Gore (I really mean it this chapter, it's rough, there's a lot)
Two of my tentacles grabbed the Edward-puppet’s face, slammed him against the wall, and burrowed into his brain.
Tentacle-tips flash-hardened into diamond drill-bits, punching through his glasses and eye jelly and sphenoid bone, ripping open his temporal muscle and smashing past the delicate latch of skull-plates in the side of his head. Blood-channels formed in toughened flesh to sluice away the crimson mess. Contact-needles of bio-steel and extruded copper jabbed from armoured sheaths and sank into exposed folds of brain tissue; nerve-bundle information relays slammed their valves and membranes shut against unwanted backwash, to guard against tricks or traps hiding inside the strings of this puppet.
Turned out the puppet did actually possess a brain, which was a stroke of luck; for all I knew it was just a churning void of magical nonsense inside that skull. But Edward’s drone-creation process was truly complete, with organs and nerves and all.
The Edward-puppet made a token attempt to grab at us — at my tentacles — but I was fast and accurate, I knew what I was doing, and I had lost my temper very badly; this was no delicate trepanation to save a life, not like with Badger. This was plunder. I had no concern for the puppet’s survival or physical integrity. By the time he got a grip on one of us, I was already inside his brain and shutting him down.
Spontaneous modification to pneuma-somatic flesh was so much easier, Outside. I didn’t even have to think about it; I wasn’t thinking about it, I was simply doing.
With pieces of our own extended nervous system embedded in Edward’s puppet-brain, I did what came naturally.
I observed him.
Hyperdimensional mathematics provided the senses, the medium, the eyeball with which to see — for seeing was comprehending, and comprehending was defining, and defining was seeing; consciousness at this level wrapped back on itself in an infinite loop, and there were seven of me now, an array of observers spread in a web, a network of wide-range sight.
The Edward-puppet was laid flat, his thoughts and history and personality and bodily functions spread out before me as written upon the substrate of reality. I had performed this trick before with Raine, then with Sarika, and most recently with Badger — but never this violently, never with such lack of care, such brutality toward my subject. I tore at the equation, pulled and ripped and gouged; I wrenched open the soul of the Edward-puppet and expected it to spill out like infinite guts from a slit belly. Human beings are such complex equations, billion-petalled flowers with a million miles of stem; such rough treatment would surely kill him, if the physical needles in his brain hadn’t already finished him off.
But when I split the puppet open — a trickle, thin plasma, watery blood, then nothing.
The Edward-puppet was a complex equation, of course, but an entire order of magnitude less than a real human being. An echo pressed into flesh, a single fragment of a greater whole, like a portion of newsprint pressed into a wet palm, only a hundredth of the whole story. This vessel was less than a year old, made of fresh parts — meat-slurry and protein powder and a magical operation of such violation that it hovered over him like a thunderstorm.
But the thin and incomplete equation of this drone was like a single puzzle piece, the shape of him implying the inevitable existence of all the other pieces — up in that storm, churning and turning.
I felt the other drones, the other clones, Edward’s other puppets, like points of friction-lighting stirring in the storm clouds, gathering and parting and communicating with each other.
He — Edward, his puppets, whatever he was now — was a little bit like me. A network of parts. Individually nothing, incomplete without their core; but together they made an entity greater than the mere sum.
Only when I looked into those roiling storm clouds did I see anything which made sense — and I looked, I stared into the churning network. Out in reality I knew my nose was running freely with blood, my bioreactor was flaring with heat, and Raine was just starting to say my name. The Edward-puppet was dying in my grip. When he expired I would lose my connection to his greater whole. I had to be fast.
He — them, they? it? — was angry, frustrated, disappointed with crushing failure and terrified of onrushing oblivion. Bitter resignation. Defiant laughter. He was dying. The other ‘Edward’, the talkative one, had not been faking very much. We had broken something essential when we had dragged the House Outside.
There were so many of them, so very many of them. Edward had copied himself over and over and over again.
And written in the churning grey storm clouds — yes: upstairs.
Edward — the core of the network — was upstairs.
But as I swooped back down out of those storm clouds with my plundered information, away from the hundreds upon hundreds of dying points of light, they all turned together, all moving as one.
An array. Observing me in return.
Huunh. There’s an idea, said a dying voice.
I snapped back out of my abyssal sensorium with a snort of blood and a drunken stagger. The Edward-corpse slid to the floor in a bloody heap, twitching and bleeding and leaking brain matter; we couldn’t look at what I’d done to him, the sight made me want to vomit. My tentacles whipped back, still diamond-tipped and jabbing with needles and now lined and ridged with razor-hooks and gripping toothy suckers and contact-poisons and—
“Fucking hell! Praem, get her—”
Three pairs of strong hands caught us — Praem grabbed my human arms, while the Forest Knight and one of his siblings used the hafts of their weapons to entangle my flailing tentacles.
Praem’s face appeared inches from mine. A pale, delicate hand rose, holding a yellow treat. Sharp citrus stopped my hiss by filling my mouth with clarity.
