loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.1

Content Warnings

Surgical wounds
Brain damage



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“That’s Rally, yeah,” said Badger. “Like I told Raine earlier. I knew the guy. Well, a bit.”

“You’re sure you recognise him?” Raine asked. “Take your time, look all you want.”

Badger nodded again, at the picture of our mystery corpse on the screen of Raine’s phone as she held it out in front of him, currently zoomed in on the face of the dead man. “Absolutely, no doubt about it. Recognise him anywhere. Even dead like that, all dried out and stuff. He’s got that face like … a … um … ”

Badger trailed off. He squinted hard, then blinked twice, perhaps struggling against another headache. His right hand fluttered up from his lap, as if to rub at his eyes, but a sudden tremor was already claiming the right side of his body once more, a quiver of shuddering muscles and misfiring nerves in hand, arm, and shoulder. He stared at nothing, hand shaking uselessly, locked in a silent contest with his own damaged brain.

Sarika was sitting closest to him, on the end of the sofa next to the large, comfortable armchair which looked like it could easily swallow two of Badger. Whistle was in her lap, ears perked up at the sight of Badger suffering, even if the Corgi couldn’t quite understand why his best friend was in pain. Sarika sighed, rolled her eyes, and reached over to rub Badger’s back in slow circles.

“Stop pushing yourself,” she snapped at him.

Everybody averted their eyes as politely as they could, affording Badger what little dignity we could give, clustered around in the living space of his rather sad and cramped bedsit flat.

Except for me.

I couldn’t stop staring at the man, even when it got weird.

This was the first time I’d seen Badger — real name Nathan Hobbes, as we all knew by now — since the multi-staged brain-math I had performed on him, to break his contract with Ooran Juh, then free him from the grip of the Eye, and then fix his lower brain function so we could restart his failed heart. Easily the most complex and delicate sequence of brain-math I’d ever performed, in service of saving a man who had once been our mortal enemy. The last time I’d seen him he’d been lying on the floor of the magical workshop, bleeding from a head wound and recovering from having his heart jolted back to life. I’d rooted around inside his skull with a tentacle, and re-written a significant portion of the vast hyperdimensional equation that defined him as a person.

So I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at — a man I’d saved, or a man I’d changed?

Nathan did look like hell, there was no avoiding that brutal reality, but it was a totally different kind of hell than before.

His thick curly dark hair was gone, shaved off for the operation on his skull; a few days of stubble had sprouted from his scalp and chin, scraggly and rough; he’d lost quite a bit of weight during his hospital stay. The way he moved seemed wrong, especially his hands and arms, as if the muscles couldn’t contract all the way without great focus and concentration. He blinked out of sync and squinted at everybody and did weird things with his eyes — Raine had explained that his sight was permanently damaged, blurry at the edges. He seemed wounded, weak, drained, like he’d crept right up to death’s threshold, peered inside, and then only backed away at the last moment. I felt a bizarre urge to make sure he was eating properly. I certainly hoped he was taking the vast quantities of pills he was prescribed — antibiotics, opiate painkillers, and anticonvulsants, among other esoteric drugs.

The stubble on his head couldn’t hide the massive surgical wound.

To insert the titanium fixation plate to cover the hole that I had drilled in Badger’s skull, the surgeons at Sharrowford General Hospital had cut open a semi-circular flap of scalp, about the size of my hand, peeled it back, done their mechanical work to bond metal with bone, and then re-secured the flap with a curving arc of surgical staples.

An angry red line across the side of Nathan’s head, not even scar tissue yet. Impossible to ignore, always there, no matter which way he turned.

It almost didn’t look real, like make-up, like he was an extra on the set of some low-budget horror movie. Looking at the wound stirred memories I’d rather not think about — of what felt like to root around inside human brains.

But, when one took a moment to really watch Badger, closely, to pay attention, he seemed almost like a different person.

Despite the dark rings of heavy exhaustion around his big, wet, puppy-dog eyes, Badger’s gaze was free and clear and bright, in a way it hadn’t been before. It reminded me of a before-and-after picture of a recovering alcoholic. He was all there, all present, in the moment. The wound on his left shoulder — the bite-mark where Ooran Juh’s mouth in Badger’s own palm had taken a chunk out of his flesh — had finally healed into a jagged, awful-looking scar, raw and tender, but no longer bleeding, no longer a forever open wound. His hangdog face no longer drooped, loose and tired around the ghost of a forgotten joy, but instead lit up all over whenever he smiled, as if the muscles had been rewired.

And he did smile, an awful lot.

He was like a mountain sage who’d just rejoined civilisation, after some soul-scouring meditation up in the wilds of the Lake District.

He also wasn’t greasy anymore. That had always struck me about Nathan, he was always slightly greasy, unwashed, even when it wasn’t his fault.

Nathan Hobbes, Badger, whatever he wanted to be now, was clean.

“S-s-sorry,” he croaked, still shaking.

Barely was the word squeezed from his lips when Sarika tutted at him. “Stop apologising, you fucking moron.”

Sarika and Badger made quite the pair. If anybody could match him for looking rough, Sarika still came close. A bitter bruise in human form, with bloodshot eyes, a half-slack face, pale and drawn beneath her light brown skin. She still twitched and shook constantly, her nerves shot through by the unkind grip of the Eye. But she’d gotten back a lot of the muscle tone in her legs and arms, she was slightly less unsteady on her crutches than when we’d last seen her, and she’d started taking better care of her hair again, no longer looking so dry and straw-like. Though she hadn’t dyed it to remove the streaks of premature grey. I didn’t question that choice.

Two ex-cultists, both of them saved from the Eye, by me. Both of them trial runs for Maisie. Was this the best I could do? How much damage had I done? Did they deserve this? I couldn’t answer any of those questions, roiling in my gut as I watched Badger struggle. Both of them had done unspeakable things. I didn’t know what they deserved, only that I’d pulled them both from the pit.

“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Raine said, beaming her limitless confidence for the benefit of a man who had once threatened to have her fingers cut off. “It’s alright. You take your time, dude. No pressure.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted from over on her own seat, an old wooden table chair. “No pressure. Right.” She looked about as uncomfortable as I felt, but at least she had Praem standing at her shoulder.

“Indeed,” agreed Jan, in a light, easy tone. “This isn’t an interrogation or a questioning or anything. We’re here as friends. Take it easy.”

Jan, cross-legged on a beanbag chair, had the innocent, clueless, beatific smile of a saintly young woman plastered across her face, to match the black leggings and plaid skirt and smart white blouse she’d turned up in. I didn’t know why she was bothering — everyone in this room knew what she was. Maybe it was her way of trying to be reassuring. I couldn’t tell if she was faking the sweetness-and-light thing to cover for the natural horror at the unfortunate state of Badger, but then again she’d seen him in hospital, more than once.

The effect was somewhat undercut by July looming at the edge of the flat’s little kitchen space, still and sharp like a giant owl, watching everybody with wide, staring eyes.

