None this chapter.
Joseph King — ‘Mister Joking’, the multi-layered mage, both loose-limbed laddish lout and withered Welsh wizard in one body, martial artist, artful dodger, wide boy with a photographic memory and mercenary morals — sat straight and proud on his porcelain throne, naked from head to toe, with a newspaper stuffed over his hairy crotch, framed by cold concrete amid a field of toilets in the depths of a dream. He stared me down with all the imperious defiance of his pseudonymous surname.
He did not repeat himself when I simply boggled and blinked; he was not the sort of man given to repeating his pronouncements.
Raindrops drummed on the distant concrete roof. Thunder rumbled, over the forest and far away, a lingering darkness at the edge of the dream. The storm outdoors intensified, sending a chill through the air inside this impossible concrete beauty.
“ … emulate my adoptive parent?” I eventually echoed. “I’m sorry, but you think I want to be like the Eye? You think I’m trying to turn into that?”
Joseph folded his meaty arms over his broadly muscled chest. His heavy-lidded eyes remained locked upon mine, though we were sure by then that our eyeballs were a mass of coruscating colour, cycling back and forth from black to pink, from glowing purple to slithering squid-shimmer rainbow; the effect was subconscious, automatic, instinctive. We were in a dream — of sorts, though we did not fully understand it — and so we had already begun the process of stretching out our uncomfortably compacted biology. Eyes, eyelids, teeth, lips, vocal chords, all were adjusting toward our abyssal truth, unfolding pneuma-somatic additions and extending in non-human directions. Our skin shimmered with blooming chromatophores. Our tentacles reached outward, grasping some of the nearby spotless, never-used toilets. A cephalopod, anchoring herself amid the rocks, staring down a wary shark.
Joseph tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, and said: “Is this display supposed to convince me otherwise? I see a human being leaving behind her humanity — in a transitory state now, perhaps, but your eventual destination can be only that of the pattern which was impressed upon you. You have even gathered a cult to help with this.”
We bristled — literally, with spikes and barbs. “Cult?!”
Lozzie sang: “Oopsie-doodle, Joey-woey. You have pissy-wissied off the Heathy-weathy.”
We faltered. “L-Lozzie, please don’t—”
Raine chuckled. “Does that make me ‘head’ priestess? Eh? Ehhhh? What with me munching so much rug? Ehh? Get it? Eh?”
Lozzie exploded into a terrible case of the giggles, flapping her poncho and jumping in a little circle. Raine sketched a short bow — without letting her handgun waver for even a second, covering Joking without pointing the muzzle directly at him.
Luckily for the mage, Lozzie’s silly baby-talk and Raine’s terrible joke made me blush and tut, my angry roll disrupted.
Joking said: “I mean no offense. As a goal, ascension is as morally neutral as any other. I render no judgement, cast no stone. Why would I? I have no place to stand. But I do stand — on planet earth, this fragile sphere. Unlike some I have no desire to retreat into dreams or turn into something else, so my personal fate is tied to the fate of the human bubble. And you, ‘little watcher’, you will pop it like flame applied to a balloon. I know that I am a monster, but I am not interested in helping to destroy the world.”
We let out a huge huff, flapping our arms and rolling our eyes. “Why is every mage, every … everyone! Why is everyone I’ve met this last year so unfailingly bloody dramatic?” I hissed through my teeth. “Pardon my language, ‘Mister Joking’, but that sounds like something from one of Raine’s video games. I’m not going to end the world. I’m not a … a … ”
Joseph just frowned at me, vaguely confused. “Pardon your language?”
“Yes, yes,” I sighed. “I already said that.”
His frown got worse. We stared at each other, both confused now.
Raine cleared her throat. “Mate, you’re in the wrong genre. Also, hey, sorry to be offensive, sorry in advance, but I can’t take you seriously with that fruity Welsh accent. You can’t be rattling off jay-are-pee-gee dialogue in a voice meant for TV garden shows or a professor at an agricultural college.”
Joseph King’s chin-up defiance flickered with genuine offense. Raine shot him one of those special grins that told everyone she knew she was being awful, and was enjoying it far too much.
He said: “You English are all the fucking same.”
Lozzie chirped, “Heathy is only a veeeeery small little teeny eye. And no reflection!”
Mister Joking’s attention snapped to Lozzie. “No reflection … ” he murmured, frowning as if this meant something. Then his eyebrows went up. “Miss Lauren Lilburne. The old man’s niece. So you are a dreamer, after all. I assumed he was lying.”
Lozzie corrected him. “Lozzie, please.”
To my incredible surprise, Joseph gave Lozzie a nod of mutual respect. “Lozzie. Please, dreamer, do explain. Prove me wrong, if you can.”
Lozzie grinned a nasty, evil little grin. “I don’t owe you aaaanything, Joey. You worked with my uncle. You get the baaaad Lozzie.”
Joseph uncrossed his arms and gestured wide with both hands. “I brokered information. That was all. I did not broker lives, or perform kidnappings for money, or torture small children to death—”
Raine said, still grinning: “But you worked for somebody who did. Come on mate, don’t plead innocence now. We’re not interested.”
Joking said right back, “You clearly are, or you would simply be making your case, not blocking yourselves with overwrought moralising. If the dreamer here has insight into Miss Morell, share it. If you want to do business, convince me you’re not going to grow beyond your bonds and rend the veil between worlds.”
Before I could roll my eyes at such absurd phrasing, Lozzie did a big huffy puff of breath, flapped her poncho like a jellyfish drifting into a column of cold water, and blew a massive raspberry at Joseph.
He stared, unimpressed, then said, “Are we done here? Can I return to taking a shit in peace?”
“Lozzie is telling the truth,” I said, trying not to sigh again. “I’m not trying to turn into the Eye, or grow into something similar to it, or anything like that. I’ve already become what I was supposed to be all along, no matter how many more physical changes I may have to undergo. I’ve been to the abyss, and brought back the truth of my own body. That’s all.”
