Chapter 1: put it back
When the conditions are in Abyssinia’s favour, she calls for a coup. When the anti-Sanctuary and disenfranchised mages hear of it, they go to fight for her. When Roarhaven’s defences go up, it’s sure to be a long winter.
With the unhindered power of Neoterics to rely upon, smaller magic settlements are easily overturned and occupied - but it’s Roarhaven they want, Roarhaven they need if Abyssinia is to succeed. From the highest balcony of her cliffside fortress she urges the community to make no mistake - she only wants to represent an underclass in magical society, and eventually move on to ruling the mortals. The Neoterics love her. They cheer and scream, fling themselves into battle with sorcerers who have hundreds of years worth of training over them - but where they have skill, Abyssinia’s people have instinct, and a living Accelerator feeding frenzied thoughts directly into their brains.
When Valkyrie Cain arrives at the fortress, it’s the end of summer, and she is beaten and bloody and in chains.
She led them on quite the merry chase around the world. There were a few weeks where she lost them, and those had been a very good few weeks indeed. Her ultimate mistake was spending more than 10 hours in a run-down motel in Italy. And now that she’s been found, Abyssinia believes that she could make for an extremely useful asset.
“I don’t want anything to do with this,” Valkyrie says, her battered cheek resting a moment against the cold stone of the courtyard. No matter where she lands, it is always cold. “The Sanctuary doesn’t want me. You can’t use me to gain anything from them. I’m as good as a mortal.”
Abyssinia quite literally feels her pain. It must have some relation to absorbing some of her life force in order to be fully resurrected. She gets a taste of every wound made on the poor thing. No marks made or blood drawn, and just for one second - but one second is enough. A scraped knee and Abyssinia knew to send her search team back out again.
Bit inconvenient, though. Thankfully, Abyssinia consulted with the Necromancers on her side, and they had an idea on how to sever the link between them. All they needed was Valkyrie, and at last, she’d been brought to them.
“Please.” Her mouth leaks blood as her eyes do tears. “Let me go.”
Abyssinia holds her palm flat facing the sky, then curls in her fingers. Valkyrie wails and is pulled upwards by her chest, much like a puppet controlled by invisible strings. Abyssinia flicks her wrist and Valkyrie goes flying into a pillar, crashing heavily and slumping down on her side. She just wanted to throw her around a little, get used to the idea in case it becomes a regular thing. It doesn’t need to be one. Abyssinia is just keeping her options open - her main priority lies with keeping Valkyrie as a prisoner of war, or as - what was the term he used? - an accessory.
In their lab, the hooded Necromancer touches Valkyrie’s shoulder, right where her injury that facilitated Abyssinia’s return had been. They and their assistants do some magical hand-waving, Abyssinia’s Vita observing the process at Abyssinia’s side - he’d like to be further away from Valkyrie, but the view from the door is taken. When it seems the job is done, one of the Necromancers sticks one of their knuckles into a wound visible from where Valkyrie’s shirt is opened, and while she tenses and whimpers in pain, everyone else’s eyes are on Abyssinia.
“Nothing,” she says.
“Success,” says the head Necromancer, once a cleric of some kind. “And now we must make it so you only have more, my lady.”
Abyssinia specifically chose a tower room for Valkyrie to stay in, right at the top of the tallest and most winding of the staircases in the place. The one barred window has the perfect view of the lands that stretch out beyond the fortress, currently occupied by troops of all kinds. After a negligible once-over and unenthused bandaging - but no magical healing - the Vita clears Valkyrie to make the climb.
“You can wash yourself and your clothes with in your room,” Abyssinia tells her, smiling. “Don’t worry, Valkyrie. You’ll be looked after here.”
“I’d rather be anywhere else in the world,” murmurs Valkyrie.
“You been everywhere else in the world! It’ll grow on you. Trust me.”
Valkyrie does not, but she says nothing more as she is escorted out and away to where she needs to be. Her cuffs are not bound, neither should her room have any binding sigils anywhere in it - Abyssinia claims to want to keep a magic-positive environment - but she doesn’t think she could make anything happen if she tried. Not that she hasn’t kept some practice. It’s just been difficult for her to find time.
Perhaps, in her new life as a POW, she can make some.
Cadaverous Gant makes it halfway up the stairs before he caves in and starts talking. “If I weren’t bound by Abyssinia’s will,” he says, “I’d kill you. I would.”
It’s only now that Valkyrie recognises him. Up until now, she had thought he was another young Neoteric lackey. Seems that Abyssinia has made good on her promise to him.
Acutely aware of the man who has been her shadow since her arrival, Valkyrie must admit that Abyssinia has made good on a lot of her promises.
“When the time is right,” Cadaverous continues, “she will make the right decision. I have faith. In fact, I’m certain she’s only waiting for her next scheduled appearance on the Global Link. She’ll behead you for all to see.”
Valkyrie considers this. “Good.”
This isn’t the response Cadaverous was hoping for, and so he goes quiet again. Valkyrie feels the bandages wrapped around her waist becoming more loose with each step she climbs, and her face hurts no matter how still she tries to keep it. Her arms and neck and back are aching. Her legs are sore from running, all the running she’s been doing these past months.
She’d tried everything she could to get herself out, starting the very day it became clear that she couldn’t stay in the magical world. She’d run away a week and three days before Abyssinia announced her attack on the Irish Sanctuary. But even the mortal world isn’t safe, neither did it want to have her in it, and now here she is back in Ireland, all her hard work undone, no better off than the moment she lost Skulduggery.
She’s tired, so tired. There’s nothing left for her to do at this point except die - and after all the time spend trying to deal with her suicidal ideation, Valkyrie can’t say she’s terribly eager to get back into it. She sank five years into silently willing herself to death and that got her nowhere. Best to just…live. Even in a situation like this. Take it one day at a time. Whatever happens will happen.
Valkyrie veers off the stairs, but she gets caught so quickly by the arm that her stomach barely has time to lurch. He must have been keeping this possibility in the back of his mind, which explains why he’s been following her, watching from the moment she first hit the ground. As she gets pulled back up on her feet, Valkyrie wonders what else he’s keeping back there.
The I’ll take this from here vibe radiates off Vile much like the shadows do, and Cadaverous makes his grumbling way back down the stairs, all that legwork for naught. Valkyrie doesn’t look at either of them, just up at the several minutes worth left of staircase until her door. When Cadaverous’ footsteps are nothing but distant patterings, the break is over and Vile nudges Valkyrie to get her moving.
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m done.”
He nudges her again.
“This has been the longest and worst day I’ve had since I left. I’m beaten half to death. I just made the world’s most pathetic suicide attempt. There’s ten dozen stairs in between me and where I can lie down. I’m done.” To fully express this, Valkyrie goes up one more step and sits down, groaning at all the loud cracking noises her body makes. “You’ll have to drag me.”
Vile sighs - the kind of sigh that her younger self would have taken great delight in, she’s pretty sure, because she did once love annoying Skulduggery. That sigh was once a bit like a win, but Valkyrie doesn’t feel particularly victorious now, not even when Vile picks her up and flies the remainder of the stairs. No, it’s not a win at all.
Her cuffs click open at the door and she throws them behind her, down into the abyss especially chosen to lie outside her quarters. The door is thick wood, though definitely the kind that she can kick through. The lock is stronger. The floor and walls within are no different to the rest of the tower, that cold stone that Valkyrie bets she could crack her skull open on if she tries hard enough. The bed is tiny, she’ll have to fold herself over to fit. And there’s a washing machine in the corner. A washing machine, she can’t fucking believe it. Well - Abyssinia makes good on her promises, after all. It doesn’t feel much like a luxury, but it’s the only one for miles.
Valkyrie doesn’t doubt she’ll be locked in here until she’s needed again. She wants to crawl onto that pathetic little bed and bleed out.
She goes over to neatly placed first aid kit on the washing machine instead, undoing the buttons on her shirt as she goes.
“I’m still here.”
“Good.” Valkyrie has no time to be surprised or even momentarily set back by a notoriously quiet fellow. “Make yourself useful.”
She throws the shirt in the machine and measures a cap of liquid. The bandages around her waist slip bloody and sodden down her legs. She has other wounds aside from that huge gash in her side, though none quite as pressing, nor covered. Her open injuries reside primarily on her top half, so the pants stay on, the right leg only rolled up a minute so she can slap a cheap bandaid on her knee.
The box probably won’t last her very long. She sticks more bandaids all over her, on the smaller cuts and scrapes mostly awarded while tumbling down a wooded hill, in a last ditch effort to escape capture. It was a lucky break, not far from the fortress, and completely wasted on her after waking up from her drugged-out flight. Certain movements make her hiss in pain - like putting one arm up over her head so she can get a clear look down at her ribs - so there’s no doubt there’ll be bruises on her bones as well as her skin, but at least nothing appears to be broken.
Valkyrie sits down on the bed - which on top of being tiny, is much too close to the floor - and prepares to rewrap her waist…then stops. She lies back and stares at the stone ceiling instead.
Vile finally moves from his spot and comes over, takes hold of her free hand first, then the one holding the roll of bandaging, and pulls Valkyrie back up on her feet.
She groans. “I’ve had enough.”
Vile hums softly in response. He takes the roll from her and winds it around the gash, mostly dried up now but painful all the same. His armour is colder than the stone, and Valkyrie’s skin has goosebumps and every hair on her body stands on end. She’d like to tear it off him piece by piece. She’d like to be warmed by a fire. Burnt at the stake, maybe.
When he withdraws his hands and the bandages are done up tighter than she could ever accomplish herself, Valkyrie gets back on the bed and assumes the foetal position, despite how much it hurts, and tries not to shiver. Vile just stands there, looking down at her.
“I’ve missed you.”
“You’re a lot more chatty than I remember.”
“I’ve also missed talking.”
Valkyrie shuffles to the edge of the bed as best she can and pats the free space she made. Obligingly, Vile sits, and is very clearly taken aback by the height of the bed as well. She likes that, and smiles. His shadows wrap over her like a blanket.
“I didn’t expect you to run,” says Vile after a minute’s silence. “I thought we’d built a rapport.”
“What, when? The Ball? Yeah, well, I wasn’t much in the mood to reminisce about a dip when you burst out of your bones. Forgive me for thinking it wasn’t safe, I don’t know what would have given me,” as she talks, Vile puts his hand over hers, “that…idea. Not like your girlfriend was right there or anything, doing her spooky magic.”
“I meant with me. Skulduggery. I’m in control.”
“Oh yeah? Take off the armour.”
“I can’t. Not now.”
Valkyrie shifts and shuffles up, sitting with her back against the wooden excuse for a headboard. He looks at her, right in the eyes. It’s one of those things she can tell he’s doing. If she couldn’t tell after all this time, what could she do?
Sixteen years is a long time.
“You can’t be fully trusted while you’re wearing it.”
She shakes off the warmth hearing him say her name brings. “You’re Lord Vile, crown Death Bringer, death sentence incarnate. I’m sure you’ve done loads of killing this past year. Do you know how much killing I’ve done? None.”
“Ten months. I spent longer with the Faceless Ones.”
“What have you done in that time? Did you plan on just standing back and watching Abyssinia take over the world?”
The helmet shifts away from her. “There’s no way to end this easily, no way that I can see. Her followers won’t go down without a fight, and making her a martyr would only put more fuel on the fire. I’ve been standing back and watching, yes, and waiting. Waiting for something that could help.” He lets that hang a moment. “I was waiting for you.”
Her heart lurches.
“And I’ve killed her twice already, Valkyrie. I’m never alone in a room with her. At least five people have to watch me with her.”
“Aw, you could kill five people in one go.”
Vile leans back. “Barely a minute ago you were chastising me for murders you don’t even know I’ve done.”
Valkyrie doesn’t have a response to that one, just a kind of sad smile directed at the barred window. “You sound so much like yourself.”
“Valkyrie, this is nothing more than a disguise. A façade, if you will. My demons are conquered, I only have to look like them for the time being. Either I’m here in armour or in chains.”
For a minute, all either of them can hear is the washing machine. The door to the room is closed. Valkyrie hadn’t noticed it shut, but she supposes it was a quiet job done by a tendril of a shadow.
“You watched,” she goes on. “You watched her fling me around like a rag doll.”
“It was taking everything out of me to stop myself from stepping in.” He’s getting convincing now, as he leans in close to her. “Valkyrie, I spent every moment in that courtyard wanting nothing more than to take you away. I want to take you away now. If running is what you want to do, I’ll run with you. Every day I’ve thought of…” He trails off. “Valkyrie?”
She forgets she doesn’t have a sleeve and wipes her tears on her forearm. These aren’t big messy tears, not accompanied by snot or sobs, these tears kind of remind Valkyrie of the ones you only ever see in romantic movies, where everyone is beautiful all the time, even when they’re devastated. Though, she wouldn’t quite describe herself as beautiful at the moment, battered up the way she is. Totally wrecked.
That’s a good way to put it. She’s a wreck.
“Take off the armour.”
She covers her face with her hands for a moment, drags her palms down her cheeks and takes a breath. “You’d have given up a lie by now. I know who you are. I just need to see you.”
“Abyssinia did something.”
The washing machine finishes its cycle and powers down. Valkyrie would much rather deal with it than sit and consider all that could be wrung out of Abyssinia did something. Better to wring the water out of a shirt. She pulls it out of the machine.
“That’s mine,” he says.
Put it back put it back put it back.
“Somehow got in my go bag.”
Valkyrie remembers the day she very deliberately and specifically chose one of Skulduggery’s shirts to put in that bag. The go bag was first formed in Colorado when it became apparent that she had to be ready to uproot again at any moment, stuffed with clothes and cash and a bottle of water. Sometimes, after returning to Ireland, she would get it out of its place at the back of the wardrobe, and just stand and stare at it. Sometimes she would sit with it on her lap.
When Abyssinia was resurrected, she started keeping it in her car.
