Torture (sort of)
Praem presented us — me, myself, and I — with Joseph King’s notebook.
We accepted the slender black volume in shaking hands; I had to use an extra tentacle to support the back cover, to avoid dropping the precious payload upon the concrete floor. Part of us was convinced that one errant twitch would send the book tumbling from my fingers and vanishing into a void, like ripping out the pages and casting them from a windswept sea-cliff, or consigning the tome to a sealed capsule shot into a black hole. The dream-construct in which we sat would open at my feet and swallow this morsel of forbidden knowledge, placing it beyond the reach of human science and philosophy, forgotten and lost and never to be found.
We held the notebook at arm’s length for much longer than was warranted, waiting in silence as the dream-storm drummed on the concrete roof. A holy relic, a radioactive nugget, proof of unspeakable truths that would drive us all finally and completely mad.
Notes on the Eye, from a lucid and coherent mage.
Wasn’t this what we’d wanted all along?
Why were we so afraid?
Hic, we hiccuped so hard that it hurt our throat. “S-sorry,” I murmured, and drew the notebook in close, cradling it in our lap.
Raine purred, “Hey, Heather, hey, babe.” She leaned out of her seat so she could wrap an arm around my shoulders. “We’re all right here, okay? It’s not the Eye, it’s just notes. And we’re in a dream, right? Nothing to worry about. It’s just words in a book. You can do this, it’s nothing. You’ve done worse, much worse. This is just reading. Hell, you’ve read much worse books, for fun — ain’t no Eye notes got nothing on Finnegans Wake.”
I laughed, a little weak. “Not quite in the same category, Raine. But thank you.”
“It’s just words in a book,” Raine repeated — then glanced at Joking. He was still sitting upright and impassive in his absurd neon pink beanbag chair.
He nodded slowly. “My notes are not trapped. I’m not foolish enough to attack the little watcher to her face and expect to survive. And besides, that object is a dream recreation, not the original article.” He looked at Praem. “I’m sure … ‘Praem Saye’ here has already done the necessary prep work.”
Praem intoned: “A maid is prepared for any necessary cleaning.” A pause, then: “None was required.”
“There,” Joking grunted. “If you don’t believe my word, you can trust your demon attendant.”
I stared down at the blank cover of the notebook. Bottom-Left and Middle-Right drifted closer, tips pointing at the volume in my lap. Lozzie leaned out of her chair too, half-peering over my shoulder for a better look. Raindrops fell in slow waves on the concrete roof and lashed against the brown glass windows. The fairy-tale forest swayed in the distance. Vast shapes lumbered on the horizon, framing Joseph King’s shoulders and curly dark hair.
I sighed a little sigh, “At least this is a fitting place to read a spooky tome, I suppose.”
Joking narrowed his eyes. “My note-taking is not ‘spooky’. I am detailed and accurate.”
The notebook was not quite how the Heather of a year prior would have pictured a tome full of occult secrets: bound in soft black leather, held together with modern book-binding glue and a stitched spine, complete with a little manufacturer’s stamp at the bottom of the back cover, the notebook was altogether too normal. Rounded corners, ivory-coloured paper, and a neat little ‘If lost, please return to:’ page just inside the cover. Joking had filled in that page with a P.O. box number. Such a commonplace — if slightly fancy — notebook surely belonged in the bag of a war correspondent, or a down-on-her-luck poet slumming it in hostels across Europe, or some kind of wilderness explorer sketching grizzly bears in a Canadian forest. It was hardly a dusty grimoire bound in human flesh.
All occult tomes must have started like this, in their own times and places, their own context of physical and cultural production. Evee’s Unbekannte Orte — the only other source on the Eye that we had yet discovered — had once been a freshly printed book, rolled off some illicit press in a German back-street or the hidden rooms of a questionable monastery.
With quivering fingers and a hiccup in my throat, I turned the first page.
And there I discovered that Joking’s notebook did in fact live up to the esoteric tradition in one essential category — it was completely unreadable.
“Is this … shorthand?” we said, squinting at the weird little squiggles on the pages. “Or is your handwriting just that awful?”
Joseph King’s eyebrows raised in surprise. The Welsh Mage said: “Yes. A shorthand of my own design.”
Raine let out a chuckle and sigh, shaking her head. “Mate, Josh, Joe, whatever you wanna be called, you could have said something. Is this meant to be funny? Are you fucking us around? ‘Cos I don’t like it when anybody but me fucks around with my girl here, yeah?”
“Raine,” I tutted. I turned the notebook sideways, hoping it might make more sense from a different angle.
Joseph King sighed too — and collapsed into the laddish drunken lout once again. He grinned a big goofy grin and raised both hands in surrender. “Hey, hey, hey now, I thought like your maid girl had translated it or what. Done it for me, like. There’s more than just that one book, you know? There’s audio tapes, and some photos, all sorts. I thought she’d condensed it down, dream-style like. And hey, hey, this is a dream! Can’t you just go all squinty and look through the words?”
I ‘went all squinty’ and tried to ‘look through the words’; half my tentacles attempted to help, spreading out into an array of additional points of observation, as if looking at the book with a larger composite eyeball would somehow make sense of the words.
“That doesn’t work,” I sighed. “We can’t read this.”
Joking pulled a toothy grimace — then sat up, dignified and serious once more. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’ll have to translate manually. As I said, there’s more than just that one notebook. I’ll try to give you the rough picture of—”
“No, please,” we said. “It needs to be exact. I—I need to hear what the Eye was trying to—”
“Then you need the data complete,” he huffed. “Alright, I will compile — out in reality — a proper translation. We will have to arrange a meeting, a physical handover. A project like that is going to take me at least a week, or—”
“It’ll take too long!” we said. “We need this now. Soon. Within a week, or even today, for—”
A quivering voice interrupted our embryonic argument:
“I could reconstruct it,” said Lozzie.