“I need information on the Eye because we’re planning an expedition to Wonderland. We’re going to rescue my twin sister.”
Joseph King stared, hostility dropping away in favour of incredulous curiosity. Visible goosebumps rose on his naked arms and legs, little dark hairs rising with them. The Welsh Mage slipped out of his face, replaced by the laddish lout.
“Fuck me,” he muttered, all rough and easy once more. “Fucking ‘ell lass. At’s a fuckin’ suicide mission if I’ve ever heard of one. There’s quicker ways to get messed up, if you want. Less permanent, too.”
“My twin sister, Maisie, she was—”
Joking waved me down with one meaty hand. “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, I know all about the sister thing, right? I know, I know it’s true, it’s just fucking, like, mad! Hey!”
Raine chuckled softly. Lozzie blew another raspberry. The Drunken Lad grimaced at her, lacking the respect of the Welsh Mage.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait, how do you know all this stuff in the first place? How do you know all about me?”
The Welsh Mage straightened up again, stern and stoic, like he’d overcome his shock and regained control of his reactions. He said: “I told you, I broker information. You crossed my desk, so to speak, when Alexander Lilburne was verifying your personal history. You piqued my interest, which led me to your adoptive parent — the Magnus Vigilator. Knowing things is my profession and my passion — especially knowing things about ‘big game’.”
Joseph King smiled, thin and dangerous; rain drummed on this concrete dream like static at the edge of a screen.
We shuddered, though we tried not to show it; we reminded ourselves that ‘Mister Joking’ had indeed worked for Edward — dead children and tortured demons and expendable cult and all. When we’d bumped into him on the way to Edward’s house, he had fed us some line about Edward ‘going too far’ — but privately I suspected he was simply a rat fleeing a sinking ship. Top-Right and Bottom-Left tentacles corrected the rest of us: rats were cute and sweet, and made loving and loyal pets. Joking was none of those things. We had to tread lightly.
“Do you believe us?” we said. “About my sister? That I’m not trying to become like the Eye?”
Joking tilted his head the other way and put his chin in one hand. “A plausible motivation. But I have no proof.”
I sighed, rapidly losing patience; there was no telling how angry and frustrated Evelyn might be growing, out in reality. Was this all still taking place in the space of a single second, or were Raine, Lozzie, and I lying unconscious on the floor, with Praem wiping our foreheads with a wet towel?
“You’re an information broker, fine,” we snapped. “Sell me the information I want.”
Joking stopped smiling. “Or?”
Or I’ll take it from your mind, I’ll rip it out of you. Give up your secrets, magician, or you’re going to get a skull full of eyeballs peering into your thoughts themselves, you—
We started reaching toward him with a tentacle. But we stopped.
There was almost nothing to hold me back from simply raiding Joking’s mind for the information I wanted; yes, this was some kind of dream, but with precise enough hyperdimensional mathematics I could trace it back to his real, physical brain. I could split his soul open like a melon and shove great sticky handfuls of his hidden research into my maw. Yes, this might prove him right about what I was becoming — but he wouldn’t be coherent or alive to complain about it.
But then I’d be no better than another mage, acting like a warlord. We would be making another contribution to the dog-eat-dog magical underworld, of every mage assuming that all others are out to murder them and steal their books.
Joking arguably deserved it. He worked for monsters.
But what was the point in trying to be different if you kept breaking your own rules? Edward had given us no choice, but Joseph King was merely asking for a polite conversation. He was asking to be convinced.
We took a deep breath. “Or nothing. Is there no deal we can make?”
Joking chuckled softly. “Like trading nuclear secrets to a rogue state?”
“If you want to think of it like that, fine.”
Raine cracked a grin. “Promise we’ll only use it for power generation. Peaceful purposes only.”
Joking sighed and straightened up again. His newspaper crinkled against his thighs and the rim of the toilet. “Must we hold this conversation while I am seated on the commode?”
“‘Commode’?” Raine laughed. “How old are you, mate? Serious, for real, no mage bullshit.”
“I am forty two years of age. Not that it is any of your business.”
“Hmmmmmm,” Raine hummed, narrowing her eyes. “Very well preserved for forty two. You don’t look a day over twenty five.”
Joking did not smile. “I credit regular exercise and clean eating.”
We said: “We have good information that you look identical now to how you did twenty years ago. What’s the point in lying to us?”
Joking smiled one of those thin and dangerous smiles again. “Ah, the observer sees all. Proving my point for me, Heather Morell?”
I huffed and tutted and had half a mind to slap him across the face with a tentacle. “I asked somebody! I didn’t stare through you and measure your age, like rings in a tree or something!”
Joking’s smile turned into a shit-eating grin: the Drunken Lout flowed back into his mannerisms and musculature. He shrugged, a lazy rolling gesture. “Just joshing you about, lass. My little joke, like. You wanna deal? Cool, but let’s not do it on the fucking bog, yeah? Can I at least put some threads on? This is just weird. I mean, I know, like, some blokes would pay good money for three young ladies to watch them take a dump, but I’m not into that. Not getting anything out of this. Nope. Not for me, cheers.”
Raine asked, quick and business-like: “You got anywhere else we can talk?”
Joking pointed at the ceiling. “Offices, upstairs. Not much, but better than hanging out in the water closet, hey?”
Raine shared a glance with Lozzie and me. Lozzie puffed out her cheeks.
I said: “Wait. Joe, this really isn’t a trick? You’re not going to try to flee, or shut down all this dream … well, whatever this is? You’re not trying to get away?”
Mister Joking rose from the toilet on which he sat, newspaper bundled up over his crotch. As he rose, he became the Welsh Mage once more, staring at me with a piercing look.
