressed, too much walking back and forth to campus, too worried to relax. My leg and lower back got terrible. Back pain is a bastard. Raine put a stop to it by taking my pills and getting me some edibles from the university campus instead. Can you believe that?”

“Edibles?” I asked, blinking.

Evelyn glanced at me, then smiled and snorted. “The more you change, the more you become yourself, Heather.”

I felt quite bamboozled. “Um, okay? Shall I take that as a compliment?”

“It’s meant as one, so, hopefully.”

“What do you mean, edibles?” I asked.

“Weed brownies. THC. Cannabis.”

“Oh!” I flushed, feeling absurdly sheltered. “Oh, I knew that. Evee, I knew that. It’s just the word wasn’t going in, it wasn’t parsing.”

“Whatever you say.”

“I mean it.” We huffed, but the embarrassment faded quickly. “I can’t really imagine you high on cannabis, Evee. Was it very relaxing?”

She shrugged again, rolling those bony shoulders beneath the soft enclosure of her ribbed jumper. To my surprise, she reached up with both hands and let her hair down, raking her fingertips back over her scalp. When she twisted her neck, the vertebrae popped, loudly. The soft light made her glow. “It helped the pain go away,” she said. “That’s all that mattered. Made me lie down a lot, I suppose. I watched a lot of very bad anime. Lowered my standards.”

“Such as?”

Evelyn waved that question away. “You wouldn’t know the titles.”

“Try me.”

Evelyn shot me a scrunched frown, then rattled off a lot of Japanese which I didn’t understand. Then she paused. “No?”

I cleared my throat, suitably chastised. “Fair enough, we don’t recognise any of those.”

“Count yourself lucky, then. Trust me.”

“So, have you been partaking of any of Kimberly’s cannabis, since she moved in?”

Evelyn shook her head. “Haven’t needed it. Not yet, anyway.” She glanced down at the pill bottle in her hand, tightening her fingers around the innocent white plastic. “I’ve got a stash of diazepam downstairs, for when things get really bad. And … I started taking more painkillers back after I … after our … the … ”

She couldn’t squeeze the words out.

“After you spent the night with Twil,” I filled in for her, to spare her the embarrassment. “Back when we were making those trips into the library of Carcosa.”

Evelyn sighed so hard that she grumbled at the same time. “Correct. We never really talked about that, did we?”

“We don’t have to!” I hurried to add. “Evee, we absolutely don’t have to talk about it if you’re not comfortable. I-I didn’t mean for this to get so serious again, I … sorry.”

Evelyn raised her eyes and looked at us, but she was calm, not embarrassed. “What’s to talk about? Twil and I very much failed to fuck. I have anorgasmia. We ended things. That’s about it. What more is there to say?”

I felt a blush rising up my face, half embarrassment, half fear — because here was the question we had avoided thinking about for days and days, here was the little fact I was trying to avoid.

“You slept with Twil again, didn’t you?” I asked. The words almost wouldn’t come out, but I forced my voice to be level and calm. My tentacles betrayed us, going tense and tight. “On the night before I did the tentacle experiment and went into the dream.”

“Mm,” Evelyn confirmed. “We slept. Literally. In my bed, holding hands.” She shrugged. “It was nice, I suppose.”

“I’m sorry I spent so long pushing you two together.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Heather, don’t be.”

I swallowed, feeling intensely awkward. “Do you still like her, or … ?”

Evelyn cast her eyes up toward the thin window on the blooming night beyond the house. “I don’t know, Heather. I don’t know what that emotional state means. She likes me, which is … pleasant. She’s … physically … impressive. But we’re not … we don’t … ”

She trailed off, gave up, and went silent. I nodded, as did several of my tentacles. We understood, or at least pretended to.

“Anyway,” she said eventually with a little sigh. “I started taking more painkillers after that. But Praem restricted my intake. She halted the usual slide. And I’m not going to be lighting up any of Kimberly’s stash, because I need a sharp mind for this … this war. I cannot afford to wallow in my broken body. Not yet.”

“Evee,” we said, so filled with gentle reproach that Evelyn actually looked round with a guilty flinch in her eyes. “Evee, Evelyn, you are not broken.”

“I am,” she said. “You don’t have to sugar coat it, Heather. My body is a wreck and I will never repair it.”

We had no words to respond to that; if we’d tried, we would have started crying again. Instead, I did the only thing which made any sense: I raised Evelyn’s maimed hand with the tentacle wrapped around her arm. I asked her for permission with a silent glance. She didn’t refuse, so I cupped her hand in my own human pair.

Evelyn’s left hand was half gone. Her thumb and index finger were fully intact, but her middle finger was severed at the top knuckle, her ring finger was a stub, and her little finger was entirely missing, along with a large chunk of that side of her palm. The wound was smooth scar tissue, bones buried deeply beneath once-mangled flesh. I cradled her hand in my own, and stared, and thought.

The human hand is a beautiful thing, as complex and elegant and perfect as any tentacle. So many little bones and tendons and pads of cartilage, all working together for such delicate dexterity, such precision, such infinite variation of position and pose and posture. Hands can talk, can carry meaning, can create. If I believed in a divine creator — and I don’t, not really, though I don’t have all the answers — then the human hand would be easy evidence for the divinity of nature itself.

And Evelyn’s hand was no different, even reduced, even halved. Her palm was so soft, her thumb neat and slender, the pad of her index finger smooth and yielding.

“H-Heather … ” she stammered as I explored.

I stopped, concerned. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”

Evelyn was flushed in the face, staring at me with a strange frown. “No. Well. Don’t push on the bone nub inside the palm. But otherwise, no.”

I returned to my thoughts — and our preliminary examination.

Could we do an angel’s work, and regrow a finger? Even one knuckle would be a small miracle. This was, in a way, more complex and difficult than ripping Sarika’s body back out of the Eye, or growing my own pneuma-somatic parts from my abyssal template. Evelyn’s body had been scarred and damaged for so long that it was part of her physical self-image, part of how she thought of herself, part of her history and being, imprinted on the mathematical substrate of reality. Brain-math could do anything, in theory. But in practice, I might only damage her further.

But if not with brain-math?

A tentacle-tip twitched with the memory of a needle.

“Heather,” Evelyn breathed, with obvious difficulty. “Heather, I appreciate the efforts you want to make, but I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I researched everything I could imagine. There’s no fixing my body with magic. I have accepted that. You don’t have to think about this.”

I whispered, barely listening: “I could make you new fingers. A prosthetic? An addition? I don’t know.”


“What’s the point in being what we are, if we can’t help you?”

“Heather, it’s not necessary, it—”

Before Evelyn could pull away, we raised her hand to our own lowering lips. And before we could think about what we were doing, we kissed her on the palm.

A brief, feathery touch, a brush, that was all.

But when we looked up, Evelyn was staring back like a deer in headlights, panting softly, cheeks flushed. She was frozen, waiting for me to make the next move, as if uncertain which way we were about to fall.

Before courage left and embarrassment drowned affection, I managed to say: “Your scarred hand is just as beautiful as my tentacles.”

Evelyn nodded, stiff and awkward.

I let her go, straightening up and blushing bright red myself. Where had that courage come from? My tentacles knew. Four of the other Heathers were bobbing and weaving and ducking and bouncing, my very own portable peanut gallery, but also me at the same time; it was so different to before, this tug between mortified embarrassment and amusement at myself, as if I had more access to my own emotions than before. They all wanted to kiss Evelyn’s hand too, and they were far less embarrassed by being watched or discovered. And in a way, they had kissed her, through me, who was also them.

Evelyn didn’t snatch her hand back, or wipe the kiss away; if she had, I think we would have been crushed. She just stared at her palm, then at me — then at the rest of me, our tentacles in a flailing ring. She sighed gently, regaining some composure as my own self-consciousness flared into paralysis.

“Heather,” she said, sighing.

“I … Evee … you … you’re not bothered by the whole ‘six other Heathers’ thing, truly?”