Like the animal she is, Valkyrie wrings the shirt out onto the stone and whips it against her legs a couple of times. It’s still dripping and stuck together as she tries to shove one of her arms through the wrong sleeve.
“For the love of god.”
Using Elemental magic like he’s trying extra hard to prove that he’s himself, he pulls the shirt off her and over to him, blasts air until it’s dry and snaps his fingers to warm it. He offers it to Valkyrie as she comes back over.
She puts it on, doesn’t button it. Sits back down on the bed. Skulduggery immediately gets up.
“I’m exhausted,” she says.
“Of course you are.” He turns towards the door. “You rest, then. I’m sure there’s somewhere I should–”
“Let me see your face first.” Valkyrie pauses, then laughs. “Head. Skull. You know.”
He doesn’t turn back, though his left hand does twitch. She knows this stance, one of deep conflict, intense consideration and anxiety, but that twitch is new.
“I’ll come back tonight,” says Skulduggery, then shadow-walks out of the room.
Chapter 2: don't shoot the messenger
"how dare you imply i've been murdering. anyway see you later i have some murdering to do"
Messengers get to come as far as the gates. There’s a rigorous screening process, though not one person could ever tell you what it entails. It’s basically a battle to get through the camping troops - anyone who screams or begs enough, or clearly has no fighting capabilities, or even if they’re holding a really obvious letter, are the ones most likely to get through. Or killed.
China Sorrows didn’t want there to be any confusion. The three messengers she sent were all very clearly marked. Only one got to the gates, and it is that same one that Abyssinia gazes at now. Scrawny, weak-willed thing, but not a Neoteric. A strict follower of the guidelines of their magic, guidelines that someone made up someday and declared it the only legitimate way of conducting things from that point on. Unsuitable for her army.
Abyssinia smiles very sweetly at the mage, but does not open the gate. They’re backlit by the setting sun, flanked by loyal Neoterics, clutching a plastic cylinder - and shivering like a leaf. Must be the company Abyssinia keeps, as she can’t imagine anyone ever being intimidated by her appearance. She’s much too tiny and cute. It’s a very good thing to appear unthreatening. Keeps people from seeing her coming. Yes, must be the company. Tall, dark and terrible Lord Vile with several Necromancers trailing after him to keep him from killing her; Cadaverous Gant, a devil of a man enjoying his recent return to youth; the finely dressed woman with the beast in her hand, Razzia… There are many like them standing by her.
“Message from Roarhaven?” chirps Abyssinia, much like a bird.
“From Supreme Mage Sorrows,” the mage replies, opening the cylinder and taking out a piece of paper, rolled neatly into a scroll. They pass it through the bars of the gate, and Abyssinia gladly takes it.
“Ooh,” she says, weighing it in her hand. “Bound paper, very nice.” She holds the scroll above her head. “Who would be willing to go without magic to read this to me?”
“I will,” Gant immediately jumps in.
“Not you, my lovely,” says Abyssinia just as quickly, swatting him off her shoulder.
A Neoteric standing beside the messenger reaches out, and the scroll is passed back through the bars. As the paper is unravelled, the sigil secretly activates, but all present can see the hint of a glow leave the Neoteric’s fingers.
“Do I…read the whole thing?”
“A paraphrasing will do fine.”
The messenger seems uncomfortable with this, but says nothing as the Neoteric gives the gist of the letter.
“Right. Basically she’s already caught word of Valkyrie Cain being here, wants to open communications for her release, willing to negotiate a trade maybe, uh - or at least see that she’s alive and well. Via your next Global Link appearance. Have Cain make a cameo, or something along those lines.”
“Ah! Fair enough. How nice of Supreme Mage Sorrows to have sent word. So courteous of her to want to communicate with us. At last, a dialogue can be had.” Abyssinia raises her voice a little, not that anyone has had much trouble hearing her up to now. “Finally, everyone! The discourse has commenced! Negotiations are about to begin!”
The Neoterics whoop and cheer. A wave of shadows from Vile sweeps Abyssinia up so that she can be seen by the gathered crowd, and she waves both arms and laughs. The messenger mage attempts a smile of their own as Abyssinia is set down and starts to walk away.
“That’s… This is wonderful news. I will return to Supreme Mage Sorrows with your response immediately.”
“Hm?” Abyssinia looks over her shoulder. “Oh, there’s no need for that. I have my own way of sending messages. Thank you for offering, though.”
She repeats her sweet smile, this time squinting her eyes a little too much. She resumes her exit, though not before nodding subtly, but significantly, to Vile - and then Abyssinia disappears from sight.
The messenger takes an instinctive step back and bumps into a person. They’re no longer flanked, more like completely surrounded. With wild eyes they look from face to face, then back through the bars at Gant and Razzia as they depart. The messenger’s gaze finally settles on Vile. He has not moved.
Their mouth is dry and it takes forever for their lips to part. “I’m sure you know the saying about not shooting the m–”
A spear of shadows cleaves right through their skull. The Neoterics scream with delight.
She keeps looking into all the mirrors, making sure no one is following. She’s speeding, but it’s not the cops she’s worried about. Xena isn’t worried at all, she’s having a great time sticking her head out the window. Such a gorgeous dog, with such a beautiful nature. She’s lucky to have had a companion like her. Undeserving, too.
The drive has always felt long, but today it’s the longest it’s ever been. Oddly enough, she’s breathing fine. Her head is clear. Her blood isn’t pumping too hard, her heart isn’t beating too fast. To remain calm is ideal, but she thinks that maybe this is too calm. She thinks that maybe she’d secretly been desperate for something like this to happen. Well - not exactly like this. But something similar enough that would need for her to make a quick and efficient escape.
Her father answers the door, and his eyes light up immediately - but before he can cry out in greeting, Alice, standing at the end of the front hall, beats him to it.
“My warrior princess!”
Valkyrie hears the patter of her sister’s footfalls and for a moment, just for a moment, her composure threatens to break. Alice buries her face right into Xena’s fur, and likewise the dog is wildly excited to see her little friend. Desmond takes the opportunity to pull Valkyrie into a one-armed hug. Outwardly, it’s a casual welcome, but Valkyrie can feel it. Her dad doesn’t want to let go.
She hugs him back, and doesn’t want to let go either. But time is of the essence.
Alice has seen her now, and she shyly bats her eyes at Valkyrie. She knows her sister, but all the same there’s times where visits are few and far between, and the girl ducks her chin and steps behind her father’s legs.
“Alice,” says Desmond. “Look who it is!”
“Good morning, Stephanie,” mumbles Alice. “How are you.”
“Dad,” Valkyrie says, keeping her voice as steady as she can. “I’m sorry, I hate to do this - I’m not here to visit. Something came up really suddenly, I have to - I’m leaving the country. It’s okay - don’t worry, it’s for a job - everything’s fine, I’ll be safe…”
“You need somewhere for Xena to stay.”
“I’m sorry, I’m–”
“Steph,” says Desmond, and hugs her again. “Don’t be sorry. Anything you need. We’ll look after her.” He withdraws and looks down at his youngest, who is back to being licked head to toe by the dog. “We’ll look after Xena, won’t we, Alice? We’ll do some puppysitting? You, me and mum?”
“I can puppysit,” chirps Alice.
“I wish I could…” Valkyrie starts again. “Where is mum?”
“Out. She’ll be so upset she missed you, but…she’ll understand. You’re our busy girl out saving the world. I’ll send your love.”
“Thank you.” She hesitates, and hugs him a third time, and this is the one that makes her eyes water.
“Have fun with your…stuff.” Desmond waggles his fingers. “Magic business. Best of luck. Bring back souvenirs. How’s Skulduggery?”
“Good. Grand. I’m sorry. I have to go. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”
Desmond tries to get Alice to say a proper goodbye to Valkyrie, but she’s much too interested in Xena. Xena, meanwhile, whimpers and wags her tail in farewell to her mistress. When Valkyrie turns around, she doesn’t let herself look back.
Valkyrie heard cheers and screams, but nothing else. She knew, though, that it didn’t mean anything good. If the anti-Sanctuary troops out there made any noise at all, it never meant anything of the sort.
She’d managed to rest her eyes somewhat, but a throbbing headache prevented her from sleeping. The aches had fully settled in after a half hour of lying down, the kind that made her limbs occasionally convulse. She had to keep her legs straight, but that was tough when they couldn’t fit on the bed from her calves down. She felt heavy and grimy - though the shirt was still good.
The last light of the day has drained out of the room when Valkyrie gets up. There’s a wall-mounted lantern with a tiny flickering flame, one she doubts is going to go out anytime soon, and it’s just enough for her to see, but the shadows draw long lines across the floor in a way that unsettles her. She misses being an Elemental, being able to light her way with ease. All she can manage now are a few pathetic sparks when she rubs her hands together.
The utensils for cleaning herself had been hidden behind the washing machine. Valkyrie unplugs a hose from the wall for a moment to fill the medium bucket with water, plugs it back in and throws her trousers in the machine. Takes the shirt back off. Rinses her hair, combing her fingers through. Scrubs the soap and sponge over every bloodied part on her body - which is every part.
Valkyrie can’t help but smirk when she throws the dirty water out through the window and hears some anti-Sanctuary nut yelp. She refills the bucket and works on details now. Dirt and blood under her nails, taking off the smaller bandages and dabbing at her wounds.
She would much prefer a long soak in a hot bath, but these aren’t the worst washing conditions she’s had to deal with in the past ten months. Washing herself under that bridge in rural, rural France - that experience holds the title. At least she’s behind a locked door.
A new shadow draws across the floor and over her skin, and back come the goosebumps. From behind her, Skulduggery makes a sound she doesn’t think she’s ever heard from him before. A weird hitch in breath that doesn’t exist.
“Hi,” says Valkyrie without turning around. She deliberately snaps the shoulder strap on her bra as a signal that it’s alright to stay, she’s as decent as she can get while locked away all fairy tale-like. It doesn’t matter what state he sees her in, anyway. He’s dead.
“My offer still stands,” says Skulduggery.
“To run away. Vanish into the night, never to be seen again.”
“I think,” Valkyrie begins, then pauses. She squeezes what’s left of the water in her hair back into the bucket, then goes over to the window and throws the water out. Another yelp, but this time she is too busy considering her words to smile. “I think I’m done running.”
“I think it’s only right that we end this once and for all. Only then can I travel in good conscience. I want to see my family again.”
Skulduggery is quiet a moment. He sounds almost disappointed when he turns his helmet to the bottom right corner of the floor and says, “Fair enough.”
The washing machine is finished with her pants, but Valkyrie has barely moved before Skulduggery is over there, getting them out, being a personal blow drier. He throws them at her. Valkyrie senses urgency. She shuffles them on and sits down on the bed with the first aid kit, ready to redress any wounds that need to be covered. Some have become less urgent in these passing hours.
Skulduggery wraps one of her arms while she unwraps a bandaid with her teeth. They quietly work away until all has been taken care of, and then he pushes the shirt upon her. The two of them sit in silence a moment, two incredibly tall people folded uncomfortably over a tiny bed.
“Alright,” says Valkyrie, adjusting herself into a cross-legged position. “Armour off.”
Skulduggery looks away.
“Please, Skulduggery. It’s me, for God’s sake.”
“Did I tell you how much I missed you?”
“You may have mentioned it.”
“And did I tell you how much I love you?”
“I try to think of it as a given.”
His chuckle is soft and Valkyrie feels a massive array of things. Safe, oddly enough, is one of them. Skulduggery undoes the clasps on his helmet, very quickly and clinically, and takes it off. He holds the helmet for a second, then it melts into his gauntlets and it’s like he never had one at all.
Valkyrie doesn’t know what she expected. She doesn’t know how he expected her to react. Abyssinia sure did do something. Valkyrie reaches out and touches his cheek, and despite the cold of the armour, he’s warm.
“Hm,” she says.
“Hm?” Awaiting approval.
“That’s skin, alright.”
Skulduggery bursts out laughing, and at last Valkyrie knows whether he’s the type to get teary-eyed from laughing too hard or not. Façades could never cover that ground. She brushes a tear from his eye with her thumb, then withdraws her hand, clasping it in her other.
“So, what - do you eat now?”
He wipes the remainder of the wetness from his eyes and just smiles down at his lap before flickering his gaze up at her. “I do.”
“Oh wow. The great Skulduggery Pleasant now has to piss like the rest of us. This is fantastic news.”
That gets him going again, and it now fully occurs to Valkyrie that, in the time she was gone, the time he spent pretending to be Vile to avoid whatever fate would await otherwise, he probably hasn’t laughed at all. He meant it. He had been waiting for her. He had missed her.
“I love you,” says Valkyrie.
He’s got those eyes that are really good at blinking at people. She can already see it, blinking slowly and incredulously at someone he thinks is an idiot, the blink that somehow doesn’t break the illusion of a long, angry stare. And here and now, an unassuming, innocent kind of blink. She’d be fooled if she didn’t know him.
“If you’re expecting me to say it back,” says Skulduggery, “you’re in for disappointment. I said it there earlier, didn’t you hear? I don’t need to say it again. It would be uneven.”
“I love you!” repeats Valkyrie, louder than expected. Her voice and hands are shaky, and she fears for a moment that someone will have heard before recalling that they’re far away from prying ears. It could be sweat running down her neck, but it could also be leftover water from her bucket bath. The butterflies in her stomach can’t be explained away by any of her wounds, though.
She could give it a go anyway.
“Oh dear,” Skulduggery murmurs. “It seems I no longer have a choice in the matter. Well, I suppose I must respond in kind…”
He trails off and goes quiet, starts working his gauntlets off. Valkyrie doesn’t wonder why for long - it’s so she doesn’t freeze when he puts his hands on her shoulders. They’re gloved like normal, but she can see a flash of skin where she would have once seen bone. He looks right into her eyes.
“I love you, too,” says Skulduggery.
Valkyrie starts laughing nervously. She can’t help it. Nothing about this is particularly funny at the moment, and she doesn’t feel like laughing, but this is not something she has any control over. She reaches up to her left shoulder and takes his hand off, holds it in both her hands in her lap instead. Holding on maybe too tight. He squeezes her hand back.