“One could no more flee from the child of the Magnus Vigilator than one could flee from the sun. Hide underground for a while, certainly. But one must emerge eventually, and be burned upon the earth.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “And what does that mean?”
“It means it’s not worth running.” His shoulders slumped, and the Drunken Lout was back. He gave us a sheepish grin and tucked the excess newspaper up between his legs to cover his backside. “No pics of my arse, alright?”
Raine gestured with her pistol.
“Move slowly,” she said. “No fancy stuff.”
Joe King led us back out of the dream-hall of regimented toilets and into the bare concrete corridors of his strange Brutalist construct. Raine kept him covered from behind with her handgun, though she didn’t point it directly at his broad and hairy back, nor did she have her finger on the trigger — she practised proper ‘trigger discipline’, another term she’d once taught me. Lozzie flitted left and right, pointing a finger at Joking in imitation of Raine, apparently having a much better time than anybody else present. I smouldered with vague irritation at this entire situation, spreading my tentacles wide to touch the walls and reach for the ceiling. We did not want to be a monster, even in dealing with other monsters.
When we reached the entrance area we discovered that a set of concrete stairs had appeared at one end, leading upward into dimly lit hallways. Joking padded along on his bare feet, whistling tunelessly to himself, happily striding into the deeper shadows, far from any of the brown glass windows and the scant illumination which still filtered through the storm clouds outdoors.
Sheets of rain lashed and sluiced against the roof and walls now, running down the exterior of the windows in great waves of water. The storm had burst in full, drenching the swaying forest beyond the clearing.
Joking led us into the darkness. Lozzie stopped hopping about. She clung to my arm instead. Raine’s pupils were dilated too wide for comfort, her head too twitchy. Her finger crept onto the trigger several times — she kept catching herself doing it and correcting the position of her hand. I raised two tentacles and made them glow, fighting back the gloom.
Upstairs, Joking padded down a single long corridor toward a pair of double-doors. He didn’t stop or turn back to say anything, but simply pushed one open and slipped through.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Raine shouted. “Wait, wait!”
“Oh, I knew it!” I huffed. “He’s making a break for it, he—”
All three of us rushed into the room, close on Joking’s heels. Raine led with her gun, I brandished barbed tentacles, and Lozzie clung to my rear, and—
The lights snapped on. We all stood there, blinking.
“Bugger me,” Joking said. “You girlies are so paranoid. Cool your jets, yeah? Take a chill pill. Puff some ganja for your woes. Sit down if you like, I’ll just be a sec.”
Joseph was standing by a bank of light switches, just inside the doorway — the first controls of any sort we’d seen in this oddly blank dream-scape building. He ambled away, heading for a closet built into the wall.
Raine whistled, eyeing the room. “Swanky.”
Joseph King’s ‘office’ was another massive concrete room, though considerably less gigantic than the weird space full of toilets downstairs. Concrete walls and concrete floor and a high concrete ceiling, just like the rest of the building, but it also boasted a concrete ‘desk’ — or at least a concrete protrusion shaped like a desk. The mock-desk was covered in papers and notes, and a menagerie of fancy little office toys: clacking metal balls on strings, wooden duck statues that dipped up and down as if they were drinking water, a row of lava lamps all in different colours, stress balls with smiley faces, finger-puzzles, fidget spinners, and a tiny robotic dog — currently switched off, still and silent.
At the rear of the room, behind the desk, was a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the dark, fairy-tale forest beyond. The storm had turned day to night and filled the air with a wall of water, which lashed against the windows in a constant static drum of rain.
We appeared to be much higher up than we had physically climbed; though the storm blotted out all detail, we could just about see the horizon where forest canopy met storming sky.
Vast lumbering shadows moved beyond that horizon.
Raine and Lozzie didn’t say anything about that; they hadn’t even seemed to notice. Joking didn’t look past the storm either. We decided not to draw attention to the giant ghosts of Joseph King’s psyche.
On one side of the room was a row of closets — with doors made of concrete, of course. Joe King was busy opening one of those and extracting a fuzzy white dressing gown.
In the middle of the room was a semi-circle of chairs. Thankfully they were not cast in yet more concrete, but made of good old metal and plastic, weird low-slung things with bright orange fake-leather seats and shiny chrome armrests. They looked horribly outdated and designed specifically to clash with any interior in which they were placed, let alone that of clean Brutalist concrete.
“Oh!” Joking lit up at Raine’s comment. “Cheers!”
“Nah, not cheers,” Raine said. “I mean it makes you look like an eighties business arsehole. Or a Bond villain on a budget.”
Joking groaned and tutted. He shielded himself from our prying eyes while he shrugged on his dressing gown and tied the matching fuzzy belt around his waist. He discarded the newspaper on the floor. Raine and I both watched carefully, to make sure he wasn’t pulling a concealed weapon from inside the closet.
“Hands where I can see ‘em, mate,” said Raine.
Joking tutted and rolled his eyes again. “Yeah, yeah,” he grumbled. “No sudden movements, yes miss officer, three bags full, yadda yadda.”
“A few green plants in here would make all the difference,” I muttered to myself, still too concerned with the state of the building. “You’re supposed to add growing things to Brutalist architecture, really.”
Joking turned around to face me, now dressed in his fluffy robe. He squinted as if this concept was entirely new to him, and stroked his chin with one hand.
“You serious, like?”
I blinked at him in surprise. “Um … yes? That’s how Brutalist buildings are supposed to work, in theory. You’re meant to frame and fill the concrete canvas with greenery. The exterior of this place is perfect, it’s beautiful, especially in the forest environment. I assumed that was intentional, but … ” We trailed off and shrugged, all seven of us, tentacles wobbling and all. “What is this place, anyway? Did you design it? Is this literal, or … ?”