Evelyn blinked in surprise; she hadn’t been expecting that question. Honestly, neither had we. I was deflecting a little, though the question was a genuine concern.

“Why would I be?” she asked. “They’re all you, right?”

“Well … yes … but … ”

“Do they have different names? Temperaments? Personalities?” She shook her head. “If they do, tell me. I mean, if you do. I’m serious, Heather.” She waited a moment, waiting for a genuine answer.

“Not … not really,” I said. “They’re all me. I’m still me. We’re all still me. Us.”

Evelyn sighed and nodded. “Whatever is going on inside your mind is almost certainly not medically classifiable as ‘dissociative identity disorder’.” Evelyn all but spat those words, mocking them with two-fingered air quotes from her good hand. “God, I hate that term. I suspect you do too, hmm?” I smiled, just a nervous flicker. Evelyn snorted in agreement. “You have six additional chains of neurons, six extra brains, and they’re all you.” She paused awkwardly, then swallowed and looked away. “Heather, I know what it’s like to have another entity inside my own head.”

“You do, yes. I was concerned about that.”

Evelyn sighed. “The demon my mother put in my body when I was a child, it was an invasive entity. A violation. A … prisoner as much as I was.”

“You ended up working together with it, didn’t you?”

“Mmhmm.” Evelyn nodded, speaking in a contemplative tone. “It wanted my mother dead, too. It wanted freedom. We had an arrangement. But it was nothing like what you’re experiencing, I can guarantee you that. You’ve been multiplied, spread out, given more space. I was crammed into half my own skull. What’s happening to you is obviously liberating and healthy. I’m not disgusted by it. How could I ever be disgusted by more of you?”

I smiled through a veil of thin tears, then sniffed and wiped my eyes. “I was so scared you were … that you thought I was vile or … or wrong, or deluded, or something like that.”

Evelyn sighed. She awkwardly patted my arm. From her, that was practically a confession of undying devotion.

I took a moment to calm down. We felt a lot better now. But we hadn’t actually done as Jan had asked, had we?

Any other time or place, the next move would have felt like a push, a trial, a terrible risk. But here, in the aftermath of shared pain and understanding, nestled deep in the heart of the house, between towering bookshelves and solid walls and the soft light on the ceiling, it came naturally. We were already there, after all. We both knew.

Still, we could have done with a lemon or two before saying the words out loud.

I said: “We’re in love with each other, aren’t we, Evee? We both know it, we just don’t talk about it.”

To my incredible surprise — and more than a little amusement and relief — Evelyn didn’t blush or stammer or stare or do anything so un-Evee like. She sighed a great big sigh, slumped a little in her chair, and rolled her eyes.

“Define ‘love’,” she grunted.

I actually giggled. “Evee, you know what I’m talking about.”

“Oh, really? Do I? Where’s the line between friendship and relationship then, hmm? If we … ” She paused, staring at me — at my lips. Then she cleared her throat. “If we started snogging—”

Snogging?!” we spluttered. “Evee, you’re as bad as Raine, sometimes.”

“If we started kissing,” she spoke louder. “Does that end our friendship and start something new? Or are we friends, who kiss? Where’s the line, Heather? I’m serious, because I don’t know where the fuck the line was with Twil.”

“Do you want to kiss me?”

That pole-axed her. And me, too, after I realised what I had said. I stammered and stuttered for a moment, tentacles coiling and flexing like uncomfortable toes. We were all mortified.

Evelyn recovered first, burning in the face like a hot coal.

“Yes!” she said. “Yes. Alright? Yes. Of course.”

I nodded. And wet my lips. But then Evee gave me a frown.

“But what would it mean, Heather?” she asked. “I’m trying to explain this and I’m struggling. We’re not just … we’re not just experiencing the lesbian sheep problem here. This isn’t something so simple.”

We blinked at her, lost. “Lesbian sheep problem?”

Evelyn stared, then sighed and put her face in one hand. “Heather, sometimes you’re just too much to be real.”

“Excuse me?”

“The lesbian sheep problem.” Evelyn switched into school mistress mode, sitting up a little and looking at me over the rims of an entirely imaginary pair of glasses. “When female sheep are sexually available, they show their interest by standing still, waiting to get mounted. So in theory, a pair of lesbian sheep would just stand next to each other, waiting, forever.”

I pulled a very sceptical frown. “Is that really true? It sounds like a convenient myth. People aren’t sheep, Evee.”

“Exactly, it’s a useful metaphor. Heather, I’m trying to say that we’re experiencing more than that. Or less than that. Or, oh fuck, I don’t know.”

We couldn’t help it, we smirked.

Here it was, the truth of what lay between Evelyn and us, and it was the same thing that had been there all along. This was no confession of something hidden, no revelation which redefined our relationship, no moment of great change. We were already what we were, she and I.

“Would you be disappointed?” I asked. “If we never kissed?”

Evelyn shot me a frown. “Would you be disappointed if you could never make me—” Evelyn bit down hard on that final word. She didn’t want to go there. But I just silently shook my head, blushing terribly. Evelyn drew in a deep breath and tried to push on. “Heather, my point is that I don’t know what I want. Or rather, what I want isn’t … normal. Traditional? I don’t know!”

“Whatever you want is fine, Evee,” we said, and we meant it. “Look at me and Raine, look at what we do. I’ve got … several girlfriends, I suppose. In a whole range of … variations?” I pulled a grimace. “Poor choice of words, perhaps.”

Evelyn snorted. “You make it sound like a harem anime.”

“But it’s not! No, really. What I have with Raine is completely different to what I have with Zheng. Or with Sevens. You’re important to me, Evee. And I love you. And whatever form that takes, it’ll be different. And I think I’ve learned that’s okay.”

Evelyn frowned at me; my words didn’t quite seem to reach her. She disagreed somewhere, with something I couldn’t put my finger on.

So I said, “Raine would be okay with it. I know that. If you wanted to kiss me, she would approve.”

Evelyn stared. Something dark shifted inside her eyes.


“I’ve been jealous of Raine since I first met her,” Evelyn said, quietly. “Don’t get me wrong, I love her too. I’d be dead without her. But look at her. Confident, strong, fit. She can pick you up and throw you onto the fucking bed if she wants to. She can carry you. Pin you. Anything she likes.”

“She … she can, yes. Evee, you shouldn’t compare yourself.”

“I don’t want her to be okay with it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“If I was to kiss you. I don’t want her to be okay with it. I want to steal you.”

Evelyn was deadly serious, white-faced and calm. My turn to blush. Tentacles, coiling inward as if to protect me from an attack. My mouth went dry. My heart hammered.

Then Evelyn let out a huge sigh and looked away. The spell broke. “I told you I was a bitter mess, Heather. I told you.”

“What if … ” I tried to speak once, then had to swallow and try again. My hands were shaking. We were all shaking, a little. “What if we kiss, and don’t tell anybody?”

Evelyn frowned, suddenly hard as granite. “That’s a dangerous game, Heather. I’m not going to cuckold Raine. No.”

We stared at each other for a long, silent moment. Evelyn’s throat bobbed. She wet her lips, perhaps subconsciously. I tried to slow my racing heart.

What the hell was I suggesting?

There was no way we could actually go behind Raine’s back. I was incapable of such a thing. The guilt would eat us alive. But Raine had practically offered me to Evee, once before. Half a jest, but half-real at the same time. If Evelyn desired something secret, something hers alone, perhaps we had already received permission, by proxy? My imagination began to spin up a half-baked idea of asking Raine to approve, but pretend she knew nothing — but then I would have to lie to Evelyn, wouldn’t I? And Evelyn wasn’t even sure what she wanted, what she desired. And here I was stuck in the middle.

While we stared at each other, Evee and I, we became aware that interruption was approaching, loudly.

The intruder made her approach obvious, walking down the upstairs hallway with heavy steps, so as not to surprise us. And I would recognise those footsteps anywhere.

