Normally I don't like to make jokes before the start of a chapter, but I cannot resist this, it gave me the giggles so very badly:
“You want to cast yourself into the abyss? You?”
I had intended to scoff, to laugh with derision, to make my words incredulous with disbelief — how could I not? But we weren’t very good at scoffing, we didn’t have a lot of scoff in us. That was more Evelyn’s area of expertise, and she was busy spluttering with a nose full of blood and staring in horror at Edward’s statement of intent.
My rhetorical question emerged squeaky and raw, from behind the true face of my squid-skull mask.
Edward Lilburne — a collection of hide-wrapped sticks beneath thin hospital sheets, propped up by pillows and cushions, his wrinkled and withered flesh hooked into softly bleeping medical machinery, protected behind walls of invisible power, magic circles, and decades of accumulated knowledge — smiled thin and vile. He nodded his shiny, liver-spotted head. His half-blind, rheumy eyes crinkled with satisfaction and pleasure.
“Oh yes,” he rasped in a weak and whispery voice. “I am ready for the journey.”
The Grinning Demon, naked pale muscles sculpted like a classical statue, stood at his side, staring back at me with her mute rictus grin. Her red eyes told nothing.
Camelot’s purple light fell across them both from behind, streaming into the black marble hall through the massive crystal window which stretched from floor-to-ceiling at the rear of the room. Beyond, behind Edward and his Demon and the desk and the detritus of the end of his life, Camelot’s hills unrolled to the horizon.
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” I said. We laughed, a dry little chuckle that came out as an inhuman throat-scratch. “The abyss? Just like that? As if you can dip yourself into the waters and then climb out at will? I swam those depths for what felt like decades. For an eternity. I forgot who I was — what I was. I forgot my own name! I was— I was— perfect. Elegant and sharp and quick and— and I had people to bring me back. Memories to anchor me.” I gestured at his black marble study, his impersonal deathbed, his grinning attendant with her blood-red eyes lost to Edward’s commands. “What do you have? This? What names will you take down into the abyss with you, Edward? You don’t have anybody, anything! I had my sister to turn me back! To tell me to return!” I was shouting, offended beyond proper argument, my voice screeching so hard that several of my friends flinched. “You will lose yourself down there, in the dark, in the black, where everything makes so much more sense.” I felt my human eyes crying tears too thick to be saline alone. “If you come back at all, you won’t be you anymore, or human. And you have nobody to return—”
“Of course you struggled to maintain coherency of ego,” he grumbled, low and unimpressed. “I have studied the arts and methods of immortality my entire life. I have built a machine for the transmission of the self — this house — and purified my soul across the course of decades. I have prepared for this moment. You are a foolish teenage girl who—”
“I’m twenty years old!”
“And a foolish child who does not know herself.” Edward’s smile creased with genuine amusement. “Look at me, girl. Look at what I have spent my life building. You think I am subject to the same self-limitations as you? No.” That smile thickened, reached up into his cheeks. “My transformation will be swift and terrible, every part of it intentional and controlled. Nothing like you.” He snorted. “You are a pale and twisted shadow of a half-remembered nightmare. I will be a gleaming and golden dream.”
He believed every word of it. I was never particularly good at catching lies or bluffs, but this wizened and shrivelled mage believed he was on the verge of perfect immortality.
“You have no idea,” I said — though with ebbing confidence now, in the face of his sheer self-belief. “All that stuff about remaining human, you told me all that before, back in that house in Devon. You said you were going to travel Outside without being contaminated. Even if you can survive the abyss without human connections, you won’t be human. You said it yourself — like me? Look at us.”
We spread wide, tentacles strobing rainbow-bright and neon-dense. My body was still humming with bioreactor energies, my blood surging like rocket fuel through my veins. My eyes glowed inside the sockets of my squid-skull mask, pink, green, yellow, purple, cycling back and forth. My skin tingled with latent toxins and poisons. My fingers were still webbed, my nails aching and bleeding with the desire to sharpen into claws, my shoulders studded with now-blunted spikes and venomous barbs. My teeth were sharp. My tongue was too long. My legs were reinforced with bio-steel cables. A sharp-tipped tail swished from the end of my spine. A yellow membrane-mantle hung from my shoulders and elbows and flanks — Sevens’ contribution to and embrace of Homo Abyssus.
“I know I’m not human,” I said. “And I love it. I’m exactly what I’m supposed to be.”
“Mm,” Edward grunted, twisting his lips with wry amusement, like he was in debate club, about to pull out some second-rate counter argument. “That much is true. I will no longer be human, not strictly speaking. A failure, certainly. A woeful waste of potential. But within acceptable parameters. In the end, any immortality is preferable to death.”
Those words drew a flicker of a smile from an unexpected source: down at Edward’s elbow, with his own blood still seeping from nose and ears and eyes, sitting almost collapsed at a tiny side-desk, desperately clenching his right arm to suppress a muscle spasm — Badger smiled.
From just behind me, Raine laughed. “Fleeing to Argentina as the Reich crumbles, huh? That’s some coward shit, Ed-boy.”
I could have turned around and kissed Raine for that; I needed her confidence, her support at my shoulder. The smug satisfaction and knowing look in Edward’s eyes was beginning to spook me. I may not have believed his words — but he certainly did, and I was beginning to doubt.
Had Raine also seen Badger’s little smile?
We needed to keep Edward talking.