Sarika shot Jan the hundredth dirty look since the con-woman had walked through the door, but she kept her mouth shut. Jan just smiled back at her, pretending not to understand. In Sarika’s lap, Whistle folded his ears back and whined.

Slowly, painstakingly, Badger’s tremor passed. Sarika was careful to stop rubbing his back as he came around. He blinked several times, like a sleepwalker awakening to find himself in a strange place. Then his eyes landed on me and he smiled the smile of the truly happy.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I blurted out before anybody else could answer. “Sarika is correct, you shouldn’t apologise. Don’t apologise to me.”

Badger blinked several times, but he didn’t stop smiling. “Sure thing, okay. No problem. It’s what you get with a metal plate in your head, I guess.”

“Hard head,” said Praem. “Head, hard.”

Raine chuckled. “Iron noggin, the hardest head in Sharrowford. There you go, that could be your wrestling name.”

Badger laughed too. He mimed knocking his knuckles against his own head, though without actually touching.

He’d been in the middle of suffering an attack of headaches and shaking when we’d arrived at his tiny flat about half an hour earlier. We had found him barely vocal, sitting with the lights off, hunched up in the lumpy armchair, sweating and shaking. He hadn’t been coherent enough to stand up and walk the few feet to his kitchen counter, to take the painkillers which lay right there. He hadn’t even been able to acknowledge us beyond a weird sideways twitch of his head.

Technically, according to the hospital, the sagely advice from the doctors, and the glossy NHS pamphlet — laconically titled ‘Cranioplasty following traumatic brain injury: patient and carer information’ — Badger was perfectly fine to be discharged all by himself. That didn’t take into account the damage done by the self-inflicted brain injury, of course. Or rather, the damage done by the Eye. And by me.

Sarika had stomped about the tiny flat on her crutches, berating Badger about keeping his painkillers closer to hand, elbowing out anybody else’s attempts to help with pills and water. She claimed that responsibility for herself, and she was more than capable of it now. She still shook and twitched, but bloody-minded bitterness had fuelled her practice with her crutches, helped by my long-term brain-math sessions, and undoubtedly motivated in unspoken ways by Badger’s survival. Though none of us pointed that out.

“We were only gone for thirty fucking minutes, Nathan!” she’d snapped, even as she’d counted out his pills and doubled-checked the dosage. “Your own crutch is right there!”

The rest of us had awkwardly milled around, waiting for Jan and July to show up. Praem made tea and coffee, which we’d brought with us. Raine deposited the spoils of a food run into Badger’s fridge. Whistle snuffled about, making certain no other dogs had invaded during his long absence. Lozzie had not come with us, because she didn’t want to see either Badger or Sarika. We had no worries about the police, they weren’t interested in Badger at all anymore. But I stayed curled up tight on myself, tentacles wound inward.

Badger’s flat was a deeply sad place.

It was off Woldbroke Street, one of those low rise terraces that backed onto a row of shops, not a dirty or dingy or dangerous part of Sharrowford, but simply somewhere that had been hollowed out by poverty. The terrace had once been whole houses, each one probably quite spacious inside, but it had since been broken up into cramped individual flats and had concrete stairways installed inside. Badger’s flat itself was only three rooms: a bathroom too small to turn around in without opening the door; a bedroom barely large enough for a double bed; and a combined sitting room and kitchen, the latter of which was tucked behind a little corner of wall. All scratchy carpet and pockmarked lino. There was only one window in the whole place, in the sitting room; outdoors was a dreary grey drizzle right then, summer seemed to have forgotten itself, but I had a feeling the flat would remain dim and dingy even under the full grace of the sun.

It wasn’t anywhere near as dire as the safe house that Jan and July had been living in as camouflage, but this was Badger’s actual home.

The contents were more important than the building, of course. And that’s what hurt me as I wandered around, waiting for the man in question to recover.

I personally knew three ex-cultists by then. Sarika lived with her parents and was making some attempt at rebuilding a life, even if it was mostly making Minecraft videos on youtube. At least she’d found something that she valued and that brought joy to others. Kimberly was doing much better those days, living with us; her bedroom was a dense, miniature version of how she’d decorated her own flat back in Gleaston Tower, all posters of dragons looking noble, wolves howling at the moon, rainbow unicorns and healing crystals and little Buddha statues. I might find it a bit silly, but it was hers, she liked it, and I respected that.

But here, even in his own living space, there was very little of Badger — of Nathan Hobbes, the person.

He had no posters on the walls, no shelves stuffed with books and bric-a-brac, no favourite decorations or plush toys or framed photographs. His furniture was an eclectic mix of mismatched items, probably just things that other people had thrown out; not that there’s anything wrong with scavenging, but it seemed lopsided. He had a lot of spare chairs which looked like they’d come from dining tables — but no table to place them around, except the low one in the middle of the room. That looked like it had suffered water damage at some point. He owned a small television, at least, along with a video game console hooked up below it, though only two games. His laptop lay on the table, a beaten-up old thing. No headphones, no external mouse, nothing else. His kitchen was even worse. One saucepan, two bowls, and just enough cutlery for one person to use before washing it up again.

There was more of Whistle in the flat than Badger. Of the many flaws Nathan might have been accused of, none could deny the man loved his dog. He kept two massive bags of dry dog food under the sink — which Praem promptly found — along with a large supply of tinned wet food and a massive haul of dog treats. Everything was carefully labelled for nutritional value, in Badger’s own hand. Three leashes hung by the door, along with a Corgi-sized mini raincoat, a dog-fleece for cold days, and even a weird little set of tiny boots.

“For hot days,” Raine had explained when I frowned at the little booties. “You know, when tarmac gets hot. Protects his little paws.”

“Oh. Oh, well, that’s very clever.”

Whistle apparently agreed. Our investigation of the dog stuff had brought him over to watch. His dog stuff, I supposed.

“Sorry, Whistle lad,” Raine said to him, crouching down to scratch his head. “Not time for that right now. Later on, hey?”

He’d whined, then snuffled off again, wiggling his little tail.

I hadn’t meant to see any of this, but it was hard not to, with everybody bustling about while we waited for Badger’s initial headache to subside. Praem apparently made enough mugs appear for everybody to drink tea or coffee, which I’m still not quite sure how she managed. But we were the ones who’d brought the tea and coffee with us. Maybe she’d secretly purchased mugs. I wasn’t really paying attention.

I was too busy invading Badger’s privacy.

I hadn’t meant to. Sarika was rubbing his back, Praem was making tea, Raine and Evelyn were rattling on about what to do with Whistle, and I just wandered off, telling myself that I was seeking private solace. Actually, I was consumed with curiosity about Nathan.

There was so little of him here. Who was he, this man I’d saved?

So I stepped into his bedroom, without thinking.