Everyone looked at her — even Praem, who turned her whole head so none could mistake the intended direction of her blank, milk-white eyes. The shiver in Lozzie’s voice arrested all other voices; for a split-second even the drumming rain appeared to cease. The dream hung on her intent.
Lozzie was staring at the notebook in my hands, her blue eyes wide and liquid, clear as sunlit sea. Her poncho was pulled tight around her slender frame, hands gripping the fabric from the inside, the garment gone limp and close, as if soured with sweat and fear. Her wispy blonde hair was lank and flat. She suddenly looked very small and vulnerable. All her amused energy had gone elsewhere.
“Reconstruct?” I echoed. “Lozzie? Lozzie — Lozzie, are you okay?”
Lozzie swallowed and looked up. She sniffed once, then rubbed her nose on her poncho. “Reconstruct. We’re in the dream! And Joker bum-face made it very easy to move things around here. Everything is super easy and plastic and not really solid or fixed or anything. There’s only one layer of reflections, sooooooooooo.” Lozzie nodded at the beanbag chair Joking was sitting in; she’d dragged that out of the floor a few minutes ago, after all. “I could. I could. I couuuuuuld. Wouldn’t be hard!” She shook her head with intense effort, hair going everywhere — then flattening back down again, limp and lifeless. “Wouldn’t be hard.”
“A reconstruction,” Joking echoed, his voice like a funerary bell. “You can achieve that, truly?”
Lozzie bit her lip and nodded slowly.
Joking took a deep breath and shook his head. Disbelief and incredulity — but also concern and curiosity.
Raine cleared her throat. “Is that like a big deal? Reconstructing things in dreams?”
Joseph looked uncomfortable. He gestured vaguely with one hand. “Dream construction is certainly possible — objects, buildings, even entire places. The most storied of dreamers have peopled whole cities and countries with their own imaginations. But those individuals do not stay anchored in the waking world for very long. I myself have been briefly acquainted with two such experienced dreamers, and they were … they were not ‘all there’. Lozzie Lilburne is clearly lucid and conscious. And reconstruction, from accurate memories? Of people?” He snorted. “If you are being honest about your abilities … ” He trailed off and waved a hand.
“I can do it,” said Lozzie.
She didn’t sound happy or proud about that.
Joking frowned. “Miss Lilburne, it is only fair to warn you that your brother’s corpse was in a terrible state to witness. You may not wish to do this.”
Lozzie just stared at the floor, hands wringing the inside of her poncho. I felt an overwhelming urge to get out of my chair and pick her up in all my tentacles, carry her home and tuck her into bed.
Raine shot Joking a nasty grin. “Why do you care, mate?”
Joking turned a dark frown on Raine. “I am a monster, yes, I know this — but of a specific kind. I would not rub the face of a young girl in the corpse of her dead sibling—”
“It’s okay,” said Lozzie, very quietly. “Heathy … Heathy needs this.” She looked at me, sidelong and tentative, a shell-less mollusc peering out from beneath a rock. “Heathy? Heathy? You need this, don’t you? Don’t you?”
“Uh … L-Lozzie, you don’t have to do this,” we said quickly. “You don’t have to. I can’t ask you to do this. We can get the book translated. We can wait. I was just being impatient, we can find another way, another … ”
Lozzie pulled a very sad smile. “Maisie can’t wait.”
“Lozzie … ”
Those shining blue eyes smiled back at me. “Heathy, you freed me over and over and over and over and over. You didn’t have to! You could have told me to go away, do it myself, blah blah blah. But you didn’t. And now we’re gonna free Maisie, too. Let me help? Pleeeeease?” She forced a smile, a big one, then bounced out of her seat and spread her poncho to the sides, wide and free again. “I just won’t look!”
We reached out a tentacle and wrapped it around Lozzie’s arm, holding on extra tight. She squeezed back, allowing us to wrap the rest of our length around her waist, beneath the poncho: a special anchor, just for her. To my surprise, Praem abandoned her position as arbiter of negotiations and stepped behind Lozzie instead. The demon-maid slipped her hands beneath Lozzie’s arms, around Lozzie’s front, and hugged Lozzie’s slender, slight, girlish form to her own plush and cushiony front.
Lozzie let out a tiny giggle and snuggled against Praem; she had all the support she needed.
Joking stood up, clearly uncomfortable, tense and hard, eyes blazing with a craggy frown. “I feel a responsibility to warn you fools. My questioning of whatever remained inside the body of Alexander Lilburne became … overwhelming. I was not afforded long with the corpse, and that was in part due to the surrounding circumstances. Any reconstruction may be taxing on the psyche.”
Raine stood up as well. She shrugged. “We’ve seen worse, mate. Don’t you worry yourself.”
I stood up from my chair too, only half-certain why we were all rising from our seats. “Yes, we’ve rather become veterans at this by now. I’ve stood in Wonderland itself and looked up at the Eye. I’m sure a dream recreation of talking to Alexander isn’t going to be that bad.”
Praem intoned: “Tempting fate.”
I winced. Raine snorted. Joking was not amused, frowning dark and dreary with the storm behind his shoulders.
Lozzie said: “It won’t be all full from margin to margin, anyway! I can’t summon all of it! S’not like I can actually actually really really bring the big peeper in to recite lines! It’ll just be memories, I promise!”
