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i. There's nothing to see, said the new voice in Valkyrie's head, unhelpfully.

The telescope felt useless in Valkyrie's hand, a brass-heavy weight. It was sunset, only a few minutes after she'd first noticed the ship, although she got the feeling it had been following them for longer. Now, the dark veil of night had fallen almost entirely over the sea, and making out anything besides the moon and the last horizon-glow of the sun was a near impossible task. But Valkyrie, as many who knew her were fond of saying, was an impossible girl.

When she'd first sighted the ship she had looked up at the crow’s nest and seen that Vex wasn’t there; he was probably dining with the rest of the crew. She was the only one who'd spotted it, so far. She had called for Skulduggery without taking her eyes off the sea, and he'd approached a moment later, with those footsteps she now knew by heart.

"If you fell asleep at your post, you know," Skulduggery said now from beside her, the familiarity of his voice sidling through the black air, "it's alright to admit it."

"Just wait a minute," she replied, scanning the sea from side to side relentlessly. "I saw something. And it looked....ominous."

"Are you sure? It didn't come bearing a flag of butterflies and roses?"

"Shut up and let me concentrate. It—look! There it is!" The breath nearly caught in her throat as the strange vessel came once more into view. And then, as she got a better look at it—

“Skulduggery,” she said to him, “what the devil is that?”

From what Valkyrie could make out it was a ship unlike any other she’d seen before. In some ways it hardly even looked real—it flickered every time the last glimmers of the sun struck it, and when she squinted or tilted her head the wrong way it seemed to disappear. Its sails hung limp and torn to bits, and its hull was speckled with holes. She thought it a miracle the thing was even still afloat.

“Ah,” was Skulduggery’s only response. She looked at him—she’d gone through quite a growth spurt in the past year, and was still unused to the fact that she no longer really needed to look up at him, especially with the heels in her boots—and frowned.

“Go on. Ah, what?”

Skulduggery didn't reply. He stared out at the ship, his skull not moving an inch. He didn't even appear to hear her.

"Skulduggery," Valkyrie said again. Worry colored her voice this time.

Another beat passed, and he seemed to snap out of whatever trance he had been in. He looked at her, and she made a little gesture with her head as though to say, Well? What the hell is that?

It still prompted no answer, so Valkyrie said, "Well? What the hell is that? It looks like a ghost ship, for God’s sake. "

"A ghost ship?" There was something strange to his voice, something which made it unfamiliar, an unpleasant effect. “It seems I’ve taught you well after all. I believe that we are, as a matter of fact, looking at exactly that.”

“Are you kidding me?” Valkyrie said. “Is it really a ghost ship, or are you pulling my leg again? If you start laughing just when I start to believe you—“

“Unfortunately, it's not a joke.” There was no soft undercurrent of laughter in his voice as there often was when they spoke, just the two of them—instead there was something that made Valkyrie want to shiver.

“Oh,” she replied, caught off guard. “Okay, then—“

“Do you know anything about ghost ships, Valkyrie?” Skulduggery interrupted. He spoke quietly, and he sounded distracted, as though he was only half there with her.

“I don't—I've heard stories, but…“

“The stories are always wrong.” There was a moment of silence between them, and when he spoke again, there was no longer anything unnerving in his voice. “Or at least, they are when they don’t concern the daring adventures of the most handsome skeleton on the seven seas.”

She wasn't comforted, as she usually was, by his lapse into humor. The whole situation sat too uneasily in her stomach, reminding her of when she had first come to sea on The Black Bentley and had been seasick for a month.

If Skulduggery noticed, he gave no sign. The sun was set now, only the faintest scrapes of red still curling around the horizon. The temperature was dropping already. “Come on,” he said. “We can continue this conversation inside.”

“Shouldn’t we say something to the rest of the crew first?” Valkyrie asked, tearing her eyes away from the ship for the first time. “They’ll see it soon enough.”

“Not with night coming on.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned and started for his cabin. There had been no lamps lit yet, and in the dark it was difficult to see much of anything. Valkyrie focused on what she could hear: the ocean licking its salty tongue against the sides of The Bentley, muted laughter rising from below the deck of the ship. Skulduggery’s footsteps, each a little more distant than the last. Not the voice in her head, insidious and content. She followed after him.

***

In truth, Skulduggery’s quarters had long since begun its transformation into their quarters, and the evidence was the room itself, chaotic mishmash as it was of her things and his, of his habit of organization and Valkyrie’s tendency to leave everything everywhere. It felt truly like home to her, and she didn’t need the sound of Skulduggery’s steps to lead her there in the dark; she knew the way by heart.

