Gore (seriously, A LOT OF GORE)
Loss of personal control / mind control
The Edward-amalgam — a writhing, churning mass of three hundred identical clone-drones, their flesh melted and mixed at heads and hips, chests and backs, elbows and knees and thighs and fingers and eyeballs and teeth and nails, a nightmare which spoke with three hundred mouths, rolling forward on six hundred feet which stuck out at every angle from the rough sphere of its body — did not rush toward us and flow over us like a blob-monster in some cheap black-and-white horror film.
That would have been less upsetting, in a way — if this thing had simply been a mindless monster, a ball of evil flesh to be burnt up and vanquished.
Instead, it — he, they, them? — paused just inside the ruined doors, rocked backward, and smiled.
A recognisable human face loomed out of that boiling chaos of bodies, like a pile of corpses which had grown a single personality: naked torsos clumped into spheres like eyeballs; scraps of ragged shirt and trailing tails of stringy grey hair formed an approximation of bushy eyebrows; dozens of arms bulged outward in mockery of cheekbones and chin, while hands locked together and waved an imitation of thin and bloodless lips.
The Edward-ball beamed with pride, sarcastic and dry.
“Do you like what I’ve done with myself?” he said.
His voice was a chorus, burbling and gurgling from three hundred twisted throats — but it transmitted more than mere sound. Waves of pressure rolled outward from the amalgam; it was like standing before an overloaded steam boiler, straining at metal bolts, welded seams gone white with superheated contents. The skin on every clone-drone was flowing and rippling with the promise of change, with the barely contained processes running out of control inside this conjoined flesh.
“Well?” it prompted. Edward’s rasping voice echoed off the black marble walls. “Don’t just stand there gawking. Share your opinions, however presumptuous and inexperienced they may be. Praise me or damn me. It may be the last time I ever hear human speech — except for my own. Ah!” His smile deepened, dozens of arms flexing, a hundred hands curling. “Another problem solved, a happy side-effect. There are so many of me to talk with, I will never want for stimulating conversation.”
“Holy fucking shiiiit,” somebody said out loud — Twil, I think, voice shading into a growl as she began her werewolf transformation.
“Oh it is time to leave,” said Jan, openly terrified. “It’s time to go.”
“Hold steady!” somebody shouted — Raine. “Don’t move. Don’t panic.”
Somebody hiccuped, loudly. Me, probably, though I was never sure.
Somebody else whimpered: Lozzie, almost more scared than I’d ever heard her before.
The Edward-ball laughed, an awful racking gurgle from three hundred broken windpipes. “No need to be afraid, Lauren. No need at all. I have no use for you anymore. You may follow your little friends into their graves if you so wish—”
Boom went Felicity’s shotgun. Tiny pockmarks of bloody shot-hole opened in the face-flesh of the Edward-amalgam, no more than bee-stings to something his size. Fizzing smoke rose from the wounds, but whatever magical effect Felicity had intended did not last long, swallowed up by Edward’s creeping flesh. Those grotesque imitation lips opened to laugh once again.
Zheng roared at the top of her lungs and launched herself at the Edward-ball like a lightning bolt. She shot across thirty feet of black marble floor in the blink of an eye. She slammed into flesh and bone like a burrowing bone drill, her fists ripping off arms and punching through sternums and pulverizing skulls. Blood flowered around her like a burst water pipe. July wasn’t far behind, ignoring Jan’s urgent shout to hold back; the owl-like demon-host struck the Edward-amalgam right next to Zheng, ripping at any exposed appendage or vulnerable joint.
The sheer violence was incredible; Zheng and July pulled entire Edwards free of the mass, breaking spines and smashing bone, hurling corpses against the wall, shredding unnatural flesh like a chainsaw through a slab of meat.
The Edward-amalgam didn’t care.
It laughed; it coiled up bodies like tentacles, like hundred-knuckled fists, and slapped Zheng sideways. July was a fraction faster, ducking back and dodging the blow by hitting the floor. Zheng flew through the air and clattered against the wall with a sickening snap-snap-snap of bones. She was back on her feet and back in the fray in seconds — but so were the Edward-drone corpses.
With burst skulls and snapped spines and broken legs, the clone-drones lurched back to their feet and hurled themselves back onto the amalgam, rejoining the mass, flesh flowing back together and melding into the greater whole. Detached arms, severed heads, even scraps of meat rolled and flopped and twitched to rejoin the Edward-ball. Individual drones too damaged to rise were scooped up by others, absorbed into small masses which rolled back into the primary ball. Like water droplets joining together as they slid down a window.
“Look upon this achievement and weep!” the Edward-ball laughed. “Immortality without the price of humanity! I have outstripped them all, Tahmid, Ludolf, Dee, Saye, haha! No bottom-dwelling spark pressed into flesh can best a human mind!”
All this happened so fast; the incredible violence threatened sensory overload; the implications made one want to scream and run and hide.
But somebody kept her head.
“Evee!” Raine shouted. “Use me! What do we do?”