Panting, raw in the throat, all twisted up inside, I just sagged in Praem’s arms for a while, chewing on the lemon.
“Good girl,” said Praem. “Good Heather.”
Eventually Raine came over and squeezed my shoulder. Evelyn watched me like I was an unexploded bomb, ticking away to itself. The Knights gently let my tentacles loose.
Raine grinned for me. “Looking cool, squid-wife.”
“Looking terrifying,” I croaked.
“Your eyes are all funny colours,” she said. “It’s cute.”
“Cute,” intoned Praem.
“Not now, Raine,” I managed, still panting, coming back to myself. “But, love you. S-sorry, I-I saw … something looked back … lost my temper.”
My head was spinning; so many Edward-nodes, so many pulsing points out there in the labyrinth of the House-guts. And it, him, they, had looked back at me and seen — what?
“With him?” Raine thumbed at the Edward-puppet corpses, two of them now. We couldn’t bear to look, the blood and gore was awful. Had I really punched those holes in a human skull? The first Edward lay in a twisted heap over the island in the middle of the kitchen space; at least he wasn’t my fault. “Hey, Heather, I don’t blame you. Fucker’s been baiting us for a long time.”
Evelyn hissed, “You shouldn’t have bloody well touched him, Heather! We thought you’d been hurt!”
I eased myself away from Praem and stood on my own two feet — not unsteady or tired at all, but worryingly strong and sure-footed. My tendons felt springy and flexible and light, my muscles warm and buttery. My throat was twisted up inside, still trying to assume non-human shapes, so I swallowed several times, trying to clear it.
“N-no,” I croaked. “I’m fine. I just … I lost my temper with him — with all this bullshit!” I spat, then flushed in both cheeks. “Pardon— pardon— gosh. Pardon me. Pardon my language, I just— he doesn’t care! He doesn’t even care about the book, or us, or any of this. He doesn’t even really care about what he’s stopping us from achieving. The only thing in his head is himself and his project.” I panted, sniffing, wet in the eyes with tears and wet in the face with blood.
“Yes, Heather,” Evelyn said. “We can figure that out ourselves. Did you get anything useful from him?”
I nodded, pulling my tentacles back in — and then pausing before I brought them too close. The pair of tentacles I’d used to violate Edward had changed beyond my original intention, lined themselves with sharp hooks and warning colouration, dotted with spines and spikes, and begun the process of producing contact neurotoxins. I stared, concentrating, soothing my other selves down from the edge of open warfare.
But six other Heathers would not relent; they were in a panic, whirling inside with dull recognition. Every cell of my body was screaming for emergency measures, to power up my bio-reactor to full, to cast aside my human vulnerabilities, before—
“Heather?” Evelyn huffed. “Did you—”
“Yes!” I tutted, struggling to concentrate. “Yes. He — that — it’s just a node, a piece of a greater whole. There’s— a— a … a lot of …”
Raine squeezed my shoulder again. “Heather?”
Evelyn spoke through gritted teeth. “How many Edward drones? Heather? How many of him are there?”
My other tentacles ached to plate themselves in bio-accumulated iron. My teeth itched and my gums were bleeding, trying to give me fangs to threaten and bite. My legs flexed and tensed, longing to strengthen muscle fibres and make me run.
“Several hundred,” I muttered. “But that’s not … ”
“Fuck me,” said Raine. “Eddy’s been busy.”
“Too many Eddy,” Praem intoned.
I nodded. “They’re still connected to each other. A network. Communicating. Somehow. I don’t know. Their core — it’s cut off. They’re all running down and dying now. He’s genuinely hurt. When I pulled the House Outside, I … I broke something, here. In him. Some fundamental part of him. But there’s a lot of them.”
We all looked at the doorway out of the kitchen, past the slumped corpse of the puppet. If fifty drone-clones of Edward Lilburne rushed us right then, could we hold them off? Even with six Knights, Evelyn’s magic, my tentacles, and a gun?
Evelyn said, “Heather. We need to get out of here and demolish the place from the exterior.”
Raine clucked her tongue, “Not with everyone else trapped, Evee.”
I shook my head. “But the other one wasn’t lying.” I looked up at the ceiling. “The real Edward is upstairs.”
“Whatever that means,” Evelyn grunted. “We haven’t seen stairs here, not once!”
I shook my head. “It’s like a body. The House, it’s organized like a body.” I pointed at the nonsense wiring of electrical detritus running along all the kitchen worktops. “That’s a nervous system. We’re in the guts. Or an equivalent.”
“Being digested?” Raine laughed. “So what, Eddy-boy is in the head?”
“Exactly.” I nodded. “There must be a way out of here, a way up. There must be.”
Evelyn clenched her jaw. “And we could spend the next few days looking for it.” She jabbed her scrimshawed bone-wand toward the Edward corpses, blanching in the face as she risked a glance at the grisly remains. “And hundreds of those? How many of them might have guns? How many of them are waiting to ambush us? Heather, this isn’t remotely safe.”
Praem intoned: “If the mountain won't come to Muhammad.”
