Badger’s dingy, bare, sad little bedroom in Badger’s dingy, bare, sad little flat was no longer so dingy, bare, or sad.
On the sole previous occasion I’d seen this room it had contained so very little of Badger himself — a worn-down stub of space for a worn-down stub of person: a squat double bed with plain and starchy sheets, a single body pillow without a cover, a pile of well-thumbed books about mathematics, and a dusty set of framed diplomas, which had concealed a photograph of Badger when considerably younger and healthier, alongside a woman I’d never seen before. It was one of the most depressing and impersonal rooms I’d ever been in — and I’d spent time in a mental hospital for children, as an inpatient.
Somebody — perhaps Badger himself, but I had my suspicions regarding Sarika’s involvement — had spent real time and effort transforming the room. Gone were the starched white bedsheets, now soft and lilac, topped by a proper duvet, frosted with a sort of throw blanket in gloriously tasteless tie dye. Gone too was the little pile of books — they had been relocated to a small desk which now occupied the far corner of the room. Badger’s favourite books were lined up neatly, joined by a few new paperbacks (mostly science fiction, which Raine commented on with knowledgeable approval). Badger’s university theses were tucked in at the end of the row of books, no longer abandoned on the floor. The framed diplomas had been stacked against the wall at the rear of the desk, proudly showing off the fact that Nathan Hobbes was in fact a Doctor of Mathematics.
The photograph I’d accidentally uncovered last time was nowhere to be seen. We silently agreed not to ask about that.
Badger’s laptop sat in pride of place on the little desk, now with headphones, a light-up mouse on a proper mouse-pad, and the most bizarre keyboard I’d ever seen: it was curved, split in two, and glowing neon green between the keys.
The carpet had been hoovered, perhaps shampooed as well, and then accented by the loudest rug I’d ever seen: more tie dye, in headache green, warning orange, electric yellow, and radioactive blue. We couldn’t look at the thing for too long without risk of worsening our headache. Thankfully the walls had been spared Badger’s new-found sense of kaleidoscopic taste, instead decorated with more conventional posters — mostly bits of abstract art, a great big relief map of some fantasy world, a blown up black-and-white print of the famous still from Nosferatu of the count in silhouette, and a big landscape scene of what I thought was the Scottish Highlands.
Thankfully the body pillow I’d spotted last time was not graced with the addition of an anime girl cover; though it did have a cover at last, lilac and soft like the sheets, and was currently being used to prop up its owner.
The room was still little though, especially with four of us in there, plus Badger’s Corgi, Whistle.
Nathan Sterling Hobbes — ‘Badger’, despite having lost a significant amount of his facial resemblance to said animal, with his short-cropped hair, his sharp cheekbones, his lost weight, his clearness of eye, and the massive visible scar on his skull — the hero of the moment, my cultist and disciple and follower (despite what I told him), almost mage-killer, the man who had spent nearly ten full minutes having a seizure in Zheng’s arms and probably only lived because of her — was sitting up in that refreshed and welcoming bed, propped up by his squished body-pillow, looking like he’d just survived a plane crash, poisoning, and prolonged starvation all at once.
A mug of rapidly cooling tea sat on his bedside table, matching the mug of tea in my hand and the one which Raine clacked down on the desk after taking a sip; one would be forgiven for assuming Nathan thought the tea contained additional poison, from the way he gazed down at it, but we all knew he was simply too weak to lift it right then. Sarika did not hate us enough to slip bleach into our tea, after all.
The window above the bed was open, tugging gently at the curtains, admitting the soft summer heat. Sarika was banging about in the apartment’s little kitchen, making a lot of obvious noise with her crutches, pretending to give us some privacy while staying close enough to hear every word which was said.
Whistle was curled up on Badger’s lap, eyes open, ears perked up; he could probably sense the tension. Smart doggy. Smarter than us, sometimes.
Badger looked up from his tea. He smiled with awful awkwardness.
“I’m not going to apologise,” he said.
I actually laughed — though quickly dissolved into a hacking cough, which made me clutch my aching ribs. “Apologise?” I spluttered. “Nathan, that’s not why we came. Not … I’m not seeking a … you don’t need to … ”
Raine leaned against the wall and crossed her arms. “Nobody’s here looking for an apology, mate. Sure as sure not Heather. Hell, far as I’m concerned you deserve a medal or something. Throw you a parade.”
She was playing tough even though we weren’t interrogating anybody; probably just feeling overly protective of me in my weakened and exhausted state. I’d taken Badger’s desk chair — a proper swivel chair, with plenty of padding, and I needed it that day, I needed it so very badly.
Raine had not wanted me to come see Badger so early. She had tried to argue me out of the trip even though it was only a little way across Sharrowford, and we weren’t going to walk or anything, she drove — I could barely walk downstairs, let alone through the city streets on a hot summer’s day. Wait a day, Heather, surely it can wait a day. Go back to sleep! Have some cake! Have a lemon! Here, look, there’s a whole bag of them, why don’t you go sit with Tenny and try to peel some words out of the unfortunate demon-host we’ve got sitting in the magical workshop? Or go say hi to Lozzie, if you can keep up with her in Camelot? Or just, you know, don’t exert yourself.
But Raine had lacked backup — there was so much going on back at home, so many loose ends, so much clean-up: Evelyn and Zheng were both occupied and exhausted in their own ways; Lozzie wasn’t even there, off in Camelot doing a dozen other types of clean-up; Felicity was making obscure plans with Kim; Twil had gone home to help her family; Jan was tagging along with Lozzie, to everyone’s surprise; and Stack had vanished, to nobody’s.
And I needed to see Badger, I needed to actually talk with the man who everyone said was doing fine.