“When?” Valkyrie asks quietly.
“It took a month to locate the kind of magic she said could match me.”
She doesn’t want to know, but the next question is already tumbling out of her mouth, “How many?”
He looks at their hands. “Six.”
Abyssinia needed two and an injury.
“I don’t suppose I need to explain why she did it. For control, you understand. A knife in the ribcage used to be a dismissible, albeit painful, experience. If you were to stab me through the heart now, I would most certainly die.”
“Hey,” mutters Valkyrie, rapping her knuckles against his breastplate, “at least you got this.”
“Yes, well. It may not do me much good if you keep insisting I take it off.”
Her grip had loosened without her being aware of it, but Skulduggery is still determinedly holding her hand. Valkyrie is warm.
“So what now?” she asks. Then, to clarify, “How do we save the world?”
“I think we can spare some time to work on a brilliant plan.”
“The sooner we get things back to normal, the better.”
Skulduggery slowly releases her hand and sets his down on his knee. He looks at her, then to the corner, then the ceiling, then back at her. “I doubt we can restore everything, but yes. You’re right.”
Valkyrie bites her lip and isn’t sure how to phrase her next question. “I don’t suppose there would be a sure fire way to get you back to…being…”
“Sure,” he says. “Fire.” And he grins at her for a second before dropping it. “That was terrible, I apologise. No. To kill me again would be the last time. This is it now.”
“You’re not happy about that.”
“Of course I’m not. I hate it. I’m repulsive. But I’ve had time to mellow. Ah, you should have seen me in winter. I was…” He flexes both hands, a humourless smile playing on his mouth. “Furious.”
Valkyrie can only imagine. “You’re not repulsive.”
Skulduggery smiles rather genuinely at her by way of responding, and she can no longer think of anything to say. So they just sit there in complete silence, gazes drifting away from one another and finding their way back. It’s just that - Valkyrie thinks she needs to stare in order to fully get acquainted with the idea. That’s perfectly fine, perfectly acceptable. But now that Skulduggery can’t hide it anymore, now that she knows he does it, she can’t think of an excuse to explain why he just keeps looking back at her.
“You sleep now, don’t you?”
“Not very well.”
She feels stupid and childish, but all the same - “Will you stay with me? At least until you need to go?”
He blinks at her. And blinks at her again. “Of course. Of course I will.”
His hair comes back long and his face comes back scruffy. He had gotten that way during his three days at the end of Serpine’s right hand, and for some god awful reason it had apparently been worth saving. The Necromancers let him up after a month of being tied to a slab to get him to walk again. He runs instead. After getting him into some bound chains, they get him shaved and his hair cut. Abyssinia speaks to him, holding his chin in her palm, taking the rare opportunity to be the tall one while he’s on his knees. His saliva isn’t fully running yet, but he tries to spit anyway. She just laughs.
She keeps him underground for another month before tossing in the armour. She puts it in very plain terms what she can and will do the moment she even thinks he’s going to step out of line. If he behaves, she tells him, it can be like the old days, if he wants. He doesn’t say a word, not one. Doesn’t speak to anyone at all.
Gant waits every day, very eagerly, for news of suicide, and every day he is disappointed when he spots the dark figure roaming the fortress. The figure holds itself in a way that suggests the smallest thing could set it off. Two months and three days into Abyssinia’s occupation, Gant gathers the latest details on the chase. He finds Vile standing in the darkness between the fortress buttresses, silently observing the troops below.
“You must be so out of the loop, skeleton.” For reasons he cannot explain, Gant gets a lot of enjoyment out of referring to him as something he no longer is. He supposes it’s just amusing to remind him of something special he lost. And it’s already time to do it again. “So many things to be filled in on. Did Abyssinia tell you about the little groups she’s got out there in the world, combing through all the rundown hotels and back alleyways?”
Vile is still. He might not even be listening.
“No, I didn’t think she had.”
Gant looks down at the troops. They’re not all Neoterics, but he finds it easier to refer to them as such anyway. Quite a few of them are hundreds of years old, and have been lying in wait for something like this, whether they be affiliated with the anti-Sanctuary, Erskine Ravel’s fanatics, or on their own until now. Gant is glad he’s not one of them, that he gets to be up here with Abyssinia.
This is no longer the “she” being referred to a sentence prior, but that doesn’t need clarification. It’s evident that Vile knows who is being referred to when he closes his hand around Gant’s throat and shoves him violently up against the wall. Gant wheezes and kicks his legs, hands coming up to uselessly bat at Vile’s arm.
“Where,” says Vile.
“I don’t - know,” Gant chokes and coughs. “That’s - what the - trackers - are for.”
Tears spring to his eyes, but he still does his best to stare into that void of a visor. “Last sighting was - gah - New Zealand. Five hours ago.”
Vile releases Gant’s throat and lets him drop, stands there a moment considering what to leave him with, something painful and inconvenient but won’t risk his own position. Abyssinia can handle broken legs easily. With Gant howling in pain, Vile tears up the buttresses, allowing large chunks of wall to fall and endanger the troops below, and then he’s gone.
He’d blacked out when Abyssinia ambushed, in a very literal manner, as she activated his Necromancy and smothered him with it. When he was back in a state where he was aware of what was happening around him, he was a bare skeleton on a slab. There was not one mention of Valkyrie’s name. If he brought her up, and he constantly did, he was ignored.
Now that he knows she’s alive and out there, running and fighting for her life, he very much feels like an unused furnace being lit up again. He hopes they never catch her. He hopes she never has to see him again.
Skulduggery couldn’t sleep before, but now he can - and when he does he dreams of her and calls her name, and always wakes in tears.
you can be a murderer and also cry a lot at the same time. haven't you seen that one anime.
Chapter 4: stream
Valkyrie opens her eyes to the dim light of the lantern and the tweeting of birds who woke before sunrise. It takes her a second to remember where she is, and during that second she gets a fright, thinking she’s overslept, she has to get up and go, leave before she’s found. But then it comes back, and though the reality of her situation is not a comfort, at least she can lie in for once.
She groans in pain as she stretches out her curled legs, rolls onto her back and raises her arms and stretches them too, hearing her bones pop. She yawns and rubs at her face, feeling sweat on her neck, so her next move is to unbutton her shirt and trousers to get cool. She just keeps lying and looking up at the dark stone ceiling, tosses her legs up into arches so her feet are on the bed.
Now that she’s stopped shuffling about, she can hear soft, steady breathing. Valkyrie turns her head to the direction she hasn’t yet faced, and sees a man sitting against the wall beside the bed, his head ducked down into his chest, asleep. For another second she feels another fright - then Skulduggery murmurs her name.
“Oh,” Valkyrie whispers to herself. “Right. Right.”
“Valkyrie,” he says again.
“Hey,” she replies, and reaches out towards him. “I’m here.”
Her fingers can just graze his hand, and the initial sensation is odd given that he shed his gloves. Skulduggery shed an entire layer, in fact. She can’t see where the armour has gone - but it’s got to be around somewhere. For now he’s in some kind of leathery combat gear. The type of thing you wear during a war.
Valkyrie tries to keep her fingers on his hand as she looks back at the ceiling. War. There’s certainly going to be one, if it hasn’t begun already, and she is stuck here. Here, where no matter what side she’s dealing with, everyone hates her and wants her dead or as a weapon.
“I’m here,” she repeats, though he can’t hear her. This isn’t so different to his old meditating habits, so not that strange. Except for the breathing and talking. It’s not unsettling, but definitely something that will take getting used to.
Riiight, she thinks. Because you’re going to spend so much time around him while he’s asleep.
Skulduggery’s hand jolts and she withdraws hers, links her fingers over her bare midsection and watches him. His fingers shake and shoulders shudder - he breathes in deeply, and when he breathes out it’s, again, in the form of her name. He gets caught on the V of a next go, one that was shaping up to be loud, but he wakes suddenly and his head rears back before she can intervene.
“Fuck,” barks Skulduggery upon contact with the wall. He reaches up behind his head and flinches at the touch of his own hair, but still investigates the hit point to make sure all will be well.
Letting his hand fall on his knee, he looks her and blinks. Valkyrie still does not intend on lifting her head, but she doesn’t mind her slanted view for the time being. She smiles.
“Sucks, eh?” she says sympathetically.
“Oh, yes,” agrees Skulduggery. “Very much so.” His gaze flickers up and down her a moment before returning to her face. “Sleep well?”
“At least we’re together on that one.”
Valkyrie nods. “You stayed all night.”
He frowns. “No I didn’t.”
“Sun’s coming up right now.”
Skulduggery gets up to his feet, groaning much like she did a minute ago, and looks out the window, where the stretching grassland grows lighter with every passing moment.
“Hm. Well, that was…not what I intended.”
He folds his arms, doesn’t turn back to her yet. Valkyrie is happy to wait, she can at last make her overall assessment. It’s weird, definitely weird, for Skulduggery to be stuck this way, and Valkyrie doesn’t doubt that there will be other moments where she forgets. But now after all this time, she knows what he looked - looks - like, and it feels like an itch she didn’t fully know she had has been scratched. The biggest surprise, she thinks, is the figure. She had expected him to be as thin as he was as a skeleton, which she knows is completely ridiculous, but nope - there’s some meat on those bones.
Valkyrie hums a laugh, tries to get herself to stop being silly, but it’s too late and she’s had the thought about how sad everyone would have been at the loss of that fantastic ass when he died. She snorts loudly. The sound gets Skulduggery to half turn.
“Nothing,” says Valkyrie, fighting down a grin as it’s as painful to sustain as it is unideal. “It’s just,” she corrects, “funny that you, you know, overslept. That’s all.”
Skulduggery furrows his brows at her, mouth set into a line. He looks to either side of him, at the walls and the floor, trying to find what she was laughing at. Valkyrie can’t bear to watch, and covers her face at just about the time he glances down at himself.
“You… You were checking me out, weren’t you?” he asks in deadpan.
Small snickers escape from between Valkyrie’s teeth. She takes her hands away from her face, planning on very calmly and professionally telling him that this was not the case, but it comes out as a laughed, “No!” and she snorts again and allows the giggles to take over until her completely bruised torso steps in. “Oh - ow, ow-! Christ.”
Valkyrie rubs her stomach, just above her biggest bandages, and shuts her eyes and winces. Even that is painful, and she has to stop. She opens her eyes and learns that Skulduggery doesn’t need to be a skeleton in order to move silently. He stands right at the bed and looks down at her.
“Serves you right.”
“I get captured and beaten up and locked in a tower - and what? I’m not allowed to once-over my nurse?”
“I am not your nurse,” Skulduggery says gruffly.
Valkyrie gives a weak smile and brushes her hair off her face. “You tell yourself that, stud.”
He rolls his eyes. At first he pretends he’s not taking the opportunity to look at her again, and there is a moment where Valkyrie isn’t quite sure if he’s doing it or not - but then she hears that sound again. And she can even see him make it, a small flash of his teeth between a tiny part in his mouth. Skulduggery takes a step back and focuses on the headboard, starts staring it down like it offended him somehow.
Valkyrie puts her hands on her knees and wonders if it would be okay to- ah, fuck it.
“You’re a big hypocrite,” she says, enjoying it immensely.
“I am not,” Skulduggery tells the headboard. “That was accidental.”
“At least I’m decent enough to admit it.”
“After lying first.”
“Right - you’re right. And you just lied, so now it’s your turn to be honest.”
Skulduggery turns on his heel and goes back to looking out the window. Valkyrie laughs - though her hand does hover at her waistband, hesitating to button back up. She crosses one leg over the other instead.
“It was hot when I woke up, what can I say? With that leather I’m surprised you haven’t dressed down any more than you already have as well.”
This is her worst attempt at a pass since Kray. Valkyrie watches his back and waits.
Even though he has to breathe now, Skulduggery still manages to go without making a lot of movement.
“I should be leaving,” he says, much like it’s a declaration to convince himself. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Valkyrie props herself up on her elbows, ready. “No shit.”
“And you,” he continues, “should continue your recovery.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
Skulduggery pulls a small case out of his pocket, the case she recognizes as containing his armour in it’s dormant liquid form. He opens it and blackness engulfs him - and Valkyrie gets her third fright as she remembers the day she ran. Her moment of fear fades, but her heart doesn’t settle.
Shadows drift all around him, and she already misses his face.
“But,” Valkyrie says as she senses his imminent disappearance, “you’re coming back? We have to think up a brilliant plan, like you said.”
Vile comes over, silently regarding her. Valkyrie gazes back, doesn’t even notice his hand moving until he traces a line up her thigh. She breathes out all at once.
“We will,” he promises in a whisper, steps back and disappears into a cloud of collected shadows.
Valkyrie’s can’t swallow. She sits up properly and stares ahead of her at the door. Her hands go to her lap, fingers hovering at the button again. She does it up. Does the shirt up. Gets up only to fill the bucket with water and throw some on her face. Goes back to the bed and curls herself into as compact a space as she can with her poor, battered body, and tries to think of ways to escape and defeat Abyssinia rather than the alternative.
In the middle of the day, when the room is about at its lightest, there’s a knock at the door before it gets unlocked. Valkyrie had not expected a courtesy of this nature, not that she thinks it’s nice or anything. She ceases her stretches and stands to attention as the door opens. Gant has his hand on the wood of the door, and Abyssinia is teetering dangerously on the edge of the top of the staircase. If Valkyrie went all out, there’s a chance she could push her. Or pull her down with her if Gant gets to her first.
“Almost time for your closeup,” says Abyssinia, smiling in an uncomfortably wide manner. “Let’s get you some fresh air.”
In the courtyard, Valkyrie sees her own blood smeared on the brick paving, sees a dent in a pillar she had been thrown against. The remaining evidence of her beating doesn’t make her feel angry or sad or even sick - she just gives these things a cursory glance while she walks through the grasses to get right to the centre of the place. Little clovers cover whatever ground they can, and though Valkyrie isn’t about to crouch down and go through them all, she doubts there are any with four leaves.
