loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.2
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Announcement

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Dysphoria
Surgical wounds

[collapse]

“Please,” Badger repeated, soft and sincere. “I want to help.”

He had taken my brief silence for doubt, in either his intentions or his limits. His expression pleaded with me across that dingy, cramped sitting room in his sad, desolate bedsit flat, with the strange and fragile dignity won by sacrifice and survival. Somehow I knew that Badger would not throw himself at my feet, or call me messiah. His actions had already proven his allegiance. Big, wet, puppy-dog eyes petitioned from behind his pair of comically thick and pitifully useless glasses, flanked on one side by the massive red crescent of his head wound, stapled shut. He looked back at me from inside a body still recovering from the damage I had inflicted during the effort to save his life — and, perhaps, recovering from the grace that I had imparted to his soul.

Back when Ooran Juh and I had fought over Badger, like a pair of apex predators hissing and clawing over a scrap of meat, those eyes had been full of terror and pain, a human being at the very end of his rope, who had done terrible things for a terrible cause, and knew that his debt was coming due. But now Badger’s eyes seemed clean and clear, almost innocent. I knew better than anybody that Badger was far from innocent.

With the right motivation, Nathan Hobbes could easily become a clear-eyed zealot for a pupating god.

But a god — or a goddess in my case — had to be perfect by definition, or else risk the capricious cruelty and spiteful egotism of a deity dedicated to the darkest corners of human nature. A messiah had to be right, correct, morally or ethically, or at least accurate in their powers of prognostication and foretelling, or otherwise wear the mask of the chosen one while enriching themselves from their followers’ souls and purses alike. A queen had to be strong, just, kind, and wise, all things I couldn’t live up to; either that or accept the reality of brutal warlordism and feudal domination.

I had already rejected that path, wide awake with both eyes open. I was to be a creature of choice, not mere role and nature.

But what about an angel?

Badger himself had said that word, not five minutes ago. Now the seed was sprouting.

“I want to help,” Badger said. “Not just you, Heather, but all of you.” He nodded to Raine. “Your friends, your group, your followers.”

“Family,” said Raine, with a wink and a nod.

Sitting on the sofa next to Badger’s chair, Sarika snorted, but without real conviction. In her lap, Whistle was listening carefully. He didn’t understand the words, but the tone must have reached him.

“Your family, yeah! Yeah!” Badger nodded along with that. He liked that a lot. “Especially Lauren. Lozzie? She goes by Lozzie now, right? We served her brother, and he … well, what can I say? We all knew. We had no excuse. She deserves an apology, at least. You’ve given me a second chance, a real second chance, out from under something I couldn’t imagine escaping.” Was he talking about the Eye, or Alexander? I decided not to ask, because my mind was already in motion. “So I want to help. I want to do something, something real. I know I’m not much, there’s not a lot I can do, especially in this state.” He gestured at the side of his head, at the stapled wound across a third of his scalp. “I was never in training to become a real mage, I just picked up dribs and drabs here and there, whatever I could. Lots of us did, dabblers. But I must be able to help, somehow. Please, make use of me.”

Nathan wanted a leader. Apparently Sarika wasn’t enough. But then again, she’d never been a leader either.

He needed that gap filled, or he would find some other way to fill it, some other content to supply meaning for his second chance at life. My mind flicked through alternatives — introduce him to Raine’s politics, or to disability activism, or tell him to lose himself in escapism, or return to the beloved mathematics he obviously still cherished, or string him along while hoping he found something right and good and just, all by himself. But I knew that wouldn’t work. He needed an angel, and he already had me in mind.

A conceptual space opened up around me, with room to stretch my wings. Pun intended.

What was an angel, really? A servant sent by a god, without free will of her own? That didn’t work. I was the adoptive daughter of Magnus Vigilator, but I wasn’t doing the Eye’s work here on Earth. Quite the opposite. If I was the Eye’s angel, then at best I was correcting the mistakes of an inhuman god, via the empathy and understanding of a human touch.

If I was an angel, then I had a duty to some higher concept. To Maisie? No. Maisie was a person, not an ideal, even if she’d almost become one to me, in private. To the Eye? Obviously not. I used the Eye’s powers, but I didn’t share ideology with it, if it even had such a thing. To what, then? I wasn’t divine, I was flawed and selfish and weird and often made bad decisions — but I wasn’t a god, so that was okay. It was okay to have faults, if one did not claim perfection. It was okay to think and choose, because I didn’t have a direct line to the truth.

But I was also a thing of the abyss. A self-made angel, with my will written on my flesh in divine change.

Choice. I wasn’t the Eye, because I was choosing. Badger had a right to choose as well. Which meant he had a right to know. Which meant I had a duty to tell him.

There, now you’ve gone and done it, you’ve redefined yourself as an angel, I told myself. At least your duty is clear now.

I would be the very first to admit this was not the cleanest or most solid foundation on which to build an identity. Understatement of the year. I wasn’t deluding myself into a belief that I was really, literally an angel. But Badger needed this. The Skeates had perhaps needed this — maybe things would have gone better if I’d tried this on them in the first place. Maybe all the other surviving cultists would respond better to a semi-divine messenger communicating her sacred geometry, rather than scrawny little Heather Morell insisting she wasn’t a goddess while scaring the wits out of them.