Evelyn had been staring at the impossible sight, locked in horrified awe with the rest of us. But the whipcrack of Raine’s voice snapped her around in Praem’s arms. She gaped at Raine, then at the form of the real Edward — a frail and withered old man, still lying insensate on his hospital bed, his eyes locked on the page of Badger’s equation in his hands, a droplet of nosebleed quivering on his top lip.
“Kill him!” Evelyn shrieked. “Kill the real one!”
Raine snapped her stolen firearm back to her shoulder and aimed at the head of the true Edward Lilburne. I still have no idea how she found the fortitude to turn her back on that raving nightmare of flesh bearing down on us.
She squeezed the trigger — bang-bang-bang! Later, I learned that was called a ‘three-round burst’.
A glistening pale shadow blurred between Raine and her target: the Grinning Demon, though she wasn’t grinning anymore, back at Edward Lilburne’s bedside. Her arm whipped out to catch the shots, bullets slamming into her flesh and deforming like foam.
“No!” she hissed between her gigantic teeth. “Nooo!”
The Edward-ball cheered: “The human form! Perfected for travel in the Beyond! Travel, warfare, and conquest!” Then he let out a deflating sigh, like an adult playing with over-active children. “I tire of this. Time to move on. We’re done here.”
And he rolled toward us like an oncoming train.
He rolled right over Zheng and July — Zheng kept ripping and tearing the whole time, roaring insults at the top of her lungs, buried beneath a mountain of human flesh; July ducked and dodged, jabbing and stabbing with her hands, trying to keep clear of being crushed.
Felicity’s shotgun went boom again, pockmarking the ball but doing nothing to stop the weight and mass as it advanced. Evelyn shouted seven words of a language I’d never heard before, cutting off when her throat gave out with a croak; a wall of blue fire unrolled from a single point, a blossoming flower in waves of cold flame, a forcefield in front the Edward-ball’s face — but the amalgam just rolled through it, flesh melting and sloughing away, then reforming and rejoining as the shed globs of gore flung themselves back on board; three hundred mouths chanted a lazy counter-spell, sweeping away Evelyn’s last-ditch magic with barely a thought. Raine turned on the spot, tight and controlled, did something funny with her fingers, and then pulled the trigger of her gun; rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, bullets tore through the air and through the amalgam’s flesh — but then Raine’s gun went click, and that was all.
Jan was shouting: “Jule! The sword! Give me the sword!” Lozzie was screaming, a kind of fear I’d never heard from her before. Twil was shouting too, voice more wolf than human: “Get her up! Praem, get her up!”
We were scattering. Jan was pulling at Lozzie, Praem and Twil dragging Evee; shadow-hands unfolded from inside Felicity’s coat and forced her to dive out of the way — Aym, ‘helping’. The six Knights held their ground like infantry preparing for the charge of a war-elephant, shields up and locked together; the Forest Knight raised his axe for a final futile blow.
Raine tugged at our shoulder, then ducked, as if to scoop me off my feet and haul me away.
The Edward-amalgam was almost on top of us, a wall of flesh, six hundred grasping hands. Narrow fingers, strong tendons. Strangler’s hands.
But Badger — Nathan — couldn’t move. Neither could the Grinning Demon, though for different reasons. And the Knights would stand and die.
“Scatter, degenerate apes!” the amalgam roared at us. “None of you are meant to be out here, not like me! Now the Beyond is mine to travel, my domain, my—”
I drowned out his nonsense; I hissed long and loud and I let my throat change beyond all human recognition. Together, seven of us gave in to the urge, the need burning inside every cell of my body, since we’d witnessed that first obscene union between two Edward corpses.
Our trilobe reactor ejected all the biochemical control rods; safety off, limits removed, energy red-lining.
Heat blossomed in our flank, an explosion of strength and power and adrenaline out through gut and up through chest and down through legs. Our heart rate shot to maximum and held steady, pounding like an engine, reinforced by biochemical processes that had no place in a human body. Lungs inflated, hyper-saturating my blood with oxygen. Every muscle flooded with novel enzymes, speed-grown abyssal approximations of additional adenosine triphosphate, and more — things that would have turned a human body to a charred cinder out in reality. Every cell and blood vessel and neuron thrummed with processes that should not have worked outside of the abyss.
Six of me — our tentacles — whipped out wide, down-shifting the colour range of their rainbow strobe as they flooded their surfaces with neurotoxins and paralytics and contact-acids. Ropes of muscle reinforced their insides; razor-sharp claws crowned each tip; hundreds of tiny hooks and barbs ran down their lengths, envenomed and razor-sharp.
The rest of me was already changing. I hadn’t lost control. I was giving it up.
My eyes flickered with nictitating membranes, triple layers of protection blooming over vulnerable organs. My human skin flushed hard with warning colouration, bright pinks and yellows and reds and purples, coating me with tetrodotoxin-sweat. My back and shoulders erupted with spikes, multicoloured chitin quills to frustrate predators and warn of hungry mouth; my teeth turned sharp and hard, diamond-tipped for ripping and tearing; webbing — useless here, but biologically inevitable — filled in the gaps between my fingers; the base of my spine sprouted into a venomous stinger, lashing at the air. A yellow membrane, thick and warm and flowing like living butter, wrapped itself around my skin in a permeable layer of regenerating protection — Seven Shades of Symbiosis, joining me in the change.