She is watched by a trio of Neoterics who must be powerful or high-ranking enough to be given the important job of babysitting the former Darquesse. Valkyrie recognises the bulkiest of them as the man who slammed her face into the kitchen counter of her motel room. She doesn’t stare him down, or give him anything more than a short sidelong glance, just sees enough to make the connection and returns to looking at the surrounding walls.
“You don’t put up much of a fight these days, do you?” Abyssinia comments, slipping in between the Neoterics at the door. “Don’t misunderstand me - I’m not calling you weak. I know all about you, Valkyrie, and you’re anything but weak. And yet, you’ve completely given up, haven’t you? You’ve even stopped trying to get me to let you go.”
“What’s the point?” says Valkyrie. “You’ll do with me what you will, no matter what I say.”
“Oh, you don’t know that!” laughs Abyssinia. She motions for Valkyrie to follow as she heads back the way she came. “What if you presented me with a really good argument? I almost want to see it, the debating skills that got a stubborn detective to partner up with a child.”
Valkyrie just walks three paces behind, the Neoterics following her in turn, and refuses to take whatever bait is left out for her. “Why am I here?”
“At the moment? I’m going to show you off. After that? Just keep you around, you know, in case something comes up.”
“In ten months,” says Valkyrie slowly, “you never worked out an exact plan for me?”
Abyssinia stops walking in front of a metal door, looks Valkyrie in the eye. “Not in the event of you being here with me, no. Can you tell me why?”
Valkyrie can’t maintain eye contact. “I suppose not,” she quietly admits.
“I was relying on you to do what you’ve been doing for the past nine years of your life. Give up. You were supposed to seek refuge with China Sorrows, and when you didn’t I had you chased all around the world to push you back to her. It depended on your investment in a stable future, and in order to do so you had to come back and act as the final chess piece, whichever one it may be. Just as long as you were there. But you kept running and we were stuck. If you’d like to think of it this way, it’s your fault that this has been drawn out for such a long time, that this isn’t over already.” Abyssinia lowers her chin so now she is staring up at her in a very Kubrick film-eque way. This is much worse. “Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re on the board now, on my side, and I’m really quite pleased to have this opportunity to dangle you in front of China. I might even put a blade to your neck.”
“Like she did to your son.”
Abyssinia’s gaze lifts, and the look on her face is one of odd satisfaction. Like the fact that Valkyrie knows a detail of her history meant that much to her. Valkyrie wonders, not for the first time, when and where the son in question will show up. “You get to eat and drink after this.”
She dismisses the Neoterics following them, and then pushes on the metal door and it opens to a narrow staircase. Abyssinia scurries up them, having to be fast in order to properly keep in front of Valkyrie, what with her long legs - and Valkyrie sees that Abyssinia is on tiptoe as she does this. The metal door shuts behind them, but they are only left in a small amount of darkness, as the top of the staircase is illuminated, like a beacon.
The staircase leads out to a small but significant balcony, the one with the ultimate view of the troops, the grasslands, every angle that anyone could possibly come from. Except cliffside. But with Coldheart manning that side of things, there’s nothing to worry about back there. It takes Valkyrie a second to realise that the balcony isn’t even open to the world below, as there is a thin, transparent screen acting as a wall to keep the place separate. At first she thinks it’s just to stop assassinations, then Abyssinia touches the screen and a UI fills Valkyrie’s vision.
“I have a designated stream time, isn’t that lovely? The Global Link is the closest thing we have to third party that there is - or perhaps the overseer of a debate would be a more apt description. Very rarely do I address the Sanctuary mages, my appearances are intended for my dear followers. Apparently China has been known to occasionally address us when it’s her time of the week. I wouldn’t know personally. This is the first time we will share the feed.”
Valkyrie watches Abyssinia open an overhead map of the area, resize it with a pinch and flick it to a bottom corner. She enlarges what presently seems to be a black box, a smaller one popping up on one of its edges a moment later. There’s a window with long scrolls of text going by. The time and temperature are nestled away in the top corner. Valkyrie thinks, Magic Skype.
They’ve been spotted by the troops, and they gather below. Some are looking down on their phones instead, where they have the Global Link opened there. Any mage usually within the fortress walls who haven’t come out are presumably doing the same, and now Valkyrie understands the screens she has seen mounted on almost every wall. There’s not one in her room, but for the time being that’s not a problem.
“When you speak,” says Abyssinia, glancing back, “address the crowd, not the screen. It looks better that way. And speaking of looks…”
The larger black screen buzzes to life and reflects a close-up view of the balcony back at Valkyrie. From this side, the UI doesn’t appear at all. Abyssinia pinches the screen again and it zooms in on Valkyrie.
“What do you think?”
Valkyrie looks at herself. Her hair is finger-combed, she has dark circles under her eyes and the right side of her face is purple and black with bruises, and her lip, while healing, is split. “I look like hammered shit.”
“Nonsense. Some bruises here and there never hurt anyone except the person who has them.”
Abyssinia resets the angle. The tinier black square comes to life as well, and Valkyrie sees the Room of Prisms, the view a bit blocked by someone who could only be the new Administrator as they set everything up on their end. So China makes her addresses from indoors. Valkyrie is sure that that’s something important to note, and is actually somewhat anxious to catch sight of her.
Details can’t easily be made out, and Valkyrie doesn’t want to gawk at the screen all day, but China is there alright, beautifully and intricately dressed, perched delicately on her throne. Her bodyguards must be just offscreen.
A timer Valkyrie hadn’t noticed rings, and the Global Link stream is live. The UI goes opaque and Abyssinia throws her arms in the air as she looks down at her public.
“Neoterics!” she says, and they scream. It’s like a football stadium.
Valkyrie is a little shocked by how fervently they behave. It’s like…it’s like another form of Bubba Moon’s People, a much more extreme form. And it makes sense. Abyssinia had been behind Moon, after all. Valkyrie wonders very briefly if he would have been one of her high-ranking Neoterics, had he lived to this point.
“My Neoterics, my loves, shush,” shouts Abyssinia, motioning downwards in a calming manner to settle her audience. “I understand why your feathers may be a little ruffled. It’s big news this week, a simple but nonetheless significant thing has happened. I had hoped to keep it under wraps for a little longer than 9 hours, but you know how it is in this modern world!”
But it’s China Sorrows on the opposition, the mistress of information hoarding. Valkyrie is not at all surprised that she’d found out so quickly.
“This week, I address dear Supreme Mage Sorrows as well as you, my sweet things, for official communications between us are about to commence! Very exciting, very exciting.” Abyssinia nods and gives a few claps, prompting applause from the Neoterics below. The tiny figure of China on the screen inclines her head somewhat, steepling her fingers.
“Ah, but listen to me rambling on when I know you’re all interested in something much more pressing. For those of you who cannot see me, the rumours are indeed true. After ten long months of radio silent absence, a prominent member of our community has finally been returned to us. Ladies. Gentlemen. Esteemed guests. I give you, home at last from her 300 days around the world, descended from the last of the Ancients, a powerful goddess stripped of her name and title, a Neoteric like all of you, the brilliant, the beautiful, the truly one and only–”
“Bit much,” murmurs Valkyrie.
When Abyssinia looks at her, her smile twitches for half a second. “Valkyrie! Cain!”
And as the Neoterics scream once more and China visibly straightens in her seat, Abyssinia steps to the side, arm outstretched, offering the platform away. Valkyrie moves so now she is in the centre of the balcony, she appears in the centre of the screen - and a hush falls over the crowd much sooner than expected as, for the first time in many years, Valkyrie feels like the centre of the universe. Unlike the old days, however, she is not happy to be here, and identifies much more strongly with a terrible black hole.
Darkness sweeps through the grass at the crowd’s feet, and Lord Vile rises up from it, head angled up at her. Valkyrie squares her shoulders.
“Well, here I am,” Valkyrie says, and her voice reverberates in both ears, like Stephanie Edgley and Darquesse are standing on either side of her, saying the exact same words. “Not of my own volition, I’d like to make clear. The reason why I left was so I wouldn’t be involved at all in this, but looks like I’m here anyway. So. That’s that.”
She goes to step away, but Abyssinia pushes her back.
“What have you been up to all this time, Valkyrie?” she presses.
“I’ve been,” she starts to tell Abyssinia, then looks back at the screen, at the crowd. Raises her voice. “I’ve been on the run. I haven’t spent more than three days in one place.”
“For your safety, that will continue to be the case, Valkyrie.” China’s voice is a sudden knife in the air. “I will have you out of there in–”
“Hush!” cries Abyssinia, slamming her palm on the screen, muting China, apparently for everyone. “Tell us more, Valkyrie. What’s next for you?”
“What’s…next for me? Well, I…” Valkyrie sees the Administrator and other High Sanctuary officials running around on the screen, trying to fix what Abyssinia has done. She sees fear and hatred in the eyes of the crowd, but that’s only because she’s looking for it. She blinks and sees more. More thoughts and feelings, more than can be expressed by the look on a person’s face, mixed, conflicting, oddly open. Every person has a coloured edge to them, the magic is swirling all around, and Valkyrie could touch it if she could reach. She knows she could.
“I’m not getting involved,” she eventually says. “I’m going to stay in my tower and wait for this to be over.”
“Oh, I don’t believe that. Won’t you consider joining a side? Properly? Because it seems to me, Valkyrie,” says Abyssinia, eyes darting and words speeding as she sees that while China’s audio issues aren’t getting fixed, something is definitely happening in that room with their setup, “that both sides want you very much.”
“I just want it to end,” Valkyrie says.
The stream goes dead. Audio, video and every other thing cuts out completely, and the screen returns to being just a piece of glass. The Neoterics go wild with dissatisfaction. Valkyrie scans the crowd for Vile and cannot find him.
“That Sorrows,” mutters Abyssinia. “I suppose there was a reason why she and I haven’t properly communicated yet. I’d best go down there and settle them.”
She heads to the darkness of the staircase, and Valkyrie is almost shocked. The way Abyssinia is just casually walking away gives off the impression that she’s completely forgotten about her. In fact, now that Valkyrie is thinking about it, she doesn’t think that last sentence was directed at her at all. There’s a chance she could take here, one where she remains silent and uses what little time she may have to find a way out of here. She takes one last look at the balcony view, at what awaits. Fights are breaking out between some of the Neoterics.
Valkyrie’s stomach rumbles. “What about me?”
“Hm?” Abyssinia turns. “Oh! Of course. Well, come down here and I’ll get someone to watch you while you eat.”
“So I don’t try to escape.”
Abyssinia smiles. “Or kill yourself.”
Chapter 5: gone girl
originally tacked on to the end of stream, made separate because i felt like it and you can't do anything about it no matter how short it is.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Valkyrie spends her last night before going on the run at Cemetery Road. She plans on waking early and getting straight home to feed Xena and freshen her water, but when her eyes open her bedroom is bright, and the sun is shining through the window directly into her eyes. She blinks painfully before gasping and throwing off the covers. She’s shrugging on her jacket as she hurries down the stairs, and she sees Skulduggery standing, waiting, in the archway separating his kitchen from the front hall.
“Good morning,” he says.
“I should’ve been up already,” replies Valkyrie. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“It’s a Saturday. When I’ve woken you on a Saturday in the past, you’ve been very upset with me.”
“I have a dog!”
“I can’t do anything right,” says Skulduggery with an overly dramatic sigh.
“No, you can’t,” says Valkyrie, walking to the front door. He follows right behind, and almost bumps into her when she suddenly halts and turns. She looks him sternly in the eye sockets for a moment, then smiles and gently knocks her knuckle against his sternum. “I still like you, though.”
Skulduggery tilts his head. “Thank you.”
Accepting what she can get, Valkyrie opens the front door and steps out onto the porch. There are people standing in the driveway. Skulduggery gets out his revolver as if it will make much of a difference.
Abyssinia curls her fingers into claws and raises her hands in a position reminiscent to a puppet master. “Not a very warm welcome,” she tuts, and when she closes her hands into fists, blackness bursts out of Skulduggery and completely consumes him.
Valkyrie shouts involuntarily and almost makes an attempt to go in after him. She feels a tingle in her shoulder, Abyssinia’s magic just at her border and ready to grab hold. She’s thrown off the porch by invisible strings and hits the ground, mentally preparing herself for an onslaught, but Abyssinia has already let go and her people make no move towards Valkyrie. Only Skulduggery.
It’s time, says a voice. It’s time it’s time it’s time it’s time.
Valkyrie throws herself into her car and rushes home to get her dog.
marking the end of the flashbacks i suppose
Chapter 6: warm
this is the part where they bone
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Her escort bolts the door once she's inside, and immediately afterwards she can hear them loudly tromping all the way back down that ridiculous amount of stairs. Physically, she is feeling much better than she had 24 hours ago. Her torso gash still needs redressing every few hours, but at least she won't have to worry about a lack of bandages, thanks to the stock gifted to her on her way back up here. She sets the new gear down on the washing machine, beside the first aid kit, and lifts her shirt to assess the current state of her injury.
It stopped bleeding some time ago, obviously, or she would be dead, but it's still fresh and painful. Her bandages are loose, an unexceptional job done this morning before her amazing appearance on magic TV, and they give way easily. She feeds them through the bars on the window - and they're no longer her problem. She very professionally tucks the lifted part of her shirt under her boobs so it stays out of the way while she wraps her waist back up, then straightens herself out and wanders back to the window.
If it weren't for the bars, she could certainly fit through - and promptly fall to her death, another thing added to the pile of dirty bandages that do no more than annoy the troops below. But she sees now that they are no longer lying dormant. They're moving out.
All of them. Every Neoteric camping outside the fortress is packing up, if not already leaving, if not already gone. This is extremely concerning. Valkyrie remembers quite clearly what Abyssinia told her, that everyone had been at a standstill, but things could get properly moving now that Valkyrie has been secured. She can't imagine that they're all headed to Roarhaven, but something in her gut, her injury, tells her that many of them surely must be. This may as well be it. The day they make their first out in the open concentrated attack.