Not a neat and tidy identity at all, but down here in the world of flesh and mud, we have to make do with whatever we have to hand. The important thing now was to make it function. And not just for me.

I drew myself up on the uncomfortable wooden chair, raising my chin and spreading my tentacles out to both sides. I was going to have to make it up as I went along, including the poise and grace. Badger must have noticed the shift in my posture, because he shut his mouth and stopped talking. He’d been about to say something else, probably more pleading to be allowed to help. Raine shifted as well, scooting to the side ever so slightly, to yield the centre stage to my coming performance.

“Nathan,” I said, making a deliberate choice to use his real name. “Do you recall what I looked like when I fought Ooran Juh?”

Badger broke into a laughing smile again, like he couldn’t resist amusement. “How could I forget? It was like watching an angel take shape.” There was that word again; I tried not to grimace. “It was like the kind of thing Alexander promised us, back in the early days of the cult, before everything went to shit. Like the manifestations he used to show us in that castle place, the bits of something real, you know? I … I don’t wanna like, assume that I know what you are, but whatever it is, I’m behind it, it’s got my support. It’s everything that we were supposed to be, and more, better! It was glorious, I can’t—”

Sarika hissed, hard and sharp and very unimpressed. “Simp.”

But Badger just laughed. “It’s true! Sarry, you felt it too, didn’t you? It’s all true! She’s what we were promised, she’s the real thing!”

“Woah there, fella,” Raine said softly, purring with implicit warning. “Ease down with the worship a bit, yeah?”

But I whispered to Raine from the corner of my mouth, “It’s alright, let him do it.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “You sure?” she whispered back.

“I’m sure. Unless he starts praying to me or something. That would be weird.”

“What’s the plan?” Raine whispered.

“Give him something to cling to.”

Raine nodded once and shot me a wink. I was amazed she had so much faith that I could walk this tightrope without tumbling off.

Badger watched our whispered exchange with an innocent, open look on his face, though I was certain he couldn’t hear a thing. Sarika looked at us like we were icons of filth, but then again she looked at everybody that way. Except Whistle.

I cleared my throat and held out one hand toward Raine, then spoke at normal volume. “Raine, could I please borrow your pair of special glasses? I’d like Badger to look through them, for a minute or two.”

Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. “Ahhhh, I see where you’re going with this. Sure thing.” Raine dug around inside her leather jacket and produced her own pair of magically modified glasses. This was only one of the several pairs that Evelyn had created, made from cheap black frames filled with non-prescription plastic lenses. The magical symbols were impossible to completely conceal, but they were etched and scrawled onto the black frames themselves, making them hard to see unless one was inspecting closely. The best we could manage, as far as ‘operational security’ — which was a very fancy term for not looking like a bunch of cosplayers out in public.

Raine winked at Badger as she handed me the glasses. “You’re in for a treat, Badger, my man.”

I took the glasses and offered them to Badger, across the table. He accepted them and asked, “You want me to put these on?”

“Yes, but please brace yourself.”

Badger nodded, taking off his pair of magnification-only glasses and putting them in his own lap. His hands shook very slightly as he opened the arms of the special glasses, about to put them on. As he did, I stood up and spread my tentacles. He hardly needed to be overawed, he’d already seen me at my absolute limit, fighting Ooran Juh, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind him.

Sarika’s hand shot out and slapped at the glasses before he could put them on.

“Sarry?” Badger blinked at her. In Sarika’s lap, Whistle snuffled and sat up, suddenly alert. But Sarika herself glared at me. In her slack and exhausted face, her eyes burned like twin pits of spent coal in a dead fire, small and hard and dark.

“What is this?” she hissed.

I sighed and flapped my arms against my sides, all my quasi-angelic theatre derailed by her paranoia. “You still don’t trust me?”

“These are magical,” she spat. “I can still tell that much, I’m not fucking blind. What are you doing to Nathan?”

Next to me, Raine laughed. “Ho-hooooo, Sarika. You’ve got it bad for him. So territorial. Come on, we’re not gonna steal your man.”

“Fuck you too,” she spat.

“The glasses allow a human being to see pneuma-somatic matter,” I said. “Raine has worn that pair before. We’ve all worn them before. Well, okay, not me, because I don’t need to. This isn’t a trick, Sarika. Don’t be so silly.” Her glare did not abate. I sighed again, losing patience. Evelyn, Praem, Jan, and July were all waiting for us out by the car. We didn’t have all day.

“You tricked me once before,” she croaked. “In your kitchen. You … you went into me … without … warning.”

“For your own good.”

“Fuck you. You warn him now. Whatever you’re about to do.”

“Sarika,” I said — and managed to sound like a fussy schoolmarm, instead of a warlike angelic presence. “If I wanted to hurt Nathan, or yourself, I wouldn’t need to resort to underhanded trickery, I would just do it. I wouldn’t stand here talking to you. I’d just kill you. You know that.”

Sarika’s defiant glare faltered at last — but not with acceptance. A tiny mote of fear entered her expression. She blinked, twice, eyes turning wet.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” I hissed, putting my face in one hand and then hiccuping, loudly and painfully. I felt like a moron. “I’ve done it again. I’m threatening a disabled woman. I didn’t mean that to sound that way. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. But it’s true, I don’t need to hoodwink anybody, I’m just trying to be honest!”