When she entered, he was sweeping clean a place on the perpetually cluttered table, and she took her customary seat. There was a stack of yellowing books piled almost to the height of the table near her feet, and she lightly knocked her boot against it.

After a moment of the resulting tap, tap, tap, Skulduggery looked up at her. “That’s quite annoying.”

“I know,” she said smugly.

"And yet you continue."

"I'll stop," she said, sinking lower to make herself more comfortable, "when you tell me what exactly is going on."

"If you could take your feet off of my books, perhaps I could show you."

Valkyrie conceded that it was, unfortunately, a valid point. She withdrew her feet a little.

"Thank you." Skulduggery pulled a few of the books out of the stack and spread them out in the now-empty center of the table. "What do you remember about the Pirate Kings?"

"I thought you were going to tell me about ghost ships?"

Skulduggery just looked at her.

She sighed. "They were old. And bad. And powerful."

"My tutelage is wasted on you."

"Shut up, I'm trying to remember. They helped Mevolent during the war, right? They were his most dangerous fleet."

"Correct. There were three captains in particular who wrecked terror in his name."

She remembered now. "Serpine, Vengeous, and Vile."

"Thank you. Vengeous and Serpine were killed in the war, of course. Vile disappeared. He is presumed dead, although no one saw it happen."

"They were killed by you in the war, you mean," Valkyrie said. "Vile probably ran off to an island somewhere before you came for him, too."

"Yes," Skulduggery said, "well. Be that as it may, Vengeous and Serpine had their vessels sunk deep into the water, cannon-balled all the way to Davy Jones himself. No one knows what happened to Lord Vile's ship. It was where he kept his power, you know; it was how he controlled the shadows. As with Vile, it simply disappeared."

"Maybe it sank, too."

"That would appear to be the most logical conclusion, and it's what everyone thought for these past few hundred years."

"Is this where we finally get to talk about ghost ships?"

Skulduggery tutted. He was still standing over the table. The door had been closed. "As I said, Lord Vile's ship was never found—"

"Woah," Valkyrie interrupted, suddenly realizing the point he was heading to, "woah, woah, woah, hold on a minute."

"I'm holding."

"You're about to say that this ship is Lord Vile's, aren't you? But there's no way. He hasn't been around for two hundred years, Skulduggery. And you never even fought Vile, right? He showed up when you were doing your whole self-imposed-exile thing.”

“That’s true, but—“

“And wasn't he, like, basically the most dangerous dude ever? Wouldn't he have just blasted us out of the water as soon as we spotted him?”

“I didn't say that it was his ship. Technically, I didn't get to say anything, as you so politely interrupted me—but I was going to say that it is a vestige of Lord Vile’s ship, almost a memory—a ghost ship, properly speaking. While I may never have fought Lord Vile, I’ve heard enough horror stories to last a lifetime. Or a normal lifetime, anyway. Not mine. But the point, Valkyrie, is that I have a general idea of what his vessel looked like, and it would seem quite a match."

"So, is Vile, like, in there? Did the ship take on a life of his own? Or is he still in charge?" Absentmindedly, she snatched a ruby from the desk and tossed it in the air.

"Uncertain," Skulduggery answered. "Nobody knows very much about ghost ships, really."

"Well, we've got to go tell everyone then, right? Should we do it now? They're all still together in the dining hall, it might be easier—"

"Ah," Skulduggery said. "You see, my very next issue of address was going to be that we should under no circumstances tell anyone about this."

"I'm sorry?"

"People would panic, Valkyrie."

"Because one of the most dangerous pirates who ever lived is tailing our ship? Understandably so."

"They would panic unduly. From what little we know of ghost ships, they don't run at full strength. It's not a fully-powered Vile coming after us. It might only be something like a mirage. There's no need to send everyone into a frenzy until we know more about what he can do. And there's something else."

"Go on."

He hesitated for only a moment. "If Vile is back, there's a reason. He wouldn't come back from two hundred years of absence without something drawing him here. We need to find out what that reason is. We might be able to dispel him without having to get anyone else involved."

"And what kind of reason would it be? What could possibly bring him back?"

Skulduggery tilted his head. "I couldn't say yet. A threat, perhaps. It would have to be something very powerful, to reach him."

Valkyrie kept her eyes on the ruby, glittering dark as bloodshed in her palm. She didn't say anything. She didn't look at him.