The Warlocks got through within hours. And Valkyrie hadn't been helping defend Roarhaven then, either. But that was...many years ago, and now China Sorrows is the one at the helm of the city. Valkyrie has to have faith.
It's not easy.
She stays at the window and watches, just watches everyone go. There are a dozen or so who remain, the rest of the grass flattened, burnt, torn up where the army had once been. The sun has only just made first contact with the horizon. There will be news in the morning, and it's up to fate to decide if it will be good or bad. Valkyrie must remember to not shoot the messenger.
It may be Abyssinia if it's a win - she strikes Valkyrie as the type to gloat - but however this turns out, her initial messenger will probably be Skulduggery. Or perhaps not, as Valkyrie intends on getting him to stay another night, and he could fall asleep again.
Such a strange concept to apply to him.
Valkyrie thinks that sleep isn’t the only thing she has to keep in mind for him now. While eating earlier, she wondered when and where he did the same. She wonders now if he had to get used to it all over again, if it made him sick at the start. Skulduggery has been alive for almost the entire time she was gone, she missed the whole process of getting into it. Valkyrie realises that she wishes she’d been there for it. She was there when he was recovering from almost a year spent in the Faceless Ones’ dimension. She should have been here with him.
Remember , Valkyrie muses. You left in the first place.
Valkyrie sits cross-legged on the bed, rubbing a small bruise on her ankle and watching her socks tumbling in the washing machine. It’s dark out now, and she only has her lantern for light. Though it’s been fairly warm since she got back to Ireland, she feels the cold this evening, so she’s stripped the thin sheet off the bed’s mattress, having not been provided with any blankets, and wrapped it around her shoulders.
She decides that tomorrow she’ll wrap her hands in bandages and start punching the wall. The unfortunate reality of being a POW is that it’s boring. Valkyrie touches the wood of the headboard as not to jinx herself, but she almost wishes she’d get called up for some torture. It’d be something else to do - or have done to her, rather. It would at least give her new wounds to worry over, now that her others are healing.
There’s a knock on the door and it’s almost as if she jumps out of her skin. She stands barefoot facing the door in a stance that is both ready to fight and ready to collapse, still clasping the sheet around her with one hand. Whoever is at the door does nothing.
“What?” she says loudly. “What do you want?”
The voice is quiet, but all too familiar. “Are you decent?”
Valkyrie very visibly relaxes. Only Skulduggery. “Yes.”
Shadows seep into the room from the tiny crack under the door, and in very little time Lord Vile’s armour materialises at the wall. Valkyrie shivers. The helmet tilts at her before Skulduggery takes it off, aware that she would have demanded he do it anyway.
“I only ask,” he says as the rest of the armour melts off, “because I didn't last night and you weren't.”
“Sorry,” replies Valkyrie. “But to be fair, I didn’t know you had a body yet.”
“It has nothing to do with me having a body,” Skulduggery says. “It’s polite .”
She’d been speaking on autopilot. Valkyrie becomes aware of what she implied. “Right, yeah, it is,” she says quickly. “Of course. Thank you.”
The shadows swirl around Skulduggery and then disperse. Already the room feels better, so Valkyrie unwinds the sheet from around her, straightening her shirt as she does so. She bundles the sheet into a ball and dumps it on the bed. Skulduggery watches her do this and manages to go with only wincing a little bit.
She can feel his eyes on her. It’s like a weight.
“The Neoterics left,” says Valkyrie, sitting next to the bundle on the bare mattress. “They’re going to Roarhaven, aren’t they?”
“They are indeed. Quite a lot of them, at least. What really matters isn’t so much their destination, but is that they’ve left. Their absence leaves the job of protecting the fortress from wanderers open, and so it now falls upon one man. However, I think he may be busy elsewhere.”
Valkyrie doesn’t look very impressed. “I wouldn’t call you busy here.”
He tilts his head and his mouth twitches slightly upwards. “Would you rather I actually go do my job?”
“What? No. If Lord Vile wandering off for one night means crisis’ll fall upon the fortress and all of Abyssinia’s evil plans will be undone, so fuckin’ be it, you know? Easiest win in the world.” She puts her hands on her knees and hunches somewhat, looking down at the ground. “I want you here.”
“I want to be here, too,” Skulduggery says quietly. Still, he remains at the wall.
Valkyrie doesn’t look up. She feels on her thigh where he’d touched her in the morning, just for a second. He has a body, he can eat and sleep, he’s totally gorgeous. Resting her elbow on her knee now, Valkyrie moves her hair to the side and puts her hand on the back of her neck. From here she glances back at him at last.
With her eyes adjusted to the darkness but his left side illuminated by the lantern, it sort of looks like he’s glowing. She notices now that his fingers are a little twitchy, still unused to nerves and blood and breath probably - or it could even be his magic. There’s nothing else about Skulduggery that immediately stands out as twitchy, but Valkyrie would like to imagine that there’s more. She doesn’t know why, though. He turns his head to wet his lips, as if it would be strange to do while looking at her, but doesn’t turn his head back, and now he stares over at the washing machine in the dark.
A breeze idly sweeps in and Valkyrie is cold all over again. She wants to be warm, damn it. She wants a proper bed, hers , with thick blankets, she wants her dog at her feet. She wants a nice firelight, maybe, and arms around her, definitely--
“I’m kinda sick of this,” says Valkyrie, standing and facing Skulduggery completely. She strides over to him, holding herself tall. “Something must be done.”
He turns his head back to her, looks at her with his big eyes. “Oh yes, I agree,” he says. “With the troops set out, it may not be long until we’re all plunged into war. We need to formulate at least an idea of what we’re going to do.”
“Skulduggery,” says Valkyrie, grabbing hold of his wrist. She just holds it for a moment, and in that moment she goes from not feeling much through his glove to feeling a very hard pulse. “I’m not talking about that.”
“Oh,” he croaks. Wets his lips again. “What are you talking about, then?”
She moves down from his wrist and links her fingers through his. “I’m sorry I ran. And I’m sorry I wasn’t here while you were getting used to this.”
“It’s not your fault.” He squeezes her hand. “It’s good that you ran. Better for you to be missing than dead.”
“Not much of a point to it in the end. I’m here now, and I have to make up for lost time. I’d just like to clarify real quick, before I do this, like you said before, this has nothing to do with you having a body - even though, oh my god, you’re a snack. What I mean is that I’ve always been--”
Skulduggery winds his arm around her waist and kisses her - gently, but very meaningfully - on the mouth. Not for too long. Not long enough, maybe. He keeps his arm on her when he draws away.
Valkyrie blinks at him. “...attracted to you, bones and all, I was gonna say before you cut me off.”
“I know that,” he says. “But it’s very flattering that you felt that you had to tell me.”
She brightens so much that her magic flares, crackling in her hands and getting Skulduggery to hiss and take his hand out of hers - and she laughs and shakes her hands to get it all out before wrapping her arms around his neck. Valkyrie kisses him now, less gentle and more meaningful, and combs her fingers through his hair. She barely pulls away at all to take a breath, resting her forehead against his. Skulduggery steps back against the wall and Valkyrie presses further into him. Their legs get tangled.
Valkyrie starts tracing her fingers against his neck, dragging her hands down his sternum. He leaves his lips parted while he breathes, his chest rising and falling steadily, if not a bit fast. Her hands are at his lapels now.
“How does this work,” she mutters.
“There's no rush,” says Skulduggery softly. Then he blinks in that effective way he does, and he rests his hands on Valkyrie's hips as he looks at her. “Though this may be a good time to make our escape.”
“Now?” Valkyrie is aghast. “ Now? We're going to go fight a war? Skulduggery, have you any idea how long--”
“Not to fight,” he corrects. “And yes, I think I do have an idea. I won't…” He kisses her cheek. “I won't make love to you in a prison cell.”
She is completely stricken. “M… I… Skulduggery - I don't-- does it matter?”
“Oh, I think so.” Skulduggery kisses her cheek again, kisses all the way down to her neck. “It's been a long time since either of us have been home, you know.” His hands go round to the small of her back, and her forehead drops to his shoulder as she remembers how truly homesick she is, how much she agrees and just doesn't want to be here anymore.
“You're right,” she says, lifting her head and stepping back - and the Skulduggery that Valkyrie sees is awfully different to the one she saw not five minutes ago.
He's a flustered wreck. She now knows that he's the type to blush with his whole face. His hair is ruffled, though she's responsible for that, looks tense now that she's away from him - and all that leather is definitely tighter. Valkyrie breathes in through her teeth and makes eye contact as she exaggeratedly bites her lip.
“Don't,” Skulduggery whispers. “I'll change my mind.”
She undoes one button on her shirt. “You've got amazing restraint.”
“I'll get my socks and we can go.” She turns and goes to the washing machine. “How are we getting out? You'd best have a plan, detective.”
Skulduggery doesn't answer, but she doesn't ask again or turn back. She halts the cycle and takes out her soaking socks, puts them on anyway and her sneakers next. Undoes another button and wonders how long it will take him to notice. Valkyrie stands and sees Skulduggery removing the bars from the window. He quickly and carefully turns and unhinges each one from their positions, letting them fall out when he's done. When the way out is cleared, he climbs out and hovers.
“Shall we?” he asks, reaching his arm back through for Valkyrie.
“Will you be able to concentrate on flying?” she asks teasingly.
“I've been able to concentrate plenty of times.”
She reels. “You could feel sexual attraction as a skeleton. You could whole time.”
“I never claimed otherwise.”
“You never claimed anything! ” Valkyrie climbs through after him and grabs hold, and Skulduggery flies them away. She shouts in his ear as the wind whips by, “You wanna be the first sorcerers to do it in the sky?”
He looks at her, then moves one of his hands from her waist to her leg, pulling it up alongside him. “Do you? ”
Valkyrie laughs and bucks her hips - and Skulduggery makes a fantastic sound and she laughs harder.
Amazingly, they make it to Grimwood unseen by anyone and untouched by each other. Valkyrie supposes her keys are forever lost to an Italian lost and found, but she can get new copies. In the meantime, she and Skulduggery wrench open the window to her bedroom, and judging by the state of the place, Abyssinia had decided to leave her house alone - or she didn't know where it was - and let the housekeeper continue to come round every ten days uninterrupted.
Cemetery Road had been closer, but neither of them know what state the place is in. Abyssinia had come directly to his house to get him, and Skulduggery doubts that she would have left it alone from there. He doesn't know. She never said anything about it. He tells Valkyrie that his house will have to be the first place they liberate from her tyranny, and that sounds good to Valkyrie. She loves his house, like she loves the Bentley--
The Bentley. Valkyrie reminds him of it.
“Do you know if the anti-Sanctuary did anything with it?”
“If they did, they won't be around much longer to regret it.”
Valkyrie's heart stops feeling so light, weighed down by everything lost and unaccounted for and not checked on in these last ten months. She closes the window - the air in here is a little stale but at least it's warm - and leans against the sill. The weight in her chest goes to her shoulders and tiredness threatens to kick in. Skulduggery sees it.
“Maybe you should rest,” he suggests.
Valkyrie lifts her head and smiles at him. “Not until you make my night, Mr Pleasant.” She throws herself into her bed, which is well-made and comfortable and big - and strikes a pose, putting one hand behind her head and hitching up her leg. Another button is undone. “Come on.”
And he's already positioned himself over her, shirt off, having not needed much encouraging. From arms length Skulduggery just regards her a minute, tilting his head each way he looks, almost like he's forgotten he has eyes and no longer needs to indicate - or he could just really want her to know how much he's appreciating her. Valkyrie resists the urge to wrap her legs around him already and allows him his moment.
“I think you've already made mine, Ms Cain.” His hand, still gloved for the time being, goes to the collar of her shirt - which is really his - and his fingers trail down to undo another button. “Was it really an accident that you had this with you?”
“No,” Valkyrie very readily admits. “It was deliberate. When I was really missing you I’d put it on and get off.”
“That's hardly fair,” murmurs Skulduggery. “I didn't have anything of yours.”
She pictures it and shifts slightly. “Well, you've got me now.”
“Yes, I d--” His back arches as Valkyrie touches him through his trousers. “It's-- Valkyrie, it's been…a long time…”
She nods. “It's okay. I don't care. Just - you know… I'm dying here.”
“I did promise it would be special,” he says as he kisses down her neck to her chest.
Valkyrie lifts her bottom slightly before drawing up her legs and wrapping them around his waist, arms around his shoulders as insurance, and puts her years of training to good use. She flips them both round so now she’s on top, already straddling him. “I can't stand slow burns. Not any longer, anyway.”
“You could have broken my back.”
“Shut up .” She flings the shirt away, banished to the floor. Her next move is a rotation of her hips, a grind that starts off subtle and just gets worse. Valkyrie lays her palms flat on Skulduggery’s chest and starts feeling her way around. She finds his ribs and that's definitely a comfort, if an odd one, and she leans down and he rises as best he can to meet her, and they kiss.
One of his hands finds the back of her neck while the other trails up her thigh. Skulduggery keeps forgetting to breathe and he's gasping at any time their mouths are apart. Valkyrie can tell he’ll probably come if she just keeps up with the rutting, and a part of her would love to let it happen because she knows he would be mortified - but this is about her, too.
“Can you reach the second drawer on my bedside table?”
Skulduggery has great difficulty with taking his eyes off her. He can open the drawer with his arm stretched out, but not get his hand in. Valkyrie leans over to check that she remembered the right drawer, and now she reaches in, pulls out the box and flips it for an expiry date.
“Who were those for?” asks Skulduggery.
“Oh, you know.” Valkyrie drops a condom wrapper on his chest and puts the box away. “Whoever.”
She remembers her earlier thought, when she’d noticed his twitches and wondered if there were more. Turns out there are - she can feel right beneath her. She feels like keeping her bra on and he doesn't have any objections, just wants to hold her and be with her. They get right down to it.