On the squat double bed was one of those long-style pillows, for hugging while one sleeps. But it lacked a cover. I knew from certain conversations with Raine that those sorts of pillows were usually meant to have a cover with an anime girl printed on both sides, of varying levels of risqué illustration, for obvious purposes. Something about the bare pillow struck me as terribly sad; I’d almost have felt better if I’d ended up face-to-face with some improbably busty cartoon girl with her breasts out. At least that would have been something.

A little pile of books lay next to the bed, which drew my attention like a moth to a flame. This was better. Books! Everybody loves books, that’s how I could understand Badger.

They were all about mathematics. No novels, no fiction, nothing like that. At the bottom of the pile were four textbooks, well-thumbed, full of little yellow tags as bookmarks. On top of that lay a history of maths, a book about the number zero, three biographies of famous mathematicians, two books that looked like they were about the junction between maths and philosophy, and a couple of pop-science books to round it all off.

Leaning against the wall was a framed degree certificate.

I hadn’t touched the books, only leaned down so I could read the titles, but something about the diploma called to me. I picked it up with the end of one tentacle.

To my incredible surprise, it was hiding two more framed diplomas behind it, along with a pair of spiral-bound pamphlets. All three frames were cheap plastic, probably picked up from Tesco. They were dusty and didn’t look like they’d been touched in months. I scooped them all up with my tentacles, then stood there in stunned amazement as I read the words on the certificates.

“Sharrowford University, school of mathematics,” I muttered out loud as my eyes flicked from one to the other. “Nathan Hobbes, Bachelor of Mathematics, first class honours. Nathan Hobbes, Master of Mathematics. Nathan Hobbes, Doctorate of Mathematics.”

Nathan Hobbes had a PhD. Badger, greasy, weird Badger, a Doctor of Mathematics.

The spiral-bound pamphlets revealed more. Sure enough, Badger’s real name was on both of them, right there on the front page, protected by a cover of transparent green plastic. His own hard copies of his Masters and Doctoral theses. The Doctoral thesis had two letters tucked inside the cover, though they were both a decade old by now. One was from an academic publication I’d never heard of, a mathematics journal, asking him for further submissions. The second was an offer of a junior teaching post — at Oxford.

For some reason I didn’t fully understand, I took a moment to carefully wipe the dust from the cheap frames, before placing them back where I’d found them. That was another mistake — as I wiped the PhD diploma, I dislodged another slip of paper inside the frame, something hidden behind the diploma itself. A photograph poked out. I had already intruded enough, but I couldn’t help but identify the two figures in the photograph: Badger himself, looking healthy and whole and about ten years younger, alongside a young woman with her arms around his shoulders, absolutely beaming at the camera.

I had a vague memory of her face, as if I’d seen her in a dream. After all, I’d briefly known everything about Badger’s past, back when I’d defined him in hyperdimensional mathematics, in order to break Ooran Juh’s contact over his soul.

But I decided not to attempt to recall that memory. My hands were already shaking, I already felt horribly sick, I’d already intruded far enough on a man who didn’t deserve this, even if he deserved a lot. I pushed the photo back inside the frame and put the fruits of academia back where Badger had placed them, next to his bed, gathering dust.

The dregs of a life.

The Brotherhood of the New Sun, the Sharrowford Cult. They had pressed Kimberly into service raising zombies and doing magic, but they hadn’t cared much about her private life. Alexander Lilburne had warped Sarika’s morals, her ethics, her beliefs about the world, and made her complicit in terrible acts, but she was very much her own person, even now. But Badger? Badger lived alone in a tiny flat, sleeping next to a memory of what he could have been if Alexander Lilburne had never engaged him in philosophical debate.

Eventually, the painkillers had done their trick, aided by at least three other pills from intimidating-looking bottles with terrifying words on the labels. Badger had come around and accepted a cup of tea. Jan and July had shown up at last. And we’d shown Badger the picture again.

“Don’t apologise to me,” I repeated.

Badger nodded, still smiling for me.

“So,” Raine jumped back in before things could get even more awkward. She pointed at her mobile phone again, with the picture of the dead man on the screen. “Rally? That’s his name? Is that like, Raleigh?” She spelled the name quickly.

Badger seemed reluctant to look away from me, like he had something important to say, but then he swallowed and answered Raine. “Nah. Rally. Arr-ay-ell-ell-why.” He shrugged. “Dunno if it was a real name or a nickname, or something else even, but that was definitely what he called himself. A lot of the guys from that period of the cult went around with fake names.”

“How can you tell that’s him?” Evelyn grunted, leaning heavily on her walking stick as she hunched in her own chair. “That corpse is practically mummified. His own parents probably couldn’t identify him.”

Badger smiled again, that easy smile of the free and happy. “Seriously, it looks like him. It’s the hair. And the jawbone. And around the eyes, like? Yeah. He always had a face like a horse. It’s Rally. For sure.”

Jan let out a little laugh. “Very rich, coming from a man with the nickname ‘Badger’.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “Sarika, you knew this man as well?”

Sarika stared at the zoomed-in image on the mobile phone. Raine held it up for her, but she shook her head with twitching distaste. “Yes, fine. I knew Rally, briefly,” she said in her scratchy, croaky, half-broken voice. “But that’s just a corpse. I can’t identify it as anybody.”

“You think Badger is incorrect?” Raine asked.

“Huh!” Sarika snorted derision and turned her eyes away. “No, I’m sure Nathan is right. Bloody freak, staring at corpses. Don’t know how you can see anything there.”

“Huuuruf,” went Whistle, down in her lap, as if telling her off for being grumpy.

Badger laughed softly at that, as if the old blade of Sarika’s tongue was gone dull with affection.

“Sooooo,” Jan said, drawing the word out. “This unfortunate gentleman was indeed a member of the Brotherhood? You’re certain about that part?”

Badger nodded. “Yeah, def’. Um, but, uh … um … ”

He trailed off for a moment again, blinking hard but without any tremors, as if he had something in his eyes. Sarika huffed a long-suffering sigh and bapped him on the arm with one hand. “Nate, put your fucking glasses on.”

“I don’t need—”

“You can’t see, you obstinate prick. Put your glasses on.”

Badger cleared his throat with embarrassment, then accepted his glasses from the table, passed to him by Raine. He awkwardly settled them onto his face. I didn’t blame him for disliking them, they were large and cumbersome, some kind of medical frames, probably whatever the hospital had in stock for these rare circumstances. He squinted and blinked through the thick lenses.

The glasses made it worse; he barely looked like the man we’d known before.

“They don’t help,” he complained, though he was still smiling. “They just magnify. They’re not gonna fix my eyes.” He waved his hands at either side of his own head, as if trying to brush away cobwebs.

Sarika hissed through her teeth. “Wear. Them.”

“Better listen to your lady there,” Raine said with a smirk.

Sarika snapped around at her like an angry crocodile. “I am not his fu— fu—” She twitched and stammered in frustration.