“Speak of the devil,” Evelyn huffed, pulling away from me slightly, as if guilty. She looked round just before a knock sounded on the door of the study.

Raine called through the wooden door. ““Hey there, love-birds! You decent in there?”

“Raine!” I spluttered.

“No,” Evelyn drawled, absolutely deadpan. “We’re both stark naked and covered in honey. Come retrieve your wife.”

“Wife?!” we spluttered at Evee, too.

Raine burst through the door with a shit-eating grin on her face, then mimed disappointment when Evelyn and we were fully clothed and not in fact glazed with sugar. But then she raised her eyebrows in a hopeful look.

“You two patched things up? Heeeeeey, I can tell.” She wandered closer, her eyes looking down at our necks, for some reason. “I don’t see no hickeys so it can’t be over yet.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “When I leave my mark, I’ll make it obvious.”

“E-Evee?” we said, mouth going very dry again.

Raine nodded. “I look forward to seeing your handiwork, Evee. Hey there you,” she said to us, casually wrapping her arm in one tentacle. “You know, jokes aside, I can tell you’re both feeling much better. So did you actually fuck, or what?”

“Raine,” I sighed, flushed beet red. Did she know? Had she been listening? Could she tell?

“Spare us your wit,” Evelyn drawled. “Something changed, I take it?”

Raine nodded. “Big sorry to interrupt like this, but I’ve just struck gold. Jan and Fliss both agreed, gotta come tell you.”

Evelyn sharpened all of a sudden. “What gold? What are you talking about?”

Raine raised her mobile phone in one hand, grinning wide and wiggling it back and forth. “Gold, right here. I had a brainwave, see? Took a little picture of the snapshot of Eddy’s house, his sigil, ‘cos I thought, hey, who else do we know who knows a little magic, who might be able to identify something that we can’t?”

Evelyn shook her head, mystified. “Stop with the theatrics, Raine. Get on with it.”

But we knew. We said it before Raine could.


“What?” said Evelyn.

“Ding ding ding!” Raine blew me a kiss. “‘Cos it’s not just a sigil, see? That’s why even with four mages down there, none of you could see it. Our boy Nathan doesn’t recognise the magic — but he absolutely recognises the maths.”

Evelyn sat up, grabbed her walking stick, eyes alight with inner fire as she prepared to launch herself out of the chair. “He what? Mathematics? Get him over here, now. Or me, there. I want to talk to him. Now! What did he say? Raine, what do you mean he recognises the maths? What are you saying?”

Raine laughed. “Hold your horses. He’s already on his way. Well, Fliss has gone to pick him up.”

Evelyn looked about ready to leap out of her chair and hurl herself downstairs. I had the strange notion that she would happily drag me after her.

But there was nothing to do, not until Badger got here.

And I still had one unfinished thought.

“Raine,” I said. “I need your help with something.”

Evelyn frowned at me. “Heather, what now? I think this takes precedence!”

“Anything you want,” said Raine. She shot me a wink.

I nodded, raising a tentacle as I began to consider the mechanics. “I’m going to make Evelyn a prosthetic, if she’ll consent to the attempt. I’m going to use part of my own body. You may need to carry me to bed afterward, because I don’t know how much this is going to hurt.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather was so wrapped up in herself (literally??? tentacles are good for that) that she didn’t realise what was really going on with Evee. At least they finally talked about being in love with each other! But perhaps Evelyn’s desires are more intense than Heather can deal with? Though … Heather made some risky suggestions there too. I wonder what Raine would think? Maybe a little bird told her all about it, and that’s the real reason she interrupted?

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Next week, it’s … Badger?! Mathematician to the rescue! It’s been a bit since we’ve seen him, but perhaps he can provide some rare insight. An edge against Edward? And then it’s time to fight a mage, no more plans, no more prep. Right?

luminosity of exposed organs – 20.3

Content Warnings

Discussion of real-world terrorism

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

At the apex of Jan’s borrowed whiteboard, written in black and crossed out in red, was one word: negotiate.

Negotiation, negated.

As the real strategy meeting got underway and smeared itself across the summer evening like a handful of cake smeared across a clean tabletop, I kept glancing back up at that word, with the letters smeared sideways by a red slash. One of us — bottom left — coiled herself into knots thinking over the implications, neurons mono-tasked to the intricacies of a single word, feeding conclusions and contradictions back into my torso and up to my brain. I even whispered it to myself a few times as the others talked, which earned me a curious sideways glance from Raine and an overt stare from Seven-Shades-of-Supernatural-Auditory-Range.

Negotiation, negated. Ruled out. Removed.

There was a finality to that — not least because it was the first thing Jan had asked, once all the participants were gathered in the magical workshop: is there no chance of a peaceful resolution? Can Edward Lilburne be brought to the table? Can you talk it out?

She didn’t ask “Does this mage truly deserve to die?”, or “Are you up to the task of killing another human being, no matter how evil?”, because this wasn’t a moral question. It was a practical question, a strategic consideration. Was there any chance, no matter how small, that negotiation could work?

The answer was no, of course. There were no objections.

We had tried, perhaps naively, to negotiate. We had really tried. All the way back to the first time, when we had attempted a treaty of sorts with one half of the shattered remnants of the Sharrowford Cult — whichever cultists and sycophants had sided with Edward in the wake of Alexander’s death at my hands.

We had made an honest effort to find a solution by which we could get the book which Edward had swiped from under our noses — The Testament of Heliopolis — and secure ourselves against further aggression. We had never really sat down and discussed the implications, not all together, not all at once. Even Evelyn had briefly flirted with the notion that we could somehow come to an understanding with him, and secure Lozzie against his intentions by placing our protection over her. We would let him live, beyond Sharrowford, away from us. No conflict, just disengagement, an uneasy coexistence.

That had been a mistake.

Edward Lilburne had responded with trickery, insults, goading, demands for his ‘property’ — and then attacks, attempts to murder us, hijackings and secret plots and threats on the lives of uninvolved children. He had sent monsters to kill us, turned his weapons on innocents, and even set his lawyer after us.

When I was younger, part of me used to believe that there was always a peaceful solution to any conflict; not because of any inherent pacifism in my character, but simply because I was raised to be a good girl, and good girls didn’t fight. By the time blows are being struck, it’s too late — but before rifles are pointed and graves are dug, surely there’s always some other way out? A compromise position, a meeting of minds, something to negotiate over.

Raine would have told me that was very naive. Raine was correct.

Edward Lilburne would never negotiate in good faith, not without a literal or metaphorical gun to his head. There was no secret combination of words, no esoteric way of presenting ourselves, no hidden appeal that would bring him around. Coexistence was impossible, because what he wanted was inimical to coexistence.

As the strategy meeting raced through the first hour and then dragged into a second, I kept thinking about that. Half of us — me and half my tentacles — were focused on Jan’s slow, methodical run-down of our options, her rapid addition of suggestions and questions, and her simmering head-butting with Evee over dangers and risks. She was very good at that, wrangling a room full of people with a touch of public speaking; there was more than a little performance in the way she gestured and nodded to everyone present, the theatrical twist to her voice, the snap of her wrist as she flicked her pen. I half-suspected she was receiving help from Sevens. But no, Jan was just very talented at pretending.

The other half of me was distracted by that question.

The point of all this was to retrieve the book — The Testament of Heliopolis — so that Evee might finish her spell, her Invisus Oculus, the invisible eye, or eye of invisibility, a great working that would hide us from the Eye’s gaze when we stood upon the soil of Wonderland. The point of this was Maisie. All this was for Maisie. Edward Lilburne didn’t actually matter.

But if we obtained the book and left him at large, he would still be inimical to us. We would never be safe. The ex-members of the Eye Cult, still languishing in pain and confusion, would always be a threat he could use against us. Lozzie would never be safe. Maisie, after her return, would never be safe.

Edward Lilburne had to die. Not because he was evil, not because of the dead children, not because of the attempts to kill us, but because he would keep doing this.