***

That night, she dreamt. The same awful dreams, the same nightmares which had plagued her ever since her visit to the sensitive's hut a few months ago. The tearing in her head, the screaming, the flooding of every terrible thing she'd ever felt, and that little voice, Darquesse, Darquesse, Darquesse. The visions of what she would do—of what Darquesse would do. Whole fleets turned to a bit of ash in the wind. The sea itself on fire. And her laughter above it all.

 

_________

 

 

ii. Tanith laughed. Her eyepatch was over the right eye today, and the wind blew the blonde hair from her face. "You were really worried about me, Val?"

"You were gone for a week! I thought you'd been eaten by sharks."

"C'mon, you know who'd win in a fight with me versus sharks."

"Not if it was, like, a thousand sharks."

"Touche. Just give me a few years, though."

"Perhaps we could stay focused here," Skulduggery put in.

They were standing out on the deck in the early afternoon. The sea was calm, lapping affectionately against the Bentley. The sky was bright and blue, the sunlight sloped gently, and Valkyrie couldn't imagine, couldn't fathom that one day she would destroy all of this. That she would take it into her hands and crush it without remorse.

She shook her head, trying to clear it, trying not to hear the little ring of laughter that echoed in the back of her mind. "Right. Good idea. So did you find anything?"

Tanith shrugged. "It's hard to say, since both of my captains refuse to tell me what I'm supposed to be looking for," she raised an eyebrow here, "but nothing really, no. Although..."

"Although?"

"I don't think it's really worth mentioning."

"And yet you've mentioned it," Skulduggery said.

“Well, okay. You’re about to yell at me, but I stopped by a Temple on the way back.”

“Tanith!” Valkyrie said.

She held up her hands. "I know, I know, I wasn't supposed to, it was really dangerous, and it might have been the reason I was a little delayed. But it's fine. You told me that whatever I was looking for might have something to do with necromancy, and I didn’t have any other leads, so I decided to check it out.”

Skulduggery tilted his head. "And what did you find?"

"They've heard something. A prophecy or something, I'm not completely sure. But it's about someone named Darquesse. They think she's going to destroy the world." Tanith shrugged. "A lot of people have tried to destroy the world, of course, especially in the past five years, so I didn't take it too seriously. But maybe it's got something to do with whatever you're trying to find out."

"I see. And you didn't hear any further details about it?"

"I was a little busy trying to escape," Tanith said with a smile.

"Fair enough." Skulduggery said. They exchanged a few more words, but Valkyrie wasn't listening. She looked at the floor, studying the spirals in the wood. Her stomach churned, and her mouth was dry, and then Skulduggery was looking at her, and Tanith was gone, and he put a hand on her shoulder.

"Valkyrie," he said, "is something wrong?"

She took a deep breath and looked up at him. The little voice in her head said, He's going to kill you. She saw his gun pressing against her temple, imagined how cold it would feel against her skin. Valkyrie swallowed. "I have to tell you something."

***

"Well," Skulduggery said.

"Yup," said Valkyrie.

There was a moment of silence between them.

"So do you think that's why Vile is coming back? Because he knows somehow about Darquesse?" She was sitting in her spot in their captain's chambers, her knees curled up to her chest, trying to act comfortable. Her heart beat nearly out of her ribcage.

"It's certainly possible," Skulduggery murmured. "Although how he would have known...how he heard of it...."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing," Skulduggery said. His skull jerked a little, like he had started to shake his head but had stopped halfway through. "It makes more sense than anything else we've heard. It's a clear motive, especially if the necromancers are getting involved. And the timing matches, even if it's a little belated."

"So..."

"Hm?"

"So what are we going to do about the fact that I'm Darquesse? Are you angry? Are you—"

"Am I what?"

"Nothing."

"It doesn't sound like nothing."

"Are you going to kill me?" she said, the words all rushing together. Then she sank deeper into her seat in the silence that followed.

Skulduggery tilted his head. "You think I'm going to kill you?"

"Or kill Darquesse. Which is me. So...yes. Maybe. I don't know."

"Is that why you didn't tell me at once?"

"Of course that's why," Valkyrie said. Her voice sounded small.

He just looked at her.

"So, uh," she said. "You're not? You're not going to shoot me or throw me overboard or whatever?"

"I'm not going to throw you overboard, Valkyrie." He paused. "Well, I might, but it'll be because of that annoying tapping thing you do, completely unrelated to all of this. Also, I'm not entirely sure of the pirate legality of throwing someone off a ship that's technically half theirs. It might be considered a mutiny."