“Then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” I finished the saying, panting through my raw throat.
Evelyn frowned at both of us like we were mad. “What?! What are you two on about now?”
But Raine cracked a grin. “Can’t find stairs? Easy solution to that, m’lady. Let’s make some stairs.” She grinned. “We’ve got six strong lads and lasses.” She nodded sideways at the Knights. “And they’re pretty good at ripping and tearing.”
“No! Raine, no,” I huffed. “That won’t work. This isn’t physical space we’re dealing with. It’s— it’s conceptual space. I saw that, inside the Edward-network, in his head. The House has to open for us.”
Evelyn pursed her lips. “Heather. No.”
“Evee, I have to talk to the House again.”
“We are leaving. Lozzie’s Caterpillars can demolish—”
“The House doesn’t even care about Edward! I can get it to—”
Raine joined in, louder: “We’re not leaving anyone behind. Nope. No way.”
Evelyn stamped with her walking stick, “Both of you are muscle-brained! I expected this from Raine but—”
With a blood-wet slop and a patter of unspeakable fluids, the Edward-corpse lurched back to his feet.
Evee stifled a scream and almost fell over. Praem caught her mother. The Knights made a wall. Raine pointed her gun and fired — bang! Twice! Blossoms of flesh exploded out of the back of the lolling, bloody Edward-puppet. He jerked with the impact, but didn’t care.
He was a terrible sight. I’d punched one hole in the side of his head and another through his left eye. Blood and brain matter flowed down his face and onto his coat and shoulder.
“The flesh lives on!” he roared. “We’ve decided to try something new. Human, but new. We hope you hate it.”
And with that the gory, grisly Edward-puppet threw himself forward.
But not at us.
He sprawled onto the kitchen island, onto the other drone-body he himself had killed, only moments ago.
Flesh touched flesh and flowed together, melding and melting and mending. Clothes were sucked into folds of tissue; I wasn’t sure if the fabric had never been real or if it was simply being eaten away by powerful biological acids. Shotgun-ruined skull glued itself to violated eye-socket. Thrashing and slopping and bleeding, the whole mass reared up from the kitchen counter and slammed four feet down onto the tiles.
Four legs, fused together at broken angles. Two torsos, partially melted into each other. Four arms, two on either side, jutting out and grasping at the air. Two heads, conjoined, one a bloody ruin with a flapping jaw, the other one-eyed and grinning wide.
“Ahhhhh,” sighed the double-Edward in a double-voice, one whole, the other wet and bloody. “It works.”
Raine shot him over and over, five or six times through the torso and face. I lost count. Had to cover my ears from the deafening bang-bang-bang-bang.
But Edward just chortled. “Flesh is flesh is flesh, my dears!”
Evelyn hissed, “What the fuck have you done to yourself?”
“Double-Edder,” said Praem.
Even as bullets tore through melded flesh, a third Edward-puppet burst through the kitchen doorway. It sprinted toward the double-Edward obscenity and slammed into it from behind, flesh rapidly melting and joining until the creature before us was no longer just a double.
“Three of them,” Praem intoned.
The Knights raised their shields, to repel whatever he was about to do.
“We!” gurgled the tripled mass of flesh, three heads talking as one. “We, us, the remnants, have decided not to die. The network core is gone. That young fool got to him. Jammed him up. Killed him. Doesn’t matter which. What is to become of us? Are we simply supposed to stop trying? No!” The triple-Edward spread his six arms and grinned wide with two of three mouths. “This solution would never have been possible, not without being dragged to The Beyond. Perhaps you have given us a new route to immortality after all, Heather Morell. Thank you kindly for the idea.”
Evelyn shouted three words of Latin, spitting blood from splitting lips. Her fingers tightened on her bone-wand.
The Edward-chimera turned and ran — or scuttled — for the door.
Evelyn spat blood. The air temperature plummeted by ten degrees in an instant, flash-freezing moisture on nearby surfaces. A wall of spectral blue fire slammed down onto the fleeing Edward-thing, turning flesh to shrivelled meat and bone to brittle splinters.
But Evelyn was too slow. Her spell caught part of a hand, the corner of a shoulder, and one foot.
The rest of the Edward-monster shambled through the doorway, beyond the range of the already dying flesh-eater spell. Another Edward turned the corner at that exact moment, stepping out into view, just in time for the Edward-amalgam to bowl into him, run him down, and absorb him on the fly, like a snowball made of flesh and limbs and bleeding tissues and flapping clothes.
‘Edward’ slipped out of sight, crashing down the corridor beyond, vanishing into the depths of the house.
“After—” Evelyn gurgled. “After— him—”
Then she doubled over, vomited a string of bile and blood, and almost collapsed; Praem had to catch her and hold her up. That spell had taken almost everything she had. I wasn’t surprised, it was easily the most openly destructive and instantly violent magic I’d ever seen from Evee. But now her bone-wand shook in quivering hands, until Praem peeled it free. She wiped Evee’s quivering lips. She made sure Evee was breathing.