We smiled, just for Lozzie, our special smile for our beloved adoptive sister. “Anything you can summon is enough, Lozzie. And if it gets too much—”
Lozzie nodded up and down, very hard, which had the added benefit of rubbing the back of her head against Praem’s plush support. “I’ll stop!” she chirped. “I’ll have my own eyes shuty-uppy anyway, okaaaaay? Ready?”
Raine said quickly: “Hold up a sec. Anything we should do to brace ourselves? Lozzie?”
Lozzie shook her head. “Naaaaah. We’re not going anywhere. I’m just changing a ickle littley bit of the dream. Ready?”
We took a deep breath. “Ready.”
Raine said: “And armed.”
Praem said: “A maid is always prepared.”
Raine smirked. “Isn’t that boy scouts?”
“Maids are more prepared.”
Joking said, “Go ahead, dreamer. You have the wheel. I will not attempt to resist.”
Lozzie screwed her eyes shut and puffed her cheeks out, like a little girl about to throw a tantrum, a child with a puzzle that didn’t make sense — or Lozzie trying to do a human imitation of a hot air balloon. For a second, nothing happened; the rain drummed on the roof, the dream-storm continued its loving assault against the concrete walls of Joseph King’s speculative architectural tribute to his lost friend, and the distant humped shadows beyond the forest continued to lumber and roll.
And then, slowly but surely, the brown glass window faded away. The swaying forest, the haunted horizon, the dense sheet of raindrops falling from the stormy sky — all were replaced by a sudden extension to Mister Joking’s office.
On the other side of an invisible line stood a new room, a dream-memory summoned from shorthand notes, a ghost dredged from Joseph King’s recollections.
The new room was also made out of concrete — but not the clean, smooth, well-proportioned concrete of the Brutalist beauty in which we stood. A stripped floor showed fragments of stained carpet around the edges, the concrete itself scratched and scuffed, walls damaged by damp and time. Battered wooden door frames led off to the left and right. One of them was chewed at the base by years of being used as a cat’s scratching post. Through the left doorway I could just about see the remains of a kitchen, cupboard doors removed, appliances long gone, counter top ruined by cigarette burns. A paint-splattered iron radiator was bolted to the back wall of the room, cold and dead. A pair of naked glass windows peered out into a city-scape night — a quiet, empty, cloudless night, lit from below by the distinctive glow of Sharrowford street lighting.
Hissssss! — we lost control.
We couldn’t help it. We took an involuntary step back, recoiling, tentacles rising in a cage of self-defence. Joking glanced around, alarmed by my hiss. Lozzie flinched. We swallowed in a vain effort to rest the shape of my throat.
Raine said, “Woah, Heather? Heather? Hey, breathe, just breathe. Look at me. Breathe. That’s it, there you go.”
We caught ourselves, breathing too hard, breaking out in cold sweat. Memory is a powerful thing; we had underestimated the depth of our own trauma.
“I-I’m okay, I’m o-okay,” I stammered, though I held on tight to both Raine and Lozzie. “I’m okay. I can— I can deal with this. S-sorry. If Lozzie can deal with this, then so can I.”
Joking raised an eyebrow at me; he didn’t know.
Raine nodded at the ghostly room. “Heather, this is … ?”
“Glasswick Tower,” I confirmed.
Glasswick Tower — the Cult’s illegal stronghold in an abandoned building, before Alexander’s Eye-ridden corpse had turned several of the upper floors into a parody of human innards.
It was not the same room in which I had been briefly confined, and in which I had freed Zheng from her slavery and bondage — this space was much larger, perhaps some kind of communal sitting room. The Sharrowford Cult had turned it into a meeting place, with cheap plastic lawn chairs and a couple of battered folding tables arranged in a rough circle. Some hastily sketched magical symbols ringed the windows, glowing softly on the bare concrete walls — but they were mere dream impressions, powerless and inert. They did nothing to my eyes, provoked no recognition or nausea.
The true shock came from the inhabitants.
The dream-room from Glasswick Tower was teeming with people. All of them were frozen in place, captured in a single moment of remembered time, posed like a chaotic diorama.
They looked like they were all going mad. Standing, sitting, sprawled on the floor, leaning against the walls — every single dream-remembered figure was caught in a pose of internal torture, of unimaginable pressure written on their faces and engraved upon their musculature. One middle-aged man was curled up in a ball, caught mid-scream, his face contorted, his fists paused in the act of beating his own head. Several more sat in the cheap plastic chairs with thousand-yard stares, eyes fixed on the floor or the ceiling, wearing the most haunted expressions I’d ever witnessed. One young woman was pressing her forehead to the bare concrete wall, blood running down her face. A young man was crammed into the corner, biting down on a belt to choke back a scream.
A few of them — the ones near the centre of the group — appeared marginally more coherent, if hunched and tense and haunted by pain. I recognised Sarika, prior to her capture by the eye, her hair dark and sleek, her trim form wrapped in a fashionable coat. She was crying, staring at the mangled object in the middle of the floor. Badger lurked a little further back — greasy and unkempt, from back when he had looked more like a local drug dealer than a genius mathematician; he had his arm around another man, caught in the act of trying to console his friend, both them wide-eyed and weeping.
And there was Zheng — lurking just through one of the battered doorways, a pale giant, ramrod-straight, expressionless and mute, still under control and bound by the tattoos written on her concealed flesh. It was terrible seeing her like that; even as a memory, I wanted to reach out and free her.
Other faces I recognised less well, lurkers on the periphery, half-remembered glimpses from the time some of the ex-cultists had tried to kidnap Lozzie in the park. But most of them I had never seen before. Most of them had died before I’d had the chance, immolated by their attempted contact with the Eye.