We screeched and screeched and screeched; and in that screech we spoke the language of the abyss.
You want to see what it really means to be adapted for Outside?
It means to be beautiful.
You’ve got nothing on Homo Abyssus.
The Edward-amalgam hesitated just long enough to slow his onrushing charge by a fraction of a second — he was shocked by my transformation, but not enough to shake his belief that he could simply run me down like a crab who had wandered onto a busy road.
A second was all we needed.
We slammed all six tentacles into his roiling flesh. We cut through muscle with hook and claw and acid, we paralysed nerves with neurotoxins and electrical discharge, we pumped venom into torso cavities and fast-acting hemotoxins into skulls. We sank our tendrils deep.
Fancy tricks with hyperdimensional mathematics would not win this fight — we knew that from the moment we touched the amalgam’s flesh, from the second that our own abyss-altered soul recognised what was happening. Inside his bodily amalgam, Edward was cooking his own gigantic conjoined soul, simmering off the imperfections, boiling away what had made three hundred individuals individual. Brain-math might douse that fire for a split-second, but there was simply not enough of us, of me, to smother the whole thing. We might use brain-math to stop three hundred hearts, but they would restart in an instant, re-grown as a side-effect of that soul-pressure building inside him. We could turn three-hundred brains to mush but they would suck back together a second later under the gravity of metaphysical fusion. Like a forest fire or a runaway infection, one had to destroy the whole thing all at once, lest a single piece regenerate a legion.
Edward Lilburne — even as a short-lived clone doomed to death — was a genius of a mage. I had not appreciated what that truly meant, not until that moment.
In the last second before the amalgam rolled over me, I turned and reached out one hand, and called: “Lozzie!”
Well, no, I didn’t — I didn’t actually say her name. My throat wasn’t human enough for that right then. I probably made a sound like a dolphin crossed with a cassowary and a crocodile. But Lozzie, of all people, absolutely understood what I was trying to say.
Lozzie was half in Jan’s arms, wrapped in her pastel poncho, her usual bounce and flip gone limp and flat like a beached jellyfish. Her face was streaked with tears, her eyes wide as they could go with their sleepy lids, staring back at me in the split-second before death.
“Can’t do this alone!” I said. “Lozzie!”
And Lozzie burst into such a grin.
She flew from Jan’s arms and crashed into me, wrapping herself around my middle, somehow avoiding all of my spikes and barbs and toxins. She clung on tight. No letting go. She knew the plan.
I don’t think the Edward-amalgam had any idea what we were doing; I don’t think he had really investigated, or thought it through, or appreciated what he was getting into.
Genius or not, he simply didn’t comprehend what it meant to go Outside.
That huge face of body parts twisted as it bore down on us, with just a hint of doubt.
He started to say: “Wha—”
“You want to go Outside?!” I screeched up at him. “We’re barely at the surface! Come on down!”
I plunged eight hands into the sump at the base of my soul, grasped the Eye’s well-worn machinery, and burned my palms on the familiar old equation.
* * *
Falling at terminal velocity through burning skies of superheated plasma; shreds of speed-grown bone wrapping my human flesh tight and safe behind layers of supercooled protection; Lozzie tucked tight inside the impossible shell-coils of her poncho, blue-pink-white flashing through the clouds as we plummet toward miles of jagged chalk.
The Edward-amalgam shedding selves and screaming, flaming at the edges like a comet. Trying to buck us off, tear us free, dislodge my tentacles from his flesh. But we are burrowed too deep to dig us out.
He hits the ground first: splat, another dozen selves gone.
* * *
Darkness like knives, pushed back from my vulnerable skin by strobing bioluminescence to lurk and slaver beyond the edges of sight; Lozzie lit like a lantern of three colours, pastel glory amid the dripping spires, her trailing edges flaring out to frolic and dance among the eaters.
Edward-flesh ripped and torn and devoured at his rear, sunk too deep in the gloom to avoid the teeth and throat of the shadows. Lashing and whirling and trying to tear free, trying to pull himself into our light, heaving and sobbing from three hundred mouths — less now.
* * *
Fungus-friends with their many-frilled heads frying Edward’s skin with lightning from crab-clawed machines while Lozzie and I turn him to always take the brunt of their attack. The intrusion, unforgiven; Edward, catalogued; flesh-shreds and shed corpses, captured for disposal.
We apologise before we leave. Crab-clawed insults tell us not to bring our rubbish to their home.
* * *
Moth-winged nightmares dissolving Edwards with pale dust, sucking him upward into mile-long proboscises. Lozzie flaps her poncho in greeting-warning, hugs the young that visit to investigate and lay eggs in the abandoned clones, while I wrap myself in protective pheromones and warning colouration.