"You didn't answer the shooting thing."

"I'm not going to shoot you, either. I'm not going to kill you. We'll figure something out. We could have started to figure it out earlier, if you'd have told me then."

"I'm sorry," Valkyrie said. "I was afraid."

She looked into his eye sockets, saw the darkness there, without expression. It would have been frightening, maybe, if it were someone else. But the emptiness, the blankness comforted her, because it was him. He held his head at an angle which meant he was thinking deeply about what he said next.

"It's alright." His voice, always beautiful, was soft. "I understand."

They stayed there together in the cabin for a while, talking quietly about what to do, pulling books from the shelves and splaying them out on the table. The cold feeling which had taken up residence in Valkyrie's stomach left her slowly, bit by bit, as they acted out this familiar scene. Two partners making a plan, nothing they couldn't do together. No monster they couldn't beat. The one inside her didn't stand a chance.

 

_________

 

 

iii. The ship only appeared at sunset. They'd figured this out after a few days, waiting to see if anyone else noticed it from the crow's nest. No one did. It only shimmered into being as the light dipped into the horizon, as the rest of the crew was at dinner, and it never stayed visible for more than a few minutes at a time.

"It's getting closer," Valkyrie said, lowering the telescope. She hardly even needed it now to see the black and tattered sails.

"At quite an alarming pace. In fact, I would estimate at this rate that it will catch up to us within the week."

"And what happens when it catches up to us?"

Skulduggery didn't answer.

"Do you think that maybe we should tell everyone about it now? If we have to fight this thing, at least they'll be prepared." It seemed unfair to keep something so important and potentially dangerous from their crew. Valkyrie still wasn't entirely used to the power that came with being elected a captain, but she felt some of that responsibility now.

"Would you also like to tell them that you're Darquesse?"

"We could maybe leave that part out."

"Still, the risk is there. I think we can keep the secret for a little while longer. Hopefully that will be all the time we need."

The pretty colors of the sunset turned the skull beneath his hat a burnt orange, light soaking into it, painting the blank slate of his features. Valkyrie trusted him. She trusted him absolutely. But she still had to ask.

"Is there something you're not telling me?" Valkyrie asked.

"Plenty of things," he said. His voice was light, not serious. "It's how I keep things interesting, after all."

***

The Reaper's Revenge had always been fast. They didn't realize how fast. Evidently, it was faster than The Bentley.

The necromancers boarded them in the night, when everyone but the watch was asleep. Valkyrie was curled up in bed, another nightmare wracking through her, when hands closed around her eyes and her mouth and dragged her awake.

***

She and Skulduggery found themselves tied up in the brig beneath The Reaper's deck. They were put into the same cell, at least. Sometime in the hours of the morning, Tenebrae came down to see them.

"How are you enjoying your stay so far?" he asked.

"I have to say," Skulduggery said, "the company could be better."

Valkyrie glared at him.

"I'm sure you're wondering why you're here." Tenebrae didn't open the cell—he certainly knew they would rush him if he did—but he stayed just outside the bars, close enough to be vaguely uncomfortable. "You have a certain Miss Low to thank for that."

"Goddammit," Valkyrie said.

"That was why we followed you, initially. Just a little petty revenge. It isn't the first time we've squabbled, of course. But we noticed something last night, something very interesting. Just as the sun was about to set."

Valkyrie's stomach dropped.

"It's been many years, but I remember the look of Captain Vile's ship well. How could I ever forget it?"

"So that's why you've captured us?" she said. "To ask us about the ghost ship? Because if so, I have some bad news—we don't know any more about it than you do. Probably even less."

"Oh, I don't think that's true." Tenebrae's eyes skipped over to Skulduggery. "Is it, skeleton?"

Valkyrie frowned. "What do you mean?"

Skulduggery responded as though he hadn't even heard her. "Stop," he said to Tenebrae.

Tenebrae kept talking.

 

_________

 

iii. They were rescued a few hours later. Most of the crew battled the necromancers up on deck, and Vex and Ghastly snuck below to break them out of their cell. They didn't question why Valkyrie and Skulduggery were on opposites sides of the floor, not talking.

Valkyrie felt canon-fire rock the ship as they raced to the top, raced back across to The Bentley, and helped the rest of the crew retreat. The two forces were equally matched, a fact that The Reaper realized at about the same time, pulling out across the dark water as soon as the crews had separated once again, ending the confrontation at a draw. Valkyrie didn't care. She barely felt the cuts across her arms and cheek.