I didn’t have the patience for this farce. “Nathan,” I said, loud and clear, cutting across the nonsense. Badger blinked at me, like a huge-eyed bird on the other side of his thick magnifying glasses. I suddenly worried that July might decide to eat him. “Nathan, did the doctors tell you to wear those?”

“Yes. Yes, they did. At least, when my vision goes blurry. Which is, you know, most of the time.” He laughed, then sighed. “They said it might stop my eyes trying to adjust when they can’t actually do anything.”

“Is your vision blurry right now?”

“Yeah.”

“Then wear them.”

I didn’t say please. I didn’t say ‘you should wear them’. I just told him what to do. And he did it.

Jan cleared her throat again, pulling an even more strained smile than before. She sat up straighter in the absurd beanbag chair, hands folded in her lap, fake-demure. “Rally. Let’s talk about this fellow. Please?”

“Right, yeah,” Badger said, visibly pulling himself together and sitting up. “Rally was in the cult, that’s right.”

“Was he one of the survivors?” Raine asked. “One of the ones who left, before you lot did that ritual to talk to … you know?” She gestured upward with a single finger, omitting the name of the Eye, out of respect for Sarika’s pain.

“Oh! No, no, not at all!” Badger, strangely, broke out in a big smile again, genuinely happy, though after a beat he seemed to realise it was a little bit odd, and dialled it down. “Uh, I mean, no. Thing is, Rally got out years ago.”

“Mm,” Sarika added a grunt. “That’s what Alex thought, too.”

“Explain,” Evelyn said.

Badger went on. “Rally was one of the guys from the old days, or like, what counted as the old days, for us.” He gestured between himself and Sarika. “Before we joined. I only knew him a tiny bit. He was really, really smart, ambitious, driven, serious kinda guy. One of the few guys Alex was grooming as an actual wizard. Well, maybe. That was what everyone thought. Maybe that or he wanted to fatten them all up like pigs for slaughter. Who knows, hey?”

There was that smile again, unstoppable relief even when talking about terrible subjects.

Sarika stared at nothing, at the junction between wall and floor. “Ambition was a problem. Always a bloody problem.”

“Yeeeeeah,” said Badger, nodding along with that. “He was super ambitious. Rumour was that’s why Alexander handed his training off to Edward, to get him forced out of the cult.”

“So he was one of Edward’s men?” Evelyn asked. “That’s what you mean? Get to the point here.”

Badger shrugged. “I dunno, sorry. He vanished. Left the cult. At least that’s what everybody said at the time.”

“Alex thought so too,” Sarika added, croaking through the words. The broken gravel of her voice couldn’t hide the hollow pain. “Unless he was lying to me about that as well.”

Badger looked toward his old friend with warm concern in his eyes. For a moment I thought we were going to see another replay of his incredibly awkward attitude toward Sarika, the painful, fractured dedication he’d shown when she’d visited our house, to see him one last time before he went under the dubious knife of my tentacles. I don’t know what he felt for her, if anything other than protective friendship and the shame of failing to keep her away from Alexander Lilburne. For one horrible second I thought he was going to lift his hand and reach out to her. I prepared to avert my eyes along with everybody else.

But he didn’t lift his hands. He just said, “Alex lied to all of us, about a lot of things. It’s alright, Sarry. None of that was your fault.”

Sarika went from a morose sulk to frowning a bouquet of knives in an instant. She snorted a single, derisive huff. “Nate, shut the fuck up.”

Evelyn murmured an agreement. “Mmhmm, I’m not quite sure about the ‘none of your fault’ part, either.”

“We were all at fault,” Sarika spat at Badger. “Don’t you fucking lie to yourself. Fuck this lot.” She gestured at us. “But don’t lie to me.”

“Oh, cheers,” said Jan.

But Badger just smiled, untouched by rejection or admonishment. His smile back at Sarika wasn’t a wide-mouthed grin or a showy smirk, but there was something undeniably pure about it. She must have thought so too, because she folded her arms over her chest and looked away with a huff.

“Well well well,” said Raine, finally flicking the photo of the dead man off her phone screen and tucking the phone back in her pocket. “That does kinda scupper our theory. I assumed that guy, Rally, was from the survivors. Working with Edward, you know? Back to square one. Oh well.”

Over toward the back of the room, beneath the dreary sky of thick clouds visible through the single window, Jan clambered to her feet with a little ‘hup!’ She smoothed down the back of her skirt, smiling ironically. “Indeed. Told you so. I’d never seen him before, either. None of the others mentioned him.”

Evelyn tutted. “Who says you’ve found all of them?”

“She has found all of them,” Badger said. “Everyone else who made it out of that house. Ten left, other than me.”

Jan did a little head-bob-curtsey-bow toward Badger. He beamed back at her. Evelyn rolled her eyes. Sarika looked like she wanted to kick Jan in the stomach.

“Well then!” Jan said with a tone of finality. “I don’t know why I’m still here. That corpse you found has absolutely nothing to do with me. Nada, zilch, zip. Nothing! I’ll be off then. Come on, July, we’re going to get something nice for dinner.”

July stared back at Jan. The demon of rope-like muscles and wide eyes just stood there, still as a statue.

I cleared my throat. “Now Badger is out of the hospital,” I said, “we can finally contact those ten survivors. Jan, that’s your job here. Today or tomorrow. Preferably today.”

Jan sighed and sagged with all the theatrical sulk of the teenager she often appeared to be. “Can you maybe not involve me until you’ve gotten rid of that corpse? Please? Give me this one little job stipulation. No extra corpses.”

Raine chuckled. “Afraid you’re gonna get pulled in by the police for questioning?”

“Yes!” Jan huffed. “Obviously. Corpses attract attention! I can’t believe you people just have a picture of that on your phones.”

Sarika snorted. “Coward.”

Jan gave her a rather sharp look, totally at odds with her prior performance. “Cowardice is survival. If you last as long as me, then you can lecture me about courage.”

Sarika frowned in confusion, derision stalled only by one of her usual tics of flinching and shuddering. Jan, after all, did look much younger than Sarika.

Badger spoke up instead. “Where did you find him? Rally, I mean.”

He was talking past everybody else, straight to me. Probably because I’d been staring at him, watching his every move, trying to read his mannerisms and his gestures, the turn of his head and the set of his muscles, looking for something I might recognise, something too familiar. To my surprise, I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest that he’d caught me staring.

“Outside,” I said. “Which is where the corpse will stay. Unless you know about his parents, his family? Anything?”

Badger pulled an apologetic expression and shook his head. “Sorry. Poor bloke.”

Jan spread her hands in an exasperated shrug. “He’s Outside? Why didn’t you tell me that at first? That makes it just fine, then. What a place to hide a body, my goodness.”

“Didn’t Lozzie tell you that?” Raine asked.

“Well, sort of, yes. But, Lozzie.”

“Lozzie, indeed,” I sighed. Badger beamed back at me.

“Guess we’re back to square one, hey?” said Raine. She shot me a look.

