luminosity of exposed organs – 20.11
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Gore
Bullet wounds
Mentions of suicide

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Each and every window watched over a different place.

Plains of heat-baked brass and black volcanic sand beneath burning triple suns split like the broken shells of just-born star behemoths. Vast domes of diamond growing upside-down from clouds of toxic green and purple over a landscape of algae towers like climbing fingers. Flat oceans of silver metal from horizon to horizon, bulging beneath with the passage of lithophagic leviathans. Rambling cities of dun-brown sandstone and five-pointed public squares, inhabited only by distant vegetable wanderers on far-off ruined ridge-ways. Fungal groves and dripping world-caves; broken cliff-edges of eye-searing unearthly colour, and towering temples of pulsating flesh; dark corridors and windswept moors; curious watchers between the rocks, crouching in tidal pools, whistling to each other with pipe-organs in their fluted rears; deserts, swamps, boreal nightmares; roads the width of cities leading nowhere on seamless marble tracks; cities empty and dead and full of lumbering half-skinned eaters; eye-stalks looking back or pretending not to see; library shelves dimly recognised; vistas unending, worlds uncountable.

No two windows showed the same dimension, even those barely six inches apart. From kitchen, to corridor, to sitting room, every single one was different.

Outside, in all its inhuman variety, separated from us by nothing more than a few panes of glass and an occasional bit of metal lattice.

“These can’t be actual gateways,” said Evelyn. “They can’t. They’re windows, literally and figuratively, there’s no other explanation.”

She scarcely dared to whisper the words, lest something on the other side overhear us.

Raine said, “We could crack a window and find out?”

“Absolutely not!” Evelyn hissed back. “There’s no magic, there’s no circles, there’s nothing. Windows, literally. They must be windows, but even that, on such a scale, I don’t … I don’t … ”

We tapped the glass with a tentacle-tip. Evelyn flinched. Nothing responded.

Evelyn’s fears were unfounded; the windows did not seem to transmit sound. I pressed a tentacle to several different portals, feeling for vibrations in the air, the rumble of far-off giants, or a hint of whispers carried from unseen mouths. I even pressed my ear to a window — that of a particularly desolate but windswept plain, where pale grub-like trees swayed and whipped. But there was nothing. No sound. Nothing to be heard.

We crept along together almost on automatic, mesmerized by the dizzying potential of this House, baited and hooked by impossible view after impossible view. Evelyn stumbled and staggered, eyes wide, face gone pale, clinging to Praem’s arm. Raine stuck to my side like glue, her hands sweaty on her stolen gun as she pointed it at doorways and down corridors. The Knights did their best to flank us, shepherd us, protect us, because we were all numb to consequence.

We were a terrible sight, panting and wide-eyed and quivering with confusion. We hadn’t really recovered from the bomb, from separation with the others, from our ringing ears and shocked senses and dozen bruises. Wandering like car crash victims through lost hallways, mouths open in awestruck numbness.

Raine tried her best. Kept her gun steady. But even she was lost.

Eventually, after a dozen — or two dozen, or three dozen, I lost count, head spinning — we managed to plant our feet and stop swaying, in a sitting room which mercifully had only a single window; that portal looked out over a boiling mudflat. Inoffensive and bland.

Yet another sitting room, upholstered in dark leather and wallpapered in deep green, with soft sofas and stone fireplace and fancy mantelpiece strung with humming, meaningless, nonsense electronics: fairy lights and hard drives, record players and keyboards, disassembled lamps and flayed toasters, all wired together in an unending web.

I clutched my squid-skull helmet against my belly. My yellow cloak was warm and enclosing around my shoulders.

But—

“Sevens?” I croaked. “Sevens? Sevens?”

“Don’t think she’s here, Heather,” Raine whispered.

“Then where … ?”

Evelyn shook her head. She was breathing too hard. She flinched when I reached out to take her arm with one tentacle. “This is … this is all … ”

“You’re going to say it’s impossible,” I hissed. “Aren’t you?”

Evelyn’s stare was unblinking — and more unnervingly, not at all angry. “Well,” she said. “Well. Well.” Then she swallowed. “Well, I s-suppose it’s not impossible, because it’s right here. We’re looking at it.”

“Evee,” I croaked. “It’s going to be—”

“Okay?” Evelyn squeaked. She swallowed again. “Heather, it already exists. There’s nothing okay about that.”

“Windows,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn’s gaze flicked round to her, too fast and too sharp. “Oh, yes, you think that makes it better? That they’re just windows?”

“Windows,” Praem repeated.

“Evee,” I tried again. “Calm down, please, we have to—”

“Have to what?” Evelyn spat. Her lips were pressed too tightly, her eyes gone far too wide, blinking too rapidly. “Have to what, Heather? Investigate? Destroy all this? Oh yes, oh yes, that is abundantly clear — we should have burned this place to the ground, not dragged it Outside.” I winced, but Evee kept going. “But it exists in the first place, the knowledge to make it exists in the first place—”

“Evee—”

“And that can’t!” Evelyn’s voice rose into a frightening shout. “Be! Un—”

Raine stepped up. A firm hand fell on Evelyn’s shoulder. An expression crossed Raine’s face that I’d never seen before, serious and soft and sorrowful all at once. Evelyn flinched hard, but Raine cupped the back of her neck — a surprisingly intimate gesture. Evelyn swallowed and shivered and started to shake her head.