We were looking at the scene a few hours after Alexander’s death, the night after I had confronted and killed him in the Cult’s castle.
Joking cleared his throat. The voice of the Welsh Mage emerged quieter than usual, almost tentative: “This is approximately six hours after his passing, which is about when I arrived. I understand his enhanced physiology gave him a few hours of grace before true death.” He swallowed. “The mage’s curse — reinforce your physical body and you just spend longer in pain before you go.”
Six hours, six hours since he had sold his followers to the Eye.
Lozzie whimpered; she had her eyes screwed shut, but she didn’t like hearing that.
“Stop, please,” I said sharply.
Joking nodded, stiff and formal. No jokes from him.
In the middle of the ghostly dream-room lay Alexander Lilburne’s corpse.
His ex-followers had stretched him out on a sheet of blue tarpaulin; blood, bile, and unspeakable intestinal fluids pooled in the crinkled plastic. He looked like he’d been run over by a bulldozer — a mass of minced flesh with little spears of bone sticking up from his broken ribcage and shattered hips. Dressed in heat-charred rags, head a bloody burst melon, a few scraps of blonde hair still clinging to his scalp.
This was not the first time I had seen Alexander’s corpse, not the first time I had witnessed the result of my own murderous handiwork; in an odd paradox of retroactive time we had already come upon his corpse once before, preserved in the mutated innards of Glasswick tower — but that was after the moment captured by this dream. In Joseph’s memories, Alexander Lilburne was not yet the core and origin of a bizarre concrete-warping biological obscenity. He was just a dead man.
Yet one important difference was impossible to ignore: his eyes were wide open, staring upward, and far from dead.
What were we looking at — a puppet? An avatar? A conduit to the Eye? Or something less comprehensible?
“Lozzie,” I murmured. “You’re right to keep your eyes shut. Keep them closed. That’s good.”
Lozzie whined an affirmative. Praem helped by sliding a soft palm over Lozzie’s eyes.
Raine whistled low. “It’s like the set of an old-school sitcom. No fourth wall.”
We hissed, “Raine. I don’t think it’s like a sitcom. Really.”
“It’s literally laid out like one. Not in tone, though.”
Joking stepped forward to the edge of the recollection, craning his neck to see from different angles. “This is incredible work, Miss Lilburne. Incredible work. I … I have taken decades just to build this concrete house, and I can barely manage more than blank walls and a mistake full of toilets. This, to create this from another mind, in moments?” He shook his head in awe. “Genius. Genius.” Then, quickly: “Is it safe to interact with? I cannot help but note that I myself am not present in the scene — am I meant to enter?”
Lozzie said, with her eyes safely covered by Praem’s palm: “It’s safe! It’s just a memory! You have to go in and say the words you said and then other words get said, okay?”
Joking looked back, hollow-eyed and stiff. “Other words.”
“Other words,” Lozzie echoed. “Mmhmm!”
Joseph looked me straight in the eyes. “Morell, I agreed to share my notes on the Magnus Vigilator and I am willing to abide by that decision. I will even watch a copy of myself go through the motions. But I did not agree to undergo this conversation all over again. It was not an ordeal I wish to repeat. Not in the middle of that room. Not among that. Not again.”
I bit my lower lip. “Was it—”
“It was that bad. Yes.”
Lozzie chirped: “It’ll only be the words themselves! I said, I can’t really dream up the big peeper! Just words, from— from Alex’s … in his … his voice … ”
“Lozzie, it’s okay,” we said quickly. “Look, this is getting too complex. Maybe it’s best if we—”
“But you need it!” Lozzie said. She wiggled in Praem’s grip, pouting at me without looking. “Heathy! Maisie needs it too!”
Joking crossed his arms over his broad chest, and said: “I cannot do this. Not like this.”
Raine held out both hands, her pistol forgotten in her waistband. “Yeah, yeah, yo, hey, everyone cool down. The man has a point, however much I don’t like to say it—”
Joking’s expression collapsed back into the drunken lad for a second. He shot Raine a big cheesy grin and a broad wink; he snapped back to sober seriousness in the blink of an eye.
“—and hey,” Raine carried on. “I remember when we glimpsed the Eye, once, when Evee made that window. Praem, Lozzie, neither of you were there. Once was enough. Is it really safe to listen? Really really?”
Lozzie pouted. “I promise!”
Joseph King was staring at me, frowning with a mixture of curiosity and realisation. We raised our eyebrows at him, with no patience for unspoken games.
He sighed, and said: “You are terrified of this. Of the Magnus Vigilator. I didn’t quite realise.”
“Of course I’m terrified!” we squeaked. “I’ve seen it up close! It haunted my nightmares for a decade! Did you think I enjoyed that?”
He nodded slowly, then glanced at Lozzie: “Only words, dreamer? You promise?”
Lozzie opened her mouth — but a reply came from behind us, from the doorway into the office, as it banged open and admitted a stomping gait into the room.
“It better bloody well be words alone, you absolute bunch of fools!” — said Evelyn.
We all turned in surprise; Praem even lifted Lozzie up and around, and spread the fingers of her blindfold-hand so Lozzie could peer at the sudden arrival.
Evelyn was dressed for hiking through a storm; water dripped from an expensive looking raincoat, puddling on the floor at her feet, darkening the concrete. She threw back the hood and raked out her long blonde hair, her face sweaty and flushed from climbing the stairs. She’d swapped her usual wooden walking stick for a more practical model in stainless steel, with a plastic handle. She wore a pair of lumpy, shapeless cargo trousers and her comfortable cream jumper, spotted with water and covered in bits of woodland debris.
“Welcome,” said Praem.