Part of us didn’t like that. The part of us that wanted to see the best in everybody, the part of us that had resisted Evelyn’s paranoia, and given Praem a name of her own. The part of us which had ached to see a person in Zheng, not just an enslaved killing machine. The part of us which had not blamed Kimberly for what she’d done. The part of us which had accepted Sarika’s continued life, and had set about rehabilitating Badger. The part of us which had sat down to really speak with Felicity, to find out if she was a monster or not.

Part of us wanted to believe in forgiveness. We lived forgiveness. Could we imagine some hypothetical future scene in which Edward sat down for tea with us, and had a polite conversation with his niece, with Lozzie, to apologise and heal?


One cannot negotiate when the other side’s goal is your destruction or subjugation. The only response is violence.

Part of us — a part I had tried to deny and suppress for a very long time — was quite satisfied with that answer.

When the meeting broke for dinner, we kept chewing on the resulting gristle of that half-digested problem, like a gallstone stuck inside a tentacle. Chinese food, courtesy of Evelyn and picked up by Praem and Raine, went down a treat, and not just for us; Twil had a huge plate of orange chicken and bamboo shoots, Felicity and Kimberly shared black bean and tofu, and we slathered some fish in lemon juice. Tenny was delighted by a veritable bucket of egg drop soup, and stuck eight tentacles into it all at once. But we kept thinking.

Alexander Lilburne had presented us with this same question, but in a much more immediate fashion; I had a choice back then, in that strange throne room in the castle made from the vast scabbed-over hide of a cosmic refugee, and only seconds in to make it — a choice between killing him and letting my friends get hurt. This was the same choice, just on a longer time scale. The answer was the same. I had made peace with that.

But when we all finished up our Chinese food and returned to the magical workshop — with Twil still carrying half a plate of orange-slathered chicken — my mind was already leaping ahead.

The lesson from two conflicts with two mages was crystal clear. A painful lesson. But a correct one.

But — did this mean we had to fight the Eye?

What were we really going to do, once we could stand amid the black ash of Wonderland and look up at the Eye, without it looking back down at us?

Would we study it for a day, a week, a month, to divine some weakness that we could reach out and exploit? The Eye had never been truly malicious, never truly evil in the way a human being could be; it had hurt me, tortured me even, but — on purpose? Or by accident? As an unconscious by-product of other processes? I didn’t know. Ever since I’d re-grapsed the machinery of hyperdimensional mathematics and realised the Eye was not native to this medium, I had been filled with unspoken doubt. Sevens had made suggestions, now half-forgotten, about the power of lesbian romance and polycules, but she had merely been guessing, projecting her own nature onto the problem. Evelyn was certain that hyperdimensional mathematics itself held the key — but to what?

Confrontation, or communication?

One can only negotiate when the other side’s goal is not one’s destruction or subjugation.

But what was the Eye’s goal?

What did the Eye want?

I didn’t know. I didn’t know if it was even possible to know.

Three hours after Jan had opened by crossing out ‘negotiate’, with bellies full of chicken and vegetables, with sunset’s last gloaming still pouring summer glow into the kitchen behind us, Jan stretched both arms above her head, put the cap back on her marker pen, and tapped the whiteboard with the blunted tip.

Raine spoke before Jan could. “I think that’s it, then. Unless anybody’s got an eleventh-hour brainwave?” Raine glanced around the room, but everyone either shrugged, shook their heads, or looked away. Jan pulled a performatively irritated little smile at Raine.

Only I was lost deep in thought.

“Heather?” Raine said. “You thinking?”

We pulled ourself up from the depths, blinking and sniffing and trying to focus. We had one tentacle wrapped around Raine’s arm in mutual comfort — not least because Evelyn had wordlessly rejected the same.

That was the unspoken reason for being so inwardly philosophical. I’m not actually that clever or good at thinking, I was just trying to avoid asking why Evelyn was avoiding me.

“Um,” I said. “No, sorry, Raine. I was just thinking about … well, nothing important. Jan, please, go ahead.”

“Alright then,” said Jan, forcing some levity into her voice. She turned back to the little whiteboard again. “I think this is all pretty conclusive. I can see three options amid all this. I suspect everyone else in the room can as well, but I’m going to summarize them anyway, so we’re all on the same page.”

Evelyn snorted — not with derision, but with a kind of dry, detached humour. She had been cultivating that tone all evening, like turning her personality into a strip of dried meat.

“Three bad options, you mean,” she said.

Jan shrugged, smiling all too sweetly. “One goes to war with the army one has, not the army one wants.”

Near the back of the magical workshop, a hand went up — Nicole Webb, private eye, well trained by years of police briefing rooms.

Nicky was still recovering from the broken left leg she’d sustained during the siege of Geerswin farm, but she had accepted the invitation to join us all the same, so Raine had driven to pick her up from her flat. Nicky’s entire left leg was wrapped in a stiff cast, lime-green, a colour she had apparently specifically requested. A pair of crutches leaned against the wall next to her. She let the cast-wrapped leg stick out in the most inconvenient way possible for everybody else, getting in the way and blocking other people and generally not allowing anybody to forget about it. Despite the constant inconvenience, she hadn’t let the rest of herself slip at all. She wore a high-collared polo-neck jumper, in black, and rather than resorting to shorts she had cut off the left leg of a pair of jeans. She’d also cut her hair after getting out of the hospital, chopping off most of the soft blonde length and shearing it short, so it stuck up in the middle. She radiated control and satisfaction — probably at confronting us with her leg in a cast.

Her control only wavered when she saw my tentacles, physical and undeniable, on full display.

“I’m just like this, now,” I’d said. “I can hide them when I go outdoors, but … not in here.”

Nicole had recovered quickly, nodding to me, somehow getting it. “Sure thing, Heather. You do you.”

She had also brought along her dog, who we’d not previously met. ‘Soup’ — short for ‘super’ — was a little bit Siberian Husky, a little bit German Shepard, and a little bit something nobody could identify, perhaps Irish Wolfhound, or maybe just actual wolf. Big, grey as a snowstorm in a wildfire, and responsibly trained as a puppy by Nicole herself, Soup sat obediently next to Nicky as if guarding her from all these strange unknown people, ears standing straight up, eyes roving around the room almost like she could understand what we were all saying.

Soup was also a very good girl though; she endured much petting from Tenny completely without complaint, probably because Nicole made a conscious effort not to show any discomfort or fear of Tenny. And she wasn’t bothered by my tentacles, not at all. Dogs are good people, as Raine might say.

Jan indicated Nicole’s raised hand with a jab of her marker pen. “Miss Webb, yes.”

Nicky laughed softly as she lowered her hand. “We’re not on the force, you can just call me Nicky.”

“Nicole,” said Jan.

Nicole sat up a little in her chair. Praem stood by to help, but Nicky didn’t actually need any assistance.

“Can’t help but wonder,” she said. “What would be the army you want, for this? Dream team, limitless resources. What do you wizard weirdos do when the gloves are really off? Paint me a picture here.”

Jan smiled, sweet like lead paint chips. “Miss Webb, the gloves are all the way off, I assure you.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. Evelyn was sitting on the other end of our little gathering, next to Twil, about as far away from me as she could get. I was trying not to think about that. She said: “Answer detective Webb’s question, please. I’m curious too.” Evelyn shot a sidelong look — and a little smile — at Nicole. Evelyn had been sharing little smiles in her direction since the moment she’d clomped through the front door in her cast, clutching her pair of crutches, intentionally getting in everybody’s way. A kindred spirit, if only temporarily.

Jan resisted a moment longer, then let her smile curdle. “Evelyn, you of all people should know that question has infinite variations. Ask ten mages, get eleven answers. What’s the point?”

Felicity — who was near the rear of the room, alongside Kim — added her own agreement: “Yeah. Too much variation to answer that.”

Evelyn sighed sharply. “Then what would you desire for this, Jan? I want to understand your thinking, before we come to a decision.”