The others, all except Zheng and July, were gathered in a rough group behind me, hanging on the import of the argument between me and Edward, as if we could somehow vanquish him by defeat in verbal combat. Perhaps Praem or Evee or Jan had some idea of what I was actually doing — desperately stalling for time. But I doubted that Lozzie relished hearing the sound of Edward’s voice, or that Twil had any useful suggestions, except to keep throwing herself at the invisible air-walls summoned by the tiny flicking of his withered fingers; thankfully Twil had slunk back to cover Evelyn instead. The Forest Knight stood at my right shoulder, Raine at my left. The other Knights stood in a row, shields up, ready to defend against any attack — but I doubted one would come. Edward did not want a fight, not really.
Zheng was stalking in a slow circle around Edward’s hospital bed, testing his defences at random, surging forward here, punching solid air there. She hissed and heaved through her maw of shark teeth, still bloody and raw and bleeding from the explosive earlier, her vocal chords still muted by magecraft trickery.
I’d never seen her so filled with rage, every muscle vibrating, shoulders hunched, face quivering, hands grasping to tear through Edward’s defences and rip out his tongue.
July followed in her wake, more cautious than Zheng. Long black braid swinging in the still air, she bobbed on the balls of her feet, like a boxer ready to exploit an opening.
The Grinning Demon, her lips stretched to breaking point around too many teeth, watched Zheng in return with those unreadable blood-red orbs.
Edward’s fingers continued to flicker and twitch as Zheng threw herself at his invisible shields. He didn’t even pause when he spoke.
If Badger could find the strength to reach forward and grab those fingers, even if only for a moment, surely Zheng would be able to break through? Zheng would only need a second or two to murder the man.
But what if Edward was right?
“Ha ha,” Edward croaked in his wispy little voice. His eyes moved to Raine. “I do not appreciate that comparison, you stupid girl.”
“Naaaaaah,” Raine said. “I reckon it’s a pretty apt one. I think we’d all be much happier if you followed your leader instead.”
“Ha!” Twil barked — literally, still more wolf than woman. “Yeah, right! Blow your brains out for us, you fuck!”
“Follow your leader,” Praem intoned.
Edward sneered — an impressive feat for such a physically exhausted and ancient man. His watery little eyes scrunched up with derision. “I flee nothing. I make no retreat. I stand on the precipice of greatness. Yes, you have forced me to rule out my preferred plan — immortality without change. But this eventuality I have prepared for all my life. Death comes, yes, undeniable. But I will pass through it. I will pass into the firmament above and the firmament below, the bowl of water placed there by the demiurge, which encapsulates all reality. Only out there can one truly learn the language of god.”
“Alright then, mate,” said Raine. “Lower your force-field bullshit. Let us in so we can hurry you along.”
Edward chuckled, low and amused. “I still feel pain, for now. If I let your living furniture at me—” He gestured to Zheng with a flicker of his eyes. “Then I will die in great pain. Tongue-less and fingerless and probably screaming. A transitory state, to be sure, but one I prefer to avoid, thank you.”
Raine cracked a shit-eating grin, full power, maximum cheese. “How about this?” She raised her stolen firearm once again, pressed the stock tight to her shoulder, and pointed it at Edward’s head. “I’ll make it quick. Bullet through the head. How’s that sound? Come on, you can’t deny that would be easy.”
Edward snorted softly and looked away from Raine with utter contempt.
“Raine … ” I whispered inside my mask. “I don’t know if we should … ”
Raine whispered back with the corner of her mouth: “You think he can do it? Come back from the abyss?”
Badger’s equation — the mathematical spell he had used to all-too-briefly lock down Edward’s mind — lay abandoned in Edward’s bony lap: a piece of paper covered with Badger’s handwriting, and ended with a symbol which Edward had scrawled in his own blood, with the tip of his own finger.
And Badger — Nathan Sterling Hobbes, once a mage himself, sort of — was staring up at Edward as if we’d already won.
Had Nathan lost too much blood? Was he slipping into delusion?
“I don’t know,” I hissed back, then hiccuped loudly. “Badger’s onto something, but we … we have to keep him talking … we … I don’t know how to—”
Speak truth, kitten, and the words will flow.
Sevens? I didn’t answer out loud, but my words echoed inside my head. Sevens, what are you doing?
Nothing! came the yellow whisper in my ear. My father taught me many tricks for drawing out pride and hubris, but this one needs no script to follow. Speak and he will talk himself raw. Do it, kitten.
Do you know what Badger is doing?
I have no idea. He isn’t following a script either. Something darker, something I cannot read.
Edward was already warbling on without us: “I would prefer a better death, of course. A meaningful death, one to launch the ship with the right air. At the hands of an equal, or at least—”
“Alexander had a better death than you,” we said.
We put all our scorn and spite into it, standing up as tall as we could — not much. Homo Abyssus is a glorious thing to be, but I am still only five foot nothing. We spread all our tentacles out in a mocking halo of barbs and spikes.
“He stood by his convictions,” we went on. “I mean, yes, they were terrible convictions, he was a monster, he did terrible, evil things. But he stood and died by them. I killed him, and he took it. You can’t even do that, apparently.”
We swallowed a hiccup.
That little speech earned me a raised eyebrow from Edward’s craggy face. He even laughed again, a wheezy, croaking sound.
From beneath our feet the House suddenly creaked as well: beams adjusting, walls and floors warping out of shape, bones bending under pressure. The marble floor shuddered as if a spasm was passing through distant flesh.