It was just over twenty-four hours since we’d all watched Ooran Juh drag Edward screaming backwards into hell. I’d only been awake for about three hours at that point, allowing for a very generous definition of ‘awake’.
When Badger’s seizure had hit, we’d all done the obvious thing — we, all of us, bloody and bruised and exhausted — had rushed him back to the gateway, back to our reality, to Sharrowford, to Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Only Lozzie had stayed behind, with the Knights and the Caterpillars and the Grinning Demon and the House, to begin the long and awful process of dealing with the aftermath.
We’d all barrelled through the gateway, clamouring for Stack and Nicole, for somebody to call an ambulance, for somebody to please drive over to Badger’s flat and get his anticonvulsant medications.
And we — me, myself, and I, in full Homo Abyssus Outsider glory, trailing bioluminesence like flares, my flesh six different shades of neon, complete with spines and spikes, barbed claws and hooks, my throat twisted sideways, my fingers webbed, and a tail — an actual tail! — sprouting from the base of my spine — had plunged through with everybody else and promptly collapsed under the pressure of ‘normal’ reality.
We had barely any memory of it; all I recalled was hopping through the gate, shouting about stopping Nathan from biting his tongue off, and then — poof!
Unconsciousness. The floor. Drooling. Slapping about with malfunctioning limbs. Pain like a fragment of star burning in my flank. Flashes of disconnected image: Praem feeding me water, Raine peering into my eyes with a torch, Evelyn shouting about how I kept pushing myself too far.
I’d slept for the entire rest of that day, the whole night, and then all the next morning. I’d woken with a mouth like a peat bog.
Evelyn and Jan had invented several new pieces of vocabulary to describe what I’d done to myself. Full-body pneuma-somatic collapse. Too much squid in too small a space. Over-revving the engine and then crashing into a wall. Decompression sickness, dimension-hopping style. The bends, but lesbian.
None of those really captured the mechanics. Homo Abyssus was just a hundred times more difficult to sustain anywhere but Outside. It was like I’d been running a marathon weightless, on the moon, with springs in my heels — then had to continue with a twelve-ton pack suddenly dropped onto my back, plunged into an ocean trench, with my ankles encased in lead.
We were, to put it lightly, very sore.
We ached from head to toe — literally, my scalp hurt, like it was desperately trying to re-adhere to my skull. My toenails all stung as if they were trying to re-assume their normal shape by ramming themselves back into their nail-beds. Muscles complained in places which I was previously unaware contained muscles — or had I accidentally added muscles to places where muscles had no business being present? An interesting question, but one on which I wished to cease gathering data. My shoulders and back were covered in dozens of tiny bruises, my eyes stung like I had scratches all over my corneas — which I didn’t, because that would have been a medical emergency — and my throat felt like I’d spent a night gargling acidic sand. Every joint crackled and popped like I was packed with polystyrene peanuts. My tail-bone stung when I sat and my ankles screamed when I stood up.
Evelyn had said: “I hope the high is worth the crash, Heather.”
“It is!” I had replied, croaking and rasping. “It always—”
Evelyn had huffed. “I’m not being sarcastic, for fuck’s sake. I’m being serious. I hope it is. I mean that. You were … very impressive. You looked comfortable.”
At least we were still whole — my tentacles had sustained themselves even during total collapse. Their roots ached like spreading bruises in our flanks and belly, and the tentacles themselves felt limp and soft and exhausted, like six additional very tired minds orbiting my central hub of true flesh. We were currently wrapped around ourselves, hugging tight, coiled up like a cephalopod feeling vulnerable.
My bioreactor was stiff and sore as well, but snarfing down half a dozen lemons had eased that sensation, at least. I still had the bag in my lap now, though I was refraining from eating any in front of Nathan.
None of this had been enough to stop us coming to see Badger. We had questions, things we had to know — and we weren’t the only ones. Home was chaos, sleep was trapped beyond the walls of pain inside my own body, and for the first time in a very long time, we didn’t have to worry about getting attacked by a mage, his minions, or his mercenaries.
Sharrowford’s occult underground was ours. We could move around as we wished. For now.
So we sat in Badger’s swivel chair, wrapped up in ourselves, trying to phrase questions we didn’t even know how to ask.
Nathan winced at Raine’s semi-serious suggestion of a parade. “Please don’t,” he said, almost as rough and croaking as me. “I only did what I should have done all along.”
He looked almost as bad as I felt: massive dark bags under his eyes, a shiny sheen of cold sweat on his pale skin, and a sluggish drag on all his motions, like the seizure had taken all the energy allotted for the next few days. His eyelids moved out of sync when he blinked. Every now and again his right hand and arm shook with muscle tremors. He had lost a lot of blood in the confrontation yesterday, and unlike me he didn’t have a multi-purpose pneuma-somatic organ to replace it faster than his natural bone marrow could. He looked almost as bad as when I’d done brain surgery on him.
“Actually,” I croaked. “There is one thing you should apologise for, Nathan. We did almost get shot.”
Badger winced and closed his eyes. “Ah. Yeah. Um.”
Raine laughed, but good natured and gentle, despite her looming tough-girl pose. “Okay yeah, maybe that part was a bit less medal-worthy. Could have been a bit more elegant about that, mate. I know you’ve got confidence in us, but a fire-fight can go sideways real quick. Especially when nobody’s wearing jack shit as far as protection.” Raine made a finger-gun and pointed it at Badger. “Bam. Could’a gone bad fast. Don’t do that again, hey?”
Nathan’s wince turned to a pained smile. “Yes, I … I could have handled that better. I apologise for that part, unreservedly. That part specifically.”
Whistle’s little doggy ears flopped sideways as he turned his head at the tone in Badger’s voice. He may not have understood the words, but he heard the pain.
