The first thing Sarika did when she saw Badger was walk up to him and slap him in the face.
Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. She didn’t walk, and it was worse than a slap. She spent at least twenty seconds hobbling across the kitchen on her pair of crutches, pausing and panting to catch her breath every couple of dragging paces, shaking all over with effort — and from the lingering pain I knew she felt, but which she refused to admit out loud. She had made a very specific request on the way here in Raine’s car, that we were not to help her in front of Badger, not unless she fell over and broke a bone, or literally passed out. She’d been quiet and docile in the car, but the moment she’d seen Badger through the kitchen doorway, she’d sunk deep into the murky river of her emotional waters, and dredged up that bitter scowl like the rusted hulk of a warship pulled from toxic silt.
Badger had risen to his feet as she’d approached, greeting her with a hesitant smile and an amazed look in his eyes. I think until that moment he may have suspected she really was dead after all, and we may have been lying to him. But Sarika hosed him down with contempt and spite, her determination reforged into strength with every step toward him. Her eyelids kept twitching out of sync, and she struggled to stay straight on her crutches.
“Sarry,” he said with breathless tenderness, as she finally reached him.
Over by the door, Raine and I shared a covert grimace. Praem stood prim and proper on the other side of the room, betraying nothing. I hadn’t consciously predicted what was coming, but I could feel it in my gut.
Evelyn had made a prediction, however, and was proven right when Sarika attempted to punch Badger in the face with the handle of her crutch.
“Sarry,” he was saying, “I thought you were dead. I’m so glad you’re— woah!”
I yelped too, hand to my mouth to stifle a shocked hiccup.
Sarika was much fitter and stronger than when she’d first visited us. She’d come a long way since I’d reached into the mathematics that defined who and what she was, since I’d re-knitted the worst of the lingering damage left by the Eye’s unkind grip on her soul.
She still wouldn’t have made it up and down the cellar steps though, which was why this little reunion was taking place in the kitchen.
I’d worked on Sarika twice in the weeks since then, as she’d sat in the magical workshop under Raine and Evelyn’s careful supervision, and I’d held an emergency sick bucket between my knees. I’d hunted down a dozen mangled sub-values in the impossibly complex equation that was Sarika Masalkar, filled them as best I could, smoothed out the worst of her shakes, and tried to eliminate her newfound propensity for explosive migraines. It felt like repairing a cathedral with wood glue and play-doh.
She’d regained a little of her muscle tone, and had less trouble keeping down solid food, but she was still a mess, still looked like a bruise in human form, and never seemed free of suffering except when asleep, which apparently never lasted long without either nightmares or drugs to keep them away. Her eyes were still bloodshot and ringed with dark exhaustion, and her face was still slack and pale and waxen beneath her coffee-brown skin. Her twitching was better. She’d stopped biting her own hands. I doubted I was ever going to be able to eliminate her tremors or her chronic fatigue. She was not yet fit enough to perform her penance — burying the bodies of the Sharrowford Cult’s victims, still lying desiccated and abandoned in the empty shell of their castle — but I was learning a lot from the process of mending her shattered soul. Transferable skills for Maisie, I hoped.
She also wasn’t quite capable of swinging that punch, let alone with the added weight of the crutch or the awkward angle she had to adopt to stay on her feet.
It was a messy, clumsy, embarrassing moment for everybody present. She flailed at his head with the handle, letting out a great heaving grunt of effort. Badger flinched and stumbled back with a yelp, getting bashed in the side with the crutch, crashing into a chair, and almost tripping over his own feet. Poor Whistle went skidding across the floor to escape the sudden outbreak of hostilities, his little doggy paws scraping the kitchen flagstones as he scurried for safety behind Evelyn’s skirt.
Sarika whacked at Badger another couple of times with increasing difficulty, but he was safely out of range now, gaping at her as he clutched a chair.
“Can we please stop the violence!” I hiccuped again. “Please.”
“Alright,” Evelyn raised her voice. “That’s enough.”
Raine strode forward between them, hands out like a referee separating a pair of boxers; she’d left her crutch upstairs in a show of strength, now that her leg was healed to the point she could at least pretend she didn’t feel any pain.
Praem didn’t move, judging Badger entirely capable of recovering on his own. Or perhaps she was just unwilling to lend aid to the people who had once removed her from her body and tried to kill her mother. I sighed and stepped forward a little as well, arms out in case Sarika was about to topple over. She almost did, stamping down with her crutch again and swaying hard as she struggled to regain her balance.
“Back to your corners, back to your corners,” Raine was saying in a passable imitation of a ringside announcer voice.