Joking puffed out a big sigh — and swapped back to the Welsh Mage. He nodded once, cautious but polite with reserved respect. “In a manner of speaking. A very old friend of mine designed this structure, but she never got to see it built in reality. I … ‘inherited’ her notes, her sketches, her drawings. What I believe you are seeing, here in my ‘mind palace’, is somewhat of a monument to her. A remembrance for a dearly departed friend. Perhaps one day I will have the funds to build it in reality. I confess, I know nothing about architecture. All this is dream. Greenery, you say?”
We nodded again. “Try reading a book or two?”
Joking gave me a flat and level look.
We tutted and blushed, tentacles wiggling up and down with embarrassment. “We didn’t mean to be rude! We just mean that if you want to learn about Brutalist architecture, it’s not hard, there’s plenty of books. You can even look it up on the internet!”
Lozzie snorted; I wasn’t sure why. Raine muttered: “Yup, Heather’s right, you can find anything online these days.”
Joseph’s eyes narrowed — at me. “We?” he echoed. “You keep pluralizing yourself.”
I stared him dead in the eyes. “There’s seven of me in here. Each of our tentacles houses a separate neurological web, connected via a main hub. Seven Heathers, one being. Sound much like an eyeball to you?” We tutted. We couldn’t help it. There was something inherently irritating about Mister Joseph King, something getting under our skin.
“This is truth?” Joking prompted.
“Yes. So I suppose you and I have something in common. If your whole switching thing isn’t an act. If it is, then it’s still deeply offensive.”
“Huh,” Joking grunted — and then rolled his shoulders and dropped back into the personality of the Drunken Lout. He shot all three of us a big lazy grin and gestured at the chairs. “You ladies gonna sit, or are we all gonna stand around and get sore knees? ‘Cos I’m gonna sit, I’m gonna sit good. Watch this!”
Joe King sauntered alongside the semi-circle of tasteless chairs, rubbing his hands together like a man about to impress a garden party by lighting his barbeque with some esoteric technique, via an unconventional source of flame and a risk of burning off his eyebrows. He held up one hand, clicked his fingers — and leaned back, as if expecting to be caught and cradled by an invisible chair.
Instead he crashed right onto his considerable backside, landing hard on the concrete with an audible thump.
“Oof,” he grunted. “Ohhhhh. Oof. Bugger me sideways. Ow.” He reached back to rub his arse, grimacing and wincing. “Fuck.”
Lozzie exploded into a peal of giggles. Raine snorted and shook her head — but she didn’t waver with her gun, not lax enough to fall for any tricks. I frowned at Joking as he grunted and groaned and picked himself up off the floor, huffing and puffing and rubbing his poor bruised backside. He tried clicking his fingers again, but nothing happened. Then he scowled at the patch of concrete where he’d fallen, as if it had personally insulted him by being so hard and unyielding.
“Um,” we said, gently. “What exactly was that supposed to be?”
Joking cleared his throat; he actually looked embarrassed. We reminded ourselves that this whole thing might be a trick to throw us off our guard.
“Not much of a dreamer, really,” he muttered. “Trying to show off.”
Lozzie raised her chin and narrowed her eyes, uncommonly smug and sly. “Do you need a little helps? From little me? From Lozzieeeeee?”
Joking glanced at her, both sheepish and mortified. Raine started to hiss a warning — but Lozzie was already bouncing forward, skipping across the concrete floor. She drew far, far too close to Joking, well within his striking range. Then she tapped the floor with her foot and whispered under her breath.
A chair sprouted from the concrete surface — a beanbag chair, in bright, eye-searing neon pink.
“Wheeeey!” Joking cheered — and flopped himself down in the chair. Apparently the aesthetic choice was no problem for him. “A true dreamer, hey? Very nice, very flash! Cheers, little Loz! Can I call you Loz?”
Lozzie hopped back, beyond Joking’s range. She smiled, wide and nasty, and said: “You may not. Bum face.”
Joking rolled an easy shrug and pulled a grin. “Oh well. Can’t win ‘em all. Come on, ladies, sit down, sit down! If we’re gonna have a proper deal, we gotta talk proper. Maybe have some drinks. And hey—” He gestured at Raine. “I know your whole shtick is like you’re queen of the butches or whatever — and I’m a modern man, I respect that — but there’s no point waving that gun around.”
Raine gave Joking a very dangerous sort of smile, with violence lurking behind her peeled-back lips; I would have quivered like jelly if she’d looked at me that way. “I think I’ll keep you covered, mate.”
Lozzie went: “Pbbbbbbbbt,” like she was imitating Tenny. “Actually Rainey-oos, it won’t do anything. We’re in the dream!”
Raine raised an eyebrow at Lozzie. Joking looked suddenly very interested.
We said: “Lozzie, where is this, exactly? I know we’re not Outside. And we’re not literally in a dream, because we’re all lucid.” I glanced at Raine’s massively dilated eyes and the way she was breathing a little too hard. “Well, almost all lucid.”
Lozzie tilted her head one way, then the other, chewing on her bottom lip as she thought. Then she drew her poncho in tight, like a jellyfish readying for a rapid descent.
“We’re not behind the mirror,” she said. “We’re just reflected in the mirror right now. All reflections! We could break Mister Jokes down into teeny tiny itty bitty pieces and we wouldn’t hurt him. Same for us! He could have a big monster eat Raine, and Raine would be fine.”
“Damn fucking right,” said Raine.
Joking nodded along with sudden fascination. “‘Reflected in the mirror’. Damn, little Lozz — uh, ‘Lozzie’. You’re a genius, aren’t you?”
Lozzie stuck her tongue out at him. “Say my name wrong and you’ll have nightmares!”
Joking raised his hands in mock-surrender.
Raine said: “So, where’s your real body right now? Are you asleep? Are we in your dream?”
