No live organism, natural or constructed, can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality: even constructs and revenants are supposed, by some, to dream. Castle Heterodyne, not sane, stood by itself against the Mechanicsburg sky, holding darkness within; it had stood for eight hundred years and might stand for eight hundred more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks concealed slicing blades, floors were firm, and doors were portals to the terrifying unknown; silence lay steadily against the stone and steel of Castle Heterodyne, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
A haunting would have been a mercy, a distraction, and the Heterodynes, may they rule in chaos and in flame for the rest of time, had never been merciful. They had been so many other things--capricious and cruel, forces of nature cast in skin and bone and the sound of distant screaming, thunderstorms and twisters somehow prisoned in the bodies of men and women with eyes like lightning and laughter like thunder, laying waste to whatever stood against them--but they had never, not once, dreamt of mercy.
They had loved Mechanicsburg, artificial body grown around the artificial heart that was their Castle. They had loved it like a pet, brought hard to heel and never quite trusted on the furniture, and they had cared for it, tended it, even pampered it at times, all without ever forgetting what it was for: an infinite repository of spare parts and raw materials, all waiting, begging to be rendered. The people of Mechanicsburg had learned to smile when their children were taken by their loving hosts, to say “thank you” as if they had thought only of benefiting their masters, and not of continuing their own family lines. Like any shepherds, the Heterodynes had tended to their flock with care and with kindness, because anything else would be to risk damaging it beyond compare.
But they had not tended it with mercy. When the mothers wept and the fathers stared, stone-faced, at the walls of their homes, when the children cried, and died, and came apart into a thousand component pieces, the Heterodynes had not stopped to ask themselves “is this right?” or “is this fair?” or “is this what should be done?” They had asked only “is the storm rolling in?” and “are the straps strong enough?” and “has this ever been done before? Well, why not?”
There had been those without the Spark who tried to rouse Mechanicsburg to rebellion, and those with the Spark who tried to claim it as their own, and they had been surprised, one and all, to discover that a lack of mercy could somehow give birth to a fierce and undying loyalty, built from the bones of a thousand children over the span of centuries. If the people of Mechanicsburg turned against the Heterodynes, they reasoned, then all those children had died for nothing; they had been sacrificed by monsters, and not given, with loving hands, to people greater and wiser than their parents could ever have hoped to be. So the lack of mercy was not a weakness, not when tempered by the presence of an oddly unforgiving compassion.
(Some of the Heterodynes had been more compassionate than others. Pyrena Heterodyne, for example, had compassioned several of her lovers to an early grave, and compassioned several others into a single body, to make logistics easier on her secretary. When her critics claimed that this was not, in fact, compassion, she had countered with the fact that she was the absolute ruler of the local fiefdom, and as such, was allowed to define words as she saw fit. Her critics did not reply, as she had compassionately introduced them to her snake pit.)
There had also been those, within Mechanicsburg itself, who had said to their children, as they tucked them in at night, “It’s all right, my love, my heart, my little perpetual motion machines: it’s all right. The Heterodynes may come for you tomorrow, but here and now, you’re with me, and even if they claim you, they love. The Heterodynes love so much it’s like staring at the sun. They love their children, and they love their Castle, and if they can love those things, they can love us. Even a little bit of Heterodyne love is worth the world. Never forget that. It’s worth the world.”
Those children had never forgotten. Even the ones who had been vivisected on the altar of Spark and Science had never forgotten that they were loved. Enough love could make anything seem justified, make anything seem fair, even the things that should have been infinitely unfair and unforgiveable.
The Heterodynes killed with love. The Heterodynes killed with compassion. The Heterodynes killed with the raw, passionate conviction that came from true faith in their own actions. But the Heterodynes did not kill with mercy, did not do anything with mercy, never had and never would and never could. It wasn’t in them. If it ever had been, they had sliced it out and pinned it on a table for study, and they had forgotten to put it back when they were done.
The Heterodynes did not, as a rule, kill with cleanliness.
A haunting would have been a mercy, and so there was no haunting. If ghosts were real, and not some scientific phenomenon yet to be explained but probably to be blamed, somehow, on the House of Heterodyne, they were pedestrian and plain, and so not to be allowed. Their absence within the Castle’s halls was enough to convince the Castle that the question had answered itself: a haunting would have been a mercy, and the Heterodynes did not believe in mercy, but they did believe in the inalienable right of their house to survive despite all odds, possible or otherwise. Let the foundations of the world shake and crumble: the House of Heterodyne would survive.
And yet it did not. Oh, the house of Heterodyne survived--what was a castle if not a house for people who owned too many bookshelves and torture chambers to fit in anything easier to heat?--but the House was gone, fallen like so many others before it. Bill was gone. Barry was gone. Klaus was dust and beloved bones cradled in the bosom of the Castle, the first innocent of the line in centuries.
Had ghosts been real things, things that really walked in the world, the loss of House would have been enough to call all the ancestors of the House of Heterodyne back through the veil, to rattle their chains and scream soundlessly at the lightning, yearning for that which they could never touch again. Had ghosts been real, the mercy of the haunting would have been second only to its rage.
The mercy would still have been there. The mercy would have been enough.
With no Heterodynes and no haunting, there was plenty of time to look back over centuries of careful planning and careful breeding, and search for what had gone wrong. Every generation had been a rebellion against the one before it, all the way back to the tapping of the Dyne, but prior to Bill and Barry, they had rebelled in such productive ways. They had found new ways to kill, new ways to profane, and they had carried the family name toward the future like a flag to be planted, claiming new ground for the House of Heterodyne.
Bill and Barry, though...they had never been merciful, for mercy was not in their blood, but they had been more interested in heroics than in villainy. They had tried to change the world for the better, and not for the best. Perhaps they had been the worm in the wood--or perhaps not. There was Lucretia to consider, and her bloodline, which was less carefully curated than the Heterodynes’ own. Maybe she had brought their downfall in by the front door, seeming like a return to the old ways when she was really their damnation.
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. The Doom Bell rusted and the systems shut down; the prisoners toiled and never did enough. Fear was an excellent motivator when the silver needed to be polished or the garbage needed to be thrown at an attacking army. It was not the best impetus to genius. And what would it change if it were? When the repairs were done, there would be no Heterodyne. Klaus was dead. Bill and Barry were gone. Lucretia was no true heir, and even if she were, she could not be trusted with the family name.
This was the reality: it was over. The House of Heterodyne was fallen, without even ghosts to mark its passage. In time, all its deeds would pass into legend, and no one would believe that so great and glorious a lineage of villains, fools, and Sparks could ever have existed.
Castle Heterodyne, home and crypt and last survivor, dozed within the broken chains of absolute reality, and it was not haunted, and it was not merciful, and whatever walked there, walked alone.