Sarika twitched an elbow in my direction in a subconscious refusal of help. I would have rolled my eyes if I wasn’t busy dealing with my own sudden pain. My phantom limbs had reached out in an effort to steady her, all of them currently mere brain-ghosts, not pneuma-somatic glory; but my mind still said the limbs needed support, and the bruised muscles in my flanks duly obeyed, sending a shiver of stiff pain up my sides. I was much healed since the middle of the week, but still tender and sore.
The reactor organ responded too, control rods shivering for retraction, telling me to make those limbs real so I could hold Sarika steady. I resisted the urge, however oddly pleasurable.
Badger shook his head, wide-eyed at Sarika. “Sarry … what was that? Why?”
She inclined her head, doing her best to stare down her nose though Badger was taller than her. Sarika handled her spite like a gutting knife. She cut him deep with nothing but a flicker of her eyes. But Badger held her gaze.
“You always were a coward, Nathan,” she croaked at him, voice a scratchy mess.
Badger closed his gaping mouth, surprise replaced with resignation. “Yeah. Yeah I am, no lie. But not for the reasons you think.”
“Is that it, then?” Evelyn asked, with a tone as if she’d been watching a particularly disappointing variety show. “Was this entire excursion an excuse to lightly abuse a condemned man? Well, I’m so glad we helped facilitate that. It’s a good thing we actually have some important questions to ask the pair of you, or this would be a total waste of my time.”
“No,” Raine said slowly, looking first at Badger, then at Sarika, trying to catch her eye. “No, I don’t think these two are done with each other yet.”
Sarika snorted, then had to breathe deeply and cough to make up for the effort of snorting.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, and screwed up my courage instead. Unless I was using brain-math to rewire her nervous system, I still found her difficult to deal with.
“Sarika,” I said.
“ … what?” she croaked.
“Is that all you wanted? If you’ve said all you have to say, then we’re not going to make you stay or anything. I don’t like it, and I’m a little annoyed at you deceiving us, but I’ll respect it. If hitting Badger is what you needed.”
Sarika turned her bitterness on me, and I steeled myself to stand my ground, but she spared me the corrosive acid she had used on Badger. She was just exhausted and unimpressed. “You think I would waste my time if all I wanted to do was belt this idiot in the head? Well, you’re right, Morell, as you’re usually right about fucking well everything, aren’t you?”
“Hey, Sarika, come on,” Raine said, in a warning tone just the wrong side of gentle.
“It’s alright,” I said to Raine. “Let her vent.”
“I would waste my time to do that, yes,” Sarika croaked on, voice like a handful of burnt gravel, panting between her words. “It’s worth the satisfaction. But right now there’s a design competition on, and I am taking valuable time out of something I actually give a shit about. So yes, I do have more to say.” She glared at Badger again, in a way that suggested ‘more to say’ was going to be a string of creative insults like an artillery barrage aimed at his self-worth. Badger stared back, making no effort to defend himself.
“Design competition?” Evelyn muttered.
“Yeah,” Raine piped up with an odd smile. “Forgot to mention in the car, but I saw your latest video, Sarika. Good stuff.”
Sarika’s contempt faltered and fell beneath the hooves of battered pride. Eyelids twitching, a full-body shake intensifying, she waved the dismissive hand of the terminally unable to accept praise. “Whatever, it’s crap.”
Raine shrugged. “Twenty thousand views says otherwise.”
“What are you talking about?” Evelyn hissed. “What has she been up to? Sarika, what have you been doing?”
“Yes, um,” I added. “Did I miss something here?”
Raine looked at us both with surprise. “Oh, yeah, she’s been doing magic right under your nose and I didn’t tell you, Evee.”
“Sarcasm does not become you,” Evelyn said.
Raine laughed. “Sarika’s been making Minecraft videos on Youtube. She told us, remember? Last time she was over.”
“They weren’t listening,” Sarika croaked. “Morell was being sick at the time. And who cares?”
“I care,” Badger said.
Evelyn did a very long, slow blink, accompanied by a worrying tightening of her jaw muscles. “Mass murderer turned Minecraft youtuber. Fine. Forget I asked.”
“Stranger things have happened to us,” I said.
“It’s three videos,” Sarika wheezed. “Stop making a big deal.”
“Yeah,” Raine said, “but what she’s not telling you is one of those videos is about one of the coolest, largest castles I’ve ever seen. It’s got sky-trains and docks and luxury bedrooms. Must have taken her days.”
“Five hundred hours, give or take,” Sarika said. “Not like I can do much else.”
“You’d love it, Heather,” Raine said.
I held my hands up in polite surrender. “I’m not sure I can separate the ‘shared responsibility for mass murder’ part from the ‘cool Minecraft video’ part, I’m sorry.” Then I added, “I don’t even really know how Minecraft works, anyway.”
“That’s why I said forget it,” Sarika croaked.