“Yeah,” Raine added in a light, breezy tone, like we were discussing favourite brands of tea. “We’re not the CIA trying to assassinate Castro with a pair of booby-trapped glasses here.”

I turned and blinked down at Raine, knocked out of my mortified embarrassment by utter confusion. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, what?” Sarika grunted.

Badger laughed, but I got the sense he didn’t understand the joke either.

“You know,” Raine said, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. Her grin turned very cheeky. “Secret explosives, poisoned swimsuits, needles in umbrella handles, all that spy stuff. Nah, we’re much more competent than that. Heather’s right, but she’s just not very good at saying it. Sometimes my girl needs to delegate more.” Raine patted my hip, which made me squeak in a very un-angelic manner. “If we wanted to do damage, it’d already be done. I’d have just shot you or something. But hey, you’re safe, you’re with us. Even if you should be in prison.”

Sarika huffed and stared at Raine, but her glower was mostly gone. “You love the sound of your own voice.”

Raine laughed, then winked and shot her a finger gun. “That I do, babe. So do you though, right?”

Badger was just staring at the glasses, but without looking through the lenses. “These allow you to see spirit flesh? For real?”

“Mmhmm.” Raine nodded. “Evee says we shouldn’t keep them on for very long. Don’t use ‘em too often. I tried wearing them for a whole morning this one time, and it did mess me up a bit. Screws with your head.”

I stared down at Raine, shocked. “You didn’t tell me about that. Raine, that’s not good for you!”

Raine shrugged. “I was cool by the time you got back from class.”

“Still!” I tutted.

Sarika spoke up, voice like a handful of gravel. “You’re seeing something that the human brain isn’t meant to. Isn’t wired for. It’s hardly surprising.”

“Well put.” Raine gave her a respectful nod. Sarika waved that away.

She had a point. Normally it was only non-humans who could see pneuma-somatic flesh. And what did that make me?

An angel, I reminded myself. Let’s stick with an angel.

“Badger,” I said. “Put the glasses on and look at me, please.”

Sarika removed her hand from the glasses, shaking slightly. Badger, though, turned and offered the glasses to her instead. “Sarry, do you wanna go first? Just to check that it’s—”

“Absolutely fucking not,” she spat. “You couldn’t pay me to look through those. Get them away from me.”

Raine laughed. “Smart woman. Stay uninvolved, yeah?”

Sarika snorted. “You’d probably kill me if I tried.”

“Badger,” I said, raising my voice slightly. “The glasses. Please?”

Badger nodded, finally slipped the glasses on over his eyes, and then just stared, awestruck, jaw hanging open.

I spread my tentacles in a six-pointed star-halo. For some reason I didn’t quite understand, I added my hands too, down by my sides, opening my palms and turning them forward. Homo abyssus on display, but still a work in progress.

Badger stared. Raine kept quiet, waiting for the reaction. Sarika gave Badger a sidelong look, unimpressed. Whistle decided none of this was important to his lordly concerns, so he laid his head back in Sarika’s lap and closed his little doggy eyes again.

“You’ve seen this before,” I said to Badger.

“Yes … but … it’s still beautiful.”

“Down,” Raine said in a tone of gentle warning.

“Yes,” Sarika hissed through her teeth. “She’s what, ten years younger than you, Nathan? Stop staring like a pervert.”

I sighed a little sigh. “Please don’t make this—”

But Badger got there first. It was the first time since seeing him again that he’d shown anything even approaching irritation or anger. He frowned at Raine and then at Sarika, his furrowed brow pulling on the taut flesh around his massive head wound.

“Don’t make this something it’s not,” he snapped at Sarika. “It’s beautiful, and not like that. Don’t sully this, don’t make it, you know, about that.” He gestured at me with one hand. “As if I would ever, Sarry. She saved both our fucking lives, and she didn’t have to. She could have put a bullet in my head and be done with me. She didn’t. I’m not going to disrespect her like that. So stop.”

Sarika held his gaze for a moment, then turned her face away without saying anything. She crossed her arms. Sulking.

Raine cleared her throat. “Sorry, mate. Making assumptions and all. Just kinda protective of my girl.”

Badger nodded to Raine. A moment of strange understanding passed between them. I tried not to think about that. Had I just gained another sworn bodyguard? I hoped not.

“As I was saying, you’ve seen this before.” I repeated myself through a strained smile, trying to get solid ground beneath my feet. “Actually, you saw me in a more advanced state than this, with more modifications, the sorts of things I can’t do without inflicting short term damage on myself. Do you understand what you’re looking at?”

Badger shook his head. “Not really. Please, though, I’m listening.”

I wet my lips. My plan hadn’t extended this far, so I swallowed a hiccup and just kept moving. “I’ve modified my body, with pneuma-somatic flesh and hyperdimensional mathematics, to better match what I am inside. I’ve been … out, not Outside, but beyond all the spheres of reality, in the sort of interstitial space between. I call it the abyss. It’s not somewhere you go with your body, but with your soul. It’s impossible to describe with language, it’s not like anything else, but it’s sort of like a dark, endless ocean. That’s the best metaphor. When I came back, I was different. Or maybe I’d always been different and that was just a catalyst. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it feels right, it is right, when I use what I can do to bring my body closer to homo abyssus, the thing I was out there, the truth under my skin.” I took a deep breath. It felt so strange to tell a former enemy about what I really was, to reveal this vulnerable truth, so private and personal. But Badger deserved to understand, in case my worst suspicions were right. “Does that make sense to you?”