Raine made a show of tutting and shaking her head. “Could’a just told us what you were up to, you know? Sharing info is kinda the baseline for good cooperation.”
Nathan’s smile twisted in an odd direction, one which said no, he couldn’t have told us. “Am I in trouble, then? Is that why you’re here?”
I tutted as well. “No. Nathan. That’s not—”
“Depends who you ask,” Raine said, with an easy laugh on her lips, stopping me from getting too dour and glum. “Evee would probably have you court martialed if she could — but then she’d also be your defence counsel and the judge and probably let you off with an extra egg for dinner.”
“Yes,” I sighed. “Evee is very impressed. Dealing with a mage is not easy, I gather.”
“Zheng, too,” Raine said, with a funny look of amusement at Nathan’s surprise. “She called you ‘Badger’.”
He frowned in confusion. “ … everyone calls me Badger,” said Badger.
“Yeah,” Raine almost purred. “But she doesn’t. She called you ‘worm’, before. Kinda means a lot when she changes that.”
“Oh,” Badger said. “Oh. Well. Uh. Thank her, for me? Please?”
Raine shrugged. “You can do that yourself.”
“Hah,” Badger forced a nervous laugh, then sighed. “When I can get out of bed.”
An angry shout came from the flat’s little kitchen space, echoing down through the stub of corridor: “Do not!”
At the sound of Sarika’s voice, Whistle perked up in Badger’s lap, ears going rigid and little doggy nose snuffling at the air, as if he was about to receive a treat.
“Dog activated,” I murmured on impulse — but luckily nobody heard me. Far too exhausted and sore to properly regulate every stupid thought which popped into our collective heads.
“Speculative, Sarry,” Badger croaked back. “I won’t be getting up. It’s okay. It’s okay … ”
Sarika called back, “Do not get out of bed, you fucking moron!”
“He won’t,” Raine replied over her shoulder. “Don’t worry, Sarry girl, we’re not gonna push your man too far.”
Sarika huffed and banged something very loud, then returned to making too much noise in the kitchen. Badger’s face creased with a genuine smile. For a moment he was quite far away.
“Haven’t had much time to talk to Lozzie,” Raine said. “She’s busy with a lot of the clean-up. But she probably wants to thank you, too. Just a little warning, you know? Expect her to pop out of nowhere when you least expect it.”
“Oh,” Badger said, coming around and blinking rapidly in an effort to clear his thoughts. “She did. She came by. I thought you knew.”
I stared; Raine laughed.
“Our little jellyfish is exceptionally fond of those who vanquish her enemies,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.
Nathan gave Sevens a politely wary look.
Sevens had said almost nothing since we’d arrived at the flat, just an icy hello and a nod, and then a polite refusal of Sarika’s blunt offer of tea. She was in her Yellow Princess mask, prim and proper and starched and straight, umbrella held like a walking stick, hair cut as if by a ruler, eyes unreadably cold. She was standing a little to my side, just far away enough to make some kind of statement, though I wasn’t sure what exactly the statement was meant to be.
Badger wasn’t entirely sure who Sevens was, of course, though he’d technically met her before. Normally I would have made some kind of introduction, even if it was a little white lie: “Here’s my other other girlfriend, her name is Septima, please ignore her.”
But Seven-Shades-of-Subtlety-and-Silence had been very clear. Before we’d left home, she’d said: “Do not explain who or what I am, kitten. This is essential.”
“Sevens,” I’d sighed. “We all saw the weird yellow sheen in Nathan’s eyes. But you don’t think—”
“I do think. And I am most unamused. I request your discretion. This is a family matter. Please.”
I wasn’t the only one eager to have a proper conversation with Nathan.
Raine was laughing. “Our Lozzie can’t take a break to come eat lunch, but she can take a break to come see you, hey?”
I sighed heavily: “She could have told us. Though I guess it’s perfectly safe now.”
Badger looked a little uncomfortable, glancing at Sevens again. “She just stepped out of nowhere — out of the corner of the room. At first I thought maybe she’d come with others, not alone, I was expecting to see you. But she said thank you, gave me a hug, and asked if I wanted a keepsake. I was worried for a moment she was going to give me a piece of one of the … well, the … you know.” Badger swallowed with lingering disgust.
“The Edwards, mm,” I grunted.
“They’re all being disposed of,” Raine said, suddenly businesslike, if her business was organised crime. “All the remains. Properly. Caterpillar style.”
Badger smiled awkwardly, inwardly pained; like me, he wasn’t comfortable dwelling on violence and blood by the sobering light of day, no matter how his belly had been filled with fire when faced with his foe.
I found it difficult to reconcile what now seemed like two distinct Nathans: the quiet, reserved, soft-hearted man sitting propped up in bed before us, polite and awkward and barely able to gesture without supreme effort — and the wild-eyed avatar of occult revenge who had ranted Edward into defeat and fed him to a monster.
Nathan and Badger, perhaps. Or Inside Badger and Outside Badger. Or — a darker thought that I instinctively turned away from — victim-Badger, with his self-sacrifice, his head wound, his slow, almost grovelling apology; and Nathan Sterling Hobbes, a mage.
We distracted ourselves from that thought right away, saying, “Lozzie’s taken on too much responsibility for all this mess. She needs to slow—”
A flash of pastel-pink, pastel-blue, and clean gleaming white burst into the corner of the room, fluttering and floating and flittering as she arrived; as if summoned by the merest hint of complaint about her methods, Lozzie materialised with a little puff of air.
“Heathy! There you are!”
She was bright and beaming, her smile wide and toothy. Her poncho seemed almost to move by itself as she bounced on her heels. Her long wispy blonde hair flicked outward as she bobbed in greeting. She had an armful of heavy books — Edward’s books, from Edward’s House — and an escort.