* * *
Grey swamp waters thick with mud, dripping trees laced with crawling ivy. Our flesh made waterproof and bacteria-repellent; Lozzie floating in a ball of pastel-soft colour. Shamblers tearing and ripping mouthfuls of long-owed meat from Edward’s many hides, a small revenge for my friends before we move on.
* * *
Carnivorous jungle plants snap and leech and melt his heels—
Golden wheels in broken skies burn out his eyes—
Scarlet deserts drain him dry—
He discards dozens of himself, shedding them like skin cells, sloughing off ablative armour to protect an ever-dwindling core. Edward leaves his floundering and injured selves behind in nightmare dimensions and impossible Outside planes, lost beyond any hope of recovery, abandoned to be eaten, burned, turned inside out, soul-devoured by godlike giants and trodden underfoot by things too alien to think about without damaging his precious ‘human’ mind. Each one is cut off from the soul-cauldron required for regeneration as soon as we Slip away, rendered alone and lost, meat in a grinder. He cares nothing for the pieces of himself he shreds, re-growing them at speed from the boiling energies of his own pressure-compacted soul. Auto-cannibalism on a gigantic scale, running faster and hotter and rougher with every new membrane-transition, desperately trying to outpace the sheer damage of repeated exposure to places he never could have imagined.
But growing always smaller, always thinner, always less of him left — because he’s willing to sacrifice so much of himself for the sake of dominion.
Lozzie does half the transitions, I do the other half, swapping back and forth as we plough through dimensions at dizzying speed.
My biology speed-grows protection in every new plane, reinforcing my skin with silver and steel, wrapping us in flowing skirts of diaphanous tissue, lighting my tentacle-tips with glowing bio-fire, armour-plating my eyes and ears, sharpening my teeth and nails, ramping my trilobe bio-reactor up and up and up until I’m humming and vibrating with power enough to ward off the worst that Outside has to offer.
Lozzie dances and flits and giggles at my side, exposed to the raw nerves of Outside, poncho fluttering and teeth drawn wide in joyous revenge.
Plunging head-first, head-down, through noxious clouds of sentient colour which steal the hues and shades from Edward’s flesh, leaving his exterior layers grey and dead and flaking. Lozzie tight and close now; my flesh glowing in defiance, rainbow-hot. Edward-amalgam, screaming.
“Lozzie, are you ready?” I say. “He’s still not dying, we have to … ”
I don’t actually say those words, of course. I screech and hiss and gurgle and click.
“Yes! Heathy, do it!”
“We have to be quick.” My heart is ramping up even further, my veins filling with adrenaline and abyssal enzymes and things I can’t even name, substances that would burn and smoke if exposed to earthly air. I am deathly afraid of this next step. “When we get there, we have to be quick!”
“We can do it!” Lozzie shouts in my ear, over the screaming din of Edward’s mouths.
“We can,” I say — but I barely believe it. I hesitate on the equation, on the final dimension to visit. How could I not? Even reinforced and perfect and invincible, I am not forever, not compared to this. I am still small; we are still us.
A butterscotch and sunlight voice whispers in my left ear.
I’ve got you, kitten.
Not alone, never alone, not with Lozzie and Sevens both helping, not with Seven’s membranes wrapped around my core. We were not going to get stuck. The risk was worth taking.
I plunged my eight limbs down into the base of my soul and adjusted the equation, specified a location, a dimension, which made my heart scream and my head pound and my bowels clench tight.
* * *
Black ash and blasted ruin stretched to the burned-out ring of blunt horizon; ancient watchers, each the size of a mountain, stared upward in blind reverence; jellyfish motes as large as houses bobbed and darted through the air, floaters on a cosmic lens; charred remnants scurried through the ruins just beyond sight.
Ash and dust and the choking cremains of a world seeped through even the triple-layered biological filters which slammed shut over my mouth and nose. The air tasted of carbonised flesh, melted stone, and blackened steel.
“Don’t look up!” I screamed. “Don’t look up!”
Lozzie didn’t need the reminder. Neither did Sevens, though she’d never been there before.
Wonderland, spread below our feet as an infinite plain of bone-dry blackened earth. We were there only for a few seconds — three, four, five. I didn’t try to count. We focused every ounce of strength we had on lifting what remained of Edward Lilburne.
We hoisted him, his burning, flailing ball of selves, hauling him into the air like a specimen held before a blowtorch. Lozzie and I clung to each other in the shadow of the Edward-amalgam, a shield of flesh and bone. My legs almost gave out, my tentacles buckled from the weight, my head pounding with terror and old trauma. But we forced him up. We forced him to look.
“No!” the amalgam managed to scream — once, before his voice dissolved into a wet melted gurgle.
The Eye had been closed when we arrived. It always was. Maybe it sleeps; I didn’t have time to consider the philosophical or strategic implications of that, not right then.
But this was an intrusion, something new and novel presented to cosmic sight. Something to look at.
The sky cracked open, and took a peek.