“I think so,” Badger murmured. He was looking at me with awe in his eyes.

Sarika snorted. She spoke without looking at us. “What does your personal dysphoria have to do with any of this?”

I lowered my arms and my tentacles. “Badger. Nathan. When I pulled you out of the clutches of … um … our ocular mutual acquaintance—”

“Niiiiice,” Raine whispered. I did my best to ignore her.

“—your lower brain functions were ruined. The pieces of equation which define them were all tangled up, smeared in a big mess. I guess because that’s where it was grasping you. Sort of.” I sighed. “This is all metaphor, too.”

Badger nodded along. “I’m following so far.”

Sarika looked uncomfortable, perhaps slightly nauseated, but she was listening closely as well.

“When I repaired you so we could restart your heart, I had to use myself as the template. I don’t know anything about how human lower brain functions work, so I couldn’t rewrite you on the fly, I could only copy what I already had.”

Badger stopped nodding and blinked several times, eyes made huge by the pneuma-somatic seeing glasses. I think it had finally hit him.

Sarika spoke up first. “What are you saying? Morell, explain.”

“I’m saying that I may have copied pieces of homo abyssus onto Badger. I don’t know, I can’t be sure. I had to use myself as the template for repairing his brain, but I’m not a human being anymore, not really, if I ever was in the first place.” I swallowed hard and found my mouth had gone dry, and forced myself to focus on Badger, on Nathan Hobbes. “When I first came back from the abyss, I couldn’t … it was right … didn’t feel right … I was … ”

I trailed off as my memory turned traitor.

I always tried so hard to never dwell too much on those first few moments when I’d returned from my journey down into the abyss: the disgust of finding myself entwined with throbbing, wet, warm meat; the glugging, slurping chemical factory sloshing away in my belly, full of acid and bile and excrement; the assault of blunt, alien senses like spiked sledgehammers pounding at the fragile thing of mutable gossamer which I’d brought back with me; the hooting ape noises and angles all wrong and flapping meat and the air itself searing the inside of my lungs.

Not to mention the long, slow, painful ascent back up, out of that dysphoria. The inexplicable urges to climb things that I didn’t have the body strength for. The sobbing failure of going swimming and finding myself clumsy, inelegant, apish. The sheer useless inadequacy of my own form, weak and soft and static. The yearning for body parts I didn’t have. The bruises and internal injuries I’d given myself with my first fumbling attempts to make tentacles. And the knowledge I so rarely expressed: that I would have gladly endured so much more pain just for the merest glimpse of the graceful perfection I’d been, out there in the endless dark. I would have accepted any level of pain, in return for the smallest sip.

The ghost of abyssal dysphoria reached up my spine with a shudder of self-disgust. It all came creeping back.

With no concern as to where I was or who was watching, I pulled all my tentacles in tight and wrapped them around my body, squeezing myself hard. I hugged two of them to my chest, holding on tight to what I was.

These were real, these were proof. Most people might not be able to see them, but I could. They were elegant and beautiful and dangerous. This was me.

“Heather?” Raine said my name with soft concern.

“She all right?” Sarika croaked.

Badger just watched in respectful quiet.

After a moment, the shudder passed. I took three deep breaths and focused on the mechanical act of speaking, not the meaning of the words. “When I came back from the abyss, my body felt wrong. Inhabiting an unaltered human body felt wrong. It still does, even now. That’s why I’ve given myself these extra parts. What you saw when I fought Ooran Juh, that’s closer to what I’m meant to be. But it’s never going to be enough. I can never be what I was out there.” I swallowed hard and tried not to hear myself. I had to say this, for Badger’s sake. “There is a slim chance that I may have inadvertently transplanted some of that abyssal dysphoria onto you.”

And in this absurdly serious, oh so sombre moment, Badger broke into a big smile of genuine happiness and gratitude.

“Better squid than dead,” he said.

“Nathan!” Sarika hissed, as if he’d just voiced a deeply offensive slur. She looked like she wanted to slap him.

“Hey, I mean it!” Badger protested. He quickly turned back to me. “What I saw was beautiful. And before Sarry says something else, I don’t mean in a sexual way, forget that. If you’ve given me even the smallest fraction of what I saw, by accident, I … I won’t reject it.”

I sighed, screwed my eyes up, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Badger, it’s not a blessing. I nearly pulled my own eyeballs out in disgust! Often I forgot to breathe. Being in the wrong body is not fun. You don’t deserve that, I don’t care what you did in the past, nobody deserves that … disconnection.”

“I’m still honoured,” he said. “I mean it.”

I flopped my hands against my sides in defeat. “I hope you still think that if you wake up with a desire to peel your own skin off. Sorry.”

Badger laughed softly, politely, and very awkwardly. The old Badger was still under there, no doubt about it. “I’ll keep that in mind. For real.”