Jan considered the air, lips pursed, then clacked her pen down on the table. She looked down at her hands, adjusted the hem of her pleated grey skirt, and sighed.

“The army,” she said.

“Oh,” Felicity murmured from the rear. “Good answer.”

Raine spoke up. “You mean your ‘army of the third eye’ people, the ones you were working for?”

Jan rolled her eyes. “No, not them. The army. The military. The British Army, I suppose. If I had infinite resources I would roll up to a safe distance from that house — preferably several miles away — with a bunch of artillery, and then just drown the building in explosives until it’s a crater. Why not?” Jan spread her hands.

Twil, around a mouthful of chicken, said: “Hell yeah! Girl’s got sense. Blow that shit up!”

“Shiiiiiiiiit,” Tenny trilled from the doorway, imitating the bad word. Twil almost choked on a piece of chicken. From the sofa, Lozzie shook her head in the please-don’t-repeat-that gesture. Tenny fluttered her tentacles and puffed out her cheeks.

Praem intoned: “No swearwolf.”

“Sorry!” said Twil, now de-chickened once more. “Sorry, sorry, my bad. Sorry.”

“The army, then,” Jan repeated. “That’s my answer.”

Nicole said, “Aw come on, that’s cheating.”

At the other end of the magical workshop, Amanda Hopton spoke up too: “I actually agree with that.”

Everyone stopped to listen. Some preferred not to look. We did though, three tentacles bobbing upward to see who was really speaking.

Amanda’s voice was a slow slurry, half-mumbled and sliding. Her eyelids were uneven. Her pupils massively dilated. Her god spoke through her.

“We don’t want anybody else to get hurt again,” said the giant Outsider cone-snail who was reading her thoughts. “Better to end it from a distance, hands off, hands away, hands … yes, hands. Rather than rush in and somebody get … hurt?”

She trailed off. Evelyn cleared her throat and said, “Thank you, Miss Hopton.”

Amanda took a deep breath and blinked several times, like a heavy sleepwalker trying to rouse herself. When I looked at her eyes, I could see a coiling vastness behind her dilated pupils, blurred by the indistinct colour of her irises. Her golden retriever — Bernard — sat across her feet, panting softly, keeping her grounded. She had responded to our invitation with dutiful attendance, but unfortunately her sister, Christine Hopton, was busy with other matters, so the representative of Brinkwood’s cosmic cone-snail had to come alone. But she was never alone, was she? A quartet of bubble-servitors had accompanied her; when she’d arrived, we had all assumed the pneuma-somatic bubble creatures would stay beyond the property line, as one of them had before. But as Amanda had entered the house, her bodyguards had settled on the roof, to watch, and wait.

We did trust them now, sort of, after the events at Geerswin Farm. I trusted Hringewindla, anyway. And the house didn’t buck them off, so we let them stay.

Nicole repeated herself, running a hand through her recently shortened hair. “It’s still cheating. Come on, I thought you’d have a magic solution to this. Animate some broomsticks. Summon a dragon. Turn him into a frog.”

Jan gave Nicole the smile of the con woman who knows she has been rumbled, but lives the role too much to give it up. “Never apply a magical solution when you can just rely on mundane reality. It’s so much safer.” Jan sighed. “The artillery method doesn’t solve the problem of getting your book, though, so it’s a moot point anyway. Have I answered the question to your satisfaction, officer?”

Nicole stared at her, as if considering standing up. “Not an officer anymore.”

From her comfy seat on the sofa, Lozzie said: “The only good kinda cop!”

Nicole sighed and rolled her eyes. Jan pulled an awkward smile, but she nodded. Raine reached over and patted Nicole on the shoulder.

“Alright,” said Jan. “Can we get on with a summary now? Any further objections?”

Evelyn nodded. “Go ahead.”

Zheng rumbled, from by the sofa: “Get on with it, wizard.”

“My pleasure,” said Jan.

She glanced back at the borrowed whiteboard. She had it propped up on the table, leaning against a small stack of books. It was nowhere near as impressive as the board on wheels which we’d used before the spell at Geerswin Farm, but then again, Christine Hopton was a school teacher, so she had that sort of thing knocking around. This tiny little whiteboard had been volunteered by Kimberly; it had formerly been covered with really quite sweet self affirmations, a few little notes about a writing project which she quickly erased, and a drawing of an alien who was also a wizard and an elf. She’d been eager to scrub it all so she could contribute: “I don’t mind, I’ll just take a picture first.”

We were all gathered in the magical workshop — and I do mean all of us, not just me myself and I. Nicole and Amanda had both responded to our invitations. Twil and Zheng had returned together from the stakeout, apparently after a bit of a race back to the house; Twil seemed none the worse for wear, still happily tearing into her orange chicken, but Zheng was brooding, quietly irritated by the presence of July. The other demon host kept shadowing her around the room like a lost puppy. Zheng was currently leaning on the wall next to the sofa, shadowing Lozzie in turn. Sevens and Aym sat a little apart, perhaps indicating that they couldn’t really help very much. Felicity and Kimberly stuck close to each other.

And Evelyn had pointedly and wordlessly detached herself from the comfort of my tentacle.

I couldn’t work out why and I was trying not to worry myself, but the correlation was clear; earlier, when having a good shout at Jan, Evelyn had been perfectly happy for me to hold her arm close, hold her back from poor decisions, and entwine my tentacle with her.

But then she’d been critiqued for her failures — and separated from me.

She sat right next to Twil, closer than I had expected; one or two of my tentacles kept drifting upward to examine them together, sending little tingles of jealousy back down into my torso.

Praem attended to all, as usual. Raine was by my side. Lozzie was comfy on the sofa. Tenny was still crammed in the doorway, but she had been allowed one tentacle inside the workshop, to wrap around ‘Lozz-mum’s’ arm. She needed a hand to hold, with all these scary subjects of discussion.

The only one missing was Amy Stack.

Raine had called her earlier, to see if the missing mercenary had wanted to be involved. But she’d gotten the same response as before Geerswin farm: fifteen seconds of silence on the other end of the phone, followed by a dial tone. Stack was listening, but refused involvement.

“She’s doing this her own way,” Raine had said, when both I and Evelyn had expressed concerns. “I trust her.”

Evelyn had almost spluttered at that. “You trust her?! Raine, I do not trust that woman an inch. I believe she will do as she’s told because we’re protecting her boy, nothing else. I have her leash, not her trust.”

“Still,” Raine had said. “She’s more like me than I wanna admit. Let her do this her own way. It’ll pay off.”

Evee had huffed and stomped off at that. But I’d wanted to believe. Raine was often right about these things.

Jan uncapped her red marker pen again and drew three wobbly enclosures — it would be far too charitable to call them circles — around three different areas of the little whiteboard, around the notes she’d already made. Then she tapped the largest one.

“Option number one,” Jan said. “Frontal assault. You march up to the house, knock down the front door, and go room to room. Simple, straightforward, and very risky.”

Raine pointed double finger-guns at Jan, flicking her thumbs like the hammers of twin revolvers. “My kinda style, babe.”

Soup — Nicole’s dog — followed the finger-gun gesture, ears perking up. So did I. The dog and I looked at each other for a long moment. Ah, I thought, I have become dog-like.

“Mmmm!” Twil agreed around a mouthful of half-chewed chicken, then swallowed before speaking. “Yeah, I’m with Raine on that. We can take him. We’ve taken worse.”

Felicity sighed heavily. Zheng just rumbled, like the underground echoes of volcanic motion.

Evelyn snorted again. “You make it sound so simple.”

Jan pulled a delicate little grimace. “Yes, it wouldn’t be as straightforward as all that. I do hope that’s been made clear to the more hot-headed members of this little alliance. This isn’t going to be like playing a computer game where nobody shoots back at you.”

“Ha,” Evelyn barked. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the sigil.”