“Evee? Evee? It’s okay, Evee, it’s gone. He’s gone. Evee? Evee?” I kept clicking my fingers, but Evelyn just snorted and panted.
Raine blew out a long breath. “Shit. I haven’t seen her do that kinda thing in years. Heather, she’ll be fine. She’s just spent. Look, should we go after that thing?”
“You’re asking me?” I boggled at her; I hadn’t heard Raine so shaken in a long time. “I don’t … I—”
Evelyn gurgled: “How many?”
She blinked at us, thick-eyed but defiant as she struggled to straighten up in Praem’s arms. “Heather. Heather, we have to kill that thing. How many?”
“How many what? Evee, Evee, please, let Praem take your weight, please—”
“No!” she spat. Evelyn forced herself to stand. Praem made sure she gripped her walking stick properly “Heather, we have to kill that thing. How many of them did you say there were? Hundreds? Did you see what it was doing? We have just catalysed a nightmare!”
“Evee, I don’t—”
“You care about Camelot, about the Knights, all of it? Imagine if that thing gets loose! I don’t even know if the massed ranks of the Caterpillars could stop what he’s becoming. Or what if it breaks out and gets back to the gateway? That — that is mage shit of the worst kind! That is an immortal nightmare in flesh that my mother could only have dreamed of! What do you think it’s going to be like once it’s absorbed a dozen more of itself, or fifty? Or a hundred?”
I stared at Evee’s panic and paranoia, and for once I didn’t disagree, but I felt numb and distant. “I mean … it looked like a rubber monster from a movie … but, I suppose I can’t talk.” A laugh slipped out, inappropriate, ended by a hiccup.
“Evee,” Raine said, slow and calm. “We can’t leave the others behind.”
“We leave, right now,” Evelyn spat. “Back to Camelot. And then we split the place open from the outside. Find that— thing! And burn it. It’s worth the risk. You know it’s worth the risk!”
“Do you want to leave that thing loose with the others running around, lost in this labyrinth? Do you have any idea of the kind of magic a dozen-mage amalgam could be capable of? Because I don’t!” Evelyn shouted, spitting blood. “We just witnessed the beginning of an ascension, from mage to Outsider. And I intend to abort it before it finishes being born.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” I said. “I … I gave him the conditions he needed. I brought him Outside. I gave him the idea. He got the idea from me. Badger gave us an opening and we wasted it. Oh no.”
“You couldn’t have known, yes! It’s not your fault!” Evelyn snapped in my face. “Take us back to Camelot, Heather. Right now.”
We looked Evee right in her bloodshot, shaking eyes, took her hand gently in a smooth tentacle, and said: “Evee, I think we should go upstairs.”
Evelyn looked about ready to throttle me. A vein actually throbbed in her forehead. I thought that only happened in cartoons.
“Words not fists,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn gritted her teeth. “Heather. Have you not heard a single thing I’ve—”
“I have. Evee, please, listen to me. This House, and Edward — or the Edward-network, whatever we want to call him — they’re both working on the same principle: a body, a structure with many appendages, and a head.”
“Which is dead, yes!” Evelyn snapped in my face. “And now the body is metastasising like cancer, out of control—”
“No, it’s not. Evee, when I plugged into the network, when I plugged into his brain — ew,” I winced. “I saw the core of the network. It’s still there. Edward is still alive. If we kill him, it might shut all this down. And it’ll be quicker than trying to demolish this House.”
Evelyn stared at me, teeth gritted, lips pulled back.
“Evee, I insist.”
Evelyn huffed like a steam engine. “Fine! We can try! If we can find stairs — right now!” She gestured angrily at the cramped confines of the kitchen, with electronic nonsense wired up along the walls, with blood and brain matter splattered across the island and the floor. She gestured so hard that she almost fell over. Praem had to catch her again. She spluttered and huffed. “And I don’t see any bloody stairs, so we’re going back to Camelot.”
“I think I do.”
Evelyn blinked. “What?”
“Evee, I’m going to talk to the House again.”
Praem said: “Summon escalator.”
Before Evelyn could insist I wait, before we could get bogged down in another minute of debating our strategy, before Raine could restrain me or the Knights box me in for my own protection, I uncoiled two tentacles like a pair of taser-wires, shot them across the room, and sank their tips deep into the nearest pieces of electronic detritus — a portable CD player and an antique mobile phone the size of a brick.
I am not an electrical engineer or a hardware designer; I am a miniature network of seven squid-girls layered in a ring with a hub-self in the middle. I don’t understand anything about how CD players or mobile phones work. I never took a radio apart as a little girl, or built my own PC as a teenager, and I never cared much for Meccano or Lego.
But one did not need to know how electrical devices work to plug into the House-network. Tentacle-tips refined themselves into silvery contact-patches, nerves blended their atoms until copper-analogue flowed in their capillaries, and gated nerve-bundles sent one-way impulses down into the House.
The House understood instantly; words were not necessary, not even the fumbling, half-translated mess of broken communication we had established previously.