Two of Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors arrived with her, connected to her poncho with trails of iridescent spheres. Both of them lurched for a moment following their arrival, as if Lozzie’s membrane-transition had left them disoriented. Then they drifted up toward the ceiling like a pair of helium-filled party balloons, awaiting the next stop on the Lozzie-train.
Of course Raine, Badger, and Whistle couldn’t see them.
Whistle hopped up to his little doggy paws, surprised and confused at how Lozzie had appeared as if from nowhere, but mostly mollified because it was Lozzie and Lozzie gave extraordinarily good pettings.
“Lozzie?” I spluttered.
Raine laughed. “Speak of the devil! There she is!”
“Oh,” Badger was saying. “Oh, yes, exactly like that. Hello — hello again, Lozzie.”
But Lozzie was already whirling into motion, every movement bursting with too much energy. She put the pile of books down on Badger’s desk and hopped over to the bed, raising one finger toward me and Raine and saying, “Wait, wait!”
We all waited as she reached under her poncho and produced a small curve of white material — a piece of shed Caterpillar carapace — and clicked it down on Badger’s bedside table.
“There!” she announced. “A keepsake from my biggest friends — largest! Big. Yes!”
Badger blinked at the object in surprise and incomprehension. Lozzie leaned forward and gave him a hug, poncho going everywhere. Before he had time to react, she was away again, off Badger and moving onto Whistle. She hauled the Corgi into the air, spun him round, kissed him on the head, and then placed him back in Badger’s lap. Whistle was quite overwhelmed by this and sat back down with a ‘hurruff’.
Laughing now, Lozzie danced away, turned around, and all but slammed herself into Seven-Shades-of-Surprised-by-a-Hug. Sevens caught her, hugged her back with delicate frosty precision, and then let her go again. Lozzie favoured Raine with a hug too, got some big slaps on the back for her trouble, and then finished by hugging me. She was warm and wriggly and clingy; her poncho seemed to sneak up your sides and pull you in; she smelled of sweat and shampoo and chocolate cookies and a hint of cleaning products from the House. We could have gone to sleep right there and then, because Lozzie gave very good hugs.
But then she quickly detached and hopped back again, wiping the hair out of her face. “Heathy! Youuuuuu — are needed in Camelot. We need to make the back wall open up for a Catty to go inside and clean out all the sad-sads, but I can’t do that myself. Pleeeeeease!”
I actually laughed, bowled over by the sheer radiant energy from Lozzie’s presence. “Lozzie, we do have phones. You could have just sent me a text.” We frowned upward at the bubble-servitors bumping against Badger’s ceiling. “Is that the last of them?”
Lozzie flapped her poncho in a full-body shrug. “Mister Cringle says there’s still six more inside the House, a-wandering and a-wobblying. They’re all dazed without him! It’s kind of weird. Kind of funny. Mostly weird. A bit bad. Better now, ‘kay?” She turned and waved a corner of poncho up at the bubble-servitors. She’d been digging them out of the House’s guts for the entire day, recovering them and returning the lost angels to Hringewindla’s shell. She’d been gathering up the misplaced Knights as well, though at least they had the good sense to look for exits under their own intellectual steam.
Raine reached out and ruffled Lozzie’s hair. Lozzie made a show of pulling a face and sticking her tongue out, but her hair was already such a wild riot that no further messing was possible. Raine said, “Heather’ll be along later, okay, Loz? Maybe take a break in the meantime? I know Tenny’s still trying to name your new friend.”
“Pbbbbbbt,” went Lozzie, vibrating her lips in pale imitation of a noise which Tenny might make. “Mmmmmmm okay, okay, okay.” She pulled a mock-angelic face, smiling with her eyes almost closed. “I can wait! But not too long!”
“I need to finish talking to Nathan,” I said. “It’s important. To me.”
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ahhhhhhh,” went Lozzie. She bobbed a little shrug-bow-curtsey which probably would have made anybody else fall flat on their face. She scooped the books up off the table and beamed at us again — then at Badger.
“Uh, thank you, Lozzie,” Badger said, vastly out of his depth and hesitating over every word. “Thank you for the … the piece of … ” He glanced awkwardly at the chunk of Caterpillar carapace on his bedside table.
“Thankee, Badgeee,” Lozzie chirped.
The pair of bubble-servitors reached down to touch her shoulders. She stepped back, wrinkled her nose, and vanished.
Silence returned, like a shocked clearing in the wake of a shout. Even Sarika had stopped banging around in the kitchen.
Raine laughed to herself, shrugging with her hands. Sevens straightened a single wrinkle in her flawless white blouse. I let out a big, tired sigh. Whistle tilted his head and made a curious little doggy sound; he did not understand where Lozzie had gone, or how.
Nathan bit his lower lip, then said: “I do hope she’s taking this well. I … we, none of us, we never did enough for her. We saw it all happen, with her brother, with the captivity, and none of us fucking did anything.”
Raine said: “Stop kidding yourself, Nate. You solved her biggest problem.”
Badger shook his head, drawing on anger for a sudden burst of energy. There was no pride in his eyes, just a touch of lingering shame. “Should have acted years ago. Should never have pretended we didn’t see her.”
“She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her,” I croaked.
Badger looked at me in surprise.
“No looming threat over her head anymore,” we went on. My tentacles flexed in agreement. “No uncle Edward trying to put her in a cage. Didn’t you see her just now, Badger?”
Raine said, “Our Lozzie’s acting like she’s gotten into the white powder, if you know what I mean.”
I did not know what Raine meant, but Badger forced a polite chuckle and Sevens tilted her chin upward in haughty approval. In the kitchen, Sarika let out a pointed tut and muttered something under her breath. So I assumed this all made sense.