“Evelyn,” Raine whispered — though we were all close enough to overhear, no secrets between us three. “I’ll get you out of here. And I’ll kill the evil wizard for you, too.”

Evelyn just stared up at Raine’s eyes, blinking and panting.

“I’ve got your back,” Raine said. “Remember?”

Evelyn blinked once, very hard, and took a great shuddering breath, visibly pulling herself together. “Yes— yes, I— remember.”

Quickly and firmly, Evelyn peeled herself out of Raine’s grip. Raine stepped back with a little theatrical flourish, giving Evee room to breathe. Before I could ask a single question about what I’d just witnessed, Evelyn pawed at one of my tentacles and allowed it to wrap around her free arm, safe and secure and well-anchored.

There was no time to discuss it right then, deep in the labyrinthine bowels of a mage’s impossible living construct, cut off from half our companions, pressed by the desperate need to decide our next step — but I was quite certain that I had just been privy to a replay of a conversation from many years ago, an act of initial devotion between two very scared teenage girls, and an original promise to help each other kill a mage.

Sometimes it was easy to forget the strength of the bond between Raine and Evelyn — and that it pre-dated me, by several years.

“Are you all right now, Evee?” I asked.

Evelyn sighed sharply. “For a given value of ‘all right’, I suppose.” She glanced at the single window in the machine-cluttered sitting room and shook her head in disgust. “I don’t understand how he’s taken this so far in such a short time. I knew — I knew! — that he must be trying to reverse-engineer the gateway spell he stole from us, after he used it to reach Carcosa. Any mage would do. I assumed, perhaps, maybe, he might figure out how to re-target it, yes, but only in the most vague terms. Only to somewhere he already knew about. Perhaps the swamp full of the creatures you saw, Heather. Or perhaps some other place, connected to some artefact he has access to. But this … ” She trailed off and took a deep, steadying breath. “This is more than I was prepared for.”

“It is a bit much,” Raine said. She even sighed, but it sounded like the kind of sigh one makes at rain on a lazy Sunday.

Evelyn tutted. “I don’t even really understand what he’s achieved here. I hate to admit it, I fucking loathe to admit it,” she said between her clenched teeth. “But I have no idea what we’re looking at. A multi-gate … hub? Like a fucking video game? Are they built into the house? Were they active before Heather pushed the house Outside? Was coming Outside some kind of catalyst?” She shrugged. “I have no idea. No idea. Felicity was right, the absolute bitch, she was right. I didn’t want to know any of this. I would have slept better without this knowledge.”

I croaked, “This doesn’t really change anything.”

Evelyn turned to stare at me; for a moment I worried she’d slipped over the edge again.

“Still flesh,” said Praem. “Still blood.”

“Yeeeeeeeah,” Raine agreed with a wink at Praem. “Our Praem’s got a good point. A bunch of windows doesn’t mean Eddy boy won’t bleed and die just the same, when we find him.”

Evelyn laughed, dark and humourless. “Raine. Raine, for pity’s sake, this whole house — this!” She gestured at the one window currently visible. “This is the work of a mage so far beyond me that I am terrified. This is beyond any of us. Beyond my mother. You think bullets will stop him? I disagree. We should be detonating this place.”

“Not beyond me,” I croaked. “Windows are just for … looking out of. Seeing. Observation.”

“Evee,” Raine repeated. “We need to stay practical. Link back up with the others, find Edward, kill him. Keep it simple.”

“Kiss,” said Praem.

“W-what?” I spluttered. Evelyn just frowned.

“Stupid,” Praem explained.

“K-I-S-S,” Raine spelled out. “Keep it simple, stupid. Right you are, Praem. Listen to your girl, Evee.”

Evelyn ran a hand over her face and glanced at the two opposite doorways which led out of the sitting room. “Raine, this place is a maze. For all we know it goes on functionally forever. The chance of linking back up with the others is minimal. If they have Lozzie with them, they may have fled back to Camelot, or home, already. Heather?”

Evelyn looked at me expectantly. I coughed and nodded. “I can Slip us out.”

“We’re quitting?” Raine said. “Heather?”

I shrugged. Evelyn wet her lips, caught in a moment of hesitation. I squeezed her arm with one tentacle. “That’s a pretty load-bearing ‘if’, Evee.”

“Ahhhh,” said Raine. “What if the others are all split up, right?”

“Lozzie … ” I murmured. “And … Zheng. That bomb. She might be … ”

Raine nodded seriously. “Zheng’s made of strong stuff, Heather. Even if she took the brunt of that explosion, she’ll be fine.”

I chewed on my lower lip. I couldn’t bear the thought of Lozzie, all alone and trapped in her uncle’s house, or Zheng, charred and blind and regenerating too slowly, at the mercy of whatever terrible things might be lurking and waiting to capture her — or worse.

“Shit,” Evelyn said, then swore three more times in quick succession. “Shit, you’re right. What if one of the others is alone and isolated?”

“We can’t,” I said. “Can’t leave. Not alone.”

“Yes!” Evelyn hissed. “I know! I bloody well know!”