“Heather!” Evelyn hissed from behind me. Her voice was wet with bloody mucus, the product of too much high-level magic in quick succession. “Heather, what the hell are you doing? We have to fucking kill him!”
“Yeah,” Twil said. “Like you did with the big Ed-ball? Can’t you do that again? You just pulled it apart, right?”
“Use brain-math!” Evee croaked. “Heather! Dismantle him! Break his barriers. You can do it!”
Zheng caught my eye as well, showing her teeth and nodding — kill him, shaman!
Behind my mask, I wet my lips and hiccuped twice. I could overcome Edward’s protection, yes; with hyperdimensional mathematics it would probably be simple to dismantle his spells and tear into his cocoon. I could even let Zheng and the others do the rest, let it all end in bloody wet red violence.
But what if he was right? What if death would dip him into the abyss?
What if he was prepared and ready for the sharks of the void and the lurking leviathans?
What if he came back?
We knew it was possible, I was living proof of that. We also knew that I was not the sole example of a human being who had returned from the abyss. We had fought one before: Ooran Juh, the giant headless monster with whom Badger had made an unwise deal, a creature closer in nature to Sevens than to any mortal, a human mage once upon a time, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago.
When we’d fought, Ooran Juh had demonstrated just enough abyssal knowledge to dodge my attempt to send him Outside. In the end we had not killed him, only driven him off with the threat of mutual destruction and by establishing a stronger claim on Nathan’s soul.
What if Edward returned as something equally unaffected by notions of mortality?
“Ahh yes,” Edward was already replying to my statement, as if we weren’t discussing the urgent need to murder him. “I have heard from second-hand and third-hand sources the details of my foolish nephew’s final moments. Of course, he took the coward’s way out.”
“Coward? He stood by his—”
“He made a deal with the unspeakable!” Edward snapped, then dissolved into a hissing cough, the first time he had shown something approaching true anger.
Beneath our feet, the House creaked and groaned again.
“He gave himself up to inhuman influences,” Edward wheezed on. “Gave up his soul, rather than purifying it. Am I not right? He made a deal, did he not? Accepting patronage the same as you, with the same entity — I will not speak its name — with which you so foolishly cavort.”
I spluttered. “‘Cavort’? I was taken away when I was—”
“Besides,” Edward croaked over my objection. “My fool of a nephew relied on the good sense and rational thought of a young idiot. Did he not? He claimed you wouldn’t put him down like the mad dog he was. Claimed you wouldn’t do it, according to your own moral code. Ha! Moral code.” Edward laughed to himself. “Ridiculous.”
“He was a better mage than you!” I snapped.
Edward seemed amused. He waved vaguely with one hand. He leaned back into his pillows in lazy-eyed repose. “My nephew never understood the purpose of the great work. I treated him differently from the rest of the dross, with the hope that I might not be completely intellectually isolated. Oh, he was a very good ‘activist’, certainly. His little project — his ‘cult’ — provided me with plenty of materials. But his involvement was too close, too driven by the deaths of his parents, my fool of a brother and his simpering wife.” Edward smacked his lips. “No, Alexander never understood the quest — for understanding, for comprehension, and in comprehending, to ascend, to escape, to immortality and perfection. He always was an arrogant shit, even as a little boy. My brother — his father — should have disciplined him better. Disciplined them both. Spared the rod, produced a moron and a—”
“Dad was good!”
Lozzie’s chirping voice cut through Edward’s bitter reminiscence. Suddenly she was at my side too, crying openly, lips pressed tight with defiance. Her pastel poncho was limp and lifeless once more, wrapped around her like a shroud.
Edward stared. “The changeling speaks.”
“Dad loved us! He did!” Lozzie shouted back at him. “He was— they were— they were wrong but—”
“Your infernal re-souling should have robbed you of the power of speech. Your parents would still be alive if only you could have learned to shut your mouth and listen. You are my greatest failure, Lauren. I should have kept you caged, not given you over to the soft-headed mercies of your brother. Rest assured I will be correcting that mistake, very soon.”
“Lozzie!” Jan was hissing from behind. “Lozzie!”
But Lozzie did not turn and look. She stared at Edward with hatred, then glanced at me with a silent question in her tear-streaked eyes: why wasn’t I killing him?
“Where was I?” Edward was croaking to himself. “Ah yes. Alexander said you wouldn’t kill him. I assert that you can and will kill me — but that it does not matter. I too will stand and die, and then rise again.”
“Heathy! Heathy!” She grabbed a tentacle, winding one of us around her own forearm. “Heathy, kill him! Please!”
Abyssal instinct whispered fevered doubts. Was I standing before an old man, bluffing for a few extra seconds of life? Or was this withered shell just that — an eggshell, containing the seed of an abyssal foe? He looked so comfortable and calm and relaxed, an old man thinking back on his life, not a mage afraid and fighting for advantage.
“Lozzie,” I whispered inside my mask. “I don’t know, we don’t know. What if he’s … ”
Lozzie’s eyes pleaded.
My mind raced for a solution. I turned back to Edward.
“I can think of a way to kill you for real,” we said. “We could leave you in Wonderland. I could leave you for the Eye.”
“You couldn’t do that for the foolish drones and their pitiful attempt to imitate my work,” he rasped. “You brought them back here, to be dismantled by your sad little playthings, those machine-wrapped scraps of flesh down there. My niece’s dolls. Perhaps my fool of a nephew was correct, perhaps you do have moral weakness.”