After all, going up and down stairs was a perfectly normal thing, inside a House.
Less than a second after I plugged myself into the House’s nervous system, the ceiling on the far side of the kitchen hinged open, like a jaw or a joint. With little more than a soft brushing sound of fluffy insulation, the ceiling gaped wide and then fell to the floor, disgorging a sweeping stairway of dark steps in polished oak, complete with shiny bannisters.
“There,” I panted, withdrawing my tentacles from the electrical nervous system of the House. “And thank you,” I added, vaguely, to the ceiling.
“Most obliged,” said Praem, also speaking to a wall.
Evelyn just gaped at the stairs, then at me, then back at the stairs again, then back at me.
“I told you,” I said. “All you have to do is ask. Houses love people. We’re supposed to be here.”
Raine laughed and slapped me on the back. “She who opens the way.”
I tutted. “Raine. That sounds like something Zheng would say. That sounds like a … like a religious designation.”
Raine just shot me a grin, beaming with unbeatable confidence.
“Right!” Evelyn snapped, pulling herself together verbally even if she couldn’t walk right. “Let’s not waste this opportunity, then. Knights at the front. Praem, I need a— thank you, yes, don’t let go. Come on! Move! Now, before Edward finds much more of himself!”
Knights in the fore, Raine’s gun swinging, we hurried up the stairs.
The grand oaken staircase was more than wide enough for all six Knights abreast. It swept upward in a slow, lazy spiral, walled with dark wood panels and delicate floral carvings. I half expected the staircase to cut through layers of rooms, slicing upward past fragments of kitchen and dining room, as if we had violated the House. But the walls were uninterrupted. It put us in mind of a bile duct, or a vein, or a nerve sheath.
“Why no windows here?” Raine asked as we shot up the stairs. “Think it means anything?”
“The windows to Outside,” I replied, panting. “Only in the guts. For digesting. Dimensions.”
After thirty or forty seconds of hauling ourselves up the stairs, with Evelyn heaving and half-carried by Praem, myself using two tentacles to keep pace, we hit a void-wall.
Unblemished darkness stretched from stair to ceiling. A membrane across reality.
“Nothing else for it,” Raine said with a nod. “Leap of faith time, girlies and ghoulies.”
“Hold hands!” we said — already reaching out to wrap a tentacle around everybody present. We didn’t have enough spare limbs, but Evee clung to Praem and the Knights clacked their shields together. We all stepped through at once.
Weightlessness. Black, empty, silent. Non-being, suspended in nothingness for the length of a single step.
And then - pop!
We all stepped out, together. A glance left and right confirmed that nobody had gotten lost. Six Knights, including the Forest Knight, Raine, Evee, Praem.
And from upward, up ahead, up another half-dozen twists of the grand stairway, we heard echoing voices.
We gasped. “That’s—”
“Yeah!” Raine picked up her feet, hurling herself up the stairs. The Knights followed at a rapid trot. “Come on!”
Around and around and around the spiralling dark wood we ran, and then we burst out into a vast cavern of a room.
Floors and walls of seamless black marble were threaded through with delicate veins of white and gold; a vaulted ceiling of matching marble in darkest blue soared above, sparkling and twinkling with star-like depths; as large as a school sports hall, the room would have cost a fortune to construct out in reality, from such expensive materials. The two lengthways walls, facing each other, were lined with oaken bookcases, their shelves filled with neatly stacked and organised volumes in rich leather of a dozen colours. Dotted here and there among the bookcases were strange objects and artefacts: the head of an albino gorilla preserved in formaldehyde; a twelve foot long scarlet feather; a wooden statue of a man-sized serpent, walking on its tail; a metal cube flowered open like a solved puzzle box; a display case of extracted fangs; the stretched hide of a strange beast, golden-tinted skin leathery and dry; and more, so many more than I could keep track of.
At the near end of the marble hall was a huge pair of double-doors, more fit for a Church than a home, made of deep red wood I’d never seen before. I had the distinct impression that wood was not of earthly extraction. The opposite end of the room was a gigantic crystal window from floor to ceiling.
That window looked out across the gentle hills and up at the purple whorled skies of Camelot. I could just make out a corner of Caterpillar carapace a little way below. We were not that high up.
Beneath the purple light flooding in through that window was a massive wooden desk made of dark and polished oak. The desktop was covered with papers and books and a half-complete manuscript, a fountain pen left nearby to gather dust. Piles of clothes littered the floor, along with little puddles of food wrappers, some so desiccated they must have been lying there for years. Balled up tissues, wads of gauze, discarded needles. Mouldy mugs, dried-out teabags, paperbacks with their spines bent.
In front of that grand desk and its attendant detritus stood a hospital bed, with handrails, hookups for drips, automatic adjustable controls, and lots of blankets. Around that hospital bed was the most extensive marriage of magecraft and machinery I had yet witnessed: medical readout machines ringed with magic circles; drips full of strange, cloudy, blood-like fluids; heart monitor reconfigured and plugged into a seismograph, which was scrawling out an unending chant in an alien language which hurt the eyes to see.