Lozzie answered before Joking could. “Noooooo,” she cooed. “Rainey, it’s not a dream, it’s the dream. The dream! The dream we all share, all the time. Joker-face just pokes out a tiny bit into it, so he can talk without facing. It’s clever but it’s also kind of stupid.”
Joking grinned wide, and said: “I think I’m in the middle of taking a shit, like, for real.”
“Ew,” we said. Then we sighed. “Fine, please forget about that. Can we talk about the Eye, now?”
Joking pulled a big, silly, exaggerated squint. “Mmmmmmmmm—maybe. If you sit down.”
He gestured at the terrible chairs and their clashing colours. The storm raged and flowed behind him, sweeping the brown glass windows with thick lashings of rain. Water drummed on roof and walls. We tried not to feel like a cork in a bottle.
We grabbed a chair with our tentacles and dragged it toward us. “Fine, alright. I don’t appreciate the show of power, though. If you want this to be an actual negotiation, then it needs to be—”
Raine put out an arm to stop me.
She said, to Joking: “Actually, nah, I don’t think so, mate. I smell a rat.”
Joking threw up his hands in huffy exasperation. “You’re the ones who broke in here! Come on, show of good faith, sit down and talk, hey?”
Raine was shaking her head, grinning with dangerous intent. In the corner of my eye I saw her index finger slip over the trigger of her handgun.
“Uh,” we said. “Raine. Raine we didn’t come here to fight, we came here to talk. We’re going to try to talk. And he can’t hurt us—”
“—can’t hurty wurty!” Lozzie backed me up.
Raine wouldn’t look away from Joking. “I smell a rat,” she repeated. “And it’s a real bad one. Even in a dream, you’ve got something up your sleeve. Right?”
Joking literally pulled back the sleeves of his robe and showed us his hands. He wiggled his fingers. “Nothing here but my—”
“Was that there before?” I blurted out.
Everyone looked at me.
I nodded at the far corner of the room, next to the rain-lashed window. Everyone else followed my gesture.
A potted plant stood in the corner. Shiny green leaves, each the size of my hand, hung at the end of massive thick stems. Soil rich and black and dark filled the pot. The pot itself was soft orange, warm terracotta. The rain outdoors seemed to shy away from it.
Joking frowned. “The fuck—”
“There’s another one!” Lozzie chirped.
Another healthy green plant had appeared in the opposite corner, a sister to the first, glossy leaves glowing against the dark and rainy background. None of us — not even me — had seen the moment it had popped into existence.
“Is this a dream thing?” I muttered.
Raine backed up and raised her handgun, but she didn’t point it at Mister Joking. The mage got out of his beanbag seat, turning on the spot, head swivelling every which way, as if he might catch the practical joker in the act. Lozzie pulled her poncho in tight, more than a little spooked. I drew my tentacles in as well — but more in reaction to the others, not because this felt at all creepy.
Anybody who appreciated Brutalist architecture well enough to start filling it with plants was probably not aiming to murder us all with dream-magic mind-bullets.
Absurd, yes, but I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt that way.
Raine didn’t agree. She hissed: “Lozzie, are you doing this?”
“Noooooope,” said Lozzie, in a surprisingly small voice. She clung to one of my tentacles.
Joking turned to frown at us — then flinched and pointed. “Another one! Fuck me, what is this, guerilla gardening?”
He was right; a third potted plant had appeared in the third corner of the room, right behind Raine and Lozzie and me. Up close, it was clearly some kind of peace lily, with white blooms ready to open on several of the longest stems. The soil looked freshly watered.
Raine said, “Lozzie, we made a promise to Evee. Time to—”
Joking raised his voice, still in laddish hooligan mode: “Oh no you don’t! You lot brought something in here, and now it’s fucking with my—”
We all jumped and turned to find a fourth potted plant now occupied the final corner of the room. All four filled. All four ready.
“I really don’t think this is—”
“You lot brought some—”
A soft and level voice cut through the sudden whirl of panic, like a little sliver bell ringing above a pack of startled cats:
“A well-cared for plant will brighten any room.”
Mister Joking whirled on the spot, fists raised, eyes wide in shock.
Raine lowered her gun with a sigh. Lozzie burst into the most awful giggles, almost crying a little bit. I just tutted; we should have expected this.
Standing behind Mister Joking’s concrete desk — silhouetted by the dark glass and the pounding rain, cradling a fifth and final potted plant in her strong and unbending arms — was Praem.
She was dressed as usual, head to toe in her perfectly arrayed maid uniform.
“Ensure adequate sunlight to encourage photosynthesis,” she said. “Use recommended soil mix for proper nutrition. Be sure to water all your plants regularly.”
Lozzie did a little round of applause, hands muffled by the fabric of her poncho.
Raine said, “Cheers for the assist, Praem. But maybe warn me in future? I almost shot you.”
Praem intoned: “I am unshootable.”
Joking just stared at Praem, confused and uncertain, fists still half-raised as if ready for a fight, but trapped by the logic of a disintegrating dream.
He said, “How the fu— I mean— that’s real experienced dreamer shit, and you’re not even a human being. What the—”
“I am a maid,” replied Praem.
“Yeah, okay, nice cosplay, and you—”
“Maids may enter any room.”
Praem stared with her blank, milk-white eyes. The rain slammed the glass behind her in great waves. Joking swallowed, slowly and carefully, like he was staring down a hungry tiger, not a soft, plush young woman who was quite a bit shorter than him, and had nowhere near his muscle mass or bulk.
Eventually he said, “Now, like, I wasn’t gonna— like— this was just for protection. You—”
Praem placed the fifth and final potted plant on the concrete desk. The pot went thunk.
“This one is called Amelia,” she intoned.
Joking glanced down at his balled fists. Slowly and carefully he raised each fist to his lips and blew across his knuckles, like blowing out a pilot light. Then he lowered each fist to his hips and made a motion as if he was holstering a pair of six-shooters, like he was turning down a duel in the main street of some dusty frontier town in the American Old West.