Valkyrie bends in a bad way for a moment and her bruises wail, so Skulduggery kisses them and doesn't miss even one. She ends up feeling kind of like a wild animal - sweaty and burning inside and not terribly traditionally sexy - but it doesn't bother her, because the one she's with is Skulduggery, who loves her implicitly and wants her just as much.
He flips her and eats her out, and Valkyrie practically screams the house down.
She's never been loud before. She's never really had all that much fun, either. Everything that came before this was serious business, even messing about with Fletcher to test the waters was just going through the motions. But here she's more than comfortable, and she laughs and quips back whenever Skulduggery says anything, be it a joke or a compliment, and it feels right. The overly dramatic preamble of pushing through ten years of tension has long since melted away.
It does feel a bit like they're getting back into the drama of it all when they just start whispering declarations of love at each other between soft kisses and loud moans, but in the aftermath Valkyrie decides to think of it more a sweet than dramatic. She lies staring up at her ceiling with Skulduggery's arms around her, and she can't remember what it's like to feel cold.
she's still a bit disappointed that she couldn't fuck him as a skeleton. she wanted to bone the bones. that's canon.
Every day brings fresh injuries, and every night they tend to them and each other. They haven’t yet revealed their identities to anyone. Valkyrie gets the occasional mention on the Global Link, believed by China to be in hiding. Though there are some in the anti-Sanctuary who know better, it seems that the public at large still thinks that Skulduggery is long dead, and Lord Vile AWOL. Why Abyssinia hasn’t yet told them the truth remains a gut-wrenching mystery.
The anti-Sanctuary breached Shudder’s Gate in 14 hours, and the Circle locked itself down while the rest of the city was turned into a playground, streets wild with nigh-constant fighting between Neoterics and Roarhaven residents who had taken up arms. One of the few places that remained a safe haven outside the Circle was Corrival, which, after every student who could be teleported out was gone, became something of a refugee centre. Everywhere else had a short shelf life. Within the Circle, the Dark Cathedral and a portion of the High Sanctuary harboured anyone who could compensate for the space they were taking up.
A new form of the Supreme Council banded only to close Ireland off from the rest of the world - afraid more of what Abyssinia would do to it if she won than what China would do to them if she survived - yet rumour had it that mages from England, Australia, and the Americas were trying to get in, purposes mostly unknown. For now, no sorcerer could exit or enter the country.
A month and three weeks since the breach, Valkyrie and Skulduggery keep to smaller jobs, driving Neoterics out of the streets, saving lives, securing safe places for themselves should they lose another. They’re an anonymous pair in black clothes and bandages, and it’s rare for anyone to see them twice. They watch every stream, every debate that ends up turning into a shouting match between Abyssinia and China, both far from the real fight, both willing to let it go on forever until they get what they want.
Abyssinia’s son remains unaccounted for. Auger Darkly is kept safe under high security, along with his brother and parents, as far away as the Sanctuary could get him.
They originally planned on leaving Roarhaven and going home for the night, but Skulduggery’s concussion and Valkyrie’s thigh wound will keep that from being possible. Inconvenient, neither of them are happy about it, but unavoidable. Valkyrie uncovers the loose panel in the roof of the pub, helps Skulduggery down, and replaces the panel as she drops in after him. Skulduggery stumbles to the nearest wall, presses both hands against it to keep himself upright as he throws up. It’s just bile, neither of them have eaten today, but it’s awful regardless.
Synecdoche, having heard the sounds that signalled their entrance, pokes her head up into the attic and lets out a sigh. She asks for five minutes, then disappears back down to the building proper to finish attending to her other walk-in patients. Valkyrie can handle five minutes.
She shrugs off her small backpack and fishes out a water bottle, wrenches off her helmet so she can drink. It’s nowhere near enough, but she has only half and passes the bottle to Skulduggery. He stops thumping his fist against his chest and shakes his head a moment.
“Didn’t miss that,” he says, almost coughs, before drinking.
“Oh, no? And this whole time I was thinking you were enjoying it.” Valkyrie puts her hand on his back and walks him over to the chair, the only piece of furniture up here. Once he’s sat down, she sweeps hair off his forehead and lays her palm there, leaning against the arm of the chair to relieve her legs of some weight. “How’s your head?”
Skulduggery holds the water bottle by the neck as he sets it on his knee. “I’ve had worse.”
“Yeah, but it sucks to get your brain rattled like that.”
“Mm,” he agrees, closing his eyes.
Valkyrie snaps her fingers at him. “Oi. Stay here.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
“Stay awake .”
Skulduggery looks up at her, and she can see tiredness in his eyes and she kind of hates it, hates that it’s indicative of every advantage he lost. He hates it too and Valkyrie knows that, but she still casts her eyes down and feels bad for having had the thought. She brushes a stray drop of water from his mouth and thinks about the positives instead.
Skulduggery reaches up and takes her hand before she can withdraw it, kisses her gloved knuckles. Valkyrie makes a face.
“You literally just vomited.”
“Thank you, I’m aware.”
She pulls her hand out from his and flicks her finger against his forehead. He hisses.
“Please don’t do that,” says Synecdoche as she climbs up into the attic. “You don’t want to do any more damage, do you?”
“She means me nothing but harm, Reverie,” says Skulduggery. “Terrible for my health. Tell me there’s a cure.”
“Not today, Pleasant. Lean your head back.”
As Synecdoche attends to them, Thrasher arrives to clean up the vomit. He doesn’t say anything the whole time he’s there, and goes completely unacknowledged until Valkyrie thanks him as he and Synecdoche disappear back down to the pub, shutting the hatch to the attic behind them. Skulduggery climbs out to the roof to fetch his helmet, throws it down to the floor beside Valkyrie’s and sits against the wall, watching Valkyrie pace.
Eventually the numbing effect of the leaves wear off, and the pain in her thigh comes back in the form of a horrible throb, like she’s being bitten all over again. That parasite of Razzia’s sure can leave a mark. The Arbiters had won the battle, as Razzia had fled, but Valkyrie can’t help but be concerned as to why she’d been further out from the Circle than expected. She doesn’t want to say it, because saying it aloud would make it real, but Valkyrie is afraid that the anti-Sanctuary is close to getting through. She wants to go back out there, see how far they’ve gotten for herself. But that would be ridiculously risky.
They’re doing the best they can for themselves for now. Sometimes it’s enough to take care of your own circle. Valkyrie still has trouble internalising this.
“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” she asks.
“To be perfectly honest, I was hoping you would be kind enough to give us time to recover before looking for the next opportunity to get hurt.”
“You’re such a baby.”
“I am what I am.”
Skulduggery draws his legs up to his chest and folds his arms over his knees, and just gazes at her. He does that sometimes. Valkyrie can’t think of a particularly productive reason why. She rolls her shoulders, musses up her hair, and goes and sits with him. And there they stay, sitting and aching for hours, until they recover their bike from its hiding space and go off into the dead of the night.
When Valkyrie calls home, Skulduggery doesn’t object. Holed up in Gordon’s office, stuffed between a wall and a bookcase, she listens to Melissa Edgley describe her week with tears dripping off her chin, going quiet once she’s off the phone, finally burrowing herself into bed and not coming out for anything. He hates to see her so sad, but he makes no attempt to stop her when she does this every Sunday, because Valkyrie loves and misses her family. And he cannot fault her for that.
Dawn on Monday, Valkyrie struggles to get free of the thick blankets she buried herself under, somehow gets a banged elbow as she ends up on the floor. She kicks the last of the sheets off, utterly drenched in sweat. Skulduggery is not in the room. That’s fine at first, and she goes and showers and scrubs the last of whoever’s blood off her, but when she comes out it’s half an hour later and he still has not appeared. That’s something of a concern.
As she searches through her house, Valkyrie can’t help but wonder if his concussion had given him some kind of fatal brain damage, and he’d slunk off in middle of the night to die by himself, like how wild animals do...
She hears his voice drifting faintly inside through a window. Valkyrie practically throws herself out the front door. Skulduggery is standing all the way down the driveway, at the closed gate separating the property from the outside world, arms folded and looking through the bars at a crouched figure on the other side. The figure is not alone, however their partner appears to be passed out several metres away, looking as if she’d landed there after being thrown. Valkyrie goes back inside to put on one of Skulduggery’s jackets, then makes her unhurried way out to the gate.
“I must say I admire all the effort you’re putting in, even if you’re not doing a very good job,” Skulduggery is saying. “There’s a work ethic in you I don’t tend to see anywhere else these days. I’m sure you could do great things, even if you’re completely rubbish in this particular field.”
The figure’s response doesn’t carry nearly as well, but at the very least Valkyrie can tell they’re annoyed.
“I’m not making fun of you. Am I? I hope not. I will admit I haven’t been the most encouraging presence, but at no point have I found humour in your meager attempts to break in. Although - well, yes, I did laugh when your partner knocked herself out there before, but that’s an entirely different-”
He turns, and she really can’t bring herself to hate the look in his eyes now. “At last, the mistress of the house. Hopefully you can talk some sense into our guest. They’d like to come in.”
Valkyrie sees now that the unconscious partner is scorched from where she presumably made contact with the force field that surrounds the property. The figure continues scrawling a series of sigils into the dirt.
“Oh, mate,” says Valkyrie, almost sympathetically. “That’s really not going to do you much good.”
“I’ve told them that already.”
“What, in that smug tone of yours? No one listens to you when you talk like that.”
“Do you think it’s too much?”
“You’re on the right track with talking down to them, but the self-importance is cranked up too high.” She squints at the figure, who just keeps drawing. “Hey. How’d you get this far, anyway?”
“We left the base shield down last night,” offers Skulduggery.
“Christ, we deserve to be broken into.”
“Yes,” agrees the wannabe intruder, finally looking up at Valkyrie. “Yes, you do. Hiding away in your mansion while it all goes to hell out here. For all those tries you apparently made at being a better person, you sure are eager to sit out of something that has real redeeming potential. But no, you’re safe behind better security than bloody Roarhaven with some mystery dickhead. You should be flayed.”
Valkyrie shrugs and inclines her head in noncommittal agreement. Skulduggery brushes his thumb down one of the bars on the gate.
“Who knows you’re here?” he asks.
The figure jerks their head at their partner. “Her.”
“That’s all? No one else?”
“Not a lot of time for gossip these days.”
“Yes,” says Skulduggery, and opens the gate. “You’re very right about that.”
The figure stands. “What is this?”
“Hm?” He glances back at Valkyrie like he missed something. “Oh! You mean me. Well, the thing is, I’m going to kill you.”
“That’s- What? No, no you’re not.” All the same, they take a step back. “Not one person on planet fucking Earth would kill for Valkyrie Cain.”
Skulduggery tilts his head. “I hate not being recognised, it’s so damaging to my ego.”
Valkyrie ends her internal debate about sticking around. She turns and starts walking back up to the house. She throws over her shoulder, “You’ll live.”
Skulduggery hums a laugh, and the intruder runs.
and if you think THOSE were unnecessary cameos, get ready for this shit,
Chapter 8: sterling silver
if you haven't read off the rack then i'm sorry i don't know what to tell you. wait no sorry i do. read off the rack please
In a welcome change of pace, the streets are predominantly quiet as they make their way downtown. Valkyrie’s headache keeps her from enjoying it too much, but she tries to keep things in perspective - it could always be worse, she could have to be driving through a riot again. At least the memories of last week’s adventure sting harder than whatever bruises are still left over.
A half-moon hangs overhead, and as they briefly skirt close to the edge of the Circle, they hear sounds of reinforcements being made to its security from the inside. That very morning, Valkyrie and Skulduggery watched from a nearby roof as a mysterious helicopter made a seamless entry through everything the Circle had, and went around the High Sanctuary until it finally landed on an unseen helipad. Valkyrie hadn’t noticed anything particularly interesting about it, no detail that could possibly give away what was inside.
She’d asked Skulduggery what he thought. He said he had an idea, but didn’t want to share it until he was sure, and Valkyrie had taken this opportunity to tease him about just not wanting to be wrong. His response, “I’d quite like to be wrong, actually,” had been wildly concerning.
As they pull up in front of the department store, the atmosphere is noticeably more disturbed, and they can hear crashing and shouting drifting out from windows on higher floors. After securing their motorcycle where it had been promised it would be safe, they prepare themselves and their weapons. Skulduggery loves to mutter and complain about the lack of style in cartridge-based handguns, and Valkyrie usually loves to listen, but her headache is entering its third hour and her level of nonsense tolerance has taken a nosedive.
He looks at her and can immediately tell, and gently brushes down her arm by way of apology.
The ground level is empty but for them and the bare mannequins, presumably stripped by the ones who had left the racks and cases is such hideous disarray. Muddy tracks line the tile in every which way, crumpled clothes and garbage lie at random - Valkyrie spies in a corner what appears to be a severed arm, and she cringes.
From what they know, it’s been a constant battle for control over the store lifts. Thankfully, the ball is in their court for the time being, so they call for it and wait.
Valkyrie looks back one last time and sees a mannequin staring right back at her. She nudges Skulduggery for his attention.
“We kind of look like we’re one of them,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be funny? Funny weird, I mean. That a couple of mannequins got so sick of the place being a warzone that they stepped in.”
Skulduggery takes a short moment to consider this, looking between himself and Valkyrie. “Will that be our backstory for tonight?”
“No crazy mob has ever asked us for one before.”
“This one might. Remember, Valkyrie, these people are mad.”
A small smile springs to life as she turns to face the opening lift doors. “We’re not altogether sane either, Skulduggery.”
“We’re a higher quality kind of mad. The fun kind.”
The figure who had previously bundled themselves in the corner of the lift launches out at them, and Valkyrie and Skulduggery step out of the way much like a secondary set of doors, leading the figure to go tumbling headfirst into a marble slab. But they aren’t down for the count just yet, and they crawl back up to their feet, holding their clawed hands up at either side of their head, hissing unpleasantly. They notice the wet spray of spittle coming out of their mouth as they do this, and make a horrible noise before spitting a collected grey glob of saliva down to the ground.