Raine made a show of trying the walkie-talkie again, but nobody was answering. For a moment she looked down, her confidence sagging — but then she hefted the gun in her hands and raised her chin, tall and powerful and muscular all of a sudden. “Alright, ladies — and gentlemen, too.” She nodded to the Knights, to the Forest Knight in his distinctive armour. “Executive decision time. This here little expedition is now under military jurisdiction.” She cracked a huge, shit-eating grin and shot me a wink, rolling her shoulders and flexing her neck. The look on Raine’s face made me blush, but it caused Evelyn to roll her eyes and huff.

Praem, however, saluted. She even made her heels click.

“Thank you, Private Praem,” said Raine. “Now, here’s the plan. We should push on and see if we can find another one of those weird shadow-wall things. If we’re real lucky, they only separate two halves or three thirds of the house, something along those lines. Again, if we are four really lucky bitches — and six super auspicious heavy armour lads,” she added as she gestured at the Knights. “Then there’s a chance that finding one of those walls will let us rejoin the others.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth. “That is a hell of a long shot, Raine. We don’t know how any of this works. Going through another wall could end up leading us deeper. I don’t know what I’m looking at here — how many times must I repeat that?”

“Sure could.” Raine gestured at me. “But we’ve got Heather. So, it can’t hurt to try. If it doesn’t work, we bug out.”

“Ha!” Evelyn barked. “Can’t hurt to try? Famous last words, Raine! Don’t jinx us. We are slipping down the sides of a crisis here.”

“Evee,” I croaked. “If you insist, we won’t try. But I don’t want to risk leaving anybody behind. Not even a Knight.” I wrapped another tentacle around the nearest Knight-arm — that of the Forest Knight. He didn’t react at all, but neither did he reject the touch. “Evee, do you insist?”

Evelyn gritted her teeth, then looked away and shook her head. “We can try. That’s it. If something goes wrong, we leave, we get out. Try something else. Have the Caterpillars demolish this place from the exterior. We need to get everyone out.”

“Right,” Raine said with a curt nod. “Praem, how you holding up with those wounds?”

Praem did look a terrible mess. Her clothes were all torn and charred on one side, from where she’d shielded Evelyn with her own body. Shrapnel cuts and surface burns showed through rents in her jumper, but there was no blood from her pneuma-somatic flesh. Her hair was hanging down, freed from the usual messy bun. But she was straight-backed, clear-eyed, and providing much needed physical support for her mother.

“Genki,” said Praem. She gave Raine a thumbs-up.

Evelyn huffed like a bellows and rolled her eyes. Raine laughed and shook her head. I just reached over with a tentacle and patted Praem on the arm — the unburned one, in case she really was dealing with a lot of suppressed pain right then.

Raine addressed the Knights: “You lads all cool with the plan, too?” She got no response from five of them, but the Forest Knight answered for all, with a short dip of his helmet.

“Raine,” Evelyn said. “I hope I don’t have to say this, but if you see anything at all which looks even remotely like Edward—”

Raine did something which made the submachine gun in her hands go clack-clack again. “Blow him away. You bet, Evee. Fastest trigger in the west — of England, I mean.”

Evelyn hissed, not really amused. “Go for his knees if you can. I’d love a chance to question the bastard.”

“Evee,” I croaked. “What was that thing? The Edward … doll?”

Evelyn shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “We’ve seen him do that trick before. Remote piloting. He could have dozens of the things.” She frowned in thought. “Though he tipped his hand with that first one. I have no idea what that could mean, so keep on your toes.”

Raine said, “Hey, hey, what if it was the real Edward?”

“Lucky,” said Praem.

“Highly unlikely,” Evelyn grunted. Then: “Raine, are you really alright with that fucking thing?”

“Ah?”

“The gun, you idiot.”

I agreed, “It is rather a lot more gun than you’re used to.” Raine was being very careful where she pointed the muzzle, finger firmly off the trigger mechanism, but the sight of that black metal machine in her arms sent a strange quiver down my flesh.

“No worries, ladies, no worries.” Raine held the gun up sideways, so we could both see. She clicked a little dial round with her fingertip. “Safety — on. Now off. One shot, three shot, full auto.” She clicked the dial back round. “Safety is on. And here.” She pulled out the magazine and showed it to us. “Full rounds.” She slapped the magazine back in with a clack. “Shoulder up, down sights.” She pressed the gun to her shoulder and closed one eye. “I think I know what I’m doing.”

“You play too many video games,” I sighed — but the exasperation was an act. Raine’s easy confidence and instant competence was exactly what I needed right then. She must have seen the truth in my face, because she shot me a wink and a smile.

Praem intoned, “Not enough video games.”

Evelyn huffed. “Just don’t shoot either of us. Or Praem, or a Knight. Or your own foot.”

Raine winked. “On it, boss.”

“Be careful,” I croaked. “Please, Raine.”

“Always am, for you.”

With three Knights in front and three Knights behind, and Raine’s gun tucked in close, and Praem’s head high, and Evelyn’s hands on scrimshawed bone, and tentacles touching everyone I could reach, we plunged back into the House, looking for another void, another membrane to elsewhere.