She didn't know where to go—it was a ship, after all, which meant that unfortunately there was very little sulking space. She ended up back in their cabin, locking the door so he couldn't get in. She crawled into her bed, pulled the blankets up around her, and lay there feeling sorry for herself. It didn’t keep her occupied for long. She wondered how long it would be before Skulduggery knocked on the door, tried to explain himself to her. She wondered if he would even bother. She was still wondering when she heard the patient tap, tap, tap against the oak.

She didn't say anything at first. Then, because it felt good, she said, "Go away!"

The tapping stopped for a moment. Then came his perfect voice. "Pardon me? I didn't quite catch that."

"I said, go away."

"What's that? Come in? I'd be happy to. If you could just kindly open the door, it seems to have locked itself—"

"Stop doing that," she said grumpily, pulling a pillow over her head. "I'm not going to let you in and I'm not going to forgive you."

"You sound like you're speaking through three leagues of water. It isn't flattering, I have to say. Please open the door so we can discuss this with some dignity."

"I never have dignity."

"Apparently."

"Please go away."

"Please open the door. They are technically my quarters, you know. It's a little embarrassing to be locked out of my own room. Have pity on me."

Valkyrie sighed. She lay there for a minute, then she got up and opened the door, and quickly slouched back to the bed before he could enter.

Skulduggery shut the door behind him. "Now, we can finally talk about this."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Valkyrie sat up, and wrapped the blanket around herself. "How long have we known each other now? Didn't you trust me? You know what I've done—what I'm going to do. What Darquesse is going to do. I shouldn't have had to find out like that, from him. And now, with Vile's ship following us—we could have worked it out together."

"Everything you're saying is true," Skulduggery said. "I understand your frustration. And I only hope you can understand when I tell you that I was afraid."

Valkyrie looked at him. She felt the sympathy rise up in her. She remembered a week ago, when they'd been on opposite sides of this same conversation. She suddenly was very tired, and no longer angry.

"Dammit," Valkyrie said.

"Quite."

"Well, what are we going to do now?"

"That depends—are you planning to throw me overboard?"

"Shut up," Valkyrie said. She threw her pillow at him to hide the fact that she was starting to smile.

***

"This is an awful plan," Valkyrie said.

"I don't think you're being fair."

"You're right. I'm being too generous. It's not even a plan. It's just—doing something stupid that isn't going to work and will probably get us killed."

"That's the spirit," Skulduggery said.

They were standing on the deck of The Bentley, watching the sun dip low in the sky. With every inch it sank, Valkyrie's heart beat faster. They had sent Vex down from his lookout earlier than usual today, had told him to take the evening off since he was still recovering from the necromancers' attack.

"He won't see us coming," Skulduggery continued. "If we go to him, he'll be unprepared. He might not even be on board. We can take the fight on our own terms—he'll be weakened, since he's separated from me. I daressay it will be downright easy."

Valkyrie frowned. "No, it won't be."

"You're probably right. It will still be a grueling fight, which will admirably test our mettle and rattle our resolves. But we'll come out on top. We always do."

"So far." Valkyrie looked down at the water, silvery in the falling light. "We should probably head out now. The sun is almost down."

"Yes, we should." He helped her down the side of the ship, and she splashed into the cold water, flailing for a moment before her body found its rhythm. Skulduggery slid down beside her, considerably more graceful. They ducked low, and swam out to where Skulduggery estimated Vile's ship would appear. Valkyrie took a moment to imagine how this would appear to someone on the outside, and snorted.

"This is objectively ridiculous," she said, trying to keep up with Skulduggery's long strokes. He sliced through the water like a shark.

"Nonsense. It's perfectly solemn. We're risking our lives here, Valkyrie. Have some respect."

She snorted again, and looked up just in time to see something huge and old and terrible shimmer into view. Up close, Lord Vile's ship looked like some fabled harbinger of doom, like something simply wrong, something that shouldn't linger in existence. The hull was covered in spikes which all jutted out to a deadly point. It could have looked silly; it didn't. Although she imagined it was probably pretty unaerodynamic.

"How are we going to get up?" she whispered.

Skulduggery looked at her. Then he looked up at the ship. Then back at her.

"Oh, no," Valkyrie said. "Hell no."

"It would appear the most efficient way."

"I'm not climbing the spikes. Do you see those things? One wrong slip and they'd impale me."

"Don't slip."

"Oh, my God. Do you want me to die? Is that it? Was this your plan all along? Make it look like an accident?"