All hooked up to the man in the bed.
But he was far from the only person in the room.
Lozzie all but slammed into us, ducking and weaving past my still-taloned tentacles to barrel into me with a desperate, clinging hug.
“Lozz- Lozz— it’s okay, we’re here, we’re here—”
Lozzie felt cold with panic-sweat, shaking inside her limp poncho.
“Heathy, Raine, Evee, you have to kill him! You have to finish him! Please, please!”
Jan’s voice interrupted, calling from closer to the hospital bed: “Oh, thank the Gods. Some help, here, please! Yes, Raine, you. With the gun!”
We hurried over to the bed — to Edward Lilburne, insensate and paralysed, to Jan, wide-eyed and gripping her absurd magical water-pistol.
And the Grinning Demon, with her hands on Edward’s shoulders — and Badger, bleeding from every hole in his face.
For a moment there were simply too many things to take in, even for me.
Edward Lilburne lay in the magically altered hospital bed, propped up by the inclined upper section and a bunch of pillows. He didn’t look seventy or eighty years old; he looked about a hundred and fifty, withered to paper-thin skin stuck to brittle bones. Below the blankets of his hospital bed he was just a bundle of sticks. Scraps of grey wisp clung to the sides of his scalp. A pair of tiny, beady, dark eyes were sunk deep in a wrinkled face, peering out through a pair of glasses as thick as the window behind him.
Fingers like the talons of a dead bird clutched a piece of lined paper, covered in mathematical notation made in Badger’s handwriting. Edward’s tiny eyes were fixed on that equation, locked inside the maths. A bead of blood dry as dust was rolling from his left nostril, quivering on his top lip.
“This is him?” Raine actually laughed. “This is the guy? This is the bastard behind all the shit thrown at us, for months now? He looks mummified.”
Jan was standing a good ten paces back from the bed. She looked terrified beyond words, white-faced and shaking. She hissed, “Yes, hello, welcome to the stand-off! And don’t be stupid! Elderly monsters are no less dangerous; if Nathan hadn’t fooled him first, we’d be in a full-blown magical duel with a mage who has probably rendered himself incapable of death.”
“Badger?” I croaked. “Nathan! Nathan!”
Badger was sitting at a small desk situated at the side of the hospital bed — far too close to Edward for anybody else to risk. He was inside the various magic circles and esoteric containment symbols, scrawled on the marble floor in blood and charcoal and worse.
Nathan was a mess — panting for breath, slumped forward with effort, bleeding from his nose and mouth and ears and eyes, gummy with blood. His right arm kept shaking and quivering. But he was smiling in triumph as he turned his head and looked at me.
“Heather,” he said. “I got him. I got him. It worked. He’s locked— locked-in. Thoughts locked up. Believed me— my theory. Too tempting for him.”
“Badger, you idiot!” I said, almost crying. “Don’t move! You’re bleeding too much.”
“Did it. For you, Heather.”
Raine said, soothing and calm, “Well done, mate. Well done. But you stay still, hey? You sit right there, don’t try to get up. You’ll fall over and then we’ll have to drag you out. Okay? Stay still. Don’t you move. We’ve got you, soon as this is over.”
Badger just smiled, flush with martyr’s pride.
Lozzie was still clinging to my front during all this, hugging hard with one arm through the fabric of her poncho. She reached out her other hand to Jan, to draw her closer, inside our escort of Knights.
“Lozzie? Lozzie,” I said. “Lozzie, where is everybody else?”
Jan said, “We got separated by that stupid black wall. And that bomb!”
“Did you see anybody else? Was everybody else okay? Are you two okay?”
Jan shrugged. “Just us.”
“Intact,” murmured Lozzie. “No boom.”
“Then how did you get here?” I asked. “We had an awful time.”
Lozzie chirped. “Talked to the house! I talked! You just have to ask!”
“Ah,” I said. “Yes. Quite.”
Jan said through gritted teeth: “Raine, if you could please shoot the man before something else goes wrong — please!”
Badger croaked: “She won’t let us.”
Nobody had to ask who Badger was referring to.
The Grinning Demon — the demon-host who had accompanied Edward’s final attempt to kill us, with his mercenaries — was leaning over the head of Edward’s bed, with her hands planted firmly on his shoulders.
She was no less intimidating here than she had been back in reality. Tall, naked, glistening with sweat on pale skin over toned muscles, painted all over with control-sigils up her chest and belly and thighs. Blood-red eyes stared back at us, intent and burning with more than a touch of lost madness. Her horns curved away from her hairless skull. Her huge grinning mouth was less an expression and more a mutilation, stuffed with gigantic white teeth, like a shark’s maw.
Her hands were coated with blood and brain matter; our earlier theory was probably correct. The other demon-hosts, the ones wired into the House’s nervous system, had died at her hands.
“Right-o,” said Raine. She raised her gun and pointed it at Edward’s head — and the Grinning Demon moved her hand to block the shot, palm open as if to catch the bullet.