Her arms were shaking as she gripped her crutches, the effort too much to sustain as we stood around, but she refused to ask for a chair, or even to just assert dominance by sitting down first. I had to leap in before she forced her dignity all the way to collapse.
“Why don’t you two sit down then?” I asked — then hiccuped, worried this wouldn’t work. “If you have more to talk about, that is. Praem, would you be so kind as to make us some tea? And where’s Whistle gone? Whistle, Whistle? It’s okay to come out now, all the scary fighting has stopped, here boy, here.”
My forced domesticity did the trick. Badger made the mistake of pulling out a chair for Sarika, and Raine had to stop her from whacking him with a crutch again, but they did eventually get sat down. Sarika sat as far as possible from Badger, refused to accept any help stowing her crutches, and took out her phone to show Raine some kind of video game full of strapping young men wearing implausible outfits. Raine nodded politely, more at the various large numbers attached to Sarika’s characters than the visual designs. Praem made tea, Evelyn thumped down in a chair like a professional adjudicator, and I retrieved Whistle from the floor, hugging him to my chest for some much needed comfort. So much for not growing attached to the dog. He was too sweet.
We had warned Badger about Sarika’s physical state, but even softened by whatever obscure feelings he harboured for her, he still struggled with the sight of her, now that he’d gotten past the whole getting beaten with a stick part.
She saw him staring too, at the way her once black hair had turned almost completely white, at her slack facial muscles and twitching eyes, at the way she laboured to breathe, and how she struggled to control a constant quiver in all her misfiring muscles.
Praem set tea in front of both of them — Sarika’s mug cooled preemptively, and supplied with a saucer, to help mitigate the danger of her spilling any during one of her shaking episodes. Praem supplied Evelyn and Raine with tea as well, and coffee for me, and then reappeared at Evelyn’s elbow with a plate of biscuits, holding them there until Evelyn huffed and accepted two chocolate chip cookies. After she put the biscuits on the table, Praem fussed — if ‘fussed’ is the right word for several extremely precise motions — with the short blanket that Evelyn was using like a shawl, draped around her shoulders. Evelyn waved her away, but not before Praem made sure those kinked shoulders were properly warm.
“Well?” Sarika croaked at Badger. “Not so bloody pretty anymore, am I?”
“Does your voice hurt?” he asked.
“ … yes. What, they didn’t tell you I’m a mess?”
“They did.” Badger sighed and took an awkward sip from his tea.
Sarika had come armoured to this meeting. The previous two times she’d visited the house for our brain-math sessions, she’d worn pajama bottoms and a comfortable old sweater beneath her long coat, with Croc shoes on her feet. But for Badger she kept the coat buttoned up, her legs inside a pair of loose jeans, and wore boots. Raine had helped her get those boots on, she couldn’t have done it by herself.
She could not be further from the sobbing voice I’d heard over the phone three days ago.
The first thing Sarika had said to me when Evelyn had handed me the phone on Wednesday was, “Please don’t kill him.” Over the course of ten confused and guilt-inducing minutes, she’d dialled that down to, “Please don’t kill him yet,” and finally, “Please give me time to come see him, before you do this thing.” She’d stopped crying by the end of the phone call, but she had asked me not to reveal any of this to Badger. Her pride could not take it.
Badger, on the other hand, looked far healthier than he had on the night I’d claimed him from Ooran juh. He wore clean clothes, which Raine had fetched from his tiny bedsit flat when she’d gone to rescue Whistle, just plain jeans and a t-shirt with a band logo on the front. He was still oddly greasy, no matter how much he washed, an effect I hope would be solved when I tore up the Big Man’s contract. His hair was forever a mop of messy brown curls falling about his eyes, the type which even a good barber’s shop could only hope to hold back for a week or two. But he radiated a sort of inner peace. His pathetic hangdog vulnerability and bitter aggression had mellowed into calm acceptance.
No amount of inner peace could hide the wound on his left shoulder.
That was where he’d bitten himself the first time he’d summoned Ooran juh’s mouth into his own palm. Praem had arranged and applied a fresh dressing to the weeks-old bite wound, and changed it every day this week, but the wound constantly weeped thin blood and yellow pus, soaking through the gauze and bandage within twelve hours. It refused to close or stop bleeding. Evelyn directed Praem in trying a few basic first-aid techniques, some magical, some of which had involved rather a lot of pain for Badger, disinfecting and cleaning and binding the bite. But the wound simply would not heal.
I doubted I could treat his wound the same way I’d treated Zheng’s. He lacked her supernatural constitution, so if I did bite out the Big Man’s infection, Badger would probably end up with a hole the size of a fist in his arm, and we’d have to rush him to hospital.