"You've uncovered my terribly clever plot. If you like, you can swim back to The Bentley, and I'll have to save the day all by myself. The celebration will be quite lonely though."

Valkyrie looked up at the ship again. It seemed to flicker in and out of view for just a fraction of a second. It wasn't comforting.

She sighed.

***

They made it to the top of the ship unscathed. Relatively unscathed. Skulduggery had ripped part of his jacket on one of the spikes, and she knew that as soon as they made it back to their ship he would sulk about it as though he'd lost a limb.

They hung from two nearby spikes, the ones closest to the top. One more heave and they would pull themselves onto the deck below, where Vile could well be waiting for them. They still had little semblance of a plan.

"What do we do if he's up there?" Valkyrie asked. They both seemed reluctant to haul themselves the rest of the way up—reluctant to face whatever awaited them there. The sea gently rocked them, back and forth. "Like, right there? Just staring at us as we plop down onto his ship, probably pretty unheroically?"

"Hopefully he's not there."

"And what if he is?"

"Hopefully he's not."

"Oh, good," Valkyrie said. "It's one of those."

"We need to find him before he finds us. If I can find him and catch him off guard, I can finish him. I'm confident that I can. He's me, but not whole, and less powerful."

"And evil."

"I had taken that for a given."

"Well." Valkyrie hung there for a moment more, then tensed her arms. "I guess it's now or never."

They pulled themselves up to the edge, and swung over onto the deck. Lord Vile wasn't waiting there for them. Valkyrie allowed herself a sigh of relief at that.

And then she heard the familiar footsteps behind them. They both turned, goosebumps rising along her arms.

Lord Vile didn't look the way she'd expected him to. She heard that he wore armor, and she'd imagined the kind that people wore on land, the kind knights used to wear, all heavy plate and clanking metal. What he wore was protective in nature and covered him head to toe, but it was more suited for combat at sea, made of hardened leathers and thick clothes, reinforced probably by the shadows which swirled and writhed around his body.

He didn't even look at her. The only person he seemed to see was Skulduggery. Vile's head tilted, and Skulduggery seemed to realize something then, even as he stepped back and said, "Valkyrie, get off the ship, now—"

But before he could even finish his sentence the shadows exploded from Vile's body and wrapped around Skulduggery's own. They blasted Valkyrie from his side, sent her flying back until she hit the wall of the cabin and crumpled to the ground. By the time she sat up, clutching her side, Skulduggery was gone. Only Vile stood in his place. The shadows swirled more thickly around him.

"Skulduggery—" she said, but within moments he was on her. She tried to squirm out of the way, but she was still dizzy from her impact against the wall, and then he aimed a punch at her stomach, and she half-twisted away, managing to miss the full impact of the blow, but the half of it which caught was nearly enough to knock her off her feet again. She felt the air leave her lungs, felt the bruise that would come even as his fist was pulling away from her body, and she knew suddenly that she had lost this fight before she'd even begun it, that she couldn't hope to win this, that she would die on board this awful ship, and then Valkyrie blinked, and she was gone, and Darquesse was there, and she spun away from his next punch before Valkyrie even guessed it was coming, and studied him from the opposite side of the deck.

"Hello, handsome," she said. "It's nice to finally meet you."

What followed was a blur even to her heightened sense of time. Vile moved so quickly that he seemed not even to walk, seemed just to appear in one place or another every time she blinked. It was fascinating. She thought about that, as they swung at and dodged each other. She saw the cold, inhumane nature of his movements, the true emptiness of his actions, only the pure, burning motive of hatred behind them. But she saw other things, too. The way his body moved when he ducked or landed a blow was similar to the way Skulduggery's did, somehow unnatural even beneath the armor but full of poise, hundreds of years of practice honing his every fraction of motion to its maximum efficiency. It was almost pleasant to dance like this with him, to watch him through it. He was so mysterious. Skulduggery was all mystery, and Vile even more so.

Valkyrie noticed these things, too, was drawn to them, but she was afraid. Darquesse wasn't afraid.

"This is fun," she said, ducking and weaving around him. "We should do this more often. Not just the fighting, although this is great too. We could really use more sparring practice. Valkyrie is a little rusty at it, if we're being honest here. She's had so much on her mind lately. Mostly being me. But I mean this." She gestured to the distance between them, and just nodded when Vile lunged for her and took her by the waist to the ground, as though it only proved her point. "This closeness. This honesty. You want to kill me, I want to kill you. Simple, right?"