“See you do,” I almost snapped at him, but then forced myself to take a deep breath. “Look, I might not be able to do anything about it, but if you do feel anything like that, if you look down at your body one day and start thinking that you should have tentacles, or you start dreaming about the ocean every night, then call me. Understand? You don’t have hyperdimensional mathematics, you won’t be able to solve it by yourself — oh, who am I kidding, I haven’t really solved it either! But at least we’ll be able to talk about it. Whatever you do, don’t you dare hurt yourself because you feel wrong, not when I’m here as an example.”

Badger nodded, very seriously, despite the blissful smile on his face.

“Huh,” Sarika grunted. “Wish I could have gotten tentacles, instead of this.” She flopped a weakened hand against her own half-functional leg. Whistle cracked open his eyes and licked at her fingers. Sarika tutted at that, but she didn’t stop the Corgi.

“No,” I muttered. “No you don’t.”

“Of course I fucking well do,” Sarika said in a soft grumble, not even looking at me.

I let that one drop. Maybe she was being honest, maybe she did understand; she’d been in the Eye’s grip, she knew the price, maybe she would prefer abyssal dysphoria to lifelong disability. It was not my place to judge that.

“Nathan,” I said. “I mean what I just said. If you need help, ask me for it. You can hardly be expected to redeem yourself if you’re floundering in that kind of pain.”

To my surprise, Badger gave me a thumbs up.

Did you give an angel a thumbs up? Maybe in Badger-world.

“And … don’t call me a divine being, or ‘my queen’, or anything else like that. I know what you must be thinking. It’s one thing to be called that by people who don’t understand, but you were a cultist, you’ve seen things from Outside, and I’m not like those things. So don’t you call me that or I’ll … stop talking to you and ignore you.”

“Right. Right,” said Badger. “Just Heather, then.”

“Just Heather,” I said.

I cleared my throat and started to feel very awkward now that we were trailing off, the subject spent at last. Raine gestured for the glasses back from Badger. He hesitated for a moment, until she gave him a look, then he relented and finally took them off. He did seem a little disappointed as he handed them back, no longer able to see my tentacles in all their glory. I sat down and tried to return his smile, as he fumbled to get his regular glasses back onto his face, blinking like a newborn owl.

“That’s all,” I said, feeling a bit lame. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

But Badger wasn’t done yet. “I want to help you.”

I sighed. “This again?”

Raine clucked her tongue. “I think he’s serious, Heather.”

“I am serious, completely serious,” Badger said. “I don’t know what I can do to help, but I want to. I can talk to my old companions from the cult, everybody who’s left, all the survivors, and tell them you can help them! I’ll make them see! But I’m sorry, that’s not enough.”

Sarika was frowning at him. “Not enough?”

Badger shook his head, pressing his lips together in a kind of irritation. “The cult and Alexander, Ooran Juh, Edward. All of them! I’ve lived my whole life as prey, running into predators. And I kept trying to be one myself, but it was wrong. I was wrong. I had a lot of time to think about all this, in the hospital. I don’t deserve any of this. I don’t deserve to be alive. I don’t deserve to be free. I should be in prison, you’re right about that.” He swallowed hard. The smile was gone now, but not behind a mask. I suspected that Nathan Hobbes would never again be capable of duplicity. “I was never a real mage, but I’m still … capable.”

I shifted in my chair, deeply uncomfortable. “Is this coming from you, or bits of me I’ve transplanted onto you?”

“Does it matter? I’m right here, all the same.”

I had to look away from him. Even Sarika had no answer to this new and honest-hearted zealotry.

“I don’t like to use people,” I said, lying. Abyssal ruthlessness would use him in a heartbeat — but for what?

Sarika snorted. I shot her a look. She stared me down.

“I’m alright with using people,” said Raine. “Something comes up, Badger me’ boy, and I’ll keep you in mind.”

“What are your plans now?” I blurted out. “Regardless of us, I mean. Once you’ve recovered a bit and figured out your limits, what are you going to do with yourself, Nathan?”

Badger stared at me in surprise, then let out a sad laugh and trailed off with a sigh. He was smiling when he spoke, but there was little joy in his tone.

“Well,” he said. “I lost my job weeks and weeks ago now. Lost almost everybody I used to know, from in the cult and out of it, too. Been estranged from my parents for years. I’m on disability now, did Raine tell you that? They sent one of those assessor blokes round to the hospital just before I got out. Sarika just showed him the newspaper article about me drilling a hole in my head.” He laughed again. “Great stuff. Raine had a word with him too, seemed to convince him I wasn’t swinging the lead. Still,” he sighed. “Dunno if that’ll pay the rent much longer. Probs not.”

“What’d you used to do?” Raine asked him. “You never mentioned that before.”

Badger blinked at her several times before answering, as if he was having trouble recalling. “Worked at the bottling plant, the big one just west of the ring road. Most stable job I’d had in years, but I was just a temp, and I don’t reckon I’d be able to stay on my feet for that long, not like this.” He gestured at his head, then at the single crutch leaning against the big armchair. At least he laughed softly, putting a brave face on it. “Have to find something else to do.”

And that mathematics doctorate, gathering dust next to his bed. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“Hey,” Raine said, “maybe you can join Sarika with her budding Minecraft Youtuber career. Do a collab or something? Is that what they call it these days?”