“Well,” Badger sighed. “I’m … finding it hard to tell, right now, yes, sorry. I’m … ” He trailed off with a sigh and a pained smile. He was so reluctant to express the brute fact of his own exhaustion.
“Not surprised you’re tired, mate,” said Raine, filling in the missing words. “That was one hell of a seizure you had. I think you’ve earned as much rest as you want.”
Badger’s smile turned introspective. “Yes. Worst one yet. Like I was … riding it out until the last moment, making it worse and worse. But I had to finish saying what I had to say, to Edward, I … I don’t know why, I … ”
Sevens spoke, ice-cold and oddly sharp: “Do you really not know why, Mister Hobbes?”
Badger blinked at her. “S-sorry? Um … I’m sorry, I’m still so fuzzy in the head. I didn’t quite catch who … you … ”
Sevens stared so steely and silent that Badger just trailed off. Whistle stood up again, hackles rising. We wanted to interrupt before this got too weird, but Raine sensed the tension and jumped in first.
“Did anybody tell you that Zheng had to put her hand in your mouth? To stop you from biting your tongue off? During the seizure, I mean.”
That got Badger’s attention. Astonished, he stared at Raine. “Um. No. Nobody told me that.”
Raine chuckled and shot him a wink. “I think you’re probably the first mage with the honour of having your tongue saved by Zheng, rather than ripped out.”
Badger flinched. “I’m not a mage.”
In the kitchen, Sarika hissed something horrible under her breath.
“Nathan,” I said, drawing myself up in my chair. “I’m sorry, we’re getting very off-topic, and I don’t want to use up all your time. We came here for a specific reason. Well, two specific reasons, really. First is to say thank you.”
“You don’t have to—”
We ignored his protest. “I don’t know if Edward was telling the truth about surviving and returning from the abyss, but if he was, you saved us from that. I don’t know what might have happened. Thank you. Stop rejecting the gratitude.”
Badger bobbed his head, but not as an equal. He had all the mannerisms of a lowly soldier talking to his guardian angel. I wanted to sigh, or reach out with a tentacle to slap him and tell him to stop, tell him that he deserved a little pride. But I didn’t have the energy for that.
“Secondly,” I croaked on. “Badger. Nathan. Your plan worked, it was genius, but … why didn’t you tell us?”
To my surprise and delight, that did the trick.
Nathan straightened up, either subconsciously or on purpose, though I suspected the former. He found his spine again. He looked away from us for a long, long moment, staring out of the open window. There wasn’t much to see from his bedroom window — the wall of the block of flats opposite, a sliver of pavement below, a burst of summer blue sky above. We all followed his gaze as a seagull passed overhead; far inland for a gull. Perhaps there was a storm over the Irish Sea that day.
Badger’s hand found Whistle’s back and started to stroke the Corgi. Whistle squinted his eyes shut in doggy pleasure.
“It wasn’t a decision I took lightly,” he said eventually — and even his voice was different now, lower, softer, but more confident. “And I understand if you never want to trust me again. If my trustworthiness is the price to pay for putting Edward Lilburne beyond the ability to harm anyone, then I will gladly pay it.”
“That’s not an answer to the question,” we said.
“You would have stopped me.”
Raine clicked her tongue. “We might not have done. Still not an answer, Nate.”
Badger smiled again. He turned back to us. “There were three reasons for not telling you. Did Amy not inform you about the first one?”
“Stack?” Raine asked, then sighed with more than a touch of longing. “Nah, she made herself scarce as soon as we confirmed the kill. Went to visit her kid, I think. And I was really looking forward to drinking with her and all.”
“Ah,” said Badger, a little lost by that. I frowned up at Raine. Badger went on. “Well. She agreed that concealing my plan was the right move.” He pulled a grimace, half-amused, half-apologetic. “I’m sorry to say this, but to put it gently — Heather, Raine, your friends, your group, whatever you want to call it—”
“Cult?” said Sevens, in a tone of challenge.
I tutted. “No! Sevens!”
“Polycule,” said Raine. “Strike team. Lesbian special ops. Best posse this side of the Watford Gap.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. Nathan made a gentle ‘never mind’ gesture with one hand.
“To put it gently,” Badger repeated himself. “Stack suggested that if I was to let you know, then the plan would somehow work its way back to Edward. Not intentionally! Just … ”
Raine tilted her head. “What did Stack say?” She pointed at Nathan with a finger-gun. “Ah ah ah, exact words, insults and all — what did she say about us, Nate? Come on. Give me the exact words.”
Badger winced. “Amy said you have ‘dogshit opsec’.”
Raine burst out laughing. She threw up her hands. “Oh come on, fuck her!”
“She said, if you were political activists, you’d be obvious plants, feeding information back to GCHQ. Um. Sorry.”
“Come on!” Raine almost shouted.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “‘Opsec’?”
Sevens said: “Operational security.”
Raine was amused but deeply offended. “Yeah, she thinks we were riddled with what — bugs? That he had our phones tapped? What?”
Badger looked horribly uncomfortable. He actually shifted in his bed, blushing and petting Whistle to anchor himself. “She did specifically mention the possibility of a phone call being intercepted, yes. Or just people watching your house. Or one of you saying the wrong thing to his lawyer, or … ”
Raine was shaking her head and biting her lower lip. “Oh Amy, Amy, Amy, I am going to get you alone in a room eventually and give you a piece of my mind.”
Sevens said: “Miss Stack will tie you into a knot.”
“Not if I’m faster she won’t.”
“Raine,” I whined. “I thought you and her had resolved this?”
“We resolved one thing and I started another. Sorry, Heather. She just gets under my waistband.”
“You mean under your skin?”
“I mean what I said.” Raine shot me a filthy wink. I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose; I wasn’t opposed to this conversation, or Raine’s new-found and rather concerning fascination, but this wasn’t the time to discuss it.