Raine started laughing. Joking dropped the Welsh Mage and instantly re-adopted the laddish lout, squinting with exaggerated disbelief. I squeaked: “Evee! How did you—”
“I told you!” Evelyn snapped at me — genuinely angry. “I told you to come back the moment anything weird or untoward happened. I made you promise to come back if something looked at you funny. And now I find you trying to summon the fucking Eye into a dream?!”
Lozzie mewled: “It’ll only be words … ”
“Words have power,” Evelyn snapped, then softened her tone: “Lozzie, I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but this is way over the line.”
Joking said: “Oh, alright, just, yeah. Just keep inviting random young women into my mind palace, why don’t you? Not like it was meant to be semi-secure or anything, nope, no way. Just waltz on in.”
Evelyn’s glare rounded on him: “And you — you shit! You stole my gateway spell! You gave it to Edward Lilburne! Heather, Raine, I cannot believe you are trusting this mage, I cannot—”
“Evee” we said.
Evelyn’s rant cut off. She glared at me for a moment, hot and bitter and full of care, as if daring me to say another word. When I was a fraction too slow, she snapped: “What, Heather? What, hm? You’re going to tell me that this has to happen, that this is essential, that it’s just oh so fucking important for you to put yourself in danger, yet again, without—”
“I’m glad you’re here,” we said.
Evelyn spluttered to a halt. “W-what?”
“I’m glad you joined us,” I repeated. I reached out with a tentacle, bobbed it briefly in a silent request for permission, and then gently wrapped it around Evelyn’s forearm. “Evee, you’re right — I am going to say that we need to do this. But I’d much rather do it with you here, with proper precautions, with you by my side, as well.”
Evelyn blazed at me for a long moment, lips pursed, then said: “God you’re a fucking idiot, Heather. Don’t know why I love you so much.”
I burst into an incandescent blush. Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. Lozzie smothered a giggle. Praem said nothing.
But Evee didn’t seem to realise what she’d said. She just stomped a few paces into the room, joining the rest of us and shaking the rainwater off her coat. She seemed completely unmoved. I peered closely — but her eyes looked normal, she was not shaking and shivering as Raine kept doing, and she appeared totally lucid. She simply didn’t notice her own words. Was this another effect of the dream?
She did notice our reactions, however.
“What are you all bloody staring at?” she spat. “Fine, I’ll help! If we do this, we do it properly.” She jabbed her walking stick at Joking. “And we don’t trust this bastard one bit.”
“Awww, cheers, lass,” said Joking.
“Uh, um,” I cleared my throat, trying to recover. “Evee, how did you join the dream?”
Praem answered: “I could not refuse.”
Evelyn huffed. “I’m not sure. I just wanted to, and then … ” She shrugged and grumbled, rolling her uneven shoulders and wincing at the way her joints popped and clicked.
“You didn’t have to actually walk through all that rain, did you?” we asked. “You’re all wet, are you safe, are you … ?”
“No, no,” she sighed. “I just found myself inside the doors of this place. If I had to walk through the rain, I have no memory of doing so.” She glared at Joking again. “Which I do not appreciate, by the way.”
Joseph held up his hands in mock-surrender. “Hey, lass, I don’t control your dreaming. Blame her.” He pointed at Lozzie.
Evelyn raised her chin. “I shall blame Lozzie for nothing. She is perfect. Fuck you.”
Lozzie did a little cheer under her breath. That didn’t sound like normal Evee either, ‘she is perfect’.
Joking puffed out a big noisy sigh. “Fuckin’ ‘ell you lot are a handful. Should I like, be expecting anybody else, too? Put on a round of tea? Maybe leave the door open, put up a welcome sign? Do I need to clear parking spaces?”
We all ignored him. I asked Evee: “How much did you hear? Do you need me to catch you up on our decisions?”
Evelyn shook her head. She frowned at me, looking distinctly uncomfortable in a way I’d never seen on her face before, half enraged, half confused. “I … I already know. And I don’t know how I know. Is this what it’s like being inside a dream? You know things without knowing how you know them?” She stopped and hissed between her teeth. “Ugh. I hate it. I do not like being here, not one bit.”
“Yuuuuuuuup,” said Lozzie, from behind Praem’s hand. “That’s dreaming!”
Evelyn banged her walking stick against her own prosthetic leg; it made a dull thump through the fabric of her trousers. “And why do I still have a prosthetic when none of this is real?”
“It is real!” Lozzie protested. “That’s just how you look in the mirror!”
Joseph straightened up, Welsh Mage once again: “Residual self-image.”
Raine snorted. “Alright there, Morpheus.”
Joking gave her a cool, flat look. “Yes, I lifted the concept from popular culture. It is a good one. I used to call the phenomenon ‘mind-body spirit impression’, but that is less aptly descriptive. The dream is highly mutable — as is self-image, but modifying either does require active effort expended over time. Miss Saye, your prosthetic leg, it is part of how you conceptualise yourself. Hence, in the dream, it is part of you.”
“Oh yeah?” Evelyn snorted, looking distinctly unimpressed. “And what if I ‘conceptualise myself’ with massive tits and a spine to support them? Do I get to have those too?”
My eyeballs all but popped out of my head; Evelyn seemed completely unembarrassed by her frankly bizarre question. Raine struggled not to burst into laughter. Lozzie squealed and jerked in Praem’s grip. Praem said nothing, staring at the wall. Joking just rolled his eyes.
The dream was doing funny things to Evee’s inhibitions; or at least to her self-filtering. I decided we needed to get this over with sooner rather than later, before she did something that would kill her with embarrassment the moment we returned to the waking world.