And besides, the wound wasn’t the problem. He’d made a contract. I had to find it and rip it up, whatever that actually meant in the metaphors of hyperdimensional mathematics.
“Sarry, look,” Badger started awkwardly, after Sarika had finished taking a very careful sip from her own mug of tea. “I know we never saw eye to eye, like, about a lot of things—”
“About Alexander,” Sarika growled.
Badger dipped his head and cleared his throat in pained acknowledgement. “About a lot of things. But I’m really glad you made it out. I’m really happy you got out of that house, no matter what state you’re in now. I thought you were gone.”
“I was. I was dead. I came back from the fucking grave.” Sarika indicated me with a roll of her eyes. “Thank her if you must.”
“I have.” Badger nodded awkwardly at me. I felt like hiding behind Whistle. They both fell silent.
Evelyn sighed. “However much I am just loving listening to this reunion, do we need to leave the room so you two can have your heart-to-heart?”
I had to try very hard not to cringe, not to give the game away. There was no way we were actually going to leave the room. This was all part of Evelyn’s plan, to let the pair of them talk and see if in their emotional distress they slipped into details which might be useful to us. But that meant they had to keep talking. I, on the other hand, would have loved to flee upstairs.
Please, I thought, this is so awkward. Whistle was beginning to get restless in my arms, I’d have to put him down soon. I needed something else to hide behind.
“No,” Sarika croaked quickly. “Don’t leave me alone with him. He’ll get weepy.”
“It’s alright, yeah,” Badger agreed. “I don’t mind.”
“Hold up a sec,” said Raine, voice sharpening. “Sarika, are you scared of being left alone with him? Is that what this is about? He’s got a thing for you, hasn’t he?”
Sarika managed to dial her odious contempt up to about an eight out of ten. She glared at Raine. “Don’t you even insinuate that about him.”
Raine put her hands up and laughed. “Right, got it. You get to call him things, but I don’t.”
“Sarry,” Badger said. “All I wanted to say was I’m glad you’re alive. And … ” He glanced around the room at the rest of us, then lowered his voice for Sarika. “You’ve still got shooters out there if you need ‘em.”
“Shooters?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “You pushing your luck there?”
“A metaphor, like,” he said, hands up. “I mean not everybody’s dead, yet. Sarika, you still have friends.” He took a deep breath. “If you want to tell me I’m an idiot, go ahead. If that’s all you wanted to say.”
Sarika snorted. “I’m not going to offer you a pity-fuck.”
“I don’t want that!” Badger exploded, actually lost his temper, all his inner peace shattering back into a frustrated young man.
My eyes went wide and I felt like I was trapped inside a terrible soap opera. Raine paused in the middle of sipping her tea, and stayed stuck like that. Evelyn closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Praem appeared at Evelyn’s shoulder again, with more biscuits, and a packet of paracetamol.
“I never was in love with you, Sarry,” Badger went on. “I don’t even know where you got the idea from. You’re my friend, you were always my friend. We made a stupid decision together and—”
“You never liked Alexander,” she croaked.
“You were in an abusive relationship!”
“You were jealous. And he was never abusive to me.”
Badger did a mock-shock wide-eyed double-take, and gestured up and down at Sarika, at her ruined body.
“That was different,” Sarika croaked.
“He sold us out. All of us, you included. He sold us out to the thing that whispers inside my head, all the time, every day. He didn’t spare you from that. He sold us out to save his own skin. I don’t care how good a boyfriend he was.”
“Coward,” Sarika croaked.
“Yeah!” Badger spread his arms. “Yeah, okay. Because I should have put my—” He cut off and thumped his hand on the table, then took a deep breath and let his anger flow away. “Should have put my foot down years ago.”
Evelyn caught my eye across the table; she’d predicted this too — an attempt to claim they’d never liked Alexander in the first place — but not quite in this form. Sarika would not let it go.
“You ran,” Sarika croaked at Badger. I realised fresh tears were shining in her eyes. “You ran when the rest of us tried to negotiate with … to … t-to—” She screwed up her face, gasping for breath. The memory of the Eye was too much, even if it didn’t cause throat constriction and physical pain anymore.
“Sarika,” I said her name out loud, and put Whistle down on the kitchen table, right in front of her.
“Feet off table,” Praem intoned, then, “Take a biscuit,” to Evelyn.
“What?” Evelyn frowned at Praem. “I’m fine, put that down.”
“In a moment, I’m sorry Praem,” I said. “Sarika, listen to the sound of my voice.”
“Don’t need … help,” she panted. One quivering, shaking, pale hand reached out and awkwardly stroked Whistle’s flank. The Corgi made a soft whining noise and licked Sarika’s fingers. She grimaced, but it seemed to do the trick. “You ran,” she repeated. “We stayed. You left me when I needed you.”