“For you, I would make an exception.” Would I? Does even Edward not deserve the Eye? “If the alternative is you hurting Loz—”
“Oh, spare me the justifications.” Edward tutted. “Yes, I’m sure your fellow-feeling for any human being is soundly routed by your true allegiance to your vile inhuman parent. I was merely speculating. But no, taking me from this house and putting me elsewhere will only complete the process the moment the connection is severed. My body will suffer, certainly, but I will not be in it. My soul will be sinking, free and flaming.”
“I could find a way to stop that. I could … dive after you.”
So why wasn’t I?
Edward must have sensed my hesitation by now — but he chalked it up to fear or doubt. I kept my eyes from flicking to Badger, from giving away what I was placing my hopes on.
Edward sneered as if this boast wasn’t even worth paying attention to. He said: “I would prefer a better death, as I was saying. At the hands of an equal — or a near-equal, at least.” His eyes dismissed me as no longer interesting, and finally landed on the person he had been trying to address this entire time.
“Evelyn Saye,” he rasped. “Step forward, if you will.”
Evelyn snorted — low, wet with blood, saturated with contempt. I almost flinched, as if I’d been clipped by a passing cannonball.
Edward sighed with surprising gentleness. He adjusted himself on his pillows. The Grinning Demon reached down to help. “It is an invitation to discuss, not an order,” he said. “I do not presume to direct a fellow mage, not a true one, a—”
“Is that your wife?”
Evelyn’s grunted question threw Edward off-balance. He blinked his watery eyes. “Pardon me?”
“The demon-host with the horns and the stupid grin,” Evelyn growled. The Grinning Demon straightened up and stared back at her. “Whose corpse did you use?”
Edward blinked twice, as if he didn’t comprehend the question. “My first wife, yes.” He reached over with one hand and placed it gently on the naked wrist of his massive, muscular demon. She looked down at the hand, grinning like a skull. “I made her when I still believed that I was bringing back a human being. When I was but a foolish boy who did not understand that there is no return, that the things we use to power our machines are mere electricity and—”
Evelyn let out a grumbly sigh. “You never got Yuleson’s reply to your peace offer, then? Useless man.”
Edward squinted. “My lawyer? You—”
We said, “Evee promised to take everything of yours. Including her.”
Edward pulled a perplexed and amused face.
Evelyn spat, her temper exploding. “This is obscene, absurd! We’re standing at the foot of your bed and you’re about to die! Do you know why? Because we treated this like a war! You fucking old moron! You could have avoided this by just giving us the fucking book!”
Edward narrowed his eyes. “The what?”
Nobody said anything for a moment. Evelyn stared as if she might explode on the spot. Raine let out a long sigh.
Evelyn ground the words out: “The book you took from the Library of Carcosa, from under our noses. The Testament of Heliopolis. The book we have been demanding this entire time.”
“Ohhhhh.” Edward closed his eyes briefly, as if we were all very stupid. “The book, the book, yes. A trinket, to get your attention. No more than that.” He flickered his fingers to one side, vaguely indicating the back of the great marble room, the space behind him filled with detritus and junk which surrounded the great wooden slab of a desk. The crystal window still glowed with Camelot’s purple light. “It’s in my desk. Top right drawer. If I am remembering correctly. Take it, please, if it gives you the satisfaction.”
I could barely believe my ears. All this fighting, all this mage-war, all those insulting letters, all the bargaining, the attempts to kidnap Lozzie, then me — what had it all been for?
Edward grunted as he shifted against his pillows again; the floor beneath us rumbled and groaned, like a ship in high winds.
The others shared some uncomfortable looks. Twil muttered, “Gotta be a fucking trap. That drawer is an IED or some shit.” Raine murmured in disagreement. In the end, Praem left Evelyn briefly in Twil’s capable hands, and Raine left my side. My lover and the demon maid circled around Edward’s hospital bed together, then eased open the top right drawer of his desk with the tip of Raine’s gun.
No explosion. No gas. No magical burst of colour.
Raine and Praem returned a moment later, untouched by booby-traps. Praem carried a thick book bound in tan leather. The front cover was a piece of brass etched with a stylized illustration of the sun.
“Book obtained,” said Praem. “Book.”
Evelyn all but stumbled back into Praem’s grip, desperate for the prize. Raine raised her eyebrows at me in silent exasperation. Everyone just stared at the unassuming tome as Evelyn clutched it to her chest.
“That’s it?” Twil said, almost laughing. “That’s the fucking book? That’s what all this has been … ”
“Why?” I croaked.
But Edward Lilburne did not answer. His eyes were fixed on Evelyn, deeply amused, waiting for her response. She stared back in furious silence, sucking on her teeth.
“Mages,” she said eventually. “You all have such nonsense logic. No different to my bitch of mother — and I killed her. You can’t expect me to take all that you’ve done and then just—”
“All I did was test you, Miss Saye,” Edward rasped. “A real mage deserves a real challenge. You lack purpose and impetus.”
“Ha!” Evelyn spat. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve won! Heather! Heather, finish this before—”
Edward laughed, a sound like wet sticks rubbing together in a stagnant puddle. The walls creaked. “Do not flatter yourself, Miss Saye. I’m old. I know I’m old. I’ve barely been paying attention to managing this little dance. My offshoots and appendages have been chasing you around, sending you letters, irritating my fool of a lawyer. You think I was expending my entire intellect and attention on this … ” He laughed again. “This ‘war’? No.”