The corridors and rooms did not repeat in a predictable pattern, but neither were they unreadable chaos; sitting rooms in plush opulence, kitchens both small and large, guest bedrooms which looked as if they had lain undusted for a week or two, dining rooms wide and fancy, but only the occasional utility room — with washing machine or dishwasher missing from beneath the counters, replaced with more wired-up machine nonsense — and the rare blocked corridor rammed full of too much racking and junk to pass through. And no stairs, either up or down.

Fairy lights fluttered and flushed. Disks and drives span in grand narcissism, unconnected to computers to make sense of their insides. Racking marched off down every corridor, a rickety rival to the shelves of the Library of Carcosa. Screens blushed and blinked, never to be read by sapient eyes. Knight-metal boots clicked and clinked alongside and behind. Tower shields heaved in silence. Raine’s gun swung left and right.

After perhaps five or ten minutes of walking, we found nothing new inside the house. Different variations, yes, spreading out into apparent infinity. Subtle changes to the layouts of the rooms, certainly. Even a few more dead demon-hosts, wired up to the machinery on metal frames, crucified, tied down, their heads turned to pulped meat and bone fragments by some as-yet-unknown assailant.

But outside the House — Outside?

Illimitable vistas.

Almost every room and corridor had at least one window, more often two, or even three. One particular sitting room had a whole bank of ceiling-height bay windows, each one looking out on a different Outside dimension. Bone-wrapped cave-like reaches into festering darkness, full of scuttling exoskeletons and their flesh-sack victims; broken landscapes of fire and the hulks of dead mountains ridden with worm-tunnels the size of skyscrapers; undulating plains of fluttering and flittering alveoli, caked in brown mucus and a million writhing parasites.

“Why so many windows here?” Raine wondered aloud. “Why so many in here, but none at the start?”

Evelyn said, “Try not to think about it. Focus on what we’re doing.”

“Shell,” said Praem.

“Huh?” Evelyn grunted.

“Shell. Innards.”

“Praem has a point,” I croaked. “I’m thinking the same thing. We’re in the guts, now. Or the … senses?”

The exterior layer of the House — the area before the first void-wall we had passed through — was like a shell or a skin, an impermeable outer layer, protective and hardened, without windows upon the Outside. But here, deeper into the organism, lay the information of sense organs, or the interface between food and gut, or thoughts inside a brain.

Raine shook her head. “We’ve seen this before.”

“Ahh?” I said. “We have?”

“Way back. Heather, remember when we went to the castle? All those loops of pocket dimension, leading us in circles?” She nodded at the walls. “Same thing. Like a Japanese castle. Layers of maze and traps and tricks. Doesn’t need high walls. Just tons of bullshit in our way. Maybe Edward designed that place, too. His style. His work.”

“Oh,” we murmured. “Oh. Maybe. Why does this keep happening? Why do we always keep getting lost in stupid, spooky houses?”

Evelyn huffed. “Mages have an unhealthy relationship with buildings. It’s a theory I’m working on.”

“Seriously?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “No, that was an attempt at a joke.” She huffed loudly, shaking her head. “If we hadn’t burst that initial void, the one in the front door, maybe it would have taken us straight to Edward. Damn it all. Explains how Badger got so far ahead of us, and how he left no signs behind. Fuck it.”

“Hey, hey,” said Raine. “No sense bellyaching now. We’re in it, so we’ll deal with it.”

More than once I had to pull Evelyn or Raine away from the sight of the unnumbered worlds of Outside. I had grown up with regular exposure to these brain paralysing landscapes, that sense of vast unknowable places in which a human being could wander for centuries. My friends had not. Some dimensions passed without comment; others stole the breath and sucked at the eyeballs. Raine would stare and Evelyn would turn pale, but Praem and I could turn them away from it all. Lucky for us the Knights were immune. The Forest Knight cared not for anything but us and his siblings.

We even found one window that almost definitely looked out on Camelot — the rolling yellow-grass hillsides, the purple light flooding down from above, the crystal whorls in the sky. But there was nothing in sight, no castle, no Cattys, no landmarks. We briefly debated trying to open the window — there was a catch and a latch, right there, and I ran a tentacle over it, testing for resistance. We even considered breaking the glass to clamber out.

Evelyn put her foot down. “There’s no point. If we want to escape, we can rely on Heather. Crawling out of a window into the middle of nowhere serves no purpose.”

But we were going nowhere anyway. Endless corridors, unnumbered windows, meaningless machines.

“This isn’t working,” Evelyn whispered between her teeth, when we stopped in yet another racking-lined corridor. “There’s nothing here. There’s nowhere to go, nothing to find but more of Outside, and I can’t … I can’t … ”

Praem placed one hand on the small of Evelyn’s back; Evee was shaking. Raine was sweating as well, breathing too hard.

I wasn’t in good shape, either — exhausted, sore all over, still sticky with the remnants of my own blood, my tentacles limp and soft like spent heat-sinks. But I wasn’t suffering from the overexposure to Outside, not like Raine and Evee. Sometimes it was too easy for us to forget that not all human beings were adapted for the inhuman conditions of unbroken exposure to the spheres beyond reality.

“So,” Raine said. “That’s it. We’re giving up? Pulling out? Full retreat?”