“Jesus,” says Valkyrie, utterly disgusted.
The sigils on her staff light up seconds before she smacks it clean across the figure’s face. They stagger and drop to the ground, where they convulse a moment before going limp. Skulduggery stops holding the lift doors and heads in, and she follows.
“Nicely done,” he says.
“Get bent,” she lovingly replies.
The ride is shaky and slow, oddly tense due to the feeling that it could break or drop at any time. Valkyrie hears skittering and scratching from beyond the walls, even hears someone making shushing sounds, holding off a laugh as they do so. Her hand goes to her head to rub at her temple, meeting the hard plastic of her helmet instead. She drops her hand back to her side and Skulduggery hesitantly starts to reach for it - but he stops and passes the motion off as a flex.
The battle for the building’s soul is evidently happening on the fourth floor, and while they’re passing by, the lift becomes an echochamber of indistinct violence. Valkyrie ducks her head and lifts the visor of her helmet, rubbing her eyes, feeling them move beneath her eyelids, giving in to how tired she is for just a second. Just one can’t hurt. She replaces the visor as they come out to the fifth floor.
One more lift ride to go, a much less wary one, up to the penthouse where the employees of the store and residents of the building have set up their base of operations. A good deal of them who are here and not down on the fourth floor fighting, Valkyrie and Skulduggery can plainly see, are injured. Manpower is low, and they’ll lose the main elevator again unless they can successfully push back against the ones who call themselves the denizens of the walls.
Valkyrie and Skulduggery are the ones who can turn the tide. They only need to report to the former assistant who is running the show.
They find her where they had expected to, in a small room at the far end of the main corridor of the penthouse, hunched over a lightbox and an intricate sigil design. There's no other light source in the room, and so the beam of the box, small but concentrated, reflects off the thousands of gems that line the walls in a way that makes it seem like the woman is surrounded by stars.
Given the reputation of her present company, she may as well be.
Ciel looks up at them and smiles, never surprised, never doubting who could be beneath those helmets. She likes Valkyrie more and shakes her hand first.
“A pleasure as always,” she says, sweeping the design away before Valkyrie can get a good look at it. “Thank you for seeing me before heading into the thick of it. I’ll send who I can spare down with you, all spruced up with their complimentary Sterling gear.” Ciel switches off the lightbox and her personal galaxy disappears.
Her boss had been oddly delighted when Valkyrie and Skulduggery paid their last visit here, when for them it was a sombre occasion. They felt as if they were admitting some kind of defeat. For all the talk about wearing another brand not counting as a betrayal toward Ghastly, it was obvious that neither of them had ever fully internalised it. But there was no denying that Skulduggery’s clothes had been made with bones in mind, and so Matt Sterling was the very first of their few allies who got to see what had happened to him.
Walking past the door to the studio, Ciel informs her guests that Sterling is finishing a project they’ve had rattling around their head since the Arbiters’ last visit. It’s a gift for them, Ciel reveals, but that’s all she has been permitted to say.
“Are we allowed to guess?” asks Valkyrie.
“I don’t see why not. It doesn’t mean I’ll say anything more.”
She decides not to try.
The three of them stop in the penthouse foyer. Ciel snaps her fingers to get the attention of the people around them, points to four mages making use of the cushioned benches, and they get up and position themselves at the back of the procession. Skulduggery turns to size them up, arms folded. Valkyrie doesn’t know what to look for in them, only seeing it worth taking note that none of them appear to be afraid. One of them smells of a forest fire and she guesses he’s an Elemental. A short woman turns a knife over in her hands.
The denizens are crazy people who live in the walls, Valkyrie reminds herself. They could have had only Omen as backup and they’d be fine.
Omen . Valkyrie turns her head, not that she needs to hide how suddenly her face has fallen. Her headache kicks at her temples and she forces it back. Skulduggery, having completed his appraisal, looks back to Ciel.
“Jewellery,” he says.
“I’m sorry?” For the first time, at least for as long as Valkyrie's known her, Ciel has been fazed.
“The gem collection was uneven. Something had recently been taken from it.”
The assistant laughs and calls the elevator, shaking her head. The four mages go in first, and the doors are shutting again once Valkyrie and Skulduggery are inside and looking out at Ciel.
“You’re a funny one, Mr Pleasant. See you soon.”
The doors shut and the lift goes down. One of the mages behind them shifts their weight from one foot to the other.
“Did she call you Pleasant? ” they ask quietly.
Skulduggery barely inclines his head at them. “Pardon? No. Hush now.”
This is Valkyrie’s first time seeing the fourth floor of the department store, and it doesn’t make a very good first impression. They enter through the fire escape door and immediately have to move out of the way of a mannequin head flying at them. The place is a mess of tattered clothes and debris, the walls are as good as Swiss cheese, and there’s a bunch of mad people in capes having slap-fights with idiots who have evidently been wearing their employee uniforms for the past two months straight.
No, no - that’s hardly fair, Valkyrie can see a couple of capable fighters dotting the place. But it is clear to her now that the only reason why this has been a long, ongoing battle is because none of these people know what they’re doing.
She’ll grant idiots one thing, and it’s that they can be unpredictable. Scapegrace’d had that anti-Sanctuary nut completely baffled for a minute the last time she’d seen him. But unpredictability alone can’t win a fight, and Scapegrace had been smeared on the walls of his own pub and now Valkyrie doesn’t even know why she’s thinking about him in the first place. She knocks down three denizens in one sweep of her staff and the Elemental pushes at the air, throwing them into one of the holes in the wall.
Several denizens start racing in a circle, one after the other, forcing Valkyrie and some others in the centre as they go. She backs into someone and jumps - sees it’s only Skulduggery and relaxes, then immediately feels bad. She still expects a bony body. He just tilts his head at her and cocks his gun, points it at the blur of denizens running around them and fires. A denizen drops dead and their fellows trip over them and the circle is broken. Valkyrie gets back to smacking those still standing with her stick.
The denizens who are still conscious or alive start fleeing back into the walls. A couple of confident ones take up arms in the form of coathangers and attempt to trade pathetic blows with the employees, but it’s over for them and they’re going to have to accept that in the form of an injury. Valkyrie can tell from the way Skulduggery is standing that he would have liked a more substantial fight, but with her headache her only complaint is that it wasn’t over sooner .
She kicks a fallen denizen’s leg and they scramble up, preparing to hurry off, but they stop when they look at her.
“What are you supposed to be, then, one of the mannequins? What’s your story?” they wheeze, and Valkyrie whaps them with her stick and they jump out the nearest window.
Just about all of the employees and residents of the building clear out and up through the fire stairs, though some hang around to help Valkyrie and Skulduggery somewhat with cleaning up the complete dump the floor has become, covering some of the holes in the wall with whatever scrap pieces they can find. One of them asks questions about who they are and why they came to help, and they get no answers. They get a couple of thanks as their company finally departs, and then the Arbiters are alone. Valkyrie waits a minute before going over to one of the broken windows and wrenching her helmet off.
Skulduggery remains standing in the centre of the room, glancing back over the job they did of clearing bodies. It could be better. But it’s not their job make the place look nice. He looks over at Valkyrie, her figure lit at the edges. The moon hits her so that her shadow stretches all the way from where she stands over to Skulduggery, covering him completely, and his fingers twitch like he’s going to grab at it, then his fist clenches.
She sees none of this, just continues gazing out the window, trying to enjoy the breezy night air. Her face and neck are drenched with sweat, and she knows the rest of her won’t be much better once she’s home and out of these clothes. Her hair sways slightly but ultimately feels like a weight. Maybe it’s time to commit to going short, but - and Valkyrie knows this probably stupid and strange - cutting it would feel like a loss.
The weight is lifted when Skulduggery brushes her hair over one shoulder, his head ducked at her other.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’ll drive, then.”
“You hate driving the bike.”
“Hate is a strong word…”
Skulduggery gently kisses her shoulder, and she feels a bit better. Valkyrie turns around to kiss his forehead while she can reach it, and he’s sweaty and gross too, and she smiles. He wraps his arms around her and lifts her so she’s sitting on the windowsill, and she wriggles to sit as comfortably as she can.
“There’s glass everywhere,” says Valkyrie.
“So it seems.”
“What’s happening here, then?”
Skulduggery hesitates. “I don’t know. Nothing.”
“Okay.” And she kisses him again.
It must have been long enough for either Ciel or her boss to start to wonder if the Arbiters were coming back, because after some time, the lift arrives at the fourth floor and they both get out. Sterling makes a wordless exclamation, then claps both hands over their mouth - with difficulty, given that in one hand they have a small box. Cuddle session interrupted, Valkyrie hops off the windowsill and joins Skulduggery in going over to them.
Sterling sounds almost panicked. “Would you like for us to come back later?”
“Please god no,” says Valkyrie.
“Sterling,” Skulduggery says in greeting. “I believe we’ve sorted the rodent problem for now.”
“I knew you would! And I’m ever so grateful, my friend. Magnificent job, my neighbours upstairs can’t stop their chatterings about their saviours. Came as no surprise to us, did it, Ciel?”
“It did not.”
“Of course it didn’t! But then, we know who you are, don’t we?” They give an exaggerated wink. “Now I won’t ask for the details as to why you’re hiding such a handsome face from the world at large, it’s none of my business. My business lies with keeping you beautiful and protected at the same time, and business has been well in the case of the former.”
Sterling offers the box to neither of them specifically. Valkyrie looks at it dumbly.
“Which one of us is supposed to take it?” she asks.
“I’m betting that whoever takes it would have been the one to do it out in the wild.”
That really doesn’t help much. At all, in fact. She looks at Skulduggery. He looks back, completely blank-faced. Valkyrie takes it, and Sterling grins excitedly. Beside them - though Valkyrie is still just staring at the box - Ciel speaks.
“You were close, Mr Pleasant, but those missing rubies you noticed were for something else. We’re not totally out of work, you know. Matt thought you two would appreciate subtlety rather than those big flashy things you see getting paraded around. Or rather, would have seen. Not much time for that now.”
Valkyrie opens it. Two plain silver rings.
True to his word, Skulduggery is at the helm on their way out of Roarhaven. Valkyrie just rests her helmeted head as best she can on his shoulder and struggles to keep her eyes open. His mind must have wandered back to the Circle and the mysterious helicopter they had seen, because when she feels the motorcycle slow and blinks painfully against the gloom, she sees the new additions made to the barrier around the Circle.
The force field must have been strengthened, and there are battlements to the wall now. As they drift through the streets to get as much of a look in as they can, they see sorcerers up on the wall, setting up cannons and other weaponry. There are other onlookers as they continue around, and some of them are right back to making their attempts at breaking through. Skulduggery brakes and Valkyrie lifts her head, and they watch them try.
Making contact with the brick appears to give a mild shock, but some of the crowd is unaffected by this and start to scale the wall. The sorcerers watching from the nearest battlement murmur amongst themselves, their reactions giving the impression that there's some tweaking to be done to whatever system they have tried to install. One of them calls indistinctly for someone on the inside to come up, and in very little time Dexter Vex has joined the group.
Skulduggery tenses and Valkyrie’s grip on him tightens.
Vex looks down at those who are climbing the wall, talking at a level they can't hear. He steps away from the battlement for a moment and returns with Saracen Rue and what appears to be a battery. Vex opens his palm and it crackles with energy, and the battery is prodded by one of the sorcerers before Vex lays his hand down on it.
The battery and the wall, the entire stretch for as far as anyone can see, light up for a second before dimming back down, and any mage making contact with wall is fried, burnt to a crisp, and they drop to the ground, charred and black and curling in on themselves. Vex slaps the sorcerer who called him on the back and turns to leave. Rue pays the gathered crowd a cursory glance, and he seems uninterested at what he sees - then his gaze fixes on the unidentifiable figures on the motorcycle. He blinks.
“Oh,” starts Valkyrie.
“Hell,” finishes Skulduggery.
Rue grabs Vex’s arm. Skulduggery revs the engine, turns the motorcycle around, and he and Valkyrie vanish into the remains of the night.
Chapter 9: playing house
if you haven't read dawn wedding then
The terrible coffee possesses her to ask, “Do you think you’d ever do it again? Walk the aisle?”
“In order to do something again, you must do it a first time. I told you, I was married in a barn.”
“You’re deliberately taking the question literally to avoid answering it.”
“You know me well.” Pause. Narrows his fake eyes at her. “Too well.”
And he knows her well enough to know that that will make her smile.
Eventually, Skulduggery does answer properly. “I think I could, in theory,” he says. “In the same way I could one day reclaim my family crest, or wish to see my own face again.” He stops again and curls his lip slightly at the idea, probably without even thinking about it. “One thing to keep in mind about marriage, Valkyrie, is that it can’t be accomplished alone. I’d have to find someone first.”
Valkyrie pushes the paper cup into the middle of the small table, her stomach gurgling unpleasantly. She rolls her shoulders and stretches, all very casually, and then looks Skulduggery in the eye. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”
He tilts his head. “Ask you what?”
“If I’d ever want to get married.”
“Oh, I don’t need to ask you that. It doesn’t sound very much like you. I’m not suggesting that getting married would mean a fundamental change in you as a person, not at all, but that’s what you think will happen, isn’t it? You think you’d have to change your life. Where you are now at least, you don’t want to be married, so there’s no need to ask.”
The corners of Valkyrie’s mouth twitch into a small smile. Her phone buzzes with a message from Fletcher as he’s free to come get them. “Yeah, okay, do me a favour and try not to drag me in public.” She stands and holds out her hand. “Our ride’s here.”
Valkyrie turns her ring over and over in her hands, the silver growing warmer the more contact it has with her skin. She hasn’t yet worn it for more than a minute or so, preferring to fiddle with it, hold it in a clenched fist. She’s had a muddled past with rings.