“We still won. And you’re about to die.”
Edward Lilburne smiled. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “You are not a tenth of the woman your mother was — your performance has proven that. But, you are still a real mage. One with extraordinarily poor taste, though. You surround yourself with ostentatious furniture.” He sneered at Praem. “You make companions out of violated hybrids and unstable psychopaths. You ally with things which do not know they are dead.” He glanced at Jan with deep contempt. “And parasitised drug-addicts.” He looked right through Felicity. “Worse than that, far worse than that — you harbour this thing.” He lifted a finger and pointed — at me. “A seed of destruction. A true contaminant.” Edward seemed to raise himself up on the hospital bed a little, no longer amused but burning inside with true conviction. The Grinning Demon helped him sit taller. “My first act upon return will be to dispose of this vile thing.” His finger shook in my direction. “Then to teach my niece her place. Then to teach you — Miss Saye — how to be the woman your mother should have made—”
“No,” Evelyn said. “I think I prefer to fuck your wife.”
Edward was so wrong-footed that his rant juddered to a halt. He blinked several times. The Grinning Demon just stared at Evee. Raine snorted a much-needed laugh. Twil guffawed — a little too hard and forced.
“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, kill him already. We’ve stalled long enough. He’s bluffing!”
My throat was bone dry. I finally let myself look down at Badger again, at the private and quiet satisfaction in his eyes as he gazed at Edward in the hospital bed.
The House creaked and groaned beneath our feet once more, the waves of sound echoing upward through unseen voids behind the marble walls. Twil hissed through her teeth. Lozzie whimpered and shivered. Zheng stalked in her slow circle around Edward’s invisible protection.
Had I misunderstood? Make your move, Nathan! We can’t stall much longer!
“Heather!” Evelyn snapped.
“Evee — what if he’s not bluffing?” we said. “What if he comes back, from … from the abyss?”
“Then we kill him again!” she said. “We kill him again, we kill whatever emerges, whatever—”
“Like Ooran Juh?” I murmured behind my mask. “I couldn’t kill him. Evee … ”
Evelyn ground her teeth.
“I don’t think he’s bluffing,” said an unexpected voice — Jan.
Jan stepped forward so she could hold Lozzie’s hand. Her neat black hair was in sweaty disarray, plastered to her forehead. She seemed so much smaller than usual, petite and tiny and vulnerable. She was wide-eyed with terror as she looked at me.
“I’ve studied immortality,” she said. “I … I toyed with other methods of … survival, once. I’m not proud of that. But I know what I’m talking about.”
Edward regarded Jan like she was smeared with excrement. His lips curled in disgust.
She looked at him and said: “You’re using a mixture of Lamarkand’s theories and the osmosis principle, the one outlined in Tod und Darüber, aren’t you?”
Edward blinked. His disgust curdled into something darker, like the expression one might pull if a turd stood up and quoted philosophy. “You know a little, then, you crippled eunuch?”
“More than you, I would wager.”
“And yet you chose unlife and—”
Jan spoke over him, addressing the rest of us without taking her eyes off Edward: “He’s not bluffing. If I’m right, he has the theory down, at least. If this— the ‘abyss’, if it exists at all, if it’s more than just mad speculation.”
“It does,” I croaked. “I went there.”
“Yes, okay,” Jan said quickly, breathing too hard, swallowing before she could continue. “But he would need to sacrifice somebody, or something — somebody he loves, and who loves him in return, at the exact moment of death, to use it like a … like a flotation device? To be abandoned once it’s been used, to send him back to the surface. I’m right, aren’t I, you old fart?”
Edward’s smile crinkled with recognition. “For a real mage to ruin herself with a cage of plastic and metal. Ha. You are a pitiful thing.”
“Thanks,” Jan said, laughing to hold back genuine fear. “I like being human too.”
“Wait wait,” Twil said. “Somebody who loves him?” She pointed at the grinning demon. “You mean … her?”
Jan shook her head. “He already told us. What did you say, you old bastard? You’re going to ride the soul of this house down into the abyss? You meant that literally, didn’t you?”
Edward just smiled. He leaned back into the piled pillows of his hospital bed, totally at peace.
“The House!” I said.
“Yes, the house,” Jan repeated. “He loves it because it was his first plan, his plan A, his decades of work, an expression of all his ideals. This is just plan B, and it only happens if his lifelong work fails. And the house loves him in return because he lives in it. That’s what it’s for.”
“Houses love their inhabitants,” I murmured. “No. No, you can’t!”
“Errr,” went Twil. “What if we just … don’t kill him, then? Like, that’s an option, right?”
Evelyn huffed. “Don’t be stupid, Twil.”
Felicity spoke up for the first time in several minutes, her voice hollow with resignation. “He’s going to die anyway. I’ve seen this before.”
Edward chuckled. “The parasite-host speaks well. Yes! It matters not. The process is happening even now, fuelled by the death of my greatest work. New clones are being grown in the marrow of the house, back up plans meant for another strategy, burning energy into the void of Outside. The house fails, floundering on the shores of the beyond, so I will die in a matter of ten minutes or so. Or you may kill me first. It matters not. I will never truly die. Like all great mages, I pass into eternal flesh.” Edward sighed like an old man easing himself into a warm bath. “Humanity but a fleeting cocoon — a failure. But I will live forever.”