Joseph King straightened up again. The laddish lout had dropped away. The Welsh Mage stood tall and dignified in his fluffy white robe.
“I am disarmed, maiden,” he said to Praem.
“ … maid,” he said. “Good enough?”
Praem turned her head to make it clear she was looking at us — Raine, Lozzie, and myself. She said: “You may sit.”
Raine was laughing softly and shaking her head. “You serious?”
Lozzie chirped: “Praem knows best!”
I sighed. “Yes, thank you, Praem. Is Evee alright?”
“She has not yet finished becoming angry,” said Praem. “Sit. We will all be good.”
Joking perched in his bright pink, Lozzie-wrought beanbag chair, seemingly still straight-backed and stern even when framed by bubblegum neon. Raine eased herself down into one of the awful yellow seats, then visibly clicked the safety on her handgun. Lozzie took one of those chairs, turned it backward, and knelt on the seat, looking over the rear of the chair. I used my tentacles to make my own seating, leaning back on ourselves. Praem stood to one side, hands folded, staring straight ahead. The raindrops drummed on the concrete roof and pattered off the brown glass in great waves of water.
Joseph said, cold and quiet: “This does not mean I have agreed to share with you any of my own research on the Magnus Vigilator.”
Raine started to laugh and shake her head — but I cut in first, and said: “Of course.”
Joking raised one stern eyebrow at me, unsmiling and unimpressed. “Of course?” he echoed.
“Well,” we said. “I was thinking about it while we were walking up here, and I suppose you have a point. You can’t be certain that I’m not going to grow into something like the Eye. So, I suppose you’re right to be concerned. All I can do is tell you that’s not my aim. I love being who and what I am right now. I don’t want to become a giant eyeball in the sky; you can’t have lesbian sex when you’re a giant eyeball in the sky.”
Lozzie giggle-snorted. Raine muttered, “eyyyyy.”
But I didn’t blush. I was dead serious. Joking seemed to understand, because he just stared, blank and unmoved.
Raine cleared her throat and raised her hand. “Can I ask a serious question? Like, no bullshit, no baiting.”
Joking rolled his eyes. “Why ask permission?”
Raine gestured at Praem.
Praem said: “You may.”
“So,” Raine began. “If you’ve got ethical concerns with passing information to Heather, what the fuck were you doing with Eddy-boy? You stole Evee’s gateway spell for him. That’s high-grade experimental magic. She made it by ripping off the cult, combining it with Heather’s insights, and then getting Lozzie to finish it. He was a dangerous, evil, nasty little monster. That was irresponsible.”
Joseph stared at her like she was a child who had insulted his face. “Edward Lilburne was just another mage with a lust for ascension. He was no threat to the world.”
Raine said, “He was a threat to us.”
Joking shrugged. “It was nothing personal. I did a job — several jobs — because he paid me.”
“We can pay you,” I said. “We can make that happen. I-I think.” I glanced at Praem; I actually felt horribly guilty at assuming Evelyn would be happy to foot the bill, but I needed a way in, to start some kind of deal. We’d manage the details later.
Joking sighed a tiny sigh. “Not in money, fool. I do have a day job. In equivalent information — about other big game.”
Raine pulled the same sort of face that Twil made whenever she got very confused. “You’ve got a regular job?”
Joking rolled his eyes so hard that he may as well have pulled them from their sockets. “Not all mages inherit fortunes from their slain mothers. Yes.”
“ … what do you do?”
“Programming,” he said, as if this was the most boring admission in the world. “I’m a consultant. Government and financial systems, mostly.”
Raine laughed. “And you’re pleading poverty? Mate, come on, if you’re doing COBOL work you’re making bank.”
“Only when I am not pursuing my true passion,” he said, unmoved.
“‘Big game’,” we echoed — and could not keep all the disgust off our face. “The Eye. Me? Big game, what does that mean? What are you interested in, Joseph?”
Mister Joking considered me for a moment, as if he was trying to decide how much truth to tell. He glanced at Praem, then at Lozzie, then narrowed his eyes.
“Very well,” he said eventually. “I am interested in large things.”
Without missing a beat, Raine said: “Ah, a size queen. Right.”
Joking shot her a look — I expected him to smoulder with disgust or rage, but instead the Laddish Lout flashed back onto his features for a second: he grinned a massive, shit-eating grin and blushed slightly.
But then he was gone again, the Welsh Mage back in his place.
“Large in the spiritual sense,” he explained. “The growth processes and end points of bio-spiritual accumulation. The ‘result’ of so-called ‘ascension’. Entities that have enlarged themselves, either beyond the walls of our reality, or here, or in the shared dreamlands. I am a big game hunter — though unlike my namesake predecessors, I am neither foolish nor arrogant enough to assume I can then shoot and kill and mount the heads of such entities.”
Raine was squinting at him. “Why? Why the interest?”
Joking rolled his eyes. “One must wrap one’s soul around a passion, or risk the same egotistical pitfalls and spiritual metastasization as every other practitioner of magic. The largest of entities offer endless opportunities for study, boundless complexity, and plenty of unsolved problems on which the mind can chew.”
We said, “And that’s why you were studying the Eye?”
Joking nodded. His guard was back up. Unwilling to offer more details without an exchange — or perhaps not at all.
We took a stab in the dark: “Why the Eye? Why then? Seems like a bit of a coincidence to us.”
Joking smacked his lips once, then said: “Toward the end of last calendar year I was made aware that one Mister Alexander Lilburne was searching for information beyond the veil—”
Raine snorted. “‘Beyond the veil’? Come on, mate, you’re not a 90s TV special about Wiccans. You mean Outside.”