“Badger,” I said, trying to regain some control here. “You said three reasons. What were the other two, please?”
Nathan looked rather sheepishly between the three of us, hoping that we’d stopped, and then nodded. “Well, the second one you’ve already heard,” he said slowly. “I already said it out loud, to Edward, and then to you afterward, I think, though my memory is a little hazy.” He fixed me with a dour look. “I didn’t do this for you, Heather. I did it for myself and for everyone he killed. I did it for my dead friends. I did it for the … the … the kids … ”
“I know,” we said as Badger started to choke off.
We didn’t need to talk about the pile of dead children beneath the cult’s castle. Edward would not be ordering anymore kidnappings or murders.
“And third?” Sevens prompted — oddly cold again.
Badger looked down at Whistle. He scratched the dog between the ears. “I couldn’t be sure you would do it.”
“ … me?” I said.
Badger nodded. He looked up from Whistle with a strange note of defiance in his eyes, a little frown on his brow, guilty but resolved, like a condemned man standing by his crimes. “I know you could — I’ve seen you ready to kill before, I know you’re capable of it, and I sort of think we all have that potential in us, all people. I’m not like Alexander, I don’t think you’re somehow incapable of the decision. But — would you?” He shrugged. The motion took him great effort in his exhausted state. “I couldn’t be certain.”
We wanted to laugh. We tried, but it came out as a hollow little puff. “What on earth do you mean? I killed the Ed-ball, moments earlier. Well, okay, Lozzie and us killed him together, but—”
“I didn’t know any of that would happen, when I made the decision,” Nathan said. “And I didn’t kill Edward Lilburne. I didn’t kill him. I sent him to hell. I sent a man to hell, to be tortured forever.” Badger shook his head. “Or until his soul runs out. I don’t know how it works. Could you do that? Maybe. Maybe not. But I knew I could. Because I’m like this.”
“So, what?” we spluttered. “You thought I might flinch from Edward himself? He was threatening Lozzie! He was threatening all of us!” We almost shouted — which hurt my throat, very badly, but I was angry now, in a way I didn’t understand. “Evee’s the one who toyed with the idea of a truce at one point, but she abandoned that weeks and weeks ago. You seriously thought I was going to let him go after he posed so much danger to Lozzie, to me, to all of my family, my friends?”
Badger smiled a sad little smile. “You let me live, Heather.”
My brief anger went out, a candle in a storm.
“Nate,” Raine said gently. “Go easy on yourself, hey?”
Badger continued. “You were very merciful. And I’m not sure I deserved that mercy. The me of a few months ago?” He shook his head. “I was ready to sell Lozzie to her uncle, just for relief from the … the thing in my head.”
“Which I got rid of,” I said. “You can’t be blamed for that.”
“I am responsible for my actions before that,” he said. “And you let me live. You fixed my head.” He nodded at the bedroom doorway. “You saved Sarry, too. You didn’t need to. And Kimberly — I didn’t really know her much, in the cult. But she lives with you. Zheng, you could have thrown her Outside, I guess. But you didn’t.” He took a deep breath. “You’re very merciful, Heather. And I was worried you might find a way to show that mercy to Edward.”
“I would never have—”
“I couldn’t be sure,” he repeated. It wasn’t like him to talk over me, interrupt me, and there was a strange tremor in his voice — defying his Outsider Angel, but he had to do it. “I was worried you might find a way to let him go in return for the book. Or that he might escape with promises to never come back. And he was a mage. They find ways to keep living. We learned that with Alexander. I was afraid you would find a way to be merciful, again.” He tilted his head oddly. Eyes wet. Brow furrowed. “But I knew it had to be done. So, yes, in a way, in this way, I did it for you.” He blinked back the threat of tears. “I could have gotten one of you shot, yes, because I didn’t let you in on my plan. But I weighed it and considered it worth the risk. I considered Edward’s guaranteed defeat worth the risk. That’s why you shouldn’t trust me again.”
Raine blew out a very long sigh. Sevens just stared, eyes full of ice, uninterested in Badger’s justifications, waiting for something deeper. Whistle whimpered softly in Badger’s lap. In the kitchen, Sarika wasn’t banging around anymore.
We — myself and six additional Heathers, coiled tight inside bruised and sore tendrils of pneuma-somatic flesh — considered the alternative, the counter-factual, the way things might have gone. What would we have done if Badger had not been there, or if his gambit to sell Edward’s soul had not worked? What if Ooran Juh had not taken the bait? What if Edward Lilburne was correct about surviving in the abyss? What if he’d come back, as near-invincible as Ooran Juh — or as myself?
Would I have dived into the abyss and ripped him apart before his transformation could complete? Would Evee have signed a peace treaty in exchange for the book? Would we have left that festering magician to his tricks and his plots, just so we could get away?
Knowing was impossible. In retrospect it seemed as if this could not have worked out any other way.
I sighed, raw and frustrated. “One moment I’m too harsh, then apparently I’m too soft. I wish the world would make up its mind.”
We didn’t really mean that. We were just left with unresolved questions.
“Hey, hey,” Raine said. “For what it’s worth, I think you did the right thing. Imperfect, stupid in parts, could’a done it better. But it was the right thing. Well done, Nate.”
Nathan pulled a grimace. “You’re only saying that because it worked. If it hadn’t … ”
He shook his head. We all lapsed into a moment of silence. But then—
“My father had a hand in this. Of that I am certain.”
Seven-Shades-of-Supercilious-Severity spoke like she was pronouncing a death sentence.
Nathan just blinked at her. “I’m … I’m s-sorry, I still don’t understand who—”
I sighed. “You’ve met her before. Sort of. Try not to focus on that, Badger. Please. Just … humour her.”