“Yes,” said a voice I’d been waiting to hear all this time. “You will live forever.”
All eyes turned in surprise. Edward looked too, down and to his right, frowning in momentary confusion, his bliss broken by a bloody croak.
Nathan Sterling Hobbes smiled back at him, grinning like I’d never seen the man grin before, wide and savage. His eyes glinted with a spark of madness — and a fleeting gleam of yellow.
Sevens? I thought.
This was not me! she hissed back.
“Yes, boy,” Edward grunted. “I cannot truly die. That is the point. You always were a slow study, you—”
“You won’t die,” Nathan breathed. “Because your life no longer belongs to you.”
Edward squinted hard. “What are you blathering about, boy?”
Badger pointed at the piece of paper in Edward’s lap, the page of equation scrawled in his handwriting, ended with a single symbol in Edward’s own blood.
“You signed the contract,” said Nathan.
The House groaned again, rumbling beneath our feet, seeming to settle and sigh.
Edward actually smiled, incredulous and amused, as if dealing with a child wielding a toy gun. “I did no such thing. I wrote a number. Nothing more. It is not—”
“No,” said Nathan, shaking his head gently. The aching triumph in his voice somehow stilled Edward’s words — and I knew this was not entirely Nathan. Something else spoke through him. A script. A play. A fall from grace. “You accepted the premise of the equation — you had to, in order to answer it. The solution to the equation is simply the legal and true name of the one reading the equation. It doesn’t matter what number you put down, the number is your name and your name is the number and the number is your name. You agreed that x is y is the name of the reader — and you agreed to accept the debts of the writer.”
“I agreed to nothing. What nonsense is—”
“You accepted power!” Badger panted with desperate laughter, as if he was trying to hold back a screech. His right arm was shaking badly, the tremors running up his shoulder and into his neck. “Not much. But power, just enough to escape from the paralysis. That was the solution to the equation, the offer in the contract. And you signed it.”
Edward tilted his bald, liver-spotted head. Badger’s blood-streaked smile panted back at him.
“Intent matters, boy,” Edward rasped slowly. “When signing contracts, they are null and void if the signer does not understand. A contract in a language I do not comprehend is not binding. I am bound by nothing.”
Badger just grinned. His eyes kept bleeding, weeping tears running down his scarlet-stained cheeks. “Oh, but you signed with your heart. I made sure of that.”
Edward’s slow amusement smeared to one side, uncertain.
“You’re a creature of contracts,” Nathan continued. “You believe in them. You’re the sort of man who believes in nothing but ownership and power. Property rights. Without property rights there’s nothing, right? Without respect for contracts — chaos! Those demon-hosts downstairs, did they sign their contracts for their bodies, knowing what they would be in for? Or the children you killed, the children I watched you feed to fucking machines!” Badger spat with an anger I’d never seen from him before. “Or us, all of us. You didn’t tell us what we were in for. Does that void those contracts? You didn’t believe it did. I met your work enough times to know exactly the sort of man you are. What you believe in.”
Edward sighed, as if disappointed. “You cannot defeat me with hypocrisy, boy. I care nothing for accusations. Are you trying to guilt me?” He seemed genuinely incredulous.
Badger said: “You believe in this. When you signed, you did so with your heart. That’s how your value system works.”
Edward huffed a pitying little laugh. “And what have you bound me to, boy? I feel no fetters on flesh or magic. I hold these fools and their furniture at bay with a fraction of my power. What do you presume to have done to me?”
“Badger!” I shouted. “Don’t tell him! If it might jeopardise it, don’t tell him!”
Nathan shook his head and shot me a glance. “It’s too late now.” He turned back to Edward, grinning with more than a touch of madness; that yellow gleam passed over his eyes again. “I spent months thinking about how to deal with you. Ever since Heather brought me back from the dead, since she rescued me, made my mind clear. See, Alexander clued me in to the problem—”
Edward scoffed. “As if my idiot nephew could teach—”
“His death taught me a valuable lesson. Because he fucked us.” Badger’s right arm started to shake harder, with spasm, with rage, with the echo of the damage I’d done to his brain. “He died, but then he made a deal, and he fucked us from beyond the grave. Me, Sarry, the guys, Stibby and Dingle, my friends, everyone. Everyone died, because mages are so hard to really kill. So I’ve chewed over the problem of you, Edward. How to get rid of you without your death? For months. And then I realised. I still have a debt — not just to Heather. Heather destroyed the contract I had signed, chased off the collector, but the debt itself still exists. And debts can be transferred.”
Edward’s amusement drained away. He went pale. His skin seemed more sunken. Below us, the House rumbled and creaked, roiling like sickened guts.
“What have you done, boy?” Edward hissed. “What have you done to me?”
“Nothing.” Badger grinned, panting, his right arm and shoulder seizing up with muscle spasm as he fought. “But you’ve signed a contract with something more powerful than you — and that’s a principle you believe in.”
Edward’s bony, weak hands snatched the equation sheet from his lap and tore it in two, then in two again. He tried to scoop up the pieces and tear them smaller, his hands quivering. The Grinning Demon reached down to help, but Edward batted her away.
Badger laughed, a horrifying panting, jerking sound. “It makes no difference!” he howled at Edward. “The contract is in your heart!”