Joking sighed and ignored the insult. “Searching for information — about you, Heather Morell. His methods were crude, but a mutual contact — a non-human contact — passed me some curious details regarding the subject of his inquiries. A twin sister, the Magnus Vigilator, and so on. This piqued my interest. Few would bother to study such an entity — no useful communication can ever be made, it cannot be summoned for assistance or petitioned for a boon. A waste of time and energy. An entity like the Magnus Vigilator does not have many opportunities to interact with our reality, so I watched events unfold. When—”
“Wait!” I blurted out. “Not many opportunities? But some? What about ten years ago?”
Ten years ago, when Maisie and I had stepped through a portal to Wonderland; still, after all this time, we had no idea how that had really happened, or why.
Joking stared at me for a moment, as if I was being very rude.
“Not yours to keep,” said Praem.
Joking sighed. He shrugged, looking away, and said: “Very well. I am not that kind of monster. This is yours, for free, for it is worthless: no, Miss Heather Morell, I do not know why or how you and your twin were kidnapped—”
My heart sank. Even here, no true answers?
“—but if I did, I suspect it would not contribute to any greater comprehension of the Magnus Vigilator, not at all.”
We frowned at him. “I’m sorry?”
He stared at me very hard. “It cannot reach through the veil without subordinated agency. This much is blindingly clear — pun fully intentional. It observes perfectly, but only that which is in front of it. The Magnus Vigilator did not kidnap you, Heather Morell. Something else happened. Perhaps a natural phenomenon. Perhaps random chance. You are no chosen one, just a stray seed on the wind.”
We nodded. Somehow, that felt better, even if it wasn’t at all conclusive. “Thank you.”
Joking squinted at us; he didn’t really get it.
We said: “Okay, so. You studied the Eye — how?”
“Books mostly, at first. The same way as any other mage,” he said. “But then I spoke with Mister Alexander Lilburne while he was in his corpse-state, after his encounter with you.”
Lozzie sunk down behind the back of her chair; we reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her arm. She held on tight.
“‘Corpse-state’?” Raine echoed, pulling a grimace.
Joking shrugged. “The body was dead, the man was almost gone, but parts of his soul still spoke — or something else spoke through them. I questioned him — it, whatever — for several hours. That was an ordeal.” He frowned, genuinely uncomfortable. “I have seen similar conditions before, bodies walking that should be dead, scraps of soul-flesh clinging to burnt bones. But never anything quite the same. Never like that. The thing which spoke through him was … impossible to comprehend.”
We stared at him in disbelief. “You … you spoke to the Eye?”
Joking shook his head. “I do not believe I did. Not really. I spoke as an ant speaks to a human being staring at it with a microscope. Spraying chemical signals, only to have it all noted down in some database, stripped of subjective content. Seeing without knowing. Observation without insight. I do not think it understood anything.”
We shuddered, suddenly cold, wrapped in all but one of our own tentacles.
Raine said softly: “What happened to Alexander’s corpse?”
Joseph King seemed to rouse himself from dark memories. “I do not know. The Cultists took him away. I was only permitted access by sufferance and Edward Lilburne’s rapidly waning influence. I do not know what became of the body.” He nodded suddenly to Lozzie, who was peeking over the back of her chair. “My apologies, Miss Lilburne. A sibling deserves a corpse.”
Lozzie whispered: “I hope they burned him.”
Raine cleared her throat. “And I hope they put the ashes in a lead-lined box.”
Joseph snorted. “Fools, the lot of them. His followers, I mean. I attempted to question many of them, too, but their connection is so much lighter. The Magnus Vigilator merely lingers at the edge of their minds. None of them had anything useful to tell me.” He raised his chin so he could look down at all of us. “And that was all. I have moved on from this area of study. There is nothing more to discover, for the Magnus Vigilator cannot be visited or observed with any level of safety, not even in a dream. And you have said nothing to convince me of your motives, Heather Morell.”
We took a deep breath, and played our hand: “What if I told you that I had a book — a short book, a pamphlet really — written by a species from Outside, an Outsider civilization, which detailed another pair of twins kidnapped and changed by the Eye?”
Joseph King raised an eyebrow. He did not seem impressed. “I would ask you where you obtained such a thing, and how I am supposed to verify that it is authentic. And I suppose I would also ask what it is meant to prove.”
“It’s a translation,” we said. “I got it from the Library of Carcosa—”
“Ha!” Joking barked a single, harsh laugh. “Did you now?”
Raine chuckled and shook her head. Lozzie rose from her protective crouch and grinned a nasty little grin. I sighed. Joking frowned at all three of us, then at Praem, then back at me.
“You’re serious,” he said. It was not a question.
“I have special contacts,” we said, putting on a look-at-me-I’m-so-special voice. “Look, that’s not the point—”
“You claim to have visited the Library of Carcosa, retrieved a book, and then gotten back out. And that is ‘not the point’?” Joking squint-frowned at me.
Raine said: “You’re out of your depth, mate.”
Joking went quiet. Raindrops drummed on the concrete roof and moved in slow sheets down the brown glass windows. His eyes darted from me to Praem, then back again, then to Lozzie.
There it was, hidden in the rear of his eyes.
Like an octopus waving a tentacle-tip to imitate a worm buried in the silt; I had laid the bait and now the unwary crab was approaching, unaware of the beak hidden in the rocks above.
Joking wet his lips. “Even if you could prove the authenticity of such a document, it would tell me nothing about how far you intend to—”
“If I really do have access to the library of Carcosa, do you think you can slow me down?”
We continued: “If we have access to all that knowledge, and we wanted to … ‘ascend’—” We mimed air quotes with two tentacles. “Do you think you could stop us? Make us stay human, or at least close to human? No? But, if, on the other hand, we’re trying to rescue our sister, and nobody has ever written about that before, written about what that might mean to the Eye, then … ” We shrugged. “Then we would be coming to you, and asking for information on how the fuck we even begin to communicate with it! You talked to it! You communicated with it! I need that!”