Sevens took a step toward the bed. Her umbrella jutted out at an angle, like an aristocrat with a fancy walking stick. Whistle showed his little Corgi teeth to her, but she just blinked slowly, once, and he shrank back. Badger swallowed.
“She won’t hurt you,” I croaked.
“An interesting thing you created, wasn’t it?” said Sevens. “A unique spell. Not really true magic, but a fusion of mathematics and magical principles. A one-of-a-kind, tailored especially for Edward Lilburne. How did you get the idea for the spell, Mister Hobbes? A book, perhaps? One which came into your possession by strange means, or which you discovered that you had owned all your life but never before opened?”
Badger looked utterly bewildered. “Uh. Um. N-no. I just … I mean, I did the work myself. I got the basic idea from the mathematics baked into the house, when I saw the photos. Is that … wrong?”
Raine cleared her throat. “We already went through his flat when we got out of the hospital yesterday. He’s not hiding any capital-B books around here.”
Sevens tilted her head, staring down at Nathan. “A dream, perhaps? Father does sometimes work through dreams. I am told one usually wakes weeping, or screaming..”
I tutted. “Sevens. Sevens, he’s telling the truth. If Badger encountered something weird, he would have told me.”
“Uh, yes.” Nathan nodded, totally lost but clinging to my life-raft. “Anything. Anything at all, I-I don’t—”
“And how,” said Sevens, “did you get that piece of paper in front of Edward’s nose? That is one step which continues to elude even my comprehension, Mister Hobbes. Edward Lilburne was a supremely paranoid and cautious man. Am I expected to believe that he simply looked at a piece of paper put in front of him by one of his enemies?”
Nathan perked up at that. His lips creased with a little smile. “Oh, well. That was the biggest wheeze of all. I told him the truth.”
“The truth?” I croaked, genuinely interested.
Badger nodded. “I told him the truth, about what you did for me, Heather. About the brain surgery, and the … E-word. And I implied that I had the trick of it, that I’d figured it out from you. I baited him with the implication that I knew how to reject and control something from Outside. He never could have resisted that temptation. Even if it was a lie, he had to test it.”
Sevens clicked her tongue. “But still you got it past his caution. How curious. You mean me to believe that none of his minions checked it first?”
Badger smiled wider. A touch of mania coloured his eyes — but not yellow. “They did.”
Sevens frowned delicately.
“He checked it,” Badger went on. “He really checked it. Three of his weird clones. One of them went over it in detail, inside a magic circle and all. They did all sorts of things to it until letting him read it. He had me seriously outclassed. And his demon — the uh, the lady with the horns — she checked it too. But here’s the trick, right? It didn’t affect any of them!” Badger was grinning now, very pleased with himself. “That’s how I got it past all his protections. The mathematics required a mage’s mind on which to operate. It wouldn’t function otherwise!” His voice rose too far, almost panting. “I-I got the basic idea from the house, the mathematics twinned to magical effect, it was incredible, and- and- and- I worked out some of the rest, and yes I had to do some additional research, borrow some concepts, but—”
“Borrow some concepts?” Sevens interrupted sharply.
Badger stopped, panting softly, sweating a little. He wiped his forehead in surprise. “Oh. Uh … um … I … ”
“Heeeey there Nate,” said Raine. “Slow down, slow right down, okay?”
With a clack-clack-clack and a bang of crutch on bedroom door-frame, we were suddenly joined by a very grumpy Sarika.
We would love to say that she looked marginally better than when we last saw her — but she didn’t. Sarika looked awful. She was still a mess of random muscle twitches, of sallow skin and eye-bags and her black hair forever streaked with premature grey. She was also obviously and openly stressed beyond belief; I had the sudden impression she had not slept last night, at all. But she no longer hunched and slouched and threatened to fall over so often — she had grown more adept at using her crutches, at predicting and catching her various lurches and lunges, at walking unaided, at making a go of some kind of normality.
She was wearing a large oversized cream jumper, a long skirt, and a scowl of deep contempt. At the sight of her, Whistle jumped up in Badger’s lap, tongue out, little tail wagging at maximum speed.
Sarika brandished a wad of printouts in one hand.
“He didn’t tell you about the fucking paper, did he?” she snapped. “Here. Read it for yourselves.”
“Oh, that,” Badger said. “Sarry, I wasn’t hiding that. It just gave me the idea for the looping function, that was all. It’s not even supernatural in any way, it’s just a mathematics paper.”
Raine accepted the dog-eared printout with a curious look. She held it up, frowned, then laughed and shook her head. She passed it to Sevens.
“What?” we croaked. We couldn’t see from down in the chair. “Sevens, what does it say?”
Raine said to Sarika: “He didn’t tell you shit about his plan, did he?”
“No,” Sarika rasped in a voice that could have filed a hole in a battleship hull. “He did not.”
“You mad at him?”
“Fair ‘nuf.” Raine shrugged.
Sevens peered at the paper and said: “Explain to me what I am looking at.”
Sarika almost growled. “He got it off SciHub. The author’s never published anything else. And I checked last night — the listing has vanished.”
“Sevens, I can’t see,” we said.
Raine cleared her throat and read out loud for my benefit. “Recursive Operations as Utilized in Reverse Function, Examined in Descending Order.”
Sarika hissed. “Doesn’t even sound like a real mathematics paper name, does it? And ‘University of Tolchester’. That’s not a real place!”
“It’s a misprint,” Badger said gently. “It must mean somewhere else. And it’s just a normal paper, there’s nothing supernatural.”
Sevens laughed — or at least I assumed it was a laugh, a single puff of air from her nose. “The author’s name is ‘Rex Saffron’.”