Nathan turned to the rest of us. He was caught between laughter and terror, sweating and shaking and shivering, a man at the end of a haemorrhagic fever, face smeared with blood. The whites of his eyes were yellow with unnatural jaundice.
“He’s coming,” Badger said in a tiny voice, through gritted teeth. “Don’t interfere. Let it happen. He’s not here for us.”
Even Zheng and July had retreated from the hospital bed and the ring of magic circles. Zheng wrapped an arm around one of my tentacles and pulled me back. Evelyn gasped, stumbling, clinging to Praem’s support. Raine was last to step away, last to retreat.
“Nathan!” Raine shouted. “You hold on, okay? You hold on there, we’ve got you, we’re right here.”
But Badger was panting through his nose, every muscle tight as a steel cable, eyes turned toward the rear of the black marble room.
Fog — thin and wispy, cloud-clear and clean white — was gathering in the far corners, appearing as if from nowhere.
For the first second it looked almost comedic, like a broken smoke machine had silently choked to life, hidden behind a clever flap of false wall. Jan even let out a weird little laugh; she and Felicity had no idea what they were witnessing. Neither did July, though she probably suspected.
But the fog thickened with unnatural rapidity. Tendrils and feelers snaked outward across the floor, slipping beneath Edward’s hospital bed, beneath Badger’s chair, reaching out and sliding between legs and behind backs. The layers of mist swallowed Edward’s desk, lapped at the medical machines in slow waves, and coiled around the legs of the Grinning demon. The fog grew hard and heavy, dark and dense, greasy and green.
“Awww shit,” said Twil. “Not this!”
“Stay close!” I croaked. “Everyone stay close!”
“Nathan!” Raine shouted. “We’ve got you, mate, just stay there. Don’t move!”
The wall-to-ceiling crystal window at the back of the room vanished behind the wave of fog, occluded by darkness. Camelot’s purple light was snuffed out, plunging the room into shadow and mist.
Felicity squinted, almost whispering: “What the … are those … bricks?”
Aym’s voice hissed from somewhere hidden down the back of Felicity’s coat, “Don’t look, you stupid bitch!” Felicity obeyed, turning her eyes away.
Through the clawing, clinging, cloying fog, the back window had become a wall. Red bricks rotten with holes. Mortar like toxic mud. Leaning forward, bearing down, threatening to crush those beneath with the weight of ancient separation.
Edward was panting. His face was covered in cold sweat. His eyes rolled, trying to see behind him, but he couldn’t raise himself off the hospital bed. The Grinning Demon just stared at the brick wall, mesmerized by the unnatural sight.
“I have signed nothing!” Edward shouted, voice tearing at his own throat. “I am Edward Lilburne! That is my name! I am master of this house and master of my own soul! Begone, back into the dark! I owe nothing to any being, human or Outsider, demon or—”
The wall yawned open, behind fog so thick that the door was little more than a dark mouth ringed with tooth-stubs of broken brick.
A giant lumbered forth.
Skin the colour and texture of oats left to rot in a ditch of stagnant water and rat urine, slick-wet with grease and grime, thick with slabs of slow muscle beneath mountains of soft fat. Feet like gravestones, hands like hub-caps, shoulders wide as a bus. Ten feet of pallid meat, a tower of unnatural flesh. Naked, hairless, with unmentionable specifics below the waist.
No neck, no head, no face.
Ooran Juh — the once-mage from beyond reality, the creditor from whom I had freed Badger.
He raised both of his massive hands in greeting. He grinned with the drooling, sharp-toothed maws set into each palm. They whispered inaudible words into the fog-choked air and licked at their lips with scarlet tongues.
“No!” Edward shouted, though he could not even see Ooran Juh. “I owe you nothing! Begone, begone!”
Badger bit his lips to stifle a scream, so hard that fresh blood ran down his chin. The Grinning Demon recoiled, rocking back — but she kept one hand on Edward’s arm in a final act of protection.
Ooran Juh stepped forward.
The giant seemed to move so much faster than something of his bulk and size should have, dragging his feet through stinking water which had appeared below the fog through which he waded. Suddenly he was right behind Edward’s hospital bed, towering over the tiny, stick-thin mage within, leering down as the fog gathered about him.
Edward looked up, wet eyes wide with terror. Ooran Juh’s twin palm-mouths whispered and slavered, tongues flicking over rows of tiny, razor-sharp teeth.
“The contract is false!” Edward shouted. “The debt is non-transferable! I do not belong to—”
Ooran Juh reached down and slapped one hand onto Edward’s left shoulder.
Edward screamed with excruciating pain. The noise seemed too much for such an ancient, thin throat, like his vocal cords would rupture or his windpipe would burst. He screamed and screamed and screamed.
Lozzie whimpered and clamped her hands over her ears. Felicity grimaced and screwed up her face. Evelyn buried her head in Praem’s shoulder, unwilling to watch as blood dripped down Edward’s chest, soaking into the hospital bedsheets. Even Zheng turned away with strange disgust.
Badger watched from up close, his entire right side shaking hard with spiralling muscle spasm.
Ooran Juh’s gigantic muscles heaved as he began to lift Edward from the bed, drawing out the tiny body of the man from inside his sheets, as if Edward weighed several times what such a withered frame should have done. Medical lines popped free from Edward’s limbs, tearing at his flesh. Edward screamed even louder, drawn upward by nothing but the bite slicing into his flesh and grating on his bones.