She pointed at the photograph which Jan had tucked into the top right of the whiteboard — it showed a front view of Edward’s house, the grandly crooked structure framed by dense woodland, the gravel driveway in front and a hint of the gardens behind. The heavy black beams and tiny metal-latticed windows of the house charted a secret word in an unspoken language.

I could almost read it, if I squinted hard enough. Two of my tentacles rose and bobbed next to my head whenever we tried, adding their neurons to the task. But after a few seconds the effort spiked into a headache. Edward Lilburne had baked something subtle and strange into the fabric of his home.

Jan nodded. “Yes, I know. We’d have to damage the front of the house first. Break a beam, maybe two. I’m not sure.”

Evelyn leaned forward in her chair, one hand heavy on her walking stick. “We have no idea what that sigil does. Disrupting it—”

“Is dangerous, yes,” Jan admitted. “But as far as a frontal confrontation goes, it’s our only option for dealing with the problem.” Jan put one dainty little hand out before Evelyn could interrupt. “The point is to summarise. Yes, it’s dangerous.”

Evelyn hurrumphed, making clear her objection.

Jan continued, “As for once we’re in there, well.” She cast a look around the room, deep-sea eyes bright with optimism for once. “We have a small army of pneuma-somatic blob monsters, courtesy of the … um … Church.” She nodded to Amanda. “In addition, three demon hosts, one regenerating werewolf, four mages, one trigger-happy butch—” Raine cheered softly “—and Heather. Lozzie, Tenny, detective Webb, Miss … Seven, and ‘Aym’, we are assuming will not be involved in direct hostilities.” Jan paused, then pulled a sort of funny reverse-smile, tilting her head at the same time. “You know what? That’s actually not bad. I’ve been involved in fights with far worse odds than that. This is really quite a lot of terrifying, dangerous people all gathered in one place.”

Evelyn said, slowly and dangerously, “We have no idea what he has inside those walls. We know from bitter experience that he’s not afraid to summon physical entities from Outside, warp them and torture them into killing machines, and then throw them at us. This is real magecraft, not a play fight with a toy gun.”

Raine said, “But we’d be the ones on the front foot. I like those odds too, Evee. I really like ‘em.”

Evelyn snapped, “And I don’t. I object to any plan which requires us to put any person in this room in danger.”

At the rear of the room, Felicity muttered: “Gonna be hard to find a way that doesn’t.”

“Yeah,” Raine said, “Evee, we can’t do this without some risk.”

Evelyn’s gaze bored into Raine, so hot and hard that I thought even Raine would back up or flinch. But she held firm, relaxed and easy, as always.

Evelyn said, “Would you be willing to risk Heather? Should I risk Praem? How about you, Felicity, are happy to put Kimberly there in harm’s way? You, Twil, are you happy with me standing in the way of a bullet?”

Twil paused, mouth full of chicken, eyes wide as she was pinned to the spot. “Um. No?”

The argument skipped back and forth but we tuned it out; this option was always disfavoured. For what it was worth, we agreed with Evee. We could never forgive ourselves if somebody died walking up to that house, for me, for Maisie. We tried to imagine Evelyn not coming back, or Raine getting shot — again — or Praem ending up in a bottle like before, trapped and alone. None of those things were acceptable outcomes. We had to find a better way.

And we knew all too well what it was going to be. Jan was just taking her sweet time getting there.

But as Jan had listed our forces, I felt something new creep up from the base of my gut. I looked around at the others — at Zheng and Praem, at Amanda on the far side of the room, at Sevens sitting daintily with Aym perched in her lap, at Felicity and Kimberly quite close together. A year ago I could not have imagined this — this gathering of supernatural power, this loose alliance of found family and hangers-on, all of us aimed at the same target.

And I was the closest thing they had to an angel, somebody who could protect and bypass all of them.

Jan was in the middle of listing potential downsides: “—inevitable violence, of course, possibly close and personal, and—”

Evelyn butted in again. “And we will still have to deal with the mage himself.”

Jan nodded slowly. At the rear of the room, Felicity cleared her throat, but said nothing. Over on the sofa, Lozzie chewed on her lower lip. Tenny’s tentacle tightened on Lozzie’s hand. The dogs both perked up, sensing the tension in the room. Bernard closed his eyes when Amanda scratched under his chin, but Soup stared — at me.

“We’ve killed a mage before,” I said, talking to the dog for some reason.

Jan glanced at me, then sighed. “You put down a relatively young and inexperienced magician. But … we have four mages in this very room. I don’t like the idea of a magical duel any more than Evelyn does. But, four versus one. Again, I like those odds.”

Evelyn said, voice crackling like a fire: “There are mages and there are mages.”

Felicity said, “Yeah. True.”

Jan winced, slowly. “True, but four on one … ”

Evelyn carried on. “Every mage in this room is mostly human. Even you.”

“Oh, thank you,” Jan said with more than a touch of sarcasm. “But I take your point. We know very little about Edward’s possible … changes.” She shot a glance at Lozzie, but Lozzie shrugged beneath her poncho, shaking her head. “Alexander was capable of resisting physical trauma. It’s likely the uncle is too. So, yes. It would come down to a magical duel.”

“Or mathematical,” I said.

Jan puffed out a big sigh. She didn’t want to think about that. I almost retreated back into my shell — but in the corner of my eye, Evelyn glanced at me, then looked away. Even a mote of her interest was enough to rouse me.

I swallowed, and said: “If you can get me face-to-face with him, with all his protection stripped away, with nothing to distract or trick me, then I can just … I can … ”

We glanced at Tenny, with head and all tentacles. Tenny looked back, placid with understanding. She knew what I was talking about.

Booooooom,” she fluttered.

I blushed faintly, nodding along. “Yes. If I could just touch him. Or maybe not even touch him, I may be able to do it at a distance. I’ll just … render him down, at the atomic level.”

Sevens suddenly said, “No splitting the atom, not again. Bad kitten.”

“Tch!” we tutted, blushing horribly. “Sevens! This is a serious meeting.”

“And I am serious,” she said. “No splitting the atom.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “I’m with yellow, don’t go blowing anything up so close to your face, hey?”

Jan was frowning in wordless concern. We decided it was better not to explain that I might potentially be able to set off a nuclear chain-reaction.

Evelyn spoke up and killed the brief frivolity. “He will be protected.”

She wasn’t looking at me. She wasn’t looking at anybody. She was staring at a point on the far wall, eyes somewhere far away. Her knuckles were turning white on the handle of her walking stick.

We knew, without needing to ask, that she was thinking about her mother.

We reached out to her with a tentacle, uncoiling toward Evelyn with the hope of soothing her fears. But Twil was so much closer. Twil was right next to her. The werewolf closed a hand over Evelyn’s knuckles. I felt the most unworthy pang of jealousy in my chest.

“Evee,” Twil said. “Hey hey hey, Evee? Cool it, okay?”

Evelyn huffed, snapping around to stare at her, unimpressed, shaking off her hand. “Yes. Fine. Still, the point stands. He’ll be protected.”

I cleared my throat, swallowing bile that Twil did not deserve. “You mean against hyperdimensional mathematics? Evee? Is that what you mean?”

Oh, please look at me, Evee. What have we done wrong? Was it our tentacles?

Was it?

Evelyn’s eyes traced private patterns on the floorboards. “Against anything and everything. Mages do not reach such an advanced age without extreme caution. You should not assume that self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics will be a trump card. Don’t get complacent.”

We swallowed. Evee would not look. Why would she not look? “Okay, Evee. I promise. I won’t rush in alone. I promise you.”

Evelyn took a deep breath, nodded awkwardly, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “That rules out option two, then. Doesn’t it?”

Jan spoke before I could say anything. “Actually,” she said with a delicate click of her lips, “I think option two is the most viable.”

“No,” said Evelyn.

Zheng grunted. “Mm. I agree with the wizard. No.”

“Yeah, nah,” said Raine.