Vile swung at her head. She rolled to the side.

"But we don't always have that when we're them, do we? There's always a little something unsaid. There's always something we're afraid to say." She twisted her body and got him under her, wrapped her legs around his waist and straddled him, leaning down so that her long, dark hair fall over his face. "You feel it too, don't you? You know what I mean. We would never get this close if we were them. Because we'd know—"

Vile knocked her off of him with a backhand to the face. She clutched her jaw and smiled. "You don't want to talk about it even now, huh? You can be honest with me here. We're both doing things we don't really mean, aren't we? You can pretend it's not real if you tell me."

He kicked her in the chest, almost sent her reeling off the side of the ship. She grasped the edge and steadied herself.

"Not a big talker," she said. "Okay. Skulduggery's chatty enough for the both of you, I guess."

They could have gone on like that for hours. Maybe they did. Darquesse lost herself in the cool, sweet air of the night, a rhythm of enduring pain and then giving it back doublefold, adjusting to her new enemy's strategies, the little tricks he liked to use, and turning them back at him. But before the night was up, she began to realize that she couldn't win this. Even as Darquesse, he was better than her. He'd simply had more time to practice, that was all. Hundreds of years on her not even two dozen. It was hardly a fair fight. She started to pout.

"Well," she said, picking herself up from where he had tossed her into the cabin again. "This has been fun, really it has, and I'd love to do it again, but I think we've had enough for tonight. How about we turn it in, what do you say? Pick it up another time, maybe tomorrow—"

Vile punched her and blood spurted out of her nose. She gasped in pain, and darted away.

"Skulduggery," she said, switching tactics, "I know you're in there. You're more in control than I am right now, yeah? I mean, sure, you're trying to kill me, so maybe not that much in control, but you can hear me right now, I know you can. You don't want to do this."

Vile didn't let her finish. He hit her in the stomach again, and she fell to the ground, and he climbed on top of her, started to get his hands around her neck.

"Wait!" Darquesse said, spitting blood off to the side. "Skulduggery, listen to me. Take back control, stop trying to kill me, and I'll let Valkyrie back out. I promise I will. You can shadow me to death if I'm lying. I'll let her live today. You can have her again. For now. Just get off of me. Please."

His fingers dug their way into her windpipe. She found it amusing, in some distant way. There were so many other ways he could have killed her, most of them at a far greater distance than this. He wanted something personal, then. Wanted to feel her spasm as she died. She could appreciate that. Or rather, she could if she had more than a few seconds before her vision started going black.

Just as she truly began to struggle, as her thoughts were about to go dark, seconds before her consciousness left her, it stopped. The fingers withdrew from her throat. She sucked in greedy gasps of the night air, twisting over to brace herself on her arms, choking and sputtering and trying not to feel like she were still about to die. When she finally composed herself, she turned back, and saw that Vile had taken his helmet off. His head was tilted. He wasn't Vile anymore.

"Give her back," Skulduggery said. "You promised."

Darquesse looked at him. She could probably kill him now, if she really wanted, before he could turn himself back into Vile. Before he could bring himself to deal the fatal blow. But she found that she didn't want to—she didn't want to at all. She smiled. "Okay," she said. "You can have her. I'm a girl of my word, after all. But I'll see you again soon."

Then she collapsed.

 

_________

 

iv. When she woke up, she was in bed. No one else was in the room with her. She turned a little, and found that her entire body hated her for it. Her torso hurt the worst, and her throat, but every muscle of hers screamed in pain.

She gave up on moving for now, and simply lay there, staring at the dark ceiling, sorting through her memories and grimacing at what she saw. It made her body ache anew, to remember how each blow had landed. And it made a different part of her ache, to remember how it had felt to let Darquesse take control.

She was still lost in thought when the door opened quietly, and Skulduggery stepped in. He had something in his hand—a little bowl.

"Please tell me you're carrying something that will make me feel less like I'm on fire," Valkyrie said.

"You're in luck." He sat on a chair he'd pulled to the side of the bed and handed her a leaf. She chewed it, and waited for the medicinal properties to kick in.

"Oh, my God," she said. "Thank you. You're my favorite person ever."

"Not that I can't take a compliment, but I am at least partly responsible for you being hurt in the first place."

There was something in his voice that made her frown. "Oh, no. You're not going to feel guilty, are you? We're not doing that, right? We weren't ourselves."

"We were to some degree ourselves."