Light and heat like the force of a star blossomed around the rim of Edward’s ball of reanimated corpses; pressure enough to shatter bone and turn flesh to dust pounded down on him. Sheltered beneath the mass, Lozzie and I went unseen by this slimmest fragment of the Eye’s attention. Abyssal change reinforced my leg tendons with springy steel and flexible titanium, speed-plating my eyes and head with bone and ablative cooling in anticipation of the moment Edward burned to nothing and the Eye would look upon us directly.
But we couldn’t stay for that. Even protected by the power of change and transformation, the Eye would see through us — Lozzie and us — in nanoseconds.
“I know! I know!”
“I can’t— ahhh!”
“Time to go.”
Edward was still burning and screaming and dwindling when we went back—
* * *
We landed in Camelot, outdoors, on the velvet-grass hillsides.
Warm cinnamon winds and gentle purple glow scoured away the ashen stench of Wonderland. The whorled sky smiled down on us. We were well clear of the House and the shadow of the gigantic mushroom-cap towering into the air — and also a good way from the incomplete walls of Camelot Castle. We were in the open. That was Lozzie’s call, her decision, made in the last moments of membrane-transition out of Wonderland.
For a moment I had no idea why she’d chosen that spot. Up until that decision we had been totally in sync, she had understood every step of my plan. But this was new, something of her own concoction.
We were spent, shaking with the adrenaline-aftermath of muscle strain and trauma exposure, head pounding and face running with nosebleed after repeated brain-math equations, gasping for breath after barely five seconds in Wonderland, not even directly exposed to the Eye. Even pneuma-somatic abyssal biology was not immune to such things. Our feet touched the yellowish grass of Camelot and we almost fell over. Lozzie clung to my side, panting and heaving.
The Edward-amalgam landed with us, hitting the hillside with a wet squelch of minced meat and bone splinters. Reduced down to a bloody sphere of flesh, the Edward ball was still huge, a rolling surface of faces and arms and hips and torsos, all burned and blackened and cut and seared and bitten.
But he was already regenerating. Fresh skin crept across reaching arms. Eyes blinked and cleared, milky clouds fading. Mouths leaked bile and blood and worked their jaws up and down. My heart sank.
Even the attention of the Eye was not enough to stop him.
Evee was right; this thing was the embryo of a true Outsider. And we couldn’t kill it.
“Not enough?” I croaked.
“Let go, let go!” Lozzie shouted. “Heathy, let go of him!”
I did as Lozzie asked; I couldn’t have kept my grip even if I’d wanted to. Tentacles retracted their barbs and spikes and slithered free from Edward’s regrowing flesh. I stumbled backward in exhaustion, legs almost going out from under me; Lozzie pulled me clear, tugging and dragging and yanking.
“Not finished,” I croaked. I didn’t understand what she was doing. “Lozzie, he’s not— not dead— have to— finish—”
The first Caterpillar siren hit the Edward-ball in a tidal wave of sound-pressure. Ripples slammed across the surface of the writhing sphere, turning exposed limbs to pulverised jelly. Biomass blasted free to splatter across Camelot’s grass.
The second blast of directed sound — from a second Caterpillar — pinned the jellied flesh in place, liquefying it until nothing was left but water and protein and fat, inert, dead, unable to rejoin the Edward-ball.
Caterpillars hove into view, a dozen of them bearing down on the shivering, shrinking Edward-amalgam. They circled like a pack of wolves, their gigantic bulk moving like warships across the sea of grass. We felt like a squid which had wandered into the middle of a naval engagement. Lozzie pulled me clear, getting me out of the firing line of the bursts of directed sound, but even being nearby was enough to deafen us. We scrambled away, pulling each other up a hillside, hauling with hands and tentacles, until the sound was no longer an aural assault.
Lozzie and I collapsed together on Camelot’s quiet plains, to watch Edward Lilburne die.
The Caterpillars worked with methodical precision. One of them would blast the Edward-amalgam with a directed cone of sound, paralysing him and pounding him into submission, the sound sloughing layers of flesh and bone off his exterior and turning it into jelly. Then another Caterpillar would pin the jellied flesh in place with another burst of deep bass booooop, until it was dead and unmoving. Meanwhile a third Caterpillar would already be hitting Edward with another sonic blast.
He shrank with each shaved-off layer of flesh. The ball grew smaller and smaller and smaller, writhing and twitching, until it was the size of a car, then a sofa, and still shrinking. He tried to plate his exterior with hardened bone or some kind of chitin — perhaps he’d got the idea from me, again — but the Caterpillars just turned up the volume and cracked his armour. He attempted to make himself smooth and untouchable, a perfect sphere, so the sound might flow off his surface, but the Caterpillars hit him from three sides at once, overwhelming his geometric precision.
Soon he was smaller than a human being, a sphere of flesh with no features, no organs, no face.
A final Caterpillar boop turned him into jelly. They pinned the pinkish puddle in place until it was nothing but water.
Silence roared back into Camelot’s air.
Lozzie and I sat on that hillside together for what felt like an hour, but was probably no more than a minute or two. Eventually one of the Caterpillars detached from the ring of guardians over Edward’s liquefied remains, and scooted over to check on us. The vast white bulk scudded right up next to Lozzie, within arm’s reach.