“Almost,” I sighed, gathering myself. “One last thing.”

I pulled the pair of soapstone coins out of my hoodie and clacked them down on the low table.

The greenish, alien rock caught the dull light of the rainy day outside, as if both amplifying it and drinking it up. As I slid the coins toward Badger and Sarika I did my best to watch their faces. Sarika just frowned. Badger leaned forward.

“Do these mean anything to either of you?” I asked. “Anything at all?”

Badger took the question seriously, studying the coins with care, but then he shook his head. “Never seen them before. Wish I had. Is this something connected with Edward? I could ask the others, if you want, I could ask around, once we’ve reconnected.” He wet his lips and nodded at me with mounting eagerness. “Maybe somebody saw one of these, with Edward or Alexander. What do they do? Are they—”

“I’ve seen one of those before,” Sarika rasped.

We all looked up at her. She was frowning down at the coins, morose and long-faced again. Her head twitched, like a hypnic jerk, followed by a hard, tired blink.

“Where?” I asked.

“Edward,” she said without looking up. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “Years and years ago now. Bastard.”

“Sarry?” Badger said her name. Sarika blinked hard and looked up. One hand moved awkwardly toward Badger, but then she seemed to catch herself and frown at her own traitorous fingers.

“Back before the split really settled in,” she hurried on in her ruined, raspy voice. “The split inside the cult, I mean, with Edward on one side and Alex on the other. It was … mmm … twenty ten, I think? Twenty eleven? The last time Lauren tried to run away from home.”

“Lozzie,” I corrected, firmly but gently.

Sarika waved me off in frowning irritation. “Lozzie. Lozzie, alright. The split was over her, over what to do about her. None of us, none of the cult were actually privy to the details, but a bunch of us did witness Alex and Edward having a huge argument.”

“Who?” Badger asked, blinking with curiosity. “When was this? Where?”

Sarika shot him a grumpy frown. “You never saw it, you weren’t there. It was at Alex’s house.”

“Continue, please,” Evelyn said, with a tone that meant please pay attention and stop arguing.

Sarika sighed and grimaced, closing her eyes for a moment, struggling with a mote of her own private pain, whether physical or emotional. “Edward was angry. Quiet angry. That’s sort of what he was like. I didn’t really know the man, I’d only seen him a few times, despite how close I was with Alex. They argued about a lot of philosophical points, I don’t remember most of it. But I do remember one of those coins.” Sarika nodded at the stone coins on the little table. “Edward pulled it out of his pocket and said something like … ‘how can you ignore the potential of this?’”

“Exact words?” Evelyn asked.

Sarika gave her a withering look. Evelyn was immune, however. “No, of course not, it was ten years ago. Fucking joke.”

“Ha ha,” said Praem. Sarika glowered at her, but that was like frowning at a brick wall.

“Point taken,” said Evelyn.

Jan put both hands up, as if she was interrupting a loud argument. She’d gone suddenly quite pale in the face. “Um, excuse me. Heather, Evelyn, what are those coins? I was not told about any magical coins or other such things we were bringing to this little meeting. This was to be a magic free zone. Demilitarized.”

Raine snorted. “As if you’re not carrying heat.”

“Self-protection is different!” Jan said.

“I am right here,” said July.

Evelyn sighed. “The coins aren’t magical.”

“They’re from Outside,” I corrected.

Jan started at me like I’d admitted to keeping a live velociraptor as a pet. Her smile was very fixed and waxen.

“They’re inert.” Evelyn tutted. “I’ve tested them. They’re stone. That’s all. Calm down.”

Jan’s smile went sour. She screwed her eyes up and pinched the bridge of her nose, then muttered to herself in that specific way that was meant to be overheard by everybody within earshot. “Great, now they’re getting into Macguffins. Wonderful, yes. Perfect. This is not dispelling my fears that you lot are in fact a bunch of jay-arr-pee-gee protagonists.”

Raine started laughing.

What protagonists?” I asked. “Excuse me?”

“I cast magic missile,” said Praem.

“Not in here, you don’t,” Sarika croaked, frowning darkly. I couldn’t tell if she was in on the joke or not. Badger was laughing and smiling at everyone like he was on uppers.

“Wrong type of game,” Raine snorted.

Evelyn cracked her voice like a whip. “If we could return to the topic at hand, thank you. Sarika, the coin. You saw it once, that was it?”

Sarika nodded. “S’all I got.”

“Maybe we can ask Eddy,” Raine said, still smirking. “Maybe it’s like a token from an Outsider arcade. Trade in ten of them for a fancy mug.”

The joke fell a bit flat. The laughter was already trailing off. I muttered a thank you to Sarika for the information, then scooped up the coins and slid them back into my pocket. They sat heavy as a pair of petrified hearts.

“Alright, okay, for serious,” Raine was saying. “What if this Rally guy stole the coin off Edward, and that’s why he ended up dead?”

Jan sighed. “One would assume that Edward would have then recovered the coin, no?”

Raine clicked her fingers and shot Jan a finger gun, topped by a beaming grin. “Smart lady, right on the money. Why indeed? That’s the question.”

For just a split-second, Jan was rendered speechless in the spotlight of Raine’s molten confidence, mouth hanging open, cheeks starting to colour with blush. I almost rolled my eyes; I hadn’t forgotten Raine’s confession that she found Jan extremely attractive. Of course I trusted her completely, she’d never do anything there without my permission, but I suppose she couldn’t resist a tiny bit of flirting when the opportunity presented itself. It took me a moment to realise that I had wrapped a tentacle around Raine’s leg, as if to restrain her; Raine’s grin slid to me and I earned a wink as well, then blushed in shame and embarrassment.

But then Jan put her walls back up. She huffed and set her jaw and folded her arms, the very picture of the stuffy student. “Actually no,” she said. “Why am I even suggesting anything? You should be paying me a consultation fee. I agreed to facilitate a meeting with the surviving cultists, via Nathan here, not to consult on some magic coin Macguffin from the dimensions beyond time and space. Nope, not doing it. In fact, I’m going into the kitchen for more tea.”

And she did. Jan ducked under July’s arm and started rattling about in the little kitchen space of the bedsit flat, muttering about ‘dying for a packet of crisps.’

Raine chuckled and bit her lower lip. Evelyn rolled her eyes again. Badger just smiled at the whole thing. Sarika did not look impressed, but she seemed a tiny bit more relaxed now that Jan was out of her line of sight. I had no idea why she hated the little mage so much.

“All right then,” said Evelyn with a note of finality in her voice. She levered herself up and out of her own chair, half her weight on her walking stick. Praem helped her with a gentle hand on Evee’s hip. “If that’s all we’ve got, then that’s all we’ve got. It’s high time for the second reason we came here.”

Badger gulped hard, his smile finally waning. I could see the flutter in his hands, the tension in his face. He knew we needed to do this, but his nerves were getting the better of him. I couldn’t blame him, considering what had happened last time.