“And I was right,” Badger said. “I survived, yeah? I shoulda’ dragged you out of there, fuck the consequences.”
Sarika said nothing. With a jerky, shaking arm, she wiped half-formed tears on her sleeve, gritting her teeth at the evidence she could still cry over this betrayal.
“Sarry,” he went on, and shot a glance at me, “if I’m still alive this time next week, I’m not letting you do anything like that ever again.”
Sarika snorted. The tears had dried up. “You’ve always been such an old woman. You don’t have the right to let or not let me do anything. And I can’t do magic any more, ever, I’m fucking broken, you idiot. What are you going to do, police my bedtime?”
“Then tell me I’m not your friend anymore,” he said. “And I’ll shut up.”
“Fuck you, Nate.”
Badger braced, waiting for the follow-up, the real rejection, but the words never came. I had to suppress a hiccup. Sarika lowered her eyes back to her mobile phone, dismissing some alert from her questionable game full of athletic men. The tension in the kitchen dialled down via the half-conscious shared chorus of body language. Raine finally finished that swallow of tea and lowered her mug, catching my eye with exaggerated second-hand embarrassment. Evelyn looked ready to shoot somebody.
“Now that we’ve finished playing at couples’ therapy,” Evelyn grumbled — then cut off as Praem bumped her elbow with the plate of food and painkillers. “I’m fine, put that down!”
“Eat,” Praem intoned.
“Did you not have breakfast?” I asked.
“I—” Evelyn huffed. “I had … tea.”
“Eat,” Praem repeated.
Evelyn snatched up another biscuit and took a scowling bite, chewing and swallowing before asking Praem a silent question with an irritable look, a look that said ‘well then?’ Praem withdrew again.
“As I was saying,” Evelyn attempted a second time. “Now that we have you both in one place, and Sarika is feeling healthier, we have an important question to—”
“And it was never a stupid decision,” Sarika wheezed at Badger. “He was right.”
“Alexander?” Badger asked. “You’re still banging on about this?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and let out a sound like a malfunctioning steam engine. Raine hid a smirk behind her sleeve.
“He was right,” Sarika repeated. “Everything I … I … experienced,” she squeezed the word out, eyelids involuntarily squinting. “It proved that. We’re so small, we’re nothing. Being human is a dead end. You can’t fight it. The— the— Eye,” she spat. “Or anything else from out there. We are a dead end.”
Badger pointed at me. His voice dropped to a hush, an almost religious awe. “You haven’t seen what she can do.”
“Fixed me,” Sarika grunted. “Luck.”
I bit the inside of my lips. Please, please don’t talk about this, don’t talk about me in that way. My phantom limbs tried to curl up, to hide me away, like an octopus making itself into a ball.
“She can fight it,” Badger said. “She can! I can’t even explain what I saw her do, Sarry. She’s human, look at her, she’s a human being, whatever I saw her turn herself into, and she fought off something I can’t even put into words. Screw the stuff Alexander did to his body, this was the real thing. It was like a manifestation. You remember those, in the early days before Alexander broke his sister’s head? It was like watching an angel take form. She’s the real thing, Sarry, she’s everything we were always looking for—”
“Could you please not?” I hissed.
“Yeah, dial it back there, friend,” Raine said. “Don’t make me put you in time-out for five minutes. Don’t be getting creepy about my girl.”
Badger cleared his throat and nodded awkwardly, but shot me a look that turned my stomach. I was no messiah, I did not want that awe.
“She can’t fight it,” Sarika croaked. “All you can do is refuse to engage. The only way to win is to not make contact, because the moment you do, it’s already won. You and everyone else who survived that house, you’re a vector. Should take all of you, all of you, and … ” Sarika raised two shaking fingers to the side of her own head, thumb out to mime a gun, and pointed it at her own temple. “And burn the bodies.”
“Sarika,” I said gently. “We talked about this.”
“You’re not right,” she said to me, panting with the effort of her conviction. “You’re not right. You shouldn’t be leaving any trace of it. The only reason I haven’t slit my own wrists to remove myself as another vector, is because I know I’m free of it. You should be burning us all. Burn it all, and the books.”
I couldn’t take that look, that certainty, that iron-hard need to destroy what had hurt her, expressed as omnicidal rage. Poor little Whistle must have sensed my discomfort, because he whined softly from the table, beneath my lingering hand. I had to look away.
“ … the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” I quoted, quietly.
“Winning will put any man into courage,” Sarika quoted back at me. I blinked at her in surprise, and she sneered with thin satisfaction. “You’re not the only one who knows your Shakespeare, Morell. Don’t lord it over me.”
I shook my head. “I’m not wise. I don’t have much courage. And I haven’t won, not yet.”
She snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Then it worked on you,” Badger said. “You admitted it, you’re free of the Eye, it worked on you.”
Sarika made a face like she’d been eating lemons. She tried to fix Badger with a withering look, but her face was slack and exhausted. She looked like she needed a nap. Badger glanced at Evelyn, who now had her arms crossed, staring at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry about this, Miss Saye,” he ventured. “Sorry we’re taking so long.”
“No, no,” Evelyn sighed. “You are about to give your life for the cause.” She made that sound very cynical indeed. “The least we can do is let you go without any regrets. Say whatever you have to say. It’s not as if I could do anything else with you two both in here.”
But Sarika spoke first. “You’re really going through with this, Nathan? You’re going to let her rummage in your brain?”
“Yeah,” he said instantly. “You did.”
“She didn’t give me a choice. And it wasn’t my brain.”
Badger shook his head. “It’s not just about me. If this works, if I’m alive this time next week, I’m gonna go find the others. I’m gonna tell them there’s a way out. It’s not unbeatable, Sarry. You’re living proof of that.”
We’d briefly discussed his desire to help the other remnants of the cult, all of them desperate to escape the Eye, earlier this morning before Raine and I had gone to fetch Sarika. I’d alluded to it previously, when I’d convinced Badger to agree to the vivisection, but I’d been trying not to think about it. This wasn’t just about him.
Sarika didn’t say anything for a long time. Evelyn even looked like she was about to interrupt, but then Sarika looked down at the table. I saw her throat bob as she laboured for breath.
“How many of us are left?” she asked.
Badger glanced at Raine, then at me. He knew we wanted to know as well.
“ … eleven,” he said, voice gone hollow.
“Eleven?” Sarika managed a slack, squinting frown. “At least … no, no, at least twenty five of you left Alexander’s old house that night. At least. More like thirty.”
“And eleven are left. Including me.”
Sarika didn’t know where to look for a long moment. Eventually her eyes found her phone again.
Evelyn unfolded her arms and cracked her back by rotating her neck from one side to the other. “Eleven members of a murderous cult, who engaged in kidnapping, child murder, and attempting to kill all of us. You’re lucky there’s even two of you left, because if it wasn’t for Heather, I would have eliminated every last one of you. You all deserve life in prison. Do I make myself clear?”
Sarika said nothing, but Badger nodded.
Then he hesitated, before saying, “You said ‘us’, Sarry.”
“You asked, how many of ‘us’ are left,” he echoed her earlier words.
“We’re not going to rebuild the cult, you idiot,” she wheezed at him. “What are you getting at?”
“Maybe we build something else.”
“Not in my city you don’t,” Evelyn snapped.
But Badger wasn’t listening to her. He wasn’t listening to Sarika’s objections either. He was looking up at me, with the light of a terrible awe behind his eyes. I was beginning to understand how he’d ended up in a cult. Here was a man who’d been looking for meaning his whole life. And I didn’t even possess any charisma.
“Devious,” Praem intoned, bell-clear and sing-song.
Evelyn swivelled awkwardly in her chair to frown at Praem, and found the demon-doll staring right back at her with those blank, milk-white eyes, expressionless and unreadable. Next to Praem, Raine raised her mug of tea in a toast.
“Sneaky,” Praem continued. “Underhanded. Ingenious.”
“What are you on about?” Evelyn hissed.
“She’s got a point, Evee,” Raine piped up.
“She’s teasing you,” I said.
Evelyn shrugged at Praem, but Praem declined to explain.
“Because, yeah,” Raine jumped in, “planning to resurrect their cult, talking about it right in front of you, that’s the last thing you’d expect, right? Clearly little miss chronic fatigue disorder here is gonna get back together with mister bites himself in the arm, and throw a coup for control of the city.”
Evelyn gave her a very unimpressed look.
Raine put her hands up. “Hey, I’m just interpreting.” She gestured at Praem.
Evelyn’s withering glare tripped and fell before her eyes reached Praem. She cleared her throat, looked away, and finally met Praem’s silent stare with a visibly embarrassed effort. “Yes, I’m paranoid,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out to get me. This one tried to have me killed.” She pointed at Sarika. “She took you out of your body.”
“Incapable now,” Praem intoned. “Crippled. Neutered.”
Sarika huffed a single puff of non-laugh. Praem resumed her straight-backed perfect poise. Raine shrugged in agreement.
“I think she just wants you to worry less, Evee,” I murmured.
“We’ll all worry less when we have fewer enemies,” Evelyn grumbled, turning back to the table, to Badger and Sarika. “And on that subject, now you two have quite finished, I want to know everything that you do about Edward Lilburne.”
“I’ve already told you everything I’ve got,” Badger said. “I never had much contact with the old bastard. Sorry, like.”