A question? I was too dazed to interpret. Felt like we were all mush and wire inside.
Lozzie reached out and patted a bone-white armour plate on the Caterpillar’s side. “Thank you.”
“Is it … ” I tried to say, then had to clear my throat three times before I could form real words. “Is he dead?”
Lozzie nodded. She was hiccuping and sniffing and wiping at her face with a corner of her poncho. Her voice held a touch of hysteria, a jerky laugh. “That’s the power of disco.”
“Lozzie … ”
“That was horrible,” she whined. “Horrible-horrible.”
“Yes,” I croaked.
“Because he wouldn’t … he wouldn’t … ”
“Didn’t care about his selves.” I nodded slowly. “Left them all behind. Shedding like … like nothing.”
“He’s dead. It’s dead. They’re dead now.”
Lozzie leaned on me. I caught her with arms and tentacles. She cried softly, but she was trying to laugh.
It took me a moment to realise we weren’t alone.
Raine’s voice made me look up and around.
Edward’s House — the Mushroom House, sprouted and fruited in the soil of Camelot — had disgorged a balcony from the second floor, made from the same black marble as his grand hall, edged and decorated with golden thread. A sweeping staircase led down from the edge of the balcony, stairs made of black marble which melded into the colours of Camelot as it reached the ground, into soft yellows and glowing purples.
Up on the balcony stood Evee and Praem, Jan and July, Felicity and Twil, and all the Knights we’d left inside; the Forest Knight raised his axe in greeting. Evelyn looked like hell, sagging in Praem’s arms, still drooling a thin trail of blood, but she was conscious and upright, squinting down at the carnage below.
Raine and Zheng had ventured down the extruded staircase. Zheng was bloody and battered and bruised, covered in gore like she’d just walked through a slaughterhouse. But she was grinning wide and triumphant.
“Shaman!” she roared, spreading her arms in greeting. “Wizard slayer!”
Raine just looked at me, open-faced and unreadable, hands still loose on her firearm. Lozzie and I staggered to our feet.
“Raine … ” I gurgled. “I’ve … I’ve ruined your hoodie. All … ripped. And holes, and stuff.”
To put it lightly, we did not look very human right then. My skin was a riot of warning colours, metal lacing, and armoured scales. I had three sets of eyelids, my eyes themselves were glowing like I’d eaten several toxic tree-frogs, and my teeth were sharp and hard enough to bite through a tin can. My shoulders and back were lined with spikes — which had quite shredded Raine’s borrowed hoodie — while my spine ended in a tail, and my nails were claws. My tentacles were weaponised — barbed and spiked, lethal to the touch, pulsing with toxins. A dozen Outsider variations were still being reabsorbed into my flesh.
I felt glorious, but I looked like a mess.
Raine had seen me like this before, of course, in the aftermath of the fight against Ooran Juh — but back then my flesh had been in flux, still subject to the pressures of reality, folding shining truth back inside my body as soon as the danger had passed. But out here, in Camelot, Outside, there was so much less pressure; I did not have to expend additional energy to remain manifested.
Homo Abyssus was sustainable, out here.
Raine burst into a smile. “Hey there, squid-wife. God, you’re beautiful. I’d give you a hug but I’m afraid I’d get a rash.”
I hiccuped and sobbed and laughed all at once — which, considering the shape of my throat right then, was probably the kind of sound which could scar a person for life. All it took was Raine’s genuine affection to get to my body to metabolise away my various contact-poisons and skin-threat neurotoxins. Barbs melted into soft nubs. Spikes blunted and withdrew. Lozzie let go so I could stumble forward and all but collapse into Raine’s arms — safe to the touch, safe to hold.
Zheng rumbled as well, and placed a hand on my head. “Shaman, you have felled the greatest of prey.”
Voices shouted from up on the balcony.
“Lozzie! Lozzie, are you alright?”
“Please tell me that thing is dead. Please, gods, let it be dead now.”
“Big H! Yo! Big H! Raine, she okay?”
“I suggest we—”
“Check to make sure—”
“The power of disco.”
But then Evelyn’s voice cut through the rest, angry and urgent and thick with pain: “Raine, Zheng! Get her up here, now! We’re not done yet! We still have a mage to kill!”
Raine helped me toward the steps, plunging us back into the shadow of the towering mushroom-cap of brick and steel, then up; I lashed myself to the bannister with tentacles, pulling upward like a beached octopus on the rocks. Lozzie patted the Caterpillar and told it to keep watch over the jellied remains of the Edward-amalgam. Zheng bounded ahead, pounding up the stairs to rejoin the others. Lozzie hopped past too, flying up and into Jan’s arms.
The black marble balcony led to a short matching hallway, framing my friends with the interior gloom of Edward’s House.
The others were shocked by the sight of me: Jan kept staring, even when Lozzie patted her cheeks and told her I was fine; Felicity went stiff and still, even more pale than before, her blood dried sticky on her face from the wound on her head. Even Twil gulped a little and shook herself like a wet dog, still more werewolf than young woman. But she’d seen me like this before.