“Like fuck he can,” Sarika grunted through her teeth. “This moron would drive off half my audience.”

“Awww, come on,” Raine said with a shit-eating grin. “You can’t have that many simps who’d get mad at you having your boyfriend on screen, surely?”

Sarika gave her a glower worthy of Evelyn herself, but filled with so much more bitterness.

“Raine,” I hissed, cringing with second-hand embarrassment. “Please, can you not?”

“What?” Raine laughed, spreading her hands in a faux-innocent shrug.

Sarika hissed from the other side of the room, like a coiled snake. “I may be a cripple who will never again perform magic, but I wager that I can train Whistle to bite through your ankles.”

Badger snorted. Whistle looked up at the sound of his name, little Corgi ears twisting about. I gaped in surprise — had Sarika just made an actual joke?

Raine seemed to think so. “Wheeeey!” she went. “There she is!” Raine put her hands up in mock-surrender. “I better back down, I don’t want to be savaged by such a highly-trained canine.”

“Huh,” Sarika grunted. She still didn’t smile, but at least she wasn’t blushing. She petted Whistle behind the ears in return for his service.

Badger cleared his throat and nodded to me, still on the verge of laughter. Perhaps he’d caught the impatient look on my face. “I’m serious though, Heather. I want to do something useful.”

I resisted the urge to sigh. Instead, I summoned up that image of myself as an angel. A be-tentacled angel from the deep , from dark places beyond human experience. I had a duty. It was the right thing to do.

“Badger, your job right now is to look after yourself,” I said. “You’re no use to me if you don’t rest, recover, and heal. We need you to speak to your former cultist companions, yes, but they will need to see you healthy, or as close to it as you can get. After that, I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be making any use of you at all if you hurt yourself by trying to run before you can walk.”

Badger nodded eagerly, grinning wide.

“And if you lie to me, if you pretend to be more healthy than you are, if you push yourself, then I will be disappointed. I will be unhappy. I will not approve. And I will know.”

It took an effort of will not to hiccup. I was blushing, too. I wasn’t cut out for this. It would have been easier if Badger wasn’t so eager and happy now.

Badger controlled his smile, taking me seriously again. “I’ll do my best.”

Sarika snorted. “Bloody right you will.”

“And … ” I hesitated, staring into Badger’s eyes. Did he need this, or would it hurt? “Maybe start thinking about maths. But not the kind that I was taught.”

Badger frowned at me, as if he didn’t get it. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe the thought would come back to him later, lying in bed next to his own past. I’d unlocked the door, but it was up to him to turn the handle.

It took a supreme effort of will to project myself as an angel, in command and wielding power on behalf of a higher principle. Was that even the right thing to say to Badger? Was it right to use my assumed position to force him to take care of himself? I hoped so. The last thing I wanted was for him to push himself too hard and get hurt in the process, using himself up for my sake. That wasn’t his purpose. I refused to use him for that. He would make good on his own sins. That was his purpose now.

“You know, Tenny’s really gonna miss Whistle,” Raine said, gazing at the dog in Sarika’s lap. He looked up at the sound of his name, over at Raine, turning his head from side to side in doggy curiosity. “Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about you, you good boy. They really took a liking to each other, you know?”

“He might miss her, too,” Badger said. His smile turned oddly sad when he glanced at his dog.

Raine made a show of stroking her own chin in thought. “Maybe an arrangement can be made?”

Sarika grunted like an angry Corgi herself. “He’s not coming to fucking live with you lot.”

“Who?” Raine asked. “Badger, or Whistle?”

“Badger,” she said. “Obviously.”

Raine just spread her hands and smiled with smug surrender. Badger bit his lower lip in thought. The seed had been planted, now to let it grow by itself. Clever Raine. I admired her so much, she was so good at this, especially compared to me. She had the courage to just go ahead and say it out loud, then act like it was all a joke.

“We have already got Kim living with us,” Raine said. “Not sure that would work.”

“Ex-cultists anonymous,” said Sarika. If she meant it as a joke, it sounded like a very bitter one.

I cleared my throat gently. “I’m not certain that would be appropriate for Kimberly. She doesn’t want to see anybody from the cult, ever again.”

Sarika huffed. “Not like I ever knew the girl, anyway.”

Raine shrugged. “Maybe Tenny could get a pet of her own? Whistle could have a friend, too.”

“Perhaps that would be a good idea,” I said, forcing a smile. Tenny was really, really going to miss Whistle, that much was true. Or maybe this would be a good excuse for her to finally perfect her human disguise she’d attempted once, to come around to Badger’s flat to visit the dog. Or maybe that was too optimistic. Maybe we should buy her a dog.

“Kimberly Kemp,” Badger said suddenly, his voice hushed and serious. Something snagged in my chest, a hook inside my heart.

“Yes?” I said, suddenly wary. “That’s her name.”

“I remember her,” he said, nodding to me. No smile anymore. “I’d like to speak with her, if that’s possible?”

“What for?” Raine asked before I could say anything. Her casual tone carried a warning.

“To apologise,” Badger said. “To … to offer … I don’t know what! Something.” He shrugged, at a loss.