Evelyn swallowed very loudly. “T-the others … Twil … ”

Raine nodded. “Yeah, I’m not cool with leaving Zheng behind. Or anybody else. We don’t know … don’t know … ”

We raised our head and raised ourselves, six points of intimate contact strobing and pulsing in the still air. “We could touch the walls?” I said. “I mean, I could touch the walls? Talk to the House. Or to the machines.”

Raine gave me a serious, frowning look, nodding slowly. Evelyn grimaced, about to refuse, words caught on her tongue.

But then:

“Talking,” said Praem.

“Yes,” I croaked. “Like I did before. I could talk to the House, find out if—”

A soft and elegant finger pressed to my lips. “Shhh,” Praem hushed me. “Talking.”

For a heartbeat I assumed Praem was making some kind of esoteric point about how one did not need words to speak to a House. Evelyn must have assumed the same — I saw her roll her eyes. But Raine understood what Praem really meant; she tilted her head and raised a hand for silence.

We all listened.

Through the walls, down the corridors, behind the clicking and whirring and ticking and burbling of the little machines, a voice was muttering.

The words were impossible to make out, but the tone and pitch were unmistakable — rough, reedy, raspy, all throat and nose. Old. Tired. Angry.

Tower shields were raised. Raine flicked the safety off on her stolen gun. Evelyn shifted her hands on her scrimshawed thigh-bone and leaned heavily on Praem’s support. I shook out two tentacles and readied myself for calculations — I was aching and spent, but I could still send a person spinning off into the unknown dimensions of Outside.

If that still mattered, in this House.

We found the owner of the voice five rooms further on.

He was in yet another kitchen — a particularly large one, with granite counter-tops, silvery taps over a porcelain sink, and a massive wood-fired oven in one corner, still active and glugging away to itself with the fire banked behind metal doors. The floor was plain tile, the walls cream paint. A large kitchen island sat in the middle of the space. The edges of the floors were festooned with more of the House-wide electronic webbing. Three dead demon-hosts were lined up against the far wall, tied to their metal frames, beheaded.

Sitting on that kitchen island, with his feet far off the floor and a slumped pose more like a grumpy teenager than an old man, was Edward Lilburne.

Or one of his puppets.

He looked identical to every previous iteration: in his seventies or eighties, with a pale and bloodless complexion, face and head craggy and liver spotted; thick bushy grey eyebrows sat over a pair of wire-frame glasses, themselves framed in turn by stringy grey hair climbing down from a shiny bald pate; thin lips pressed tight beneath a nose pocked and scarred; his narrow frame was wrapped in a shapeless coat. His feet were bare. His eyes were rheumy and bloodshot.

Sitting motionless, papery hands in his lap, staring at a window in the kitchen wall — at an Outside dimension of crawling chitin and broken horns, all in glossy beetle-black.

An antique typewriter sat next to him on the kitchen worktop, wired into the machine-web with cables and plugs. It had no paper loaded into the mechanism, just naked metal keys and a cylinder of brass.

He was still muttering as we entered.

“—without connection there cannot be reintegration. Without reintegration I am nothing but mud. Why keep up the charade? Why not simply cease—”

Rough and raw, a true Sharrowford accent, ruined and roiling in a smoke-scarred throat.

Our Knights stood firm, shields to the fore. Raine aimed her gun, safety off, finger on the trigger. Evelyn’s grip drew crackles and little eddies of frosty air from her scrimshawed bone-wand. I had to swallow a hiss, because here he was, the object of all our aims, the man who had frustrated us and hounded us and sent monsters and mercenaries and worse after our heads, the man who wanted Lozzie caged and me drained of something more vital than blood, the man who held the keys to Maisie’s prison and didn’t even care.

And he wouldn’t look at us. He stared Outside and muttered and mumbled, lost in his own inner space.

“Evee,” Raine said. “Do I shoot?”

“Not yet,” Evelyn spat. “If he twitches wrong, put him down. But don’t get close. That’s not the real him, yet again.” Evelyn raised her voice: “Edward! Edward Lilburne! Pay attention!”

“—nine left? Is that really all?” he muttered on. “Or perhaps there’s no more at all, perhaps we’re—”

“Edward!” Evelyn snapped.

“Oi, oi, Eddy-boy,” said Raine. “Hey, sadsack, chin up!”

“Here,” said Praem. “Here.”

“Doesn’t even fucking care,” Evelyn grunted.

Raine sighed and nodded. “Off with the fairies.”

I allowed myself a small, thin hiss; Raine and Evee both flinched, but then Raine gave me a wink and Evelyn nodded her agreement. I hissed louder — and louder — and louder.

Screeeeeeeeee—

The Edward-puppet finally broke off his mumbling and waved a thin-boned hand in our general direction. I cut off my noisy complaint, tongue clicking back between my teeth.

“Oh, shoot me if you must,” came his petulant rasp. “But spare me the lecture.”

We all waited for more, but the Edward-puppet did not resume his mumbling. He just stared through the window at Outside, his spine bent in a painful looking C-curve, his lips slack, his eyes red and bloodshot. I realised he was sweating, waxy and cold. He looked like a man in the grip of a flu fever, or worse.

I whispered as much to Evee: “Something’s wrong with him. With it. I don’t know.”

“Oi!” Raine shouted. “Oi, mate. What’s eating you?”