Raine snorted again. “Fuck’s sake.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh. Well. That’s rather unsubtle.”
Sevens placed the papers gently on the edge of Badger’s bed. “My father’s hand. I rest my case.”
Badger looked utterly bewildered. I didn’t blame him. I doubt he understood the layers of problem being revealed here.
Neither did Sarika — but that did not stop her from stomping forward, brandishing one crutch with passive-aggressive intent. “Your father?” she rasped at Sevens. “And who the fuck are you, Miss ‘Saffron’?”
Sevens turned an ice-cold gaze on Sarika. To Sarika’s credit, she endured it for all of about five seconds. She had endured worse, we supposed.
“You do not wish to know who or what I am,” said Seven-Shades-of-Serious-Secrets.
I let out a big sigh. “What does this actually mean, Sevens?” we asked. “Are we … in a … play?” I shrugged.
Sevens stepped back and bowed her head in the closest to an apology she could get. “No. I believe it was a momentary redirection of a single line in an untouched script. However, this means I must potentially deal with a small family matter, though perhaps not before certain other pursuits. I assume my father’s involvement in this is done, his interest passed with the death of the elder Mister Lilburne. But I will still have a nice little shout at him.” She tilted her head slightly. “I do not wish to thank him. He may get ideas.”
Sarika huffed. She stomped over to the bed and patted Whistle on the head. “Are you all done here? Nathan is not well. No thanks to all of you. He needs to sleep.”
Badger pulled an embarrassed smile. “Sarry, please, I’m fine … ”
“No. No you’re not!” she snapped.
Raine clapped her hands together. “Yeah, I think we’re done here. Right, Heather? Badger’s on the mend, and we’ve got lots to deal with, yeah?”
But Nathan and I were looking at each other; he was still my unasked-for disciple. Not to mention I probably had a responsibility to ensure that Sevens’ father — the King in Yellow — took no continuing interest in him. What I was to him, I didn’t know.
He smiled and said: “You look exhausted, Heather. And I don’t mean that as a funny euphemism or something. Are you alright?”
We shrugged, which made several different muscle groups all ache at once. “We’ll heal up shortly.”
“Is everyone else … okay?” he asked.
I swallowed awkwardly.
Raine said, “Well, some people did get shot. Just not us.”
We said: “Did you know any of those people?” But Badger shook his head. “The boy who survived the gunfight — and he is a boy, a teenager — he’s still in the hospital. Raine, is that still right?”
“Mmhmm.” Raine nodded. “Kim took him in as a ‘bystander’, so we can’t get in and take much of a look again. No next of kin, no family, he’s just there by himself. Lozzie went to check. Kid’s basically in a waking coma. Fugue state. Whatever you wanna call it. Magical shock? I dunno.” She shrugged. “All the rest went down in the gun fight. We’ve got Eddy’s demon, but she’s … well. Taciturn.”
“And the House,” I croaked. “Don’t forget the House.”
“Mm! Yeah.” Raine nodded. “And it’s a lot of house.”
Badger nodded along. “I’m … really sorry all those people had to die. And that boy, I don’t know there’s anything … ”
“I’ll do something,” I said — though I had no idea what, not yet.
Badger nodded. “I did that too, in a way, you know? That was my responsibility. I caused it, even if it was Amy pulling the trigger. My fault.”
I considered for a moment, then asked a question I wasn’t sure if I should put into words.
“Nathan, are you a mage again now?”
Badger didn’t wince that time. He just looked at me and said: “I don’t know. If you need me to be … ”
Sarika ground her teeth so hard I heard them creak.
I shook my head. “Sorry. No. I shouldn’t have said that. No.”
One more awkward smile. Badger said, “But you got the book, right? You got that book, in the end. The way’s open now. To the … ” He glanced at Sarika, who shuddered and averted her eyes. “To the E-word. To your sister. Is that right, Heather? I helped. I did. Right?”
Raine answered before I could: “Lots of mess to clean up first. And Evee’s gotta do the work, make us a thing.” She winked. “We’re not going tomorrow or something like that, alright?”
“You’re right,” I said. My tentacles finally unwound from my body, lifting together as I pushed us out of the chair. The pain was enough to make me nauseated, but I held on and raised my head, lifting my little bag of lemons with one aching, sore hand. “There’s some mess, and some lost cultists, and some responsibilities which cannot be avoided. But you’re right. Evee has the book. She’ll build her invisibility spell. The way is open.”
The way to Wonderland, to the Eye, and to Maisie.
The last chapter of arc 20! Some much needed falling action, after such a busy climax. You didn't seriously think Badger was gonna die, right? Not with Heather right there, to stab him with adrenaline and custom-brewed pharmacological cocktails? Badger's death would also be rather counter-thematic for Katalepsis - personal redemption does not require martyrdom, merely material help to best of one's abilities. And my gosh, he went above and beyond. A little touch of help from the King, perhaps, but no more than a fingertip's worth. Sevens doesn't seem happy about that part. And neither does Sarika (but is she ever happy about anything?) But Heather ... Heather's almost there. To Wonderland.
I want to give another shoutout this week! I know I've been doing a few of these lately, but there's just so much going on! In Sekhmet's Shadow, by r3v3n3n7, is something quite unique: a post-superhero sci-fi story, updating every day (I believe the author actually has the whole thing already written, behind the scenes), and, well, I'll quote a section of the blurb right here: "can superheroes reconcile the contradictions within capital and themselves, does power corrupt, and is it gay if you're a woman and she's a goth-rock robot?" So, yeah. Go check it out!
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Next week, onto arc 21! Perhaps not time for a expedition to Wonderland quite yet, what with Heather having some loose ends and curious thoughts to tie up first, not to mention the looming problem of what to actually do about the Eye. But it's not far away.