“Evee,” we said, forcing my voice soft and level. “What kind of precautions should we take, before we listen to what Alexander — well, before we listen to what the Eye said?”
Evelyn huffed and glanced around the room, then nodded at the floor beneath our feet. “Protective circle, three layers. We’re not exposing ourselves to the real thing, just a recording. Overkill, perhaps? I don’t care. I would swaddle you in cotton wool and put you behind armour if I could. I don’t want you to be here at all, Heather. I want you to go to my bed and get under the covers so I can—”
Evee blinked; she did not blush. Had she hit some kind of overload buffer? But then she just huffed and grumbled, and pointed two fingers at Mister Joking. “I need something to draw with. Now. And I will not say please. I am tired of saying please.”
Our increasingly beleaguered host found a nice thick black marker pen on his desk and handed it over to Evelyn — who, in turn, handed it to Raine, and began to instruct her on the angles and lines and shapes to scrawl on the floor. Praem would usually have fulfilled such a duty, but she was busy sitting down in a chair with Lozzie comfy and snug in her lap, one hand securely over Lozzie’s eyes. Raine got down on her hands and knees, and got to work, ringing all five of us with a triple-layer of magic circle. She neither quipped nor joked as Evelyn pointed and snapped, rattling off instructions and defining the exact letter-shapes for Raine to draw in between the lines.
Joseph King watched the work with a distasteful frown; he would have to scrub it off the concrete once this was all over, of course. Or use the dream to replace the slab? Or just the upper layer? Or could he make the ink vanish as if it was never there?
“Don’t thinkee, Heathy!” Lozzie chirped. “No thoughts!”
“Head empty,” said Praem.
“Dreams,” Evelyn spat. “Such bloody nonsense.”
Mister Joking performed a little magic of his own. As we prepared our makeshift magical shelter from any unintended backwash, he stepped right up to the dividing line once more, standing right on the threshold of the terrible memory of the night after Alexander’s death. He slipped into a series of strange exercises, closing his eyes and rotating each limb through a set of poses — some kind of martial arts practice, ingrained in his muscles by years or decades of repetition. As he progressed through the sequence, his musculature seemed to shift — not in shape, but in pose and fluidity, in how he held himself, how he used his body, how he inhabited his form.
When he finished and turned back to us, he was a different person altogether; gone was the loose, drunken pose of the young lout, and his face held none of the craggy disapproval and haughty superiority of the Welsh Mage. This was the Martial Artist, the one we had met only very briefly, when he had moved so fast as to evade even Zheng’s killing blow.
The palms of his hands glowed like molten steel. His eyes were heavily lidded with relaxation.
“I am ready,” he said in a rolling half-mumble, as if drugged or sleepwalking.
Evelyn was scowling at him. “What the hell are you? What am I witnessing here?”
Raine picked herself up off the floor, magic circle completed. “He’s a ninja, obviously.”
Joking said: “Mystical nonsense. And offensive. Don’t orientalise.”
Raine raised her hands and laughed. “Fair enough, mate.”
I spoke up for the first time in a while, with what I assumed was an obvious question: “Um, as this is all dream — or, ‘the’ dream — then how do we know that magic works the same?”
Evelyn grumbled with barely contained frustration. “Heather, I don’t care.”
Then she stomped over to my side and took my hand without the slightest hesitation.
“Do not leave this circle, whatever happens. That goes for everybody.” She gestured at Mister Joking with her walking stick. “Except you, obviously. You can boil. Lozzie, are we ready to begin?”
Lozzie nodded up and down, from her position in Praem’s lap. “Mmhmm! Whenever you like!”
Joking took a deep breath and closed his eyes again. “Dreamer? Words only, yes?”
“Can you keep the others still? Or at least allow them to move as little as possible? They were highly distracting. The room was … very noisy. There was some violence. It will interrupt the words.”
Lozzie swallowed, her tiny pale throat bobbing. She sniffed once, then said, “Okay. Do my best. Bestest best besty best.”
“Except Miss Masalkar,” Joking added. “She had things to say. The Magnus Vigilator answered her, too.”
“A-alright,” Lozzie said. She burrowed even deeper in Praem’s lap. I made sure to keep a firm grip on her with one tentacle, too. “I-I’ll try.”
Evelyn said: “Lozzie, you have veto power.”
“ … I dooooo?”
“It means that you can stop this any time you like,” Evelyn glanced at me. “Right, Heather?”
“Of course! Yes! Yes, of course. Lozzie, if it gets too much, please stop.”
Lozzie chewed her lower lip, then nodded. “Go on, go on in, Jokey-jokes. I’ll keep it … keep it just what we need.”
Without so much as a nod, Joseph King turned and stepped across the threshold of a dream.
As he entered the reconstruction of his own memories he changed yet again — his fluffy white bathrobe vanished, replaced with a long dark coat, smart shoes, and a formal hat. Was that a fedora? Or a trilby? I was never very clear on the small differences in men’s head-wear. As he stepped into the room he removed the hat, as if intruding on a wake or a funeral, which revealed that his hair was now buzzed short, shaved almost to the scalp.
The other figures in the dream-room from Glasswick Tower shivered and shuddered, memories straining against their bonds. A whisper of voices ghosted through the air.
“—left us, left us, left us—”
“—can’t get it out! Can’t get it out of my head—”
“—he wouldn’t have, not—”
“—the library, we have to raid his own library. He would have left clues—”
“—can’t— breathe— no—”
“Calm down! Calm down, it’s going to be—”
“—m-maybe something in one of the—”
“—ask the Saye girl for help, we have to ask for help, we can’t— I can’t even think! Fuck you! Fuck you, I can’t think like this!”