“Time,” he rasped. “Go away.”

Evelyn frowned as if she wanted to stab somebody, but she was just as lost as Raine and I; we had expected a confrontation, another suicide-bomber, or some kind of stealthy attack. We had not expected this lethargic rejection, this spent old man.

“Edward,” Evelyn said eventually. “You will explain what is going on here.”

The puppet gestured again, a dismissive flick of one hand, without strength or conviction. “Far too late for theory. You’ve broken it. You ignorant children.”

Raine snorted. “You really think he’s gonna answer that?”

“Worth a shot,” Evelyn muttered back.

The Edward-doll just sat there, slumped, almost an empty vessel. He had still not looked at us, not even once.

“This makes no sense,” Evelyn hissed after a moment. “Alright. Raine, put one through his skull. You two.” She gestured at the Knights in the fore. “Be ready for anything. Raine, on three. One—”

Edward moved — not to surprise us, but simply with the self-interested motion of a man who did not care he was being watched. He turned his head, looked down at the typewriter at his side, and raised a single pale finger to press a key.

Bang!

Raine’s bullet shattered his elbow in an explosion of blood and bone. I flinched, quite badly, tentacles flailing all over the place for a second before we could catch ourselves. Crimson mess went everywhere, splattering on the wall behind and dripping down onto the kitchen tiles. The puppet’s arm hung limb and loose, tendons and tissues pulped.

Edward didn’t even flinch. He showed no pain. He just sighed and slumped further. “Denying me every solace, yes. How noble of you.”

Praem said: “Good shoot.”

Raine laughed, low and carefully controlled. “You’ve already tried to kill us once today, mate. Not gonna let you do it again. No more moves, hey. Next one takes your head off.”

‘Edward’ finally turned his liver-spotted head to look at us. Owlish eyes peered from within narrow frames, wrinkled sagging flesh and glass lenses both spotted with his own blood. Lank grey hair hung down, thin and greasy. His bald pate shone in the artificial light. His right arm dripped blood all over the tiles.

“Ahhhh?” he croaked, squinting. “I have?”

“The bomb,” Evelyn spat. She was almost vibrating with rage. “Don’t play coy with us.”

“A bomb?” the Edward-puppet echoed. “A bomb. Ahhh. Number three chose to go out with a bang, hmm? Did he get any of you?”

“Zero,” intoned Praem.

“None!” Evelyn snapped.

“Huh.” Edward looked back at the Outside window. “Begone. Or shoot me. Whichever you must.”

“You’re going to answer—”

Edward snorted, loud and derisive. He had already dismissed us.

Evelyn looked ready to splutter with outrage. Raine’s grip was steady on her gun, ready to put down this loathsome thing.

But we — I — eased a pair of tentacles around a tower shield and out into the open. A pair of exploratory feelers, hovering a good ten feet away from Edward Lilburne. Close enough for a trick or two.

“Heather,” Evee hissed between clenched teeth, her voice tight with warning.

“Let us try,” I hissed back. Then I wet my lips, and said: “Edward. What is this thing you’ve made? This thing we’re inside? You made this, didn’t you?”

“Huh.” He chuckled, once. Then he sighed, a low rasp in a raw throat. “Appealing to my sense of pride? But alas, you stupid girl — this body … this body … this body,” he spat and twisted the word, face scrunching with anger. “Is not the real me. Ha! Hahahahahaa … haaaaa.”

He laughed, then trailed off into nothing. Drool hung from his lips. He twitched, as if shivering in the throes of a fever.

“Yes,” I said, crisp and sharp, trying not to let my anger cloud my tone. “We know. I know. You’re a remote-controlled vessel—”

“Remote controlled?” he echoed the words with a touch of amused scorn. “Remote action at a distance. Oh, yes. Very clever of me. That was always the ideal. Never touching. Never getting my hands dirty.”

Evelyn snapped: “Where is the real you? How does this place work? Explain, now.”

He ignored her and focused on me. “It is a bit late for you to come crawling in here with your nervous system on a platter, Miss Morell. Far too late to change the outcome now that you … ah.” He blinked. “Ahhhh. I see. It was you. You cannot have been working in concert with that young fool, no, or you would not have risked giving me everything I have ever wanted.”

All Edward Lilburne’s self-control was gone; when I’d seen him last, piloting another vessel in that trap of a house in Devon, he had gloated and preened, been obsessed with the clever mechanism of his little trap, used his physical form as bait, and revelled in the chance to outwit me. Now he just rambled and slumped, sulky and raging.

Evelyn hissed, “What the hell are you talking about? We have you cornered, you old fuck. There’s nowhere for you to run, you—”

He laughed, bitter and resigned. “Nowhere to run! Oh, you are quite correct. I am trapped.”

A cold feeling was running down my spine. “Wait, wait — what do you mean, it was me? What was me?”

Edward snorted. “You pulled the trigger I could not even touch. You catalysed the process I have been painstakingly constructing for the last fifty years. I … I … I?” He snorted again, shaking his head. “I. Me. Myself. Ha!”

Behind the bastion of the Knights’ tower shields, we all shared a look. Evelyn nodded at me to continue — I did seem to be the only one Edward was truly responding to.