We said nothing. The burden lay heavily across our shoulders. We knew option two was the sensible option, the one which kept everybody else safe, the one way of doing this which was so self-evident that I had waited all through the strategy meeting for Jan to suggest it. And she had. She’d written it up, asked the right questions, and even outlined some of the problems and pitfalls.

But now, faced with a barrage of objections, she sighed. “Can I summarize it anyway?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to say no, but I spoke first, goaded by more than jealousy and spite: “Please do, Jan. Please do.”

Jan gestured at the second bubble on the whiteboard. It was the smallest. Option two needed no calculations or complex planning. “Option two. Heather uses her very illegal teleportation powers and goes in alone, then—”

Or,” Evelyn demanded.

Jan paused, pursed her lips, and added: “Or alongside Lozzie. In case one of them is incapacitated.”

Lozzie offered nothing. She seemed to shrink inside her poncho. Zheng reached over and placed one massive hand atop Lozzie’s head.

“Like I said,” Raine repeated. “Nah. No way.”

“Raine … ” we said, softly. “It might be the safest way.”

Evelyn snapped without looking at me, “We have no idea what is inside that house. He trapped you once, he can do it again. And that sigil could do anything. It could turn you inside out. No.”

We took a shuddering breath. We did not want our friends to get hurt. And we were robust now, in a way we were not before. “We only need the book, Evee. If I can pinpoint it—”

“Which you can’t,” Evelyn said, “because we don’t even know what it looks like.”

“Mmmmmmm,” went Seven-Shades-of-Soft-Disagreement. “We will not have you and little Loz wander the dark places for hours, searching for a book, or a library, or a hidden safe. Too much of a risk.”

Evelyn nodded to Sevens. “Thank you.”

Amanda Hopton spoke up again, channelling her god: “Heather doesn’t deserve to face this alone. And the sigil … sigil. Sigil? It’s not safe. My … he agrees. This is a bad point. I mean, bad choice. Not good. Let’s not.”

Everyone waited for her to finish.

Jan stood there with pursed lips. Evelyn levelled a stare at her. Jan rolled her eyes and gave up first. She said, “If you’re not willing to risk anybody, then we’re not going to get anywhere.”

“I am aware of that,” Evelyn said. “But no. Nobody goes in alone. Nobody does this alone. Not Heather.”

I hung my head, face burning with shame and confusion. I had promised no self-sacrifice, no charging in by myself — but the alternative was to risk injury, pain, and death among my friends and family, my closest, my pack. Abyssal instinct and all seven of me rebelled against that notion with all my soul. I would not let others sacrifice themselves for me. I should be there to walk through any danger.

An angel of the Eye, but bound by too much love. I could not reconcile these promises.

And Jan was right — Evee would brook no risk, to anybody. Especially me.

Was that why she wouldn’t look at me? Why she’d rejected my touch? Because she felt it too, she knew the truth, that me going in by myself was the most sensible option?

Jan clacked her pen against the whiteboard. “Option three, then!” she said. “Option three. Oh, how I love this one. It’s been a long time since I got to blow anything up.”

Raine made purring noise deep in her throat. “I like me some option three.”

Twil snorted. “You would.”

Nicole sighed. “Yeah, steady on, Haynes. Seriously. This is risky stuff we’re talking about here. This would be domestic terrorism.”

Raine laughed and cocked an eyebrow at Nicky. “You helped me suggest it, detective. Take responsibility, hey?”

I raised my voice, “This is a group effort. If we agree on this, it’ll be a group effort too. Please, Raine?”

Raine spread her hands in gentle surrender. “I’m just saying. Plus hey, Nicky, that’s not terrorism, by definition. Don’t be teaching Tenny wrong.”

“Option three,” Jan repeated over the blossoming argument. “Car bomb.”

Felicity said, “I really don’t like this one either.”

Kimberly made a little squeak, and said, “Me as well. Um. I don’t think we should be doing this.”

Jan glanced at the numbers scrawled across one third of the whiteboard, the ones Raine had added, with an expertise I’d never expected. “Well, more like ‘truck bomb’. We steal a lorry — a big one — load it up with a lot — and I do mean a lot — of explosives, and then drive it into that house.”

Raine grinned wide, loving every second of this. “The ol’ spicy Beirut embassy special.”

Nicole huffed so hard that her dog flinched. “See? Definitionally terrorism, Haynes.”

Twil snorted into her last piece of chicken. “Oh fu— fiddlesticks. Come on, you two, stop it.”

Boooooooom,” said Tenny.

“No, Tenns,” Lozzie said, gently. “No funny boom.”



Jan cleared her throat. “A couple of hundred pounds of explosives should level the entire building. Nothing would be left standing.”

Evelyn drawled, “The sigil might.”

Jan cleared her throat. “Except the sigil. Um.” She pulled a grimace. “I have to admit, I don’t much like this plan either. It’s … well. Difficult. Flashy. Risky. Loud. All bad things.”

Raine said, softly, “We can do it.”

Lozzie, surprisingly, said, “Yeah!”

Raine shot Lozzie a wink and a finger gun. Lozzie giggled and blew a kiss back at her, with a flap of poncho.

Nicole sighed. “On a technical level, sure, it’s not actually that hard. If you lot really can get in and out of places without being stopped or detected, building a really big bomb is very simple. Dangerous though.”

Jan nodded curtly to the detective. “Well put. If this was to go wrong, somebody would lose more than a hand or an eye.”

Raine turned back to her. “It’s easy. I know how to do it.”

Jan pursed her lips and stared at Raine. “You don’t have any real demolitions experience. What you have is a half-remembered pdf file of the US Army Improvised Munitions handbook.”

We winced, expecting an argument. But Raine burst out laughing and spread her hands in a shrug. “You got me there.”

Felicity, to everyone’s surprise, said very softly and very gently: “I know how to make bombs.”

Raine turned and raised her eyebrows. “You serious, Fliss?”

“Yes. Scaling up is not too hard. As long as we have good quality equipment, I could do it safely. I would … ” Felicity paused, swallowed, and glanced at Kimberly. Kim did not look comfortable, half frozen. “I would rather not. I vote against this plan. But I thought you ought to know. That’s all.”

Evelyn watched the exchange, detached and frowning. We cleared our throat and said, “Evelyn, what do you think?”

Evee glanced at me, just for a moment, then looked away again. She sighed heavily. “I prefer it to a magical duel, but Jan is correct. The chances of blowing ourselves to kingdom come is too great. Plus we risk attention from mundane authorities.”

“Mmhmm,” Jan agreed. “We don’t know how well his house is ‘insulated’, magically speaking. We let off a giant bomb in the middle of the English countryside, we’re going to make the news.”

We sighed. “A bomb like that might also destroy the book,” I said. “That’s the reason for all this in the first place.”

Jan nodded. “Quite, Heather. Quite right.”

“It’s no better than me just sending the entire building and all the contents Outside.”

Jan continued nodding, radiating false sagely wisdom. Raine clapped me on the back, congratulating my good point, though her face was lined with disappointment. Somebody — Felicity I think — muttered: “Scary.” Zheng grunted. Sevens tutted delicately.

Twil, though, let out a big sigh, slumping back in her chair and gesturing with her now-empty plate. “Ahhhh come on, Evee. You can’t veto all three plans, right? Right?” She gestured with the plate again — Praem plucked it out of her hand before it could go flying across the room. “We gotta do something. We gotta do one of them.”

Evelyn muttered: “No, we don’t.”

And there was light in her voice. Light, and hope, and energy. Because of Twil? Because of Twil. Because of Twil’s hand on her shoulder, Twil’s encouragement. The roots of my tentacles twisted with a jealousy I dared not show; what right did I have, anyway? What right did I—

But then Evelyn looked up.

At me.

I blinked back at her, flustering under the sudden scrutiny. I was so obvious, three of my tentacles went stiff with embarrassment. “E-Evee?”

“Heather,” she said. “What if you do that anyway?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Send the whole house Outside.”