We sat back on our tentacles and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry for swearing. I apologise. I got carried away.”
Joseph King sat very still for several moments. His muscular bulk was like a cat pretending to be at rest, waiting for a rival to twitch one way or the other. Raine reached over and squeezed my knee. Lozzie gently nuzzled a tentacle. Praem said nothing, staring at the wall.
“This … this book you found,” Joking said eventually. “If you allow me to read it … I could … I might … ”
I sighed and said, “The manuscript is written down, it’s a hard copy. I’ll have to—”
Praem raised a hand and her fingers suddenly held a sheaf of papers. She looked at me, blank eyes asking a silent question.
“Oh!” I said. “Oh, uh, thank you Praem. Yes, it can’t hurt for him to read it. Go ahead.”
Joseph devoured the manuscript. He sat on his beanbag chair, head down, reading in rapt silence. He didn’t look up, not even once, though he muttered to himself several times. Lozzie got out of her chair and wandered over to the windows to watch the rain, wrapped up tight in her pastel poncho. Raine shared a knowing glance with me. Praem produced a watering can out of thin air and spent several minutes tending to the potted plants she had added to the room.
Eventually, Joking looked up. “This is authentic Qu’relli text,” he said — pronouncing the name with a weird gulping stop in the middle. “Or something close, some offshoot. The translation has captured the diction perfectly, far better than any Latin attempts. You could not have made this up, it’s too perfect, and I know for a fact that you do not have access to any examples — unless you really have been to the Library of Carcosa. Who translated this?”
“A ‘non-human source’,” I said, echoing his own bland words back at him. We couldn’t help but add a little sneer.
Joking frowned at us. “You have not met a Qu’rell. That has not happened. That would be a lie.”
I sighed. “I don’t even know what that name means. You want to know who translated this? Her name is Our-Lady-of-the-Jaundiced-Heart.”
Joking looked like he was trying to figure out if I was mocking him.
“I’m serious,” we said. “Now, is that enough for you to believe me?”
Mister Joking handed the manuscript back to Praem, steepled his hands, and frowned in deep thought. He wet his lips. He stared at me, then at Raine, then somewhere over my shoulder.
“And … ” he said slowly. “And what do I get in return?”
Inside, we put on our best impression of Evelyn Saye. “You get no promises,” we said. “But you probably want me on your good side, if you ever want to borrow a book from the Library of Carcosa.”
Joking stared and stared and stared — and then nodded, slowly. He reached up and ran a hand through his curly dark hair, seemingly exhausted by this.
I let out a silent breath. Lozzie smiled all smug and clever. Praem made the manuscript papers vanish.
“But there is one more thing,” Joking said suddenly. “I wish to know how you obtained the phone number, the one that allowed you to initiate this whole conversation in the first place.”
“From somebody you used to know,” Raine said. “That’s all you need.”
Joking smiled his thin and dangerous smile. “I did not expect a true answer. That was a little test. Miss Jan Martense, yes. I spotted her with you, when you went to conclude your sordid little war with Mister Edward Lilburne. Curious, I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I’m surprised she would willingly associate with a group of mages and Outsiders all over again — she was always so cautious.” Then, quickly, before we could register the gap between subjects: “Is she working on a project for you, by any chance?”
Raine and I shared an involuntary glance; Joking saw the truth in our faces. He stiffened almost imperceptibly.
“Wait, wait,” I said quickly. “Yes, she’s working on a project, but there’s nothing sinister about it. She’s helping with the rescue operation for my sister. That’s all.”
“Willingly or coerced?” Joking said.
This was serious — even more than talking about the Eye. He spoke quickly, smoothly, calm, giving nothing away. He suspected something.
Over by the rain-drenched windows, Lozzie was watching the exchange with a serious little expression on her face. So very curious.
“Willingly,” I said. “We’re paying her, with money.”
“Mm,” Joking grunted, utterly blank.
Raine said out loud what I did not want to voice: “You make it sound like she’s dangerous or something.”
Joking stared for a long, long moment, then took a deep breath and relaxed once again. “No. No, Miss Martense was on the right side of history, along with myself, last time she and I met. People change a lot in two decades, but I’m sure whatever she is working on for you, it’s none of my concern.”
Lozzie chirped: “You best not be concerned with Janny! Nooooope.”
I filed that one away for later; I knew exactly what Jan was working on for us, and there wasn’t anything sinister about it at all. But what did that mean?
“So,” we said. “Your research into the Eye? We have a deal?”
“Mmmm,” Joking grunted. “Of course I don’t keep my notes in a dream, I’ll have to—”
Praem raised her hand again; she was suddenly holding a slender black notebook, battered and scuffed, the leather damaged along the spine. She glanced at Mister Joking, for permission.
He boggled at her, then barked a single laugh.
“Incredible,” he said. “Who are you, demon? You are much too real to be something dredged out of the deep. Who are you really?”
“Praem,” said Praem.
“Tell me your true name and you may have any secrets you—”
“Praem Saye,” said Praem. “Is this your notebook?”
Joseph King sighed with all the bitter melancholy of a fisherman staring down the giant pike that got away by snapping his rod and breaking the hook.
“Yes,” he said. “The notebook appears to be mine, or at least a dream-based facsimile. Very well. Allow the little watcher what scant information she can take from within. There was precious little of use in the first place.”
Joe King isn't actually an unreasonable fellow at all. Not 'friendly', probably not safe, and certainly not on Heather's side. But he's a just a guy, doing his own thing, and even he has a price in the end; quite a reasonable one, in fact. And now, finally, within reach, intel on the Eye? A record of a conversation with something that has haunted Heather her whole life.
Oh, and maids can go into any room. Of course they can, they have to clean. Never assume you're safe from Praem.
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Next week, Heather cracks open a forbidden tome, and reads the words of a living god.