“Do you mean how I sent the House Outside?” I asked.

“You gave it the idea, but it did the work itself,” he said. “The one thing I could not give. The motion I could not coax. Well done. Bravo.”

Evelyn spat: “Stop with the riddles! What is this? What does it do? Where is your real body? You’re clearly not leaving, and we have you trapped, cornered, pinned down. What the hell is all this?”

A little pride flowed back into Edward’s shoulders. He spread his hands to indicate the walls, the windows, the floor, the ceiling. “Do you not recognise it?”

“No!”

“Evee, hey,” Raine said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

Edward raised his chin. His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes with pride. “Mankind’s oldest technology,” he said. “The house, perfected.”

He waited a beat, hands wide, as if poised for applause.

“We’re not listening to this,” Evelyn said. “Raine, shoot him.”

“Right-o, ma’am.” Raine raised the gun to her shoulder.

Edward snapped suddenly, all spitting scorn and bitter rage: “Oh, make up your minds! Put me down, or allow a condemned man his last boast!”

Evelyn gestured for Raine to hold fire. “Condemned, yes. You admit it, there is no escape for you. Now, Edward, where is your—”

“Edward!” Edward echoed, voice full of derision and sarcasm. “No, not Edward. Not anymore. Not with the network core corrupted, not without hope of reintegration. I am an isolate, now. Running down the clock. Perhaps an hour. Perhaps two. Then my organs will fail and my brain will turn to so much dust.” He hissed between his teeth. “I do not wish to die. That was the whole point of this. But without reintegration of memories, there is only … this.” He raised a hand and let it flop back into his lap.

Evelyn’s frown turned to wide-eyed fascination. She just gaped for a moment.

Raine said: “There’s no more real Edward? You’re not remote controlled anymore?”

Evelyn gathered herself and added, “You are claiming that the real Edward has been somehow compromised? That you’ve lost your remote control connection? You’ve been abandoned?”

“Badger,” Raine hissed. “He got him.”

“Oh, I hope so!” I hissed back.

“Or it’s a trick,” Evelyn snapped. “Or nonsense. He could be misleading us.”

I said, not wanting to voice the thought: “Or he escaped, he went Outside.”

‘Edward’ laughed, low and bitter. “To lose oneself in the mire is not ‘escape’, it is suicide. I would not do that. He. I. Ha! That is the whole point of this beautiful perfection.”

Evelyn gestured to me and Raine to lean in closer for a moment. We did so, sheltered behind the Knights. Evelyn hissed to us: “If he’s telling the truth, we’re dealing with some kind of semi-autonomous drone, based on Edward himself, with his thought patterns, but rapidly expiring. I have never seen anything like this, I have no idea what to expect.” Evelyn’s throat bobbed. Her eyes were wide with more than a little touch of fear.

Raine nodded. “We keep him talking. Get what we can. Trust nothing.”

‘Edward’ was repeating his own name, scornful and self-mocking. “Edward. Edward. Ed-ward. No, no, I am … I am Four. Four. Yes. Two hours of life, and a new name. Four. What a waste of a mind.”

“Hey,” Raine said, straightening up again. “I thought fire was the oldest technology, not houses.”

Edward — or Four, I suppose — looked around at us with a relit fire inside his owlish eyes. His bushy grey eyebrows went up. He even smiled that nasty smug smile, like an academic who scorns teaching as beneath him. “A common mistake. Think, girl, think! Do you really believe that our ape ancestors mastered the art of fire-making before they crawled into a cave for the very first time? They made a house long before they learned how to make fire.”

“Clubs, then,” Raine said with an easy smile and a lazy shrug. “Hitting stuff with sticks. That has to be older than houses.”

Evelyn hissed: “Raine, what are you doing?”

“Drawing him out,” Raine whispered back. “Heather’s got the right idea.”

Edward was snorting with derision. “Chimpanzees cannot use clubs. They drag sticks as a threat display, but they don’t have the intelligence or adaptability to continue the logic to the point of hitting an opponent with a weapon. No. The house, the home, the cave, that is the one indispensable human technology. The first — and now, the ultimate. You are standing within the proof of that, even incomplete. The house, perfected.”

Edward straightened up, prideful and preening.

“Still don’t buy it, mate,” said Raine.

Edward — Four — sneered. “You wouldn’t. You are still human, are you not? Yet you willingly expose yourself to corruption, standing right next to it.” He nodded at me. “This!” His eyes burned with conviction all of a sudden. “This house is the ultimate in barriers between the practitioner and the cosmos. With this, one may go anywhere, see anything, travel the darkest reaches and plumb the deepest, most festering holes. All within the comfort of one’s own home, forever and ever. It is a work of genius. Deny that, even unto your deaths.”

“A travel device,” Evelyn muttered. “You’ve made a travel device. To travel Outside, without ever having to leave your house.”

Edward bowed his head in recognition. “And you gave me the keys to the engine, Miss Saye.”

“Yeah, right, sure,” said Raine. “Your fucked up rip-off tardis is real cosy with all this machinery around. Love to be stuck here for eternity. sure.”