“But we’d lose the book. We’d—”

“To Camelot.” She sighed, and for the first time that day I saw a hint of something other than bitterness in her face. She smiled, ever so slightly. “That name is so stupid, I hate it.”

Lozzie said, “Noooo, it’s great!”

Tenny agreed. “Cammy-lot!”

Praem intoned, “Camelot.”

Raine cheered: “Camelot!”

Jan winced and rolled her eyes. “Please don’t break into song.”

“Camelot,” said July, like a knife coated with ice.

Evelyn waved them down, gesturing with the head of her walking stick, then focused on me again. “Is that possible, Heather? Could you send the entire building, foundations and all, to Camelot?” Her eyes bored into mine, twin jewels in a soft, round face. We felt like an insect, about to be pinned. She must have misunderstood my hesitation, because she added: “Be honest. Don’t tell me you can if you can’t.”

We stared at her. A trio of our tentacles began to twist and whirl, their neurons considering the mathematics, the implications, the logistics of such a task. My mouth went dry. My scalp began to tingle. My palms felt suddenly sweaty — and not just because of the sheer intimidating effort of what Evelyn was suggesting, but because of the way she looked at us in that moment.

Look at me! Look at us! Look what we’ve become!

For the last three days, every day since we had emerged from the dream whole and complete, Evelyn had looked at me as if something about me was wrong now, but she couldn’t bring herself to hurt me by putting it into words. She hid it well, and her objections to the plans made it clear she valued my safety even above her own, but she couldn’t entirely conceal her distance, her reticence, her lack of certainty in me.

I didn’t understand why. And it hurt, more than a little.

But now, she stared back into my eyes with a twinkle of mischievous victory. Because of me.

I would send the world Outside, if she asked.

“Um,” I stammered, wetting my lips, trying to gather my thoughts. “It’s not impossible. In theory. In theory, I could send the whole house to Camelot, yes. I’d need to be close, close enough to touch the ground, I … think. I think it would be easier to send it along with as much ground, or dirt, or earth as I need. A-and … and it would hurt, a lot. I think it would probably put me ‘out of action’—” I did little air quotes with two tentacles “—for a day, maybe two, in a similar way to when I located the house. It would … collapse my … um, tentacles.”

Evelyn’s eyes left mine for a split-second. I wouldn’t have noticed, had I not been staring. Her eyes left me and graced all the other me, the six tentacles hanging in the air, bobbing and ducking, some already reaching toward her in subconscious hope.

And something inside her eyes froze over.

She hid it well.

And then back to me — me.

“But you could do it?” she asked.

I nodded, quivering slightly, still half-reaching for Evee with a tentacle — but she ignored the gesture, hands planted firmly on her walking stick. “Evee, what are you thinking?”

Evelyn stood up.

Praem helped her stand, but once she was up, she stood straighter than she had in days. The frustrated anger was gone from her face, replaced with something more amused and confident. She stepped over to Jan and the whiteboard and held out her hand.


Jan handed her the pen.

Evelyn crossed out options one, two, and three, and wrote a phrase in the middle of the board: combined arms.

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said. Her voice glowed with admiration. I swelled alongside her — but I couldn’t get Evee’s look just now out of my head, the way she had looked at us, swallowing something she dared not speak. “What are you thinking?” Raine asked.

Evelyn nodded to Jan, then to the rest of the room. “We do a little bit of all three plans: mundane blunt force, frontal assault, and perhaps even a little bit of infiltration. But not here.” She shook her head. “We do it in Camelot. We get Heather close enough to translocate the entire house, the grounds, all of it.” Evelyn chopped the air with a hand. “She dumps the whole thing into a specifically prepared area out in Camelot. We have the Knights, and the Caterpillars.” Evelyn’s eyes flickered to Lozzie. “Loz—”

“They can do it,” Lozzie answered before the question was even asked. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes wide as they could go in their sleepy sockets, a touch of awe on her face. She nodded. “They can surround the house. They can do it! The cattys are amazing! I promise!”

Evelyn nodded, curt and confident. “They need a shakedown before Wonderland, anyway.” She was speaking so hard she was almost panting. “So, we put the entire house in Camelot. Out there we don’t have to worry about mundane authorities. We hit the front with a a bomb — or a Caterpillar?” Lozzie was nodding along. “Disrupt the sigil, break whatever it does. Then we can enter, or sit back and wait. We can rely on the Knights, or demand Edward show himself. We will have so many more options. We can bury him at our leisure.”

Felicity started clapping. Evelyn frowned, and for a moment I thought the clapping was sarcastic. But then Felicity said, “Good. Yeah.” Raine joined in. Twil threw a fist in the air and went: “Yeah!” Tenny made an excited trilling noise.

Zheng rumbled, “The shaman opens the way.”

Amanda Hopton muttered: “I approve too. This is, safer? It is much safer. And away from us. We will lend what we can.”

Nicole crossed her arms, then uncrossed them so she could pet her dog, scratching behind her ears. Soup made a happy whine. “You people are terrifying,” Nicky said. Jan gave her a sympathetic look. Nicole nodded back.

Evelyn stood up even straighter, forcing her weight onto her walking stick. “Then we’re agreed.”

Praem intoned, clear as a little bell: “Well done.”

Jan sighed a tight little sigh. “Why didn’t you say any of this earlier?”

Evelyn snorted. “Because I didn’t think of it earlier. Because I’ve barely had time to think at all. Because I was … compromised.”

A cold feeling blossomed in my chest, ice in my heart. Compromised by me.

Raine said, “You’ve gotten your mojo back, Evee.”

Evelyn pulled a face. “Don’t put it like that. And hardly. I still don’t know what to do about that sigil. We can’t identify it, let alone prepare for it. I don’t like that. We need countermeasures, prepared for the worst. Besides, we’re hardly done, this is still going to need a lot of figuring out, a lot of going over details. How to get Heather close to that house without putting her in danger, that’s the biggest problem. We’re still going to be walking up to that bloody place—”

“Bloody!” Tenny trilled. She knew that word already.

Lozzie told her off, gently. Twil started laughing. Nicole too, finally relaxing a little bit. All throughout the room, the tension began to lift, for everyone except me. Evelyn and Jan fell into a discussion over details, but I was tuning out, barely even aware when Raine stood up and detached herself from the arm-embrace of our tentacles. I was dimly aware of her wandering over to the whiteboard, phone in hand, and taking a picture of the photograph of Edward’s house. Her fingers flew over the screen.

Evelyn had been compromised — because something about me had changed.

I wanted to leave. We wanted to go upstairs and sit in the dark.

Or go Outside.


Up at the front of the room, Raine was fiddling with her phone, but Jan suddenly turned and clicked her fingers in my direction. “Heather?”

Evelyn was saying, “—not necessary, Jan. We’re fine. It’s not needed. Stop it. Stop.”

But Jan was already gesturing at me, and gesturing at Evelyn. “You two are coming with me, alone, right now, to the nearest private room. Whatever is going on, you’re talking it out.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap. My tentacles coiled inward, to hide me inside a protective ball. I did not want to know.

“Ah!” Jan said before we could lash out or retreat. “I’m not having the two linchpins of this plan staying buried in a sapphic feud. You’re talking it out, now. Or I’ll request Praem and Zheng carry you for me.” She clicked her fingers again. “Now. Private room. Chop chop.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A number of very messy options, some of which are really too dangerous for a bunch of non-professionals to be messing around with! Bombs, really? Probably not a great idea. Clearly the safer option is to teleport an entire chunk of rural England to a parallel dimension. Yes, very sensible, very proportional. Heather can probably do it, though! Jan turns out to be actually a pretty good organiser, even if she would rather not be. Meanwhile, what the hell is going on with Evelyn? Well, Heather is about to find out, and so are we!

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Next week, it’s time for a very difficult heart to heart. Will Evee and Heather finally discuss the giant elephant in the room? Or is Evelyn feeling uncomfortable about what Heather has become?