I cleared my throat gently. “I suspect the best apology you can give her is letting her live her life without ever having to think about this again.”

Badger blinked and swallowed, seemingly hurt by that. But he nodded. “Okay. Alright. Fair enough. Could you at least ask her though, maybe? If you think it would be alright? I want her to know … well, I never even knew her, not really. But there’s … there’s nobody left to apologise to.”

For a moment, all of Badger’s inner peace fell away, to show the core of self-critique and self-horror. He had to say sorry, to somebody.

I sighed heavily, letting my emotions show plainly on my face. I had a duty to protect Kimberly, too, didn’t I?

“I’ll ask her, but I’m not making any promises.”

“Thank you,” Badger said. He bowed his head in thanks.

I resisted the urge to tut, but I didn’t tell him off. Instead I got to my feet and filled my lungs and stretched out my tentacles. Raine followed suit, sensing my intentions.

“The others are waiting for us outdoors,” I said. “I really think it’s time we got going. Is there anything either of you need?”

There wasn’t, at least not right then. Sarika was going to stay with Badger for the rest of the day, though strictly speaking he didn’t require any company to help him out, to stop him from falling over or banging his head or hurting himself, but we left them to it. She had her crutches and Badger had his pills. Raine didn’t even make any jokes about what the two of them might get up to together; frankly it was none of our business, and I doubted that sort of relationship lay between them anyway. Raine made sure they knew to call us if anything happened, and offered to drive back over to take Sarika home later in the day. Sarika made some fussy noises about calling a taxi instead. Badger stood up and shook my hand — that was a good sign, I thought. One shakes hands with an equal, not an object of worship.

We both petted Whistle good bye for now, then took our leave of Badger’s cramped and depressing flat.

Once we stepped out into the shallow stairwell of bare concrete and metal railings, and got the door firmly shut behind us, I finally let go of a psychological breath I’d been holding the whole time. At last I could acknowledge the sheer tension in my shoulders and back, the tightness in my tentacles, and the throbbing headache at the sides of my skull, a headache that for once had nothing to do with self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

A hand fell on my shoulder and squeezed hard, then travelled up the back of my neck to massage my scalp and mess up my hair. I almost purred.

“Hey, Heather,” Raine murmured. “You did real good in there.”

“Real well,” I corrected her grammar. “But thank you.”

“I know what I said, Heather.” Raine chuckled softly. “My little seraph, doing good.”

I winced and tutted, pulling away from Raine’s hand and nudging her with a tentacle. She laughed and grinned at me in the dim half-light of the concrete stairwell. The only illumination came from a single long window on the opposite wall, filled with frosted glass. I could see a couple of vague human shapes standing on the opposite side of the road, next to the red lump of Raine’s car. Jan and July, waiting for us.

“Don’t take the whole angel thing too seriously,” I said. “Please. It was just what they needed. I think.”

“But you are my little angel,” Raine purred, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “A biblically accurate one, too, just how I like ‘em.”

“Tch, Raine.” I huffed as we stepped toward the stairs. “How did you know I was thinking of angels, anyway? Badger said it, not me.”

“I can read you like an open book,” she said. “Tends to happen when you love somebody. Well, not all the time, I guess. That would be unfair.”

“I love you too, Raine,” I murmured. “Let’s go be proactive, okay?”

“You got it, boss angel. You got it.”

==

Felicity called us later that day, on the border between afternoon and evening, right on time at five forty-five. At least the reclusive and elusive mage was keeping her promises, so far.

Outdoors, the drizzling rain had trickled off, but the clouds hadn’t cleared, growing thicker and heavier and darker in the sagging sky above the city. Sharrowford was damp and dripping, verdant with summer life, but somehow rotten all over, wrapped in a thin film of cold that refused to lift. I knew it was only the weather, only natural, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that Felicity’s phone call was reaching out from somewhere dark and forgotten, to wrap Number 12 Barnslow Drive in this unseasonal chill and oppressive gloom.

We switched on the lights in the kitchen, the front room, the little utility room, and the magic workshop. We had hot tea and cold cake. Praem even put Evelyn’s shawl in the dryer to warm it up, then wrapped it around her shoulders. None of that seemed to help.

Raine fielded the call, took point, did the talking at first.

“Heyyyy there Flissy girl,” she said, talking loudly with the phone itself sitting before her on the kitchen table, set to speaker mode. “Right on time! That’s what I like to see, I do like a punctual woman.”

The rest of us waited, holding our collective breath. We’d been through this process before, some of us twice. This time we’d had enough forewarning to prepare in advance. Evelyn and I were sitting next to each other, my hand already wormed into Evelyn’s to grasp her clammy palm and keep her steady. She’d insisted on being present for this, regardless of the personal cost. Raine was just across the table, in charge for now. Praem was standing by her, ready to lean down to the phone and leash whatever demons spoke from Felicity’s end of the call. Sevens was on her feet next to me, in her familiar blood-goblin mask, peering over the edge of the table. I had one tentacle wrapped around her waist, just for mutual comfort.

Zheng was lurking about, but she probably wouldn’t be needed, at least not right now. Lozzie was keeping well clear, upstairs with Tenny. Jan and July had gone home — this really was none of their concern.