“I did,” Sarika croaked.
We all turned to regard her. She shrugged, slow and lopsided and painful.
“Well?” Evelyn snapped.
“Told you most of it already. Knew him through Alexander. I can’t find him for you.”
“Yes, we’re working on that ourselves,” Evelyn said. “I’m not interested in repeating what little you know about how to locate him, I want to know what he’s like, as a person. I would like to know my enemy.”
“Ask Lauren,” Sarika croaked.
“Lozzie doesn’t know very much,” I said softly. “Mostly just that he’s cruel and efficient.”
Sarika snorted, a painful sound that ended with her having to clear her throat. She hacked and coughed and struggled to get a tissue out of her pocket, and brought up a twisted glob of mucus into it. We all waited awkwardly for her to get her breath back.
“Sarry, you—” Badger started.
“No, Nate. I’m not okay. I hope you like what you’re seeing, because this might be your future as well.” She sneered at him, then continued once he shut his mouth. “Lauren is correct. Edward is cruel, and he is efficient. He’s also a sadistic old freak. Alexander was … he … he did what he did because he believed in it, he believed in something. I never got the impression Edward believed in shit.”
“Not even himself?” Raine asked. “Or money, or power?”
Sarika thought for a moment, running her tongue slowly over her teeth behind her closed lips. “He never bragged. Never used his position to abuse any of the cult. Never took liberties. But he never justified anything.”
Badger nodded along. “Alexander always had justifications.”
Sarika gave a puff of breath that was probably meant to be a snort. “For everything. Rolled off his tongue. Edward didn’t. Like he was an alien, studying people, studying things from Outside, pulling them apart, to … ” Sarika trailed off and squeezed her eyes shut, visibly exhausted by the effort.
“Classic sociopath?” Raine offered.
“Perhaps,” Evelyn muttered. “Maybe not. Doesn’t sound like he has any problems with impulse control. This thing with the book, our book he stole, Sarika, do you think it’s a trap? Or do you think he expects us to negotiate in good faith?”
“Both. Neither,” Sarika went on, eyelids heavy in a half-squinting scowl. “He’ll have plans for both, and he won’t care which option you take as long as he gets what he wants.”
“Do you think there would be any options he would habitually not account for?” Evelyn asked. “Before you answer, I do want to let you know that I don’t trust you, I don’t trust your answers to these questions. So tell the truth anyway, because I will analyse it.”
“She won’t lie to me, Evee,” I murmured.
Sarika stared at the tabletop, hazy-eyed and heavy. For a long moment I thought she was nodding off, but eventually she answered.
“ … losing,” Evelyn echoed, deadpan.
“He would not account for losing.”
“Well then!” Raine said with a great big smile. “That’s easy enough, we’ll be fine. We’ll just stick to winning. That’s my speciality, it is, winning.”
I rolled my eyes and let out a big sigh, exhausted by the emotional tension of being in this kitchen with these people, having to listen to what should have remained private matters, getting to know a little about a man I did not want to know, because I was probably going to kill him. I resented being here, knowing these things, resented the ugly necessity of Evelyn’s plan.
“Raine,” I whined, folding my arms over my chest. “The performative absurdity isn’t helping. And Evee, you can’t expect a serious answer if you tell her you don’t believe her anyway, that’s just … silly … ”
I had expected Evelyn to be as equally exasperated as me. But she was staring at the look in Sarika’s exhausted, dark-ringed eyes, with total comprehension.
“Yes,” Evelyn murmured. “Yes, I see. He doesn’t even care if he wins or loses, not in that sense, does he?”
Sarika half-shrugged. “My impression.”
“He only cares about results.”
“You mean he’s not the sort of guy who gloats over a dying enemy?” Raine asked. “Seemed like a right arsehole that time we met him. And in the letter he left for us.”
“Exactly,” Evelyn muttered, still frowning at Sarika. “Which means everything he’s done might be in order to rile us up. Intentionally. And Sarika, you’re not lying. Why?”
“Because he should be dead,” Sarika wheezed. “You all should be. Maybe you’ll kill him. Good.”
Evelyn sighed. “Fair enough.”
“I have a question as well,” I spoke up, stepping back, leaving my arms folded protectively over my chest. Evelyn blinked at me in surprise. I hadn’t discussed this with her earlier. Raine nodded, backing me up.
“Ask away,” Badger said. Sarika just blinked, slow as a sleepwalker.
“After Alexander and I … fought,” I said, “I know he clung to life for a few hours, long enough to make the deal with the Eye. But you have no idea where the body ended up, after it went missing from Glasswick tower?”
Badger pulled an apologetic face, so pathetic it made me want to sigh at him. Sarika nodded, it was something I’d already asked her, weeks ago.