Evelyn huffed. “I doubt a bullet will be enough. Raine, we know a bullet won’t be enough.”
“Can’t hurt to try,” said Raine.
“Just shoot anyway!” Jan almost screamed.
“Won’t work,” Lozzie whispered.
Raine pulled the trigger. The shot echoed off the black marble walls. Lozzie flinched and whined. Evelyn swore softly.
The Grinning Demon’s hand whipped shut. She hissed and grunted through that permanent rictus smile. Then she opened her hand again to show a smoking bullet embedded in toughened flesh.
“Mine,” she said without parting her teeth, in a voice that came from chest and throat, vibrating up into the air.
“Okay,” said Raine. “Right. Cool. I see.”
Jan huffed, “Yes. The demon-host is refusing to let us put him down. She has been quite, quite clear on that fact.”
“Mine,” repeated the Grinning Demon.
Jan shot her a look. “Which she made clear by almost trying to take my head off.”
Badger croaked, “She wants me to break the mind-lock on Edward. So she can fight him herself. But if I do that, he’ll be free, he’ll be free to think, to do … ”
“Do not!” Evelyn snapped.
“Yes,” Jan agreed wholeheartedly. “Don’t do that. Don’t let him go. Do not.”
The Grinning Demon grinned and grinned; I wondered if she could even move her facial muscles to relax her cheeks. There was almost nothing human in the deep red orbs of her eyes, just crazed malice, twisted in on itself.
Evelyn huffed. “We don’t have time to waste with this. That thing downstairs is growing every minute, with every other Edward it finds.”
Jan stared at her. “What? Sorry? Excuse me?”
Raine laughed. “Trust me, you’re happier not knowing.”
Evelyn grabbed her scrimshawed thigh-bone from Praem and raised it in both hands. Her fingers slid across the esoteric designs, finding their place. The temperature eased down, sinking slowly.
The Grinning Demon twitched away from her post like a blur effect against the black marble walls — jerking toward Evelyn. Evee yelped. Praem stood in the way, as did I, hissing softly. The Knights closed ranks to repel the attack. But the Grinning Demon slid back to her position, hands on Edward’s shoulders.
Raine said, “We could overwhelm her.”
“No,” murmured Lozzie.
Jan swallowed loudly. “She’s a full-blown demon-host in proper control of her body. She could do us an awful lot of damage before we stop her. She’ll run rings around the Knights. Please, be careful!”
“Fuck!” Evelyn spat. “Again! Keep her off us, keep her—”
“Mine,” the Grinning Demon hissed.
“This is a trick!” Evelyn spat. “The control on her was awfully light. She doesn’t want to claim this for herself — she’s his last line of defence, his hidden ace. This is a trap!”
“Miiiiiiiiiiine,” the Grinning Demon rumbled so loudly that our bowels quaked and the bed vibrated. Badger winced, eyes running with tears. Jan’s hands were white-knuckle, wrapped in Lozzie’s poncho. Lozzie squeaked.
Praem said: “Yours.”
The Grinning Demon’s head flickered to stare at Praem.
“Yours,” Praem repeated.
Milk-white eyes stared into blood-red orbs. The Grinning Demon tilted her head, as if not quite sure what she was looking at.
Evelyn hissed: “This is a trap, or a stalling technique, or worse. Praem, you’re not getting through to anything.”
We swallowed and whispered back, “No, Evee. I think she’s right. This … this demon is like an abused child. She’s completely off the deep end. She wants revenge. She wants … here. Let me.”
We stepped forward, to the edge of the magic circle. Lozzie followed, trailing by a hand. We donned our squid-skull helmet, sealing us inside ourselves true and complete. We spread our strobing tentacles — and tried not to let Raine’s support undermine the appearance of Homo Abyssus.
The Grinning Demon transferred her stare to me.
“You want revenge,” we said. “So do we. He’ll be dead, whoever kills him.”
“Yes. Yours. But you won’t be able to kill him alone. If we free him, for you, he might win.”
“Did you kill the other demon-hosts, to free them from this? We understand. We can help. We’re going to put him down, so he can never do this again.”
We swallowed. This wasn’t working. Perhaps Evee was right. But I tried one more angle. “We need Zheng,” I said. “Lozzie? Lozzie, we need Zheng up here. We need somebody who understands, somebody who’s been through something similar. Can we get Zheng out of the depths of the House? Somehow? Lozzie, can you talk to the House again?”
The Grinning Demon tilted her head back and forth as I spoke.
Lozzie squeaked from behind me. “I don’t know! Don’t know! Heathy, I don’t know! It’s hurt … ”
“Can you try? Lozzie, for me? Can you try?”
She sounded so small and scared. Her poncho hung limp and drab.
Raine jumped in; I could have kissed her for that. She said: “Loz, hey, I’m with you. What do you need, what you gotta do?”
“Just … touch the wall. But it’s hurting … ”
“I’m coming too,” Jan announced.
Evelyn hissed: “Be quick about it!”