Everyone was talking over everyone else.
“What the hell did you actually do, Loz? I’m sorry for asking and I probably don’t know to know, yes, but you just—”
“Make sure it’s dead. I mean that, make sure it’s dead. We’re beyond the fucking pale here and my ears ache but make sure that thing is—”
“We should get back in and deal with the real—”
“Eat,” said Praem — and plopped a lemon into my hands.
Evelyn eyed me without the slightest distaste; she looked at me the exact same as every other time I’d thrown myself into danger. Up and down, a huff, and a twist of her own bloodied lips.
“We went—” I croaked, which made several people flinch. “Went to Wonderland. And all over. He couldn’t take— take Outside.”
“Weak!” Lozzie chirped.
“Eat your lemon,” said Praem.
We ate our lemon, skinned it and gnawed on the sharp-tasting flesh.
“Well done, Heather, Lozzie,” Evelyn said. “We can talk later — after we’ve double checked the mess down there to make sure it’s not seeping into the soil. Now, back inside. Badger has the real Edward locked down, but we have no idea if something else could go wrong. Inside. Now. Everyone.”
Evee looked ready to fall down and slip into a coma, but she pulled on Praem, leading the way.
The balcony didn’t have any doors, just a rectangular opening into a short hallway made of the same black marble. A single right-hand turn took us back into the grand hall — Edward’s study, library, hospital room, and deathbed all in one. I was staggering, Evelyn could barely walk unsupported, Felicity had a nasty cut on her head, Lozzie was crying, Zheng was more wound than flesh; we were a mess, but we were all alive and all together. The Knights took the front as we hurried back, in case of any lingering surprises.
Evee croaked: “That demon-host, the one with the huge teeth, she’s back at his side. Zheng, you need to call her off.”
“She will listen, wizard.”
“Raine, be ready with that gun.”
“Ready. Got another full mag if we need it.”
“How did—” I croaked. “How did you get the stairs?”
A rust-caked voice answered from somewhere around the middle of Felicity’s back: “Asked politely!” said Aym.
Back in the grand hall of black marble, the floor was slick with blood and littered with pieces of Edward-clone, splattered up the walls and staining the bookcases. They’d all stopped moving as soon as Lozzie and I had dragged the soul-fused core elsewhere, cut off from their source of immortality, truly dead.
Not everybody could deal with that sight without wanting to retch, or turning green, or looking away. Including me, now the immediate danger had passed. Lozzie even clamped her eyes shut. Jan had to help her past the biological debris.
Edward Lilburne — the real one, the ‘network core’ — was right where we’d left him, propped up in his magically-assisted hospital bed, surrounded by medical machines and rings of magic circle. Frail and reduced with age, his eyes locked on the piece of paper in his hands, he looked nothing like the vast monster we had just burned to death in the fires of Outside. The thin trickle of crimson from his left nostril still had not dripped into his lap, his blood was so thin and dry, a droplet hanging from his upper lip.
The Grinning Demon was clutching him from behind, arms around his thin and papery shoulders, protective and bewildered. She watched us enter with an almost lost expression, no longer grinning but collapsed into empty pain. Her blood-red eyes fixed on me, on the sight of Homo Abyssus, walking free.
Badger was still slumped next to the bed, conscious and whole but cringing with pain, his face covered in his own blood, the price of binding a mage in paralysis.
“Nathan!” Raine called out as we approached. “Hold on a sec, mate, we’re almost done.”
Zheng extended a hand toward the Grinning Demon. “He is dead. Come here, little—”
The droplet of gathered blood fell from Edward’s upper lip.
It landed on the paper in his hands. It did not blot out part of the equation, but landed on a clear space near the bottom of the page, a space left for a final figure, an answer, a solution.
Edward moved his right hand — one bony finger twitched across the blood and smeared a symbol into the paper.
Badger’s secret weapon, his mage-paralysing mathematical equation, had been answered.
Edward lifted his liver-spotted head.
“Ah,” he said.
Zheng roared and rushed at the stick-bundle figure beneath the sheets; Evelyn raised her bone-wand once again and choked out a string of syllables which burned on the air; Felicity snapped her shotgun closed and pulled the trigger; Raine aimed and fired; even Jan joined in, her voice rising in a sudden surprise of musical language I didn’t recognise; I hissed, screeching and lashing out with our tentacles.
Edward Lilburne barely moved.
His fingers, arthritic and swollen at the joints, skin stuck to bones, flickered like a sleepwalker brushing away cobwebs. His rasping, reedy voice whispered one-word dismissals in a language that stabbed into my ears and through my skull. Evelyn’s spell sputtered to nothing; Felicity’s magically-altered buckshot slammed to a halt in mid-air and fell into the floor, tinkling as it landed; Jan choked as if punched in the throat, until Lozzie caught her and opened her airways with a squeeze; Raine’s bullets bounced off nothing — except one, which got through, only for the Grinning Demon to snatch it out of the air.