“It’s going to be perfectly safe,” Evelyn huffed. “All you have to do is stand there. Or sit there. Hell, if you scoot that chair out from the wall a bit, you might not even have to move.”

Badger’s eyes, of course, flickered back down to me, and stayed there.

A moment of odd, unspoken understanding passed between us. Somehow he saw the answer in my eyes before I even spoke. He started nodding before I said anything.

That spooked me, badly. A jolt of private terror shot through my bowels. I hurried to say the words out loud, just in case.

“Evee is telling the truth,” I said. “It’s perfectly safe. We need to get you a clean bill of health, Nathan. That’s all. She’s done this to me before, as well. It’s not like doing anything. You just stand there.”

“Okay. Okay, well, I’m ready then,” said Badger. “Thank you, Heather. Thank you, really.”

Badger said it like he was marching to his death all over again, but Evelyn wasn’t exaggerating; the process was harmless, painless, and more boring than dramatic. Raine and July helped move the table and chairs out of the way, and then Praem unrolled the piece of canvas we’d brought with us, which contained a portable magic circle, pre-drawn back at home. Badger did actually find the strength and coherence to stand up, waiting there in the circle for the twenty minutes or so that it took Evelyn to examine him.

The doctors, nurses, and surgeons at Sharrowford General Hospital had done their best to fix Badger’s body, but until Evelyn got him under the metaphorical microscope of her expertise, we couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that my procedures had worked. So Badger stood in the middle of a magic circle, sweating slowly and looking very nervous indeed, balancing on one NHS-issue metal crutch, while Evelyn peered at him with the modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses. She made small adjustments to the magic circle via instructions to Praem, who stood ready with a water-soluble marker pen. After every adjustment, she would circle Badger again, thump-thumping with her walking stick, waiting for a reaction that never came.

The rest of us did our best to spare Badger any further embarrassment — except for Sarika, who sat hunched up and glowering on the sofa like an abandoned gargoyle, with Whistle sitting comfortably in her lap.

Raine and Jan and July retired to the kitchen area, behind its little corner of wall, for all the illusion it gave of a separate space. I tried to follow, but I kept shooting sidelong glances at Badger, watching the way he moved his neck muscles, the blink of his eyes, the sway and tilt of his musculature. I kept staring at the red, angry surgical wound on his scalp.

How much had I changed him? When I’d rebuilt his lower brain function, I’d used part of myself, abyssal nature and all.

“Biscuit?”

“Ah?” I blinked away from poor Nathan in the circle, and found Raine offering me a Jammy Dodger from one of the packets we’d brought with us. “Oh, um. Yes, thank you.” I accepted the biscuit and chewed slowly, watching Badger out of the corner of my eye, around the corner of slender wall that half-enclosed the kitchen space.

“Heather, dear,” said Jan, giving me a little grimace. “Do you really want me to set up this meeting with the other survivors today? Nathan isn’t really … well … you know.”

“Entirely compos mentis?” Raine offered with an almost sad smile.

“He does seem a little loopy.” Jan pulled an even worse smile-grimace. “It does rather hinge on him proving that you never hurt him. That you helped him, even!” Jan went up on tiptoes and made a show of peering into the sitting room area, at Badger and Evelyn. She lowered her voice and added, from the corner of her mouth, “I don’t think I can properly emphasize how utterly terrified and strung-out those people are. All ten of them. Well, some seem to be faring better than others, but if I wasn’t a magician, I would assume serious drug addiction, or some kind of paranoid condition. Sharrowford’s local meth cooks, sampling their own wares too much.”

“Jan,” I tutted.

“I’m serious!” she hissed, making another show of looking to see if we’d been overheard. “They’re terrified of you. The only reason I got close to them in the first place was by lying. They want to meet Badger, under very controlled circumstances. Not with you present, at least not at first. Do you really want to go ahead and pull the trigger on this? I thought you lot had plenty on your plate right now as it is.”

Raine clucked her tongue. “We are waiting for that phone call from Fliss, that’s true.”

“Who’s Fliss?” Jan asked, but then she shook her head suddenly and held up a hand. “Actually, no, don’t tell me. I don’t wish to know. Forget I asked.”

“Another mage,” said July, looming behind her.

“I don’t want to know, Jule. Please, stop.”

Raine’s hand found my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Hey, Heather?”

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“I know you are. Let me take some of the load, yeah? Jan has a point, we could be really busy again, soon. On the other hand, if we deal with the cult, that’s one less way for Eddy-boy to screw with us.”

For once, Raine’s words slid off my mind like water off a duck’s back.

“None of that matters,” I murmured.

“Heather?”

All I could think of was Sevens, out in Camelot, forcing me to recognise that I always had a choice. Practical concerns were all well and good, but I had power, and another choice to make.

“I have a responsibility to those people,” I said quietly. “I didn’t cause what’s happened to them, but I have a responsibility all the same. I’m the only one who might be able to give them relief from the Eye. Jan, please, if you really, genuinely believe that we should wait a few days for Badger to feel more coherent, because it would give us a better shot at being trusted, then please do that. But don’t stall more than necessary.”

Jan blew out a long breath. “Alright. You’re paying the bill, after all. Well, if you were paying for this.” She tutted.

To my surprise, July tilted her head up and caught my eye. The demon-host shifted her footing like a bird of prey, swaying in the tiny kitchen. Almost enough to make me flinch. “Once you catch them, what will you do with them?”

Jan winced. “I was trying not to think about that part.”

I almost said Me neither, which would have been a small disaster. Instead I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut. “I don’t quite know yet. I can’t trepan them all, I can’t send them all to hospital one after the other. But I can show them that it’s possible. Maybe give them solace. Hope? At least I’ll be able to talk to them.”

“Make them see that they’re better off betting on us than Eddy,” Raine said. “‘Cos you saved Badger, but Edward couldn’t.”

I nodded, but felt a lump growing in my throat. That’s what everything hinged on — I could wrest human beings from the Eye’s grasp. In theory.

In practice, the process had almost killed Badger, and maybe changed him forever.

“Frankly,” I said, talking to the floor, “we need to stop being so reactive. We need to act, take control. We need those people on our side. Right now. ASAP. We need to close that avenue before Edward uses it. We need to stop reacting and start … well. Acting? Oh, that sounds so stupid.”

Raine was staring at me in surprise, smiling in a way that made me want to melt. “Not stupid at all, Heather.”

“Oh great,” Jan muttered. “Proactive doom.”

“He’s clean,” Evelyn announced from the sitting area.

We all stepped back around the corner of the kitchen, rejoining the others. Badger was beaming with relief, shaking a little on the crutch wedged under his armpit. Praem was rolling up the piece of canvas, tidying the circle away. Whistle was panting in Sarika’s lap.

“Eyyyyyy!” went Raine. “Congrats. How’s it feel, man?”

“Good,” said Badger. “To know that it’s … it’s all over.”