Raine’s greeting floated off into the air, as if absorbed by the gloom, muffled by some invisible veil emanating from the phone.

A wet click of parting lips, an intake of breath.

For a dizzying moment neither of those sounds seemed remotely human, as if they were made by poor mimicry of human lips and human lungs, as if the thing on the other end of that phone call was reconstituting itself into human form, having forgotten that it needed to talk with our tongue. My tentacles curled inward and my body prepared to flinch, prepared not for Felicity’s voice, but Aym’s, that of Felicity’s weird little parasite-demon — or for something far worse. Who was to say that Felicity herself was human any more? Mages did seem to end up like that.

“Uh,” said Felicity. “Hello, Raine. Um, thank you. Yes, I didn’t want to … keep you waiting, of course.”

The words crackled from the phone’s speaker, distorted slightly by the low quality of the land-line connection to Felicity’s isolated, occulted home. Her voice was blurred into a permanent low mumble by the burn scarring across the left corner of her lips.

Felicity’s voice, normal and human, though surrounded by a black void.

Just my imagination, I told myself. You can’t hear a void.

“Wonderful!” Raine said. She was grinning and leaning back, playing the part physically to lend weight to her tone. “Now, let’s not beat around the bush, let’s get straight down to business, yeah? You’ve got something for us?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Felicity’s low half-mumble was difficult to read at the best of times, even face to face. That wasn’t her fault. But there was such a shuddering, intimate horror behind those words, a feeling she couldn’t conceal. She followed up with a difficult, dry swallow, and said no more.

Raine shared a sceptical look across the table with myself and Evelyn. Evee rolled her eyes and gestured angrily into the air with one hand. I doubted it was accurate sign language, but her meaning was plain enough.

“Felicity, this is Heather,” I spoke up. “What’s wrong?”

Felicity panted once, twice, three times, but said nothing. In the silence around her I could hear rain on glass, the rattling of roof tiles, and the crackle of a distant fireplace. A lit fire, indoors, in the middle of summer? Maybe she really was exuding this sudden cold.

“Flissy, Flissy, Flissy,” Raine said, letting a laugh into her voice. “Come on, you wanted to call us, right? You’ve got something on how we might be able to find Edward’s house, yeah? You spoke to your demon friend?”

That was the entire purpose of this phone call. The last time we’d spoken with Felicity she had agreed to speak with her difficult parasite-demon, about the spells that kept her own manor house hidden from human eyes, spells she claimed not to fully understand, laid down before she had inherited the house. She had no idea how they really worked. But Aym did.

“Y-yes. Yes, yes I did.” Felicity’s voice returned, growing in strength and confidence again. “She— I’m sorry it took longer than I thought, she is … difficult, even when I’m being … uh … even when … ” Felicity took a deep breath and seemed to gather herself. “Yes, to cut a long story short, Aym gave me several details. She recalls when the spells were woven, or at least claims to. She said it was uh … a combination of basic geometrical principles along with the occlusion processes found in the Manus Cruenta. There is a copy of that book in the library here, so that much is probably true. But I can’t see how to scale any of those up to the necessary size. If I could, then I might be able to unravel them in return, and then find this house you’re looking for. Aym … Aym says … well, um … ”

Manus Cruenta,” Evelyn snapped. “How would that work? That specifically calls for peacock blood. You’d never get enough for a whole building. If it was human beings, fine, I could understand. Sounds like nonsense.”

“I— I know!” Felicity grew agitated suddenly — maybe at Evee’s voice. “Aym won’t— she won’t— and I can’t figure it out, I—”

Patter-patter-patter went bare feet on stone. Felicity’s voice froze, dead quiet, punctuated by the creak of a chair under a sudden load of extra weight.

A nightmare scraping joined us in the room, scratching from the speaker like knives on stone, a twisted scrap of noise pretending to be a little girl.

“That’s because you’re a failure of a human being, Flissy!” said Aym. She giggled, a sound like wet blades rubbing together. “No longer human. Disqualified.”

Aym left as quickly as she’d joined, a dark giggle vanishing into the stone-lined hallway that I could see in my mind’s eye behind Felicity. Unshod feet padded off into the dark once more. She was quick, quicker than Praem could react to snap a warning down the phone. Smart demon.

Evelyn was sweating, I could feel it on her palm, gone clammy and cold. She was staring at the phone.

For a long time, silence.

Then, eventually, Felicity swallowed hard, like a woman surfacing from a nightmare, sweating and shaking in the dark.

“Aym has named a price,” she said. “For the rest of the magical procedure. She claims to remember how to make it work. But she has a demand.”

“Ahhhhh shit,” said Raine.

“No,” Evelyn said through her teeth.

“Twenty minutes’ private conversation with Evelyn Saye,” said Felicity, in a voice like she was pronouncing her own death sentence.

Announcement

An angelic solution to an ocular problem. Badger needs to get well first, if he wants to help. But he does want to help, for real. You know, no joke, I consider Badger one of the most courageous characters in the entire story. Dude doesn't have much going for him, but here he is, still going. Meanwhile, demonic trickery is afoot.

Katalepsis Volume 1 comes out on October 4th! Smashwords link is up too, now! Aaaaand there's a second episode of the podcast!

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Next week, time to make a deal with a little devil.

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