My tentacles bounced off nothing, off thickened air, off manifested thought.
And Zheng, beautiful, unstoppable Zheng, hit a wall of immovable, invisible force. She thrashed and roared and spat blood. July lurked behind her, as if looking for an opening.
The Knights closed ranks, but there was nothing to protect us against.
Edward Lilburne blinked very slowly. He took a breath, working his throat. He glanced at Badger, then Zheng, then up at the Grinning Demon.
“Thank you, dear,” he said.
The voice of the real man was a smoke-charred whisper, teetering on the verge of death.
The Grinning Demon looked down at him, blank and empty, almost childlike.
“Yes?” she said through her teeth.
“Wizard!” Zheng roared. “I will tear off your head and shit into your soul! I will eat your entrails and cast your testicles into a fire! I will—”
Edward Lilburne’s fingers flickered again. Zheng’s voice went out, muted, gone.
“You will do no such thing,” he said. He didn’t even look at Zheng. “The first discipline I ever learned was the proper binding of demons.” He glanced up at his attendant demon-host once more, at her glistening naked form and curled black horns. “You look better when you smile, dear.”
Another finger-flick. The Grinning Demon’s face stretched back into that skull-splitting smile once again, showing her teeth like the maw of a shark.
“Evee!” Raine was saying. “What do we do? What do we do?”
“Fucking hell!” Twil shouted. “Yeah come on, do we just rush him or what?”
“Kill him,” Evee croaked. “Kill him. Before he does something—”
Felicity fired her shotgun a second time. Once again Edward dismissed the buckshot pellets with a disinterested flick of his fingers. He sighed an almost delicate little sigh.
“Cease that,” he murmured.
Felicity went stiff and white in the face, as if clutched by an invisible hand. Aym — a black-lace shadow — crawled up her face all of a sudden and opened her airways with a pop of air pressure. Felicity gasped for breath, flailing and staggering back.
Twil flung herself at Edward, all teeth and claw. Another flicker of his fingers and she bounced off an invisible wall, same as Zheng. She didn’t give up though, rushing headlong into it again and again.
“Now,” Edward said. “Enough of this.”
“Enough is right,” said Badger.
Edward looked down at him, still dangerously close to his side. Nathan stared back, oddly unmoved, as if expecting something very different from the mage.
“You almost got me, young man,” Edward said to him, a raspy warble. “Promising. Perhaps I’ll keep you a while.”
“You won’t,” said Badger. “You don’t have long.”
Edward and I had something in common: we both noticed that Badger wasn’t afraid.
The tiniest papery frown began to crease Edward’s forehead.
“Edward!” I shouted.
Whatever Nathan was doing, whatever foolish second step his plan involved, I had to buy him time.
I stepped forward, tentacles fanning outward, head high, teeth bared, flesh strobing with dark-red threat.
“Stop,” we said. “We just killed you once — your stupid clone trick. I can do that again. You know I can do it. You can’t hold me back. You can make it difficult for me, and you can force me to cut through your demon-host. But you cannot stop me, not if I use hyperdimensional mathematics.”
Edward Lilburne finally looked at me. Exhausted, rheumy eyes focused on my face. He smiled a thin-lipped smile of smug condescension.
“Take off that mask, you stupid girl,” he said.
It was only then that I realised I was still wearing my squid-skull mask; I’d been wearing it the whole time, as if it was my real face — but it was my real face, wasn’t it? I was me, we were us, and we were Homo Abyssus.
“It’s not a—”
“You look like a circus clown from a tidal pool,” he said. He didn’t even put much emphasis on the insult, just said it and moved on. “Besides, it doesn’t matter if you kill this shell. You may have spoiled my original plans, certainly. I will not walk infinity as a human. But I will still walk it, in one form or another.”
“I already put down your—”
“Yes, yes.” He sighed. “You dealt with my overzealous offshoots. Thank you. I am a little indebted. I would have been forced to tidy them up myself otherwise, and it is so tiresome to put down one’s self again and again. But the process has already begun. Killing me now will only complete it faster. This building — what remains of it — will be burnt through, and I will ride that soul into eternity, into what you so blindly call the ‘abyss’.”
“ … pardon?”
Edward Lilburne smiled his vile little smile. His bone-thin shoulders shrugged. His thin and withered fingers flickered and flexed.
“You cannot kill me in any fashion which matters. I am about to become like you, Miss Morell. And I will return with far more ambitious aims than the ones you hold so foolishly dear.”
One of my patron readers described the main scene of this chapter as "Heather and Lozzie doing a death roll", i.e. the thing that crocodiles do to kill prey (go look up a video on youtube, it's gruesome and impressive), and you know what? I couldn't have put it better myself. But, hey, mages. Looks like Evee was right about something all along: mages are exceptionally hard to kill for real. Ed-ball may be gone, but Edward's still going, and he's got plans. Big plans. But ... perhaps somebody else does, too. I certainly hope so, because we're only two chapters away from the end of arc 20!
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Next week, it's Edward, and Heather, and ... a wild card, sitting quietly, with a plan.