I winced inside. If my suspicions were right, it would never be over for Nathan.

Evelyn cleared her throat and tapped the floor with her walking stick. “No party yet, please. Yes, he’s free of any influence that I can detect. There’s nothing left of Ooran Juh’s contamination. I can’t test for the Eye, of cou—”

“Unnghh!”

Over on the sofa, Sarika visibly flinched, curling up on herself and letting out a painful, guttural noise of physical rejection. For one horrible moment she was a little girl in the middle of a nightmare, about to scream, trying to stop herself.

“Sorry!” Evelyn blurted out. “Sorry, fuck, sorry.”

Jan winced and looked away. Raine pulled a sad, sympathetic smile. Praem touched her mother’s elbow. Whistle stood up from Sarika’s lap and licked one of her hands, trying his best to help.

But Badger swung around on his crutch and hobbled the two paces to Sarika.

“Sarry? Sarry, it’s gone. It can’t hurt us anymore. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone.” Badger’s voice got softer and softer as he repeated those words. He didn’t touch her, but his tone somehow reached through the veil of pain. Slowly, Sarika came back out of the shaking, panting terror — and shot a deeply bitter and embarrassed scowl up at Badger.

“I know it’s fucking well gone.” She spat. “That doesn’t help.” She huffed and looked away.

“It’s really gone?” I asked.

Badger turned on his crutch and looked at me. In all my life until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed the specific species of smile that graced his face. It was pure. No agenda, nothing held back, but also held no desire to communicate anything.

“It’s gone,” he said. “Yes.”

He smiled so deeply that his eyes filled with tears.

“That … ” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Well, it’s good to know that it all worked.”

Badger nodded to me, trying to blink away the tears. He hobbled halfway across the room, but didn’t come close enough to threaten my personal space. My tentacles edged outward all the same, like he was some kind of threat recognised deep down in my instinctive memory.

“It’s not in my head anymore,” he said. “It hasn’t been, not since you did what you did. Heather, Miss Morell, whatever I … I did … I did … I did immoral things, I know. I hurt people. I was a … a bad person? I’m sorry, I don’t have the words.”

“Thank you,” prompted Praem.

“Yes!” Badger lit up with another elated, laughing smile. “Thank you. Yes. I can’t thank you with words. I can’t. I’m— I’m— I’m free. Free! I can’t tell you what it feels like, to be under the gaze of that … that. In your head, always there, always burning away at you. And then it’s gone. It’s gone.” He trailed off and blinked hard several times, trying not to cry.

“You’re welcome,” I said, feeling robotic and cold. This wasn’t the talk we needed to have.

“I spent a long time thinking about you,” he went on. When he smiled, the muscles in his face tugged at the wound on his scalp, ever so slightly. “I mean, about everything you did, while I was in the hospital. There— there— was so much, so much. A-and I know you can’t do this for everybody. I don’t have the right to ask for that, but it— thank you— I can’t— can’t—”

Badger shook his head, almost dislodging the glasses from his face. His free hand fluttered up to his head as another tremor took his neck and shoulders in a fit of quivering, gripping his muscles and nerves with the fruit of my work upon his brain stem.

“I’m alriiiight,” he slurred. “Alright. Fine.”

“You’re clearly not alright, you moron!” Sarika snapped. “Sit down!”

We all agreed that Badger needed a sit down. Praem and Raine helped. Once he was settled in his chair again, recovering from the mercifully short episode, Evelyn bumped her arm against mine.

“Heather, it’s high time we leave,” she said softly. “We’re done here, let’s get moving. You agree? I don’t think there’s any more we’ll get out of him.”

I wet my lips, staring at Badger. I couldn’t hide anything from Evee.

“Heather?” She sighed. “We’re not going to abandon him. I know how you feel, even if I might not share the same sentiments. Raine can come check up on him. He’s got Sarika for now. We’re not going to just leave him to his own devices. But we’re going to field a very awkward phone call this afternoon, and I would like time to … to prepare myself.”

I slipped my hand into Evee’s and squeezed. Felicity again, of course. She needed time, and my support. “It’s not that,” I muttered back — then raised my voice, pulling together all my courage. “Excuse me, everybody? Would you all mind if I could speak to Badger alone for a few minutes?”

Everybody looked at me in surprise, except for July, who always looked surprised in the way an owl can look surprised at the sight of fresh, living meat. Sarika frowned at me. Raine nodded without question. Jan looked curious but not curious enough to ask more. Evelyn harrumphed.

Badger just nodded, still holding his own head. “Any time,” he said.

I hurried to clarify. “I mean, um, Sarika, you’re more than welcome to stay.”

“Bloody right I am,” she rasped.

“And Raine, too. Raine can stay.” Raine understood this, she’d understood it with me. Plus, even now, even here, I needed my bodyguard close. “And leave Whistle here, of course. For now, at least. No need to make him get up.” He did look very comfy, settled once more in Sarika’s lap.

Jan and July were all too happy to go wait down by Raine’s car. Evelyn was a bit more suspicious, giving me quite a look, but I disarmed that with a hug and Raine’s car keys in Praem’s hand.

“We won’t be long,” I said.

“See you’re not. And fill me in later, yes?” She sounded none too impressed, but Evelyn trusted my judgement. I wasn’t certain her trust was well-placed.

“Sit in the car, please,” I said. “Don’t stand outdoors in the drizzle.”

“Huh. As if I would.”

Once the others were gone, I sat back down in the hard wooden chair that Evelyn had vacated. The seat was still warm from her body heat. Raine settled in next to me. She didn’t ask what this was about, she didn’t ask a single question, she just trusted that I knew what I was doing. But I could feel that she was ready for anything, ready to spring into action.

I slid a tentacle across her shoulders, invisible contact. She managed not to flinch, then laughed.

“It’s okay, Raine,” I said. “I’m not expecting this to go bad or anything. It’s just a delicate question.”

Sarika was scowling at me too, as if expecting trickery. Despite everything I’d done to her, or for her, she still looked at me like something she’d found on the bottom of her shoe. I don’t think it was her fault, just her default expression now. In her lap, Whistle’s ears were standing on end. He could feel the tension.

“What is this?” Sarika hissed.

“Well, I need to ask Nathan a question. A personal one.”

Badger blinked at me, coming out of his brief headache and sitting up straighter in his chair. “I want to help. Heather. Can I call you that, or should it be Morell? I want to help you, to help somehow, to … ”

He trailed off at the look in my eyes, the intense concentration — or, what looked like intense concentration. I was actually watching his eyes as I waved my tentacles back and forth, to check if he could see them, even as just a ghostly outline on the edge of his perception. But he couldn’t, he didn’t even react when I whipped one toward his face and back again.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

I sighed. “You can help me by answering a question. We have several things we should probably talk about, but I want to ask you one important thing. I’m just not sure how.”

“Go ahead,” he said, beaming. “I’m an open book.”