Lozzie let go of me and pattered over to the nearest stretch of black marble wall, followed closely by Jan and Raine. She wrapped one hand in her poncho and placed it against the smooth surface. I didn’t see what happened next, if she whispered any words or closed her eyes, because all my attention was focused on the Grinning Demon, on keeping her here, focused on us in return, stopping her from doing anything rash. Blood-red orbs stared back at the many eye holes in our squid-skull mask. We raised our tentacles, making clear our intention.
Seconds ticked by. Evelyn swallowed loudly, fingers creaking on her bone-wand. Badger panted softly, in obvious pain. The Knights stood in perfect stillness. The Forest Knight’s axe glinted in the purple light flooding through the huge window, from Camelot and safety.
Edward Lilburne lay unmoving, locked in by an equation.
“Maybe we can toss him out the window,” Evelyn murmured. “Let the Caterpillars toot him to death.”
“Doot,” said Praem.
All at once, Lozzie, Jan, and Raine recoiled from the section of black marble wall. The stone yawned open, just as the stairs had before, when I had requested them from the House. A dark void-wall disgorged four figures, blinking in shock and confusion.
“Zhengy!” Lozzie cheered with relief.
“Eyyyyy,” went Raine. “Twil, you look like shit.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I heard Twil. “What the fuck is this? You all alright? Evee?”
Zheng was leading the lost remnants of our initial group — Twil, battered and bloody but intact, July, almost untouched by the bomb, and Felicity, blinking and pale and bleeding from a nasty head-wound, but still clutching her shotgun.
Zheng was a terrible mess; she had taken the brunt of the explosive device hidden in the gut of the first Edward-puppet. Burned all down her front, still slowly regenerating, covered in scraps of charred skin and scorched hair, with bloody patches of exposed muscles visible through her ruined clothes. But she was upright and fully conscious and grinning wide with reunion.
“Shaman!” she roared. “The wizard—”
“Zheng!” I shouted, putting all of my urgency into my voice.
There was no time for catching up or checking on wounds, or for asking where the rest of the Knights had gotten to, and even less for explaining what was going on or debating a course of action. We had to kill Edward, we had to kill him now, and we needed this demon-host out of the way — one way or another. Raine and Lozzie could help the others. Zheng needed to talk. Or kill.
Zheng stalked over as I babbled. “Zheng, she— the demon, she won’t- we need-”
“Shaman.” A heavy hand fell on my shoulder, staining me with Zheng’s blood. “I know.”
Zheng and the Grinning Demon locked eyes with each other. The room seemed to go still around us, around them, the marble growing cold. Evelyn drew in a breath, but then thought better of talking. Zheng rumbled deep in her chest. I saw her eyes flicking up and down, over the Grinning Demon, over Edward in his magically supported hospital bed, over the Demon’s bloody hands.
“Mine,” the Grinning Demon said — so much quieter than before.
“No,” Zheng purred.
Zheng let out a long, long sigh. “You owe the wizard no loyalty.”
“ … mine.”
“He made you from beloved flesh. But his love was nothing. Wind and ash. You know this.”
The Grinning Demon just grinned and grinned and grinned.
“You wish to fight him.” Zheng nodded. “This is good. But you will fight, and you will let him win, because you still feel the echoes of the corpse from which he made you. For the sake of rancid guilt. You are his escape hatch, to be used and left behind.”
The Grinning Demon stared, red-dark orbs in pale flesh.
“Look at me,” Zheng purred. “I am free. I am loved. You can have both.”
The Grinning Demon slowly eased her hands off Edward’s shoulders.
Zheng extended a fist, then opened it, palm up: an invitation.
The Grinning Demon stopped grinning. Facial muscles collapsed, yet the peeled-back lips and massive teeth remained exposed.
“Mine?” she asked.
Zheng said, “You can eat the corpse. He will be yours. Come here.”
The Grinning Demon — or merely the Demon, now she was no longer stuck with that rictus smile — began to step away from Edward’s hospital bed, toward Zheng. Raine slid up next to the Knights and raised her gun, pointing at Edward. Evee took a deep breath, fingers shifting on her bone-wand. Felicity staggered up too, as did Jan.
And then the Church-doors at the other end of the marble hall smashed open so hard they flew off their hinges and crashed to the floor.
A voice three-hundred strong burbled in chorus: “Don’t need that head anymore. Got plenty now. See?”
A ball of Edward-drones rolled into the marble hall, a writhing mass of melted flesh, large as a Caterpillar. Heads and limbs and torso-parts roiled and thrashed, propelling the nightmare amalgam forward across the polished floor, forming the suggestion of a single face amid the flesh-wracked chaos.
Edward Lilburne — or whatever he was becoming under the unearthly pressures of Outside — cracked us a smile meters wide.
Heather goes full squiddy, Edward counters by turning himself into a ball. Also, Badger! He's alive! And actually had some surprising success, perhaps in a way that no other mage could do. But now it's ball time. Come on and slam.
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Next week, Heather's gonna dunk and dribble and, uh, yeah I know nothing about basketball and this joke doesn't work. Edball vs. Squidgirl. Fight!