"No, look. You weren't you, and I wasn't me, okay? I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have beat each other half to death if we were us. Don't feel guilty about it, please."

Skulduggery looked at her. He gave a little shrug. "If you say so," he said.

"Although..." She sat up slightly, and groaned. "I mean, not that I want you to be hurt or anything, but you're feeling it too, right? I got some pretty good hits in. Darquesse did. You know what I mean. I'm not the only one in pain here, am I?"

"Rest assured, if I didn't know that I'd spent the night being tossed around a ship by the psychopathic version of my partner, I would certainly be able to guess it by how truly terrible I felt."

She settled back into bed. "Okay. Good. Not good, but...you know."

"As long as my pain stokes the flame of your ego. Though I didn't have the luxury of passing out afterwards."

"Yeah, well. We can't all be so lucky."

They sat there together, companionable. Valkyrie started to say several things, but stopped herself. She remembered everything about that fight—everything she had said and done, and how all of it had felt, the rush of joy, the rush of ecstasy. She remembered how it felt to sit atop him and see her hair form a curtain around his head. She wondered if he remembered, too.

"What did you tell the crew?" she asked after a while.

"I told them we snuck away on a top secret mission. You were gravely injured, but due to my incredible heroics we escaped with our lives. I said that if I told them what exactly happened I'd have to kill them, of course, but they were all suitably enthralled by the story I made up. Something about ninjas, I think."

"Ninjas? Really? And they believed it?"

"It does sound more plausible than the truth."

She couldn't argue with that. "How long have I been out for?"

"A day and a half. I was starting to worry, you know. I don't remember how to run a ship by myself anymore."

She smiled a little. "You could've made Tanith co-captain. She would've loved it."

"With that eyepatch of hers? We'd have no respect, Valkyrie. I need someone who takes this job seriously."

Valkyrie laughed. It hurt all over.

"Vile's ship hasn't been back," he said more quietly. "I was on watch for hours last night. I think he might be gone. For the moment."

"Do you think he found what he was looking for?"

"I don't know. If it was Darquesse, he certainly found her."

"His fist found her face about twenty times."

"That was what I was implying, yes."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see." She looked at him. "Are you afraid?"

"Of Vile? I would be foolish not to be. But I meant what I said, Valkyrie."

"About what?"

"That we'll come out on top. Together. We always do."

"Oh. Yeah." She took another leaf from the bowl and chewed it. "Maybe next time we could try not to kill each other, though."

"Certainly something to aspire to."

"This isn't normal," Valkyrie said. "Us. Being how we are."

"It's not," he agreed. "That doesn't mean it's bad."

"I mean, it's kind of bad."

"Well, the world-ending part is bad, yes. But just being unique, in general, is pretty good. I was trying to put a positive spin on it, you know. Cheer up a little."

"I'll try." Valkyrie rubbed her head. She hadn't dreamt of Darquesse in her unconscious state, but then she hadn't dreamt at all. She felt more herself than she had in weeks. Giving in had taken the edge off of it, had taken some of the strain of it, for now.

"You must be hungry," Skulduggery said. "I'll get you something to eat." He left, and Valkyrie closed her eyes, let the cool relief of the medicine spread through her. She was okay. Whatever happened in the future, whatever she would become—for now, everything was okay.

 

_________

 

v. "Our favorite captain is alive again, I see!" Tanith hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. "We've missed you. We were about to have a mutiny, you know. Skulduggery's been so grumpy without you around."

Valkyrie smiled and hugged her back. "I missed you, too."

"Those ninjas roughed you up pretty badly, huh?"

"Oh, yeah. They were pretty hardcore. I'll never underestimate a ninja again."

"Always good advice."

Valkyrie made her rounds through the ship, getting a hug from every crewmember who saw her up and about again. She wandered through every part of the Bentley, and the familiarity of it calmed her, gave her mind a little peace. She still had this. She still had her home, and the people she loved. She could still fight this thing inside her. She had to.

She found Skulduggery standing at the bow of the ship, and she joined him. His hat was cocked at a particularly jaunty angle today. Maybe he was feeling more peaceful, too.

"So," she said, coming up beside him. "Where to next, captain?"

Skulduggery didn't miss a beat. "There's a warrant out for a ship sailing from Roarhaven. The Golden Eyes. Something about treason, blah, blah, blah. It sounds like an adventure."

"An adventure." Valkyrie smiled, and looked out at the sea, roiling gently beneath them. "I could use one of those."

"I thought you might say that, captain." He pulled out a map, and they started to chart their course.