Edward snorted. “Forgotten chaos calls to forgotten chaos. One cannot leave the centre of creation — Earth — without accepting that. The trick is to accept it without letting it inside one’s own body. Not like your kind.” His eyes slid to me. “You are hopelessly corrupted. Eaten from inside out. There is almost nothing of the human left in you. With this, I could have explored for ever, filled the spaces themselves with my thoughts, never to be touched!”

I sighed. “This is a little … ranty.”

“Yeaaaaah,” said Raine. “Are we getting anything from this?”

“Wait,” I said. “Edward, if you can take this House anywhere, why did you wait for us to come and attack you? Why didn’t you run?”

Edward gave me the most dead-eyed look. “Have you listened to nothing? It was not ready! I needed Lauren. Or you. I needed that spark, that connection with the beyond, distilled down into human thought — vile, but still of use. I was so close! So close to making the connection.”

I blinked several times. “But … all I had to do was ask the house to move. All I had to do was ask!”

“No! You fool! All you have done is take the house from A to B. It is stuck now. Mired and broken. I needed your soul, unfolded onto it.” He waved a dismissive hand. “All this talk is dust and echoes. None of this will ever be complete, now. You have ruined the greatest creation of human history, for nothing but your own selfish skins.”

“You’re lying,” I said. I almost laughed.

Edward frowned, suddenly sharp. Evee perked up. Raine raised her eyebrows.

“This is a stalling tactic,” we went on. “Some of this is true — I think. But he’s being selective with what he says. Aren’t you?”

Raine nodded. “He’s clearly burning up bad. I think that part is true. You’re dying over there, mate. Trying to protect your core personality, still? Trying to stop us from finding the real Edward?”

‘Four’ smiled, bitter and bleeding. “Death is clarifying certain things for me.”

“Like what?” Raine asked. “Go on. We’re listening.”

“Do you know what magic is good for?” he asked, slowly.

Evelyn answered instantly: “Transition. Ascension. Change. Which you reject.”

As I do, I heard the unspoken addition to Evelyn’s answer — but that was not for Edward’s ears, not now.

“No,” Edward rasped. “It is not good for anything, in the end. I — I! Ha! Him! — have not left this house in nearly thirty years. He will not die, and he will remain human, inviolate, not corrupted into something unrecognisable, like you deviants and abyssal memories. I was made to facilitate that.”

Raine nodded. “But … ?”

“But now I am dying.”

Praem said, sing-song mocking: “Boo-hoo.”

“And you were never alive,” he rasped back at Praem. “You aren’t even sentient. Do not speak to me, furniture.”

“Eddy no-style,” Praem replied. “Eddy no-grace.”

I made the final push: “Four, how do we reach your real body? How do we find the real Edward?”

Four stared at me, sullen and dark behind his thin glasses. Then swallowed once, wet his lips, and opened his mouth.

“Upstairs. He is up—”

A figure stepped through the open doorway on the other side of the room, grey-haired and liver-spotted and bespectacled.

Another Edward — carrying a double-barrelled hunting shotgun.

Before Raine could adjust her aim, this second Edward pointed the shotgun at the skull of the puppet — Four — and unloaded both barrels with an ear-splitting boom. Four’s head exploded with gore, the corpse toppling over onto the kitchen worktop in a twitching mass of blood and brains. The shotgun spent, this second Edward cast the weapon to the floor with a clatter, raised his hands in surrender, and cracked a nasty little grin.

“Don’t shoot,” he said, mocking and raw. “Or do. As if I care.”

“Fucking hell,” said Raine. “How many of you bastards are there?”

“Too many!” Evelyn spat. “This is obscene. What have you done to yourself, you fool? Fragmented your mind? Split yourself? What are you?”

“One less now,” Praem intoned.

This new ‘Edward’ snorted and tilted his head upward. “Traitors surrender to fear of death. I do not — I am a hand, a finger. Use torture if you must. I will self-terminate before—”

Strobing dark and surging hard, we reached forward with two tentacles before this Edward-puppet could finish his sentence or swallow his own tongue.

I would rip the secrets from his skull. No escape in death. Not from me, or from the abyss.

Announcement

Edward sure has got himself into a pickle, helped along by Heather (and perhaps Badger, we can hope!), but mostly of his own making. What kind of madman creates a house with windows upon as many Outsider dimensions as possible? Somebody who really doesn't like leaving home but wants to visit Outside anyway? Plus, it turns out there's more than one of him; what was he plotting here? Well, Heather is probably about to find out, mind-rip style.

So! I actually want to do a shout-out again this week, for something I think readers of Katalepsis specifically might enjoy: The Roads Unseen, by AdAstridPerAspera, is an urban fantasy about bizarre fairie magic, with more than a few similarities to Katalepsis, some lovely juicy dark tones, very high quality prose, and it's also very queer - also like Katalepsis! I highly recommend giving it a look if you're searching around for something to read after you've finished the chapter

Meanwhile, if you still want more Katalepsis:

Subscribing to the Patreon!

All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That's almost 15k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story or get interrupted by other responsibilities. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you; thank you all so very much! You can also:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This helps so much! A lot of readers still find the story through TWF! Only takes a couple of clicks to vote!

And, as always, thank you all for reading my story! I couldn't do this without you, it would be impossible. This story is for you.

Next week, Heather does brain surgery again! This time on an unrestrained and unwilling patient! Oh no!

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