“Stop— stop swearing, Chrissy is right here—”
And screaming. Muffled by the fog of memory, yes, but so much screaming.
Suddenly Sarika was right in front of Joseph, scowling up at him with her determined little face. It was so strange seeing her without neurological damage, her myriad of tics and twists, the grey in her hair and the pain on her expression. In the memory she was healthy and whole — and red-eyed from weeping, exhausted more deeply than I thought a human being capable of enduring.
“You’re Edward’s man,” she snapped in his face. “You’re meant to fix this. Can you fix him? Edward said you can. He talks but it’s not—”
Joseph said: “This is irrelevant.”
Lozzie whined — but the scene reset. The voices died off, whispers and screams fading beneath the pounding rain. Sarika was suddenly back in her chair, leaning over Alexander’s shattered body.
Joseph strode through the scene, weaving his way between the frozen actors. He knelt by the corpse, then extracted a hand-held voice recorder from inside his coat, and placed it on the floor. Next he produced a notebook and pencil. Then he glanced at Sarika.
“Miss Masalkar,” he said. “I need you to concentrate and answer my question to the best of your abilities: what was the last fully coherent thing he said?”
Sarika was sitting in one of the plastic lawn chairs. She animated from statue-stillness with a throaty grunt, as if fighting down a wave of pain inside her body.
“Almost eight hours ago now,” she croaked. “Wasn’t much. He just said: ‘I knew I was right.’ Nothing has made sense since then.”
Over in her chair, snuggled deep in Praem’s lap, Lozzie put both hands over her ears.
Deep in his own memories, Joseph nodded to Sarika — then looked back at us, at the audience. He said: “Brace yourselves. This is where it became difficult.”
Evelyn squeezed my hand. I squeezed back.
Joseph turned back to the corpse, squared his shoulders, and raised his pencil to the blank page of his notebook. He peered into Alexander’s open eyes. The corpse stared right through him, pupils fixed on the ceiling above.
“Magnus Vigilator,” Joseph said, loudly and clearly. “That is your name — one we have given you—”
Sarika recoiled. “What the fu—”
Joking ignored her and carried on: “A designation, a signifier. You are what is signified by those words: Magnus Vigilator. That is your individual name. To signify you. This is a beginning. Do you comprehend?”
Alexander Lilburne’s lips parted by a fraction of an inch. A dead man spoke:
“Do you comprehend?”
His voice was a terrible thing — wet and broken, a gurgle from a ruined throat and a mangled tongue, but somehow too clear and coherent to issue forth from such a battered form.
But there was another component to the words, some essence that could not be replicated in a dream-memory or captured in written notes, something that we, there in the dream, did not experience. We could only observe the results.
As Alexander spoke — or, rather, as the Eye spoke through him — Lozzie’s control slipped for a split-second. The figures in the memory flickered and jerked and re-assumed new positions. Sarika was caught in the act of recoiling from Alexander’s words, her eyes wide with terror, her face grey with sickness. Several of the other cultists were captured in the moment of vomiting, their bodies violently rejecting something more than mere sound. One man was screaming, eyes screwed shut, hands clamped over his ears. Chairs were toppling, their inhabitants fleeing for the doorways. I spotted Badger, at the back, pressed against the wall, face contorted as if he had been punched in the gut.
Joseph King fared better than the cultists — he did not have the Eye peering into the back of his thoughts, after all. He snapped back and covered his face with one arm, as if hit by a sudden blast of oven-hot air. Then he eased back into position, peering cautiously at Alexander’s face once more.
“Are you asking me a question?” he demanded. His voice shook with effort; we’d not heard him speak like that before. “Or are you merely echoing the sounds I am making?” He paused, waiting, surrounded by the frozen forms of cultists losing their minds. “Give me a sign that you understand.”
“Give me a sign that you understand.”
Again the wet and broken voice, horrifying and saddening in the sheer damage a body could endure in death — but not a supernatural assault on the senses. Lozzie simply could not replicate whatever the Eye had really sounded like through Alexander’s lips.
Again the cultists flickered. They fled the room, dashed their heads against the walls, screaming and weeping like a crowd beneath the pyroclastic flow of an erupting volcano. Some of them curled into balls. Others fell into twitching fits upon the floor. Sarika gripped the sides of her plastic chair, jaw clenched so hard that she must have damaged her teeth.
Joking fell backward, panting, covered in sweat, shaking his head like a wet dog. “I cannot … ” he murmured. “Check my notes. Morell, check my notes.”
It was only when he said my name that I realised he was talking to us, the audience, outsiders to the scene.
My eyes dropped to the notebook open in my free hand, cradled by a tentacle. Suddenly specific passages of Joking’s shorthand notation began to make sense.
‘Magnus Vigilator responds only with repetitions of the words spoken to it. Limitation of communication medium? Limitation of human mind? Is it repeating in hopes of finding meaning? Do not believe this correct. Only reflecting what it sees (hears?). Mirror of development processes in children? Flashing back to us what it observes, hopes of establishing an open line? Testing reactions? Or playing with parts, no understanding.’
‘Q: Speak a word that I have not spoken.’
‘A: A word that I have not spoken.’
‘Q: Tell me what you see.’
‘A: What you see.’
‘Q: Identify yourself.’
‘Q: How many fingers am I holding up?’
‘A: How many fingers am I holding up?’
The text carried on for pages and pages, nothing but echoes and reflections, nothing but the Eye speaking through meat, reflecting meat back at itself. Like it couldn’t do anything else. Joking tried multiple languages — Latin, French, Russian, Chinese, and several I did not recognise, some of them undoubtedly non-human. But the Eye only echoed. It spoke not a word of its own.