Sarika tutted and rolled her eyes. “Stop fawning over her, Nate, she’s not an angel.”

“She may as well be,” Nathan said, staring right at me. “She’s the best we’ve got.”

My stomach curdled, but I pushed on; if I tried to address that statement right now, I would lose all my carefully guarded courage. “Badger. Earlier, when you were worried about Evelyn checking you for magical contamination, you looked at me to reassure you. And that’s fine, that’s all right, but you read my answer in my eyes before I even spoke. How did you do that?”

“Ah,” went Raine.

Badger smiled wider, as if confused, laughing awkwardly. “Uhhh, did I do that? It just seemed obvious. Your answer was obvious, I mean. It was on your face. Right there.”

Sarika was frowning at Badger, then frowning at me. Had she picked up on it too, the silent conversation between something on a more instinctive level than human words? Badger had picked up on my response, by instinct.

I tried a different angle. “How does your body feel, Badger?”

“Um, rough?” He laughed again. “Pretty rough, yeah.”

“No, I mean how do you feel about your body? When you woke up in the hospital, did it feel different?”

“Without the … ” He pointed upwards, out of respect for Sarika’s problem with the name of the Eye. “Yeah, of course it does! I feel better than I have in ages. Better than in years, even! Long before all that! Maybe that’s psychological though, you know? What with … like … everything.”

“Badger,” I tried again. “When I fixed you, after the … well, after the difficult parts, when I had to drill a hole in your head, I had to fix you with whatever I had to hand. You understand? I had to correct parts of your mind, your brain, with whatever made sense. I’m worried you might not feel … right.”

Badger shrugged, still smiling. He blinked at me through those huge, comedic glasses. “Other than hole in my head and the brain damage, there’s nothing wrong with me. You did good. Seriously. Thank you, again, I can’t say that enough times. I want to help. To help you. Whatever I can do, please.”

I chewed on my tongue, caught in a trap of my own making. Nathan was suffering, but his suffering appeared mundane.

I had replaced parts of him with parts of me; I’d had no choice, I’d had to fix his lower brain functions, or he would have died. And some of those parts had been abyssal, pieces of me brought back from the infinite dark.

If I had given him a craving for the abyss, but without the frame of reference to understand that craving — let alone the hyperdimensional mathematics to ever approach the kind of bodily changes I had wrought for myself — then I couldn’t even imagine how wrong he might feel. And he wouldn’t even know.

Maybe he felt it, maybe he didn’t; maybe he did, but was unaware.

We had bigger problems than one ex-cultist with brain damage, no matter what personal responsibility I felt here. We had to stop reacting, we had to corner Edward Lilburne — soon, very soon. Felicity’s knowledge might be the key to that. Badger, the surviving cultists, all of them, they were a side-show, no matter that I wanted to save them all.

Did I have any right to say it out loud, to make him aware? Did I have a right to leave it unsaid?

What would a merciful angel do? An angel with tentacles at her flanks and a bioreactor in her belly, an angel from the deep, selfish and flawed.

An angel was not a god, after all.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Some cultists die horribly, eaten by monsters or spirited away to places beyond human comprehension. But what happens to the ones who survive? This, I suppose. Decay or redemption, but all so very mundane and sometimes quite sad. Maybe Badger’s got more hope than most, though. He already committed himself to righting the wrongs of what he’d done. And maybe this angel can help him find new purpose.

No Patreon link this week. I have news instead!

One, there is now a Katalepsis discussion podcast, created by a couple of long-time fans of the story, analyzing and talking about the story chapter by chapter. I am amazed by this, just utterly stunned and flattered and delighted. Here’s a link to the first episode!

Secondly, preorders for the first Katalepsis ebook and audiobook are now live, on Amazon and Audible! Here’s a link to the patreon post I made about it, which contains more details and links to all the product pages and stuff! I’m super nervous about this because I’ve never done it before! Really looking forward to the release on October 4th. I’ve finally heard some of the audiobook and it’s blown me away.

In the meantime, if you want to support the story in other ways, you can:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, is angel-Heather going to bestow her blessings on Badger? What would that even mean? And now they know the corpse belonged to somebody In The Know, what’s the next step in tracking down Edward’s bolt-hole and stealing all his books?

18 thoughts on “loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.1

  1. Is there the possibility that in the future Heather may be able to completely fix Sarika and Badger?

    Thank you for the chapter.

    • It’s not impossible, but Heather would have to be considerably more powerful than she is right now, with a very detailed and delicate understanding of human biology, especially neuro-biology. Even a small mistake could be fatal for the subject. So … in theory, yes, but in practice probably not.

      You’re very welcome! Glad you liked it, thank you for reading. Your weekly comments are such a constant, thank you.

  2. So…Badger is a mathematician…Hmm. And there might be a bit of Heather in his head now….Hmm.
    Listening to the podcast right now! Thank you Sarah and Thomas, this is awesome 🙂

    • Badger already knew a lot of maths, then he spent some time with the Eye, then Heather copied parts of herself onto him. Hmm indeed. Maybe Heather needs to keep an eye on if he starts writing maths papers again or something …

      The podcast is incredible, yes! I’m still stunned by it.

  3. I know most times this ends bad, but maybe if it end good Nathan can become apprentice to Heather. Maybe that book can help him, the hyperdimensional math book. Also, it is nice I can hear other people talk about Katalepsis now, I am not only talking to myself!

    • I think Nathan has a chance at real redemption and healing. His heart certainly seems to be in the right place. As for his head, with all that maths, we’ll see. If he’s picked up something from Heather then the responsible thing for her to do would be to help him, so maybe he could be her apprentice!

      And yeah, the podcast is amazing!!! I listened to it myself when they first posted it, I can’t get over how cool it is to hear people discussing my story, I’m super flattered.

  4. Heather worrying about giving badger abyssal dysphoria by heatherizing him when she should be worrying about giving him gender dysphoria by heatherizing him..

  5. “of what felt like”
    Possibly: what IT felt like

    “no longer a forever open wound”
    Consider “forever-open”, as both words make up the adjective

    “Kimberly was doing much better those days, living with us”
    those -> these
    Assuming she still is, her role in the story seems to have come to an end

    • Oh, thank you for spotting those ones! Much appreciated, indeed!

      Kimberly is still living with the main cast, yes. I actually kept that intentionally as “those days”, since her personal story is not over yet, indeed, and Heather is sort of telling the story in retrospect. Not sure if I should change it, but probably!

  6. Been reading for a long time. This whole chapter felt very important for me, as a kind of closure for Heather, and also as a defining moment of the kind of person Heather wants to be.

    Great work, as always.

    • Thank you so much, it’s always a delight to hear from long-time readers and know you’re all out there enjoying the story!

      I always try to have Heather’s personal arc find these kinds of milestones in her development, these markers to who she’s turning into and how she’s trying to deal with what she’s becoming, so it’s really nice to know it comes across that way.

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