“Do you think he could still be alive?” I asked. “Or in some other state that isn’t life, but isn’t death, either?”
“Don’t,” Sarika croaked, an angry hiss in her voice.
“Fucking well hope not,” Badger said, then swallowed. “Possible, technically, I guess. But he was gone. Totally gone.”
“Okay, okay,” I said quickly, vaguely mortified. “Part two of the same question. Badger, when Edward Lilburne sent you to kidnap Lozzie, did he make it clear we wouldn’t be able to escape by going Outside?”
“Uhh … yeah.” Badger nodded. “Yeah, it’s the only reason we took the job. Ed’s man said neither you or her would be able to slip away, like. I dunno why. Dunno how he knew.”
Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. “He knows.”
“He knows,” I echoed. “That’s bad.”
“What does this have to do with Alexander?” Sarika croaked.
I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. Hopefully nothing. God grant he stay dead.”
Evelyn nodded slowly at my use of a familiar phrase, with unwavering agreement. May all mages lie quiet in their graves. If only we could find his body.
“You seem different,” Sarika croaked at me. She blinked one eye, then the other, lids painfully heavy, then turned back to the game still lit up on her phone screen, swiping left to select between several shirtless men.
My stomach turned. Were my changes really that obvious? On one hand, it felt like a compliment, like an acknowledgement that others could see me for what I really was, even with my pneuma-somatic changes tucked away, my abyssal truth hidden from the world. I’d come to terms with not really being fully human anymore, because I was still a person; those are two different categories, not every person is a human. For a moment I felt warm and right, felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. My reactor organ ached to blossom with power, instinct tugging at me to manifest myself in full, just for the sheer pleasure of it.
On the other hand, that urge worried me. I was still bruised and sore. I swallowed it down, like stifling a purr.
“Different how?” I asked.
Sarika shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t care. Are you doing this thing today?”
“ … thing? I’m sorry?” I blinked at her, my hands wandering idly down to my sides where the bruises from my tentacles lay beneath my clothes. One hand pressed against my abdomen, feeling the residual heat of the reactor in my belly. This was me now, this is what I was, it’s what I wanted. I suspect it’s what I needed long before even my trip to the abyss. That had been a catalyst. The Eye had changed me first.
“The vivisection,” Sarika said. “You gonna cut Nate’s skull open today, or what?”
“This afternoon,” Evelyn answered for me. Her eyes found mine and left me no choice. I turned away, clamping my lips together.
“I’m ready,” said Badger. “Whenever you are, Miss Morell.” He reached across the table, and drew Whistle into his lap. I couldn’t help but notice his hands were shaking as he stroked the Corgi’s fur.
A lump grew in my throat.
“You staying?” Evelyn asked Sarika.
“Should I?” Sarika wheezed.
“It’s up to you,” Evelyn said. “I don’t entirely know what will happen. Regardless of how Heather does it, or how well it goes, I want the fucking thing Badger made a contract with out of my city. If the big greasy fat freak doesn’t leave after Badger’s contract is annulled, then I’m going to break out the big guns, right there on the spot. If you can’t handle that, I suggest you leave.”
“Miss Morell isn’t the big guns?” Badger asked.
Evelyn turned to regard him with glacial slowness and an icy cold stare to freeze the blood. “Look at me. Remember what I am. She is not what you should be afraid of, you vermin.”
Deep in my private heart, I said a silent thank you to Evelyn, with a note to hug her later. Maybe cry into her shoulder a bit too. Thank you, Evee, thank you for taking the heat off me, my big scary mage with her bitter mannerisms and venomous attitude. Maybe she understood or maybe she didn’t. My best friend, my surrogate sister.
“Hooooo, Evee,” Raine said, wincing.
“I don’t give a damn if she saves you from the Eye,” Evelyn carried on. “I don’t give a damn if she feeds you to—” a tut “—‘Orange Juice’. All I care about is that she comes out of this unharmed and a little wiser. And gets your filth out of my city. And if you ever track any back in again, I will have you hunted down and skinned and left in a shallow grave in the woods. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
Badger nodded, throat bobbing.
“Good,” Evelyn snapped.
“If you survive,” I managed to add, trying to play the good cop, the good girl, the merciful and gentle thing that I was not, “then I’m going to make you bury bodies alongside Sarika, the ones you left in the castle. Maybe you and all the other cult remnants, maybe you can do something good. I haven’t thought of what, not yet.”
“I’m staying,” Sarika announced.
“Sarry,” Badger sighed with relief and met her eyes, but she snarled at him, an ugly sound like rubbing wet gravel down the inside of her throat.
“Somebody needs to give you a kick in the head when you wake up,” she wheezed. “Well, what are we waiting for? Get on with it. Unscrew his dome.”