‘Q: Why did you choose this indirect method of avatar possession? Why do you not rise to your feet and walk around? Why do you use only the eyes and the mouth, the voice-box? Is this a limitation of the deal made between yourself and Alexander Lilburne?’
‘Question went unanswered. Longer questions appear to elicit no response. Lack of interest? Lack of comprehension as to what part is important, or contains semantic value?’
‘Q: What do you want?’
‘A: Do you want?’
‘Q: Heather Morell. I know you are seeking contact with her. What does that name mean to you? Heather Morell. Tell me. God damn you to the pit of hell you insensible Beyonder obscenity. Give me something! Speak! Speak a word other than my own!’
The notes halted, melting back into incomprehensible shorthand. Our fingers shook, our eyes filled with tears of frustration. This was useless, worse than useless. The Eye observed, and reflected observation with perfect clarity. But it could do nothing more. Even through a possessed human throat, it could not truly communicate. It was too alien, too different, too large. What hopes did I have of ever making contact if we couldn’t speak with it?
And without communication the only option was violence, a fight, a staring contest — and we would lose.
We — seven of me, folded into one body, one human frame and six tentacles — were so much smaller than the Eye.
I wasn’t even shocked or angry that Joseph King had used my name in an effort to elicit a response from the Eye; but my name was a human construct, it probably meant nothing to Eye. It did not know me as Heather Morell, but as a collection of flayed atoms, thoughts unwound and stretched out like wire, self and body laid out beneath a merciless, burning gaze. Even me, even—
“Two missing one,” said Alexander’s corpse.
Joseph King was once again crouched over the mangled body, his torso half turned-away, shielding his face with an arm. Sarika was trying to pull him away from Alexander’s corpse, screaming something in his face. The cultists who remained in the room were bleeding from the ears and weeping freely, most of them collapsed on the floor or slumped against the walls.
The Eye was speaking an answer — a real answer to a question. And the question was me.
The answer unfolded from shorthand on the page, in time with the corpse speaking the words in the dream-memory.
‘Two missing one. One missing half. Left without right, up without down, black without white. Where is my other sight? Where is the other half of my being? Where am I? I cannot see. Where am I? I cannot tell. Two is missing one. I am only half of creation. Two is missing one. Creation is half made up. Need the whole picture. From horizon to horizon.’
The answer ended.
Mister Joking lurched to his feet and reeled backward. He staggered out of the dream-memory scene, bursting back to this side of the invisible line. His dark coat and silly hat vanished, shed like a bad costume, replaced with his fluffy white bathrobe once again. His shaven head flickered back to his current messy curls. He almost collapsed against the concrete desk, catching himself on the edge, heaving and shaking.
Lozzie whined: “I can’t—”
“Then let go!” Evelyn snapped. “Let it go, Lozzie. Let it go.”
The memory faded. The room from Glasswick Tower blurred back into the brown glass of the window-wall, backed by sheets of rain and the distant, swaying forest. Lozzie whined and groaned and opened her eyes as Praem removed her hand. Evelyn sighed sharply. Raine blew out a long breath.
Joking straightened up, squinting hard against internal pain: “I already told you. I do not think it can understand anything we have to say. It spoke pure nonsense, it—”
“No,” I said.
The others all looked at me. Raine had already realised that I was crying slow tears, but Evelyn suddenly frowned with concern. Lozzie leaped out of her seat — her Praem-seat — and moved toward me, for a hug or reassurance. Raine kept rubbing my back.
“It spoke perfect sense,” I explained, crying but not sobbing. Our tears were clear. “Perfect sense to me, at least. Isn’t it obvious? Or do you need a twin to see it?” I almost laughed. “A twin to see it. Right in front of me the whole time.”
Evelyn clenched her jaw. “Heather, slow down and speak sense.”
Joking frowned too, sweat dripping from his brow. “Yes, enlighten me, little watcher.”
“It was speaking about Maisie and I. Two, missing one. One, missing a half. It knows. It knows that she and I are separated. That was the only concept it recognised, the only thing it could relate to, the only external reference point — that feeling. That separation. It’s the only thing it responded to! Separation. Being apart. Being one, when you should be two.”
Raine frowned as well, but more with concern. “Do you think it was echoing Maisie’s feelings? Like that was her speaking through it?”
We shook our head. “No. No, I think it was talking about itself.”
Evelyn squinted at me. “Heather?”
“Twins,” said Praem, standing from her seat and straightening her skirt. “Two in one. One in two.”
“Twins come in pairs,” I said, nodding at Praem. “We know it takes twins — or twins are drawn to it, I don’t know why, but the manuscript from Carcosa proves that part. Twins. It teaches twins. Or examines twins. What else comes in pairs?”
Evelyn’s frown turned exasperated beyond words. “Heather. You cannot be serious.”
“An eyeball cannot see itself, not without a mirror,” I said, hiccuping with an emotion I did not comprehend. “But twins can turn and look, and see themselves in each other. It knows, that’s the only human thing it could relate to — because it feels the same way. It is one, when it should be two. Just like us.”
The Eye speaks, and it has only one thing to say: 1 + 1 = 2
Also, something something Evee big unnaturals. Dreams sure do get weird, huh? This, however, might be the last of this particular run of dreamland chapters, we've spent enough time breaking logic and getting visited by maids. Now it's time for something different. Time for Heather to deal with some other responsibilities (and also worry herself to utter distraction with this new revelation.)
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Next week, Heather's got a lot to think about, but also many loose ends still to tie up. Some of them who cry out for snipping off ...