But then Edward gestured with one hand, fingers flickering. For a moment I thought he was mad — Ooran Juh was beyond even my power to fight, a fellow creature of the abyss, bigger and older and much more predatory. How could Edward hope to cast magic like this, in the moments before being taken away?
“Her!” he screamed, fingers flickering and ordering the Grinning Demon forward. “She is mine! My property! A soul for soul, take her in my—”
Lozzie slipped past me, poncho fluttering as she sprinted for the bed.
“Lozzie, no!” I screamed.
“—in my stead! My property is yours! Yours!”
The Grinning Demon turned toward Ooran Juh, red eyes locked on nothing, teeth bared in a rictus grin. Ooran Juh lifted his other hand without letting go of Edward’s dangling body, bringing that whispering mouth down toward the Grinning Demon’s face.
Lozzie slammed into her from behind, poncho wrapping around one naked arm, face blazing with a serious little pout.
“She’s mine now! Mine! All mine!” Lozzie shouted up at the mountain of pale meat. “Property passes to next of kin! He’s already deady-dead-dead.”
Ooran Juh paused.
“You unnatural little bitch!” Edward screamed. “You dare- ahhhh!”
Ooran Juh finished lifting Edward from the bed. He hung by one bleeding shoulder, legs naked, a tiny stick-figure compared to Ooran Juh’s gigantic pale bulk, legs like tree-trunks wrapped in greasy fog.
Lozzie pulled the Grinning Demon back, lest Ooran Juh change his mind and decide to argue his case.
Ooran Juh’s free hand turned to point the slavering mouth at Badger instead. Nathan’s lips were drawn back in terror, every muscle taut, eyes bulging, teeth gritting so hard he was going to crack a molar.
Ooran Juh’s palm-mouth opened, tongue flicking out, reaching toward Badger.
I hissed — not yours! Not yours! But Ooran Juh did not stop reaching. His fingertips brushed Badger’s forehead, ready to close around his face and bite deep.
Badger’s eyes flashed yellow with a reflection of clean flame.
Ooran Juh stopped.
The giant removed his hand from Badger’s face.
Without further diversion, Ooran Juh turned and strode back through the greasy fog, returning to the yawning dark gap in his wall of rotten bricks. He dragged Edward Lilburne behind him like a piece of meat, legs trailing on the ground through the filthy water, shoulder bleeding into his clothes, screaming, screaming, forever screaming.
As the fog closed the pair of mages — mortal and otherwise — Edward’s voice rose into a final shout of defiance.
“The house!” he screamed. “The house will not relinquish me!”
The House shuddered and shook, creaking as if beneath great winds. The marble walls groaned, threatening to crack. The floor juddered and vibrated and—
“You’re already dead, uncle,” Lozzie said. “Housey’s mine now.”
And the walls stilled their weeping.
Edward’s final scream was swallowed by the fog, then by the wall of bricks. Ooran Juh’s towering shadow loomed through the mist for a final moment — then all was silence.
The fog ebbed away, revealing the crystal window once more. Camelot’s blessed purple light eased back in, as if skittish in the wake of a true monster. The filthy water had vanished, seemingly never there. The only evidence of Ooran Juh’s debt collection was Edward’s blood all down one side of the hospital bed.
Lozzie crouched and put a hand on the floor and went: “Shhhhhh.” The Grinning Demon just stared down at her.
Badger fell out of his chair.
We rushed forward — seven of myself, Raine as well, and oddly enough, Zheng too. We caught Badger between us, holding him in tentacles and arms. Jan hurried for Lozzie. Evelyn limped forward to join us, helped by Praem and Twil.
Nathan rolled his head to look up at me. He was horribly light, as if there was almost nothing of him. His skin was so pale, he’d lost so much blood. But his eyes burned with conviction and triumph. He smiled, fragile and shaking, on the verge of a seizure.
“Badger,” I said. “You idiot, you fool, you- you-”
“This was never—” he panted, eyes rolling. “Never your fight. Always my responsibility. Our. Revenge and … and justice? And it— worked!”
“Nathan, mate, hey,” Raine was saying. “Hold on. Okay? You can do it. Hold on.”
I think I was crying.
Zheng took most of Badger’s weight, and surprised us all with her gentle handling of his exhausted body. She said nothing, her expression scrunched in doubt.
Evelyn ground out a question. “Where did he go? Edward? Where is he now?”
“Behind the wall of brick,” Nathan answered, voice rising into a crescendo. “To be gnawed on for eternity, in the dark, surrounded by a million … rats. It is done.”
Nathan’s eyes flashed yellow one final time as the flame departed.
Then the seizure took him.
Orange Juice off the top rope.
Never make a contract with a mage! Even a mage who kinda stopped being a mage because of brain surgery and seizures and when you think that maybe he's just bluffing. Safer that way.
Okay so this week I wanna do another shout out! For something a bit different, a bit special. To Your New Era, by the very talented S.nuffles, is a combination of genres very close to my heart: diesel-punk fantasy action set in 1900s faux-Europe, with a plot heavily about geo-politics, terrorism, and realistic espionage. Oh yeah. It's been running for a few months now and really deserves a bit more attention! If that sounds at all your kinda thing, go give it a look! The chapters are nice and bite-sized so you can read a few and see if it's your cup of tea. Hope it is!
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Next week, I think it's finally time for some falling action. Last chapter of the arc, even! Let's hope Badger survived that big one at the end there. There's so much mess to clean up.