It’s been a low 48 hours. She knew Grimwood wouldn’t last forever, it was a miracle that they were able to stay there at all, but it still hurt to leave it again. They came back from Roarhaven, got ahold of their prepared bags and some additional items - Valkyrie had decided that while she could handle another bed, no other duvet would do - and left. She sent her parents one last message and switched phones. And now they are here in the first of a series of safe locations no sorcerer should be able to track them to, one half of a semi-detached house in Kildare.
She owns the second half of the house under a different name, one she can’t remember and doesn’t need to. Lounging on the bed of this half, she is Stephanie Dunne.
Skulduggery is wearing his ring on the middle finger of his right hand. He’s sitting in the plush chair in the corner of the bedroom, facing the door with hard eyes, like he’s waiting for someone to walk in at any moment. Occasionally he flexes his palm, and Valkyrie knows he’s reading the air. She misses that. She tries not to think too much about the magical opportunities she lost, would much rather be grateful for what she does have, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. The crackle of lightning just isn’t the same as the spark of a flame. A shadow is just a shadow.
This isn’t news. It’s not worth thinking about.
Valkyrie’s attention flickers back to Skulduggery’s hands. They’re gloved, it’s a habit he’s quite happy to keep up. Valkyrie is aware that she could be projecting here, but she thinks he finds it comforting. Whatever the reason, they suit him like they always have, as does the ring.
The other houses on this street are old but neat, their beautiful gardens hinting towards elderly residents with no other hobbies. With the nearby set of shops and surrounding fields, the whole place is much like Meek Ridge in that everyone knows one another, and everyone will have an opinion on the two people who moved in very suddenly in the early hours of the morning. And when they finally get to see their new neighbours, as they can’t stay hidden forever, they’ll pick up on the smallest of details, and come up with new things to speculate about.
Valkyrie stops fiddling and puts the ring on her finger where it belongs. “So,” she says, punctuating herself by loudly clapping her hands down on her bare knees. “We’ve eloped.”
Skulduggery turns his head, resting his cheek on his fist. “Oh, you noticed.”
“Wh- No, I mean that’s our story.”
“It certainly is.”
“For the neighbours , Skulduggery.”
“There used to be a time where what other people thought of you didn’t matter.”
Valkyrie frowns and he sits up.
“I’m doing my best.”
“You are. I’m sorry.”
“Do you wanna marry me or not, dickhead?”
Skulduggery comes over and sits on the edge of the bed. “Not if it’s just for show.”
Valkyrie rubs her eyes, drawing her legs up, and rests her chin on her knees as she regards him a moment. Skulduggery stares back.
“Ah jeez, you’re serious.”
“We’re already partners until the end,” he offers.
Valkyrie nods. “And we are fucking, so…”
“So we’re agreed? Excellent. I know just the person who can marry us, too.” Skulduggery pulls himself fully up on the bed and sits tall and proud with his legs crossed. “Me.”
She misses a beat before flatly telling him, “No.”
“I was ordained in 1870.”
“That didn’t happen, you’re pulling my leg.”
“Even if that were the case, I must have been exorcised enough times to have some churchly powers.”
“Oh my god,” Valkyrie laughs. “I’m gonna kill you.”
She reaches forward and makes a lazy attempt to grab at his neck, and he reaches up to take her hands in his instead. He notices that she is wearing her ring and switches the placement of his accordingly, and plants a kiss on her knuckles.
“And by the power vested in me,” begins Skulduggery.
“Shut up,” she says, tears her hands free, and closes in to pepper him with kisses. His arms circle round her middle and he rocks back, pulling her down on top of him - but he hadn’t sat far enough up on the bed to avoid hitting his head on the wooden poster at the bottom, and Skulduggery swears loudly and takes one of his hands away from Valkyrie to shoot to his neck.
Valkyrie settles on his lap. “You alright?”
He grunts and waves his hand.
“As long as it’s not anything serious. I don’t want to get up.”
His hands go to her thighs. “Neither do I want you to.”
It’s overcast the next day, but Valkyrie would like to go out regardless. One of the reasons she decided to keep extra property in this particular spot was that she heard about a puppy training class held out on a nearby field in the mid-mornings. Xena is not with her now, but Valkyrie still wants to go see it, wants to take a stress-free walk around the place and pretend, just for a little while, that her life is a normal one. Also, she wants to buy candles. Nice ones. A romantic bath isn’t really the same when one of the participants has to keep half of his attention on the fire in his hand.
She’s buttoning up her coat at the front door, trying not to think of what could go wrong on their first outing. Her hair is still neatly tied into the plait Skulduggery put it in last night. Whatever contributions she made to his hairstyle will probably be brushed out by now, though.
In a pinstripe waistcoat he’s way overdressed for the occasion of watching dogs in a park, not that she’d ever want him to change. He wouldn’t be her Skulduggery otherwise.
“I just remembered,” says Valkyrie, her head snapping up at him. “What are you calling yourself? It’d be weird if a little old lady asked for my husband’s name and I didn’t know what it was.”
“Why doesn’t this hypothetical old lady ask me for my name?”
“I don’t know, because you’ve run off after a purse-snatcher and while you’re off saving the day I’m mingling with the jealous, gossiping biddies."
“You’re taking my last name, by the way. I don’t even know what you picked but my one’s better.”
His nose crinkles. “You still haven’t offered an explanation as to why you’ve stolen the name of a journalist we barely knew.”
“What, Kenny? No fucking way! My Dunne is a Gone Girl reference. I can’t believe you didn’t pick up on that.”
Skulduggery looks at her. Valkyrie tries to look sternly back at him, but breaks and laughs and shakes his arm.
“Tell me your name, you bloody idiot.”
He bristles in mock-offended fashion, unfolding his jacket from his other arm and putting it on. She waits until he’s ready, and finally he takes the house keys from her and reaches for the door. “It’s Lorcan.”
Valkyrie makes a face. “Never heard of it.”
“No, I didn’t think you would have.”
“Where’d you get it from? Is it - is it actually...”
Skulduggery walks out. She follows and says nothing more until they reach the end of the driveway, asking him about what candles they should get.
The residents watch their grandchildren attempting to teach their dogs to sit, and Valkyrie and Skulduggery stand in the shade of a tree and watch over all of them. When training is done with and they’re waved over to join their new neighbours in chatter, Valkyrie is oddly eager to socialise and Skulduggery finds it charming. She pets all the dogs and tries not to behave awkwardly with the children, easily lying about her aspirations to write when asked about herself. She tells the crowd that Skulduggery is an accountant between jobs and the very concept is terrible - just completely ridiculous - but oh how he loves her anyway.
Several ladies and one man insist on showing them the shops, so they follow. The woman who introduced herself as the chairwoman of the calligraphy club, who Skulduggery picks out as a self-important type with little patience, is the one asking why they’ve moved here while she shuffles the group along to the cafe. Valkyrie identifies herself and Skulduggery as recently married, then adds, “I guess,” and the tightness in his chest, admittedly, eludes him. A year of having flesh and blood, and still he can’t settle into it and all the physical reactions he can have. The lack of comfort and understanding is unacceptable - and neither is the situation, even after all this time.
A year didn’t always feel like such a long period of time, but that was before he met Valkyrie. Things were very different.
The cafe has cookies shaped like skulls, delighting Valkyrie to the confusion of the elderly. Skulduggery refuses to eat or drink in front of anyone except her, and it appears to be a similar situation for the 74-year-old married to the self-important chairwoman, so the two of them stand just at the door into the cafe while the rest of the group is inside. A lot of this bonding time is spent in complete silence. His new friend is gruff and unpleasant in that way men are allowed to be after a certain age, although Skulduggery remembers behaving differently in his own 70s.
“Recently married, then,” says his friend. “Let’s hope you don’t come to regret it.”
He’s patient and well-behaved. “I’m not concerned. I rather enjoyed it the first time around.”
“Obviously not enough to stay with the girl.”
Skulduggery watches a silver car dart by. Too quick for a proper look - he could have caught more details if he wasn’t relying on physical eyeballs.
“I married my wife in ‘68. Every weekend she brings me to watch the dog training with her ladies. We don’t have a dog. We don’t have children who have a dog, or grandchildren who have a dog, but we go anyway. My wife lives through her friends, so she must feel like she has a dog or grandchildren, but not me. I’ve never stayed home instead of coming along. I don’t know what I’d do with myself.”
Skulduggery is thinking about the car. He keeps his gaze fixed on the empty road. There are no paths in town, the group walked along the road to get here. This place is not frequented by cars, most certainly not speeding ones. Nor silver, given low visibility in bad weather.
“Awfully well-dressed for an accountant.”
“I’m very good at my job.”
His friend grunts in response. Skulduggery wonders if he’d remain so flippant if he pointed his gun at him. His new phone buzzes.
make an excuse , is the message in its entirety. Skulduggery glances into the cafe. Valkyrie pockets her phone and stares at him.
He doesn’t excuse himself from his friend who he does not like, and strolls smoothly inside, past the counter to the booths where the calligraphy club have stuffed themselves. He rests his hand on the head of one of the seats, and old heads turn to look up at him.
Valkyrie says, “Hello, handsome,” channeling Amy Dunne and probably forgetting what she’s supposed to be calling him.
“Dearest,” he says back, liking the look on her face very much, “We should be going. We left your pills at home.”
The ladies’ heads swing back to Valkyrie. She snaps her remaining skull cookie in half and smiles.
“You’re so thoughtful, you know that? Been great meeting you girls, I have to go.” As she speaks, she stands and pushes her way out of the booth.
“You’re not ill, are you Stephanie?” asks one of the ladies.
“No,” says Valkyrie, but is drowned out by Skulduggery saying, “Extremely.” She snipes a glare and quickly tries, “A bit. He’s not doing so great either.”
Skulduggery kisses the side of her head. “Of course not, sweetheart.” He nods to the ladies and wishes them a good day, does not do the same for his friend at the door, and once they’re out of sight Valkyrie grabs him by the lapels and drags him in between buildings.
“You’re horrible,” she hisses.
“Candles,” he reminds her.
“Fuck me, I’d forgotten about that.” She releases him and starts out across the road.
“I will,” Skulduggery says to her back and she whirls.
“What’s the deal?” she demands, flipping up her collar as if it will help contain her flushing face.
Skulduggery shrugs. “Honeymoon period, it’ll pass.”
“Well it better not. Bloody hell…” She turns back around and marches into the little decoration shop.
Perusing the aisles, Valkyrie looks at the different kinds of holders on offer. There’s one that looks like a goblet with a mosaic of tiny mirrors covering the outside, another shaped like a lamp with a slot for a candle rather than a lightbulb. She gets to the candles themselves and sniffs all of them - and gets excited when she realises that Skulduggery can partake in this activity too. She thrusts a lavender cylinder under his nose, and he winces, so she puts it back.
“Oh, we’re definitely getting this one,” she says about a shorter candle cut into a rectangle. “It smells like you sound.”
Curious, Skulduggery willingly sniffs this one. Chocolate. He laughs.
They’re quiet as they walk away from town, but not uncomfortably. To have quiet moments with the people you love - in a fast-moving and dangerous world, they’re important to have. Skulduggery feels like he’s breathing wrong. He thinks he’s too shallow, and then once he adjusts he thinks he’s too deep. Valkyrie sniffles and snorts and he decides he’s fine.
A car is parked in the driveway of the second half of their house. A silver one. Both Valkyrie and Skulduggery stand at the end of the other driveway and just look at it for a minute. When Valkyrie speaks, her voice is a croak.
“I’m sure they just...needed a parking space.”
“There’s room on the road.”
“No,” says Valkyrie, taking the keys from him and starting forward. “No, it’s fine. It’s nothing. Don’t freak me out.”
Skulduggery doesn’t stop her or follow, bolted to the ground, just looking at the car. He’s been in it before. “Valkyrie,” he says quietly. She doesn’t hear, and opens the front door.
“Did you really think,” begins Gant. Valkyrie slams the door in his face and leaps back. Skulduggery dives forward, grabbing her around the middle, and shoots upwards.
He drops her on the flat part of the roof. “Stay here.”
She shouts something upset and indistinct as he leaves and kicks the door down. His gun clears his holster, ready to shoot Gant on sight, but he has disappeared. As Skulduggery once theorised to himself, it is irrelevant whether or not Gant owns the property he makes his “home”, and the light furnishings of Valkyrie’s first safe house are gone, replaced with a crudely constructed mockery of the original layout.
Gant drops from the ceiling, kicking Skulduggery’s gun from his hand. It skitters across the floor, and Gant positions himself in the way.
“Did you really think,” he says again, “you could leave that easily?”
“Cadaverous,” says Skulduggery. “It’s been a while. Written any good books lately?”
He snaps his fingers and launches a stream of fire at Gant, who doesn’t move. The flames dissipate as soon as they graze him. Gant launches himself forward, jabbing his elbow at Skulduggery’s throat, hitting his shoulder instead as Skulduggery side steps, but Gant’s strength is still amplified enough to send him staggering back.
To fight Gant where he’s made is domain is a phenomenally terrible course of action, and there’s no use trying to get him out the door. He’ll be expecting a ploy like that. So instead, Skulduggery presses forward. Most of his punches are feints, only serving to get Gant to back up - but he must’ve settled into a rhythm too quickly, because Gant grabs the next fist he throws. All Gant needs to do is squeeze, and Skulduggery lets out a yell as he tears away his broken hand. His ring is digging painfully into jutted bone.
A spark won’t come when he clicks the fingers on his other hand. The pain is messing with him. Skulduggery barely dodges into the kitchen when Gant grabs for him. Skulduggery ducks beneath another swinging elbow and rams his shoulder right into Gant’s stomach, trying to kick his legs out from under him as Gant freezes a moment. Gant keeps himself upright on the edge of the kitchen counter, then grabs Skulduggery by the hair - how quaint it is, he thinks, that he used to miss having it - and whirls, slams his head down on the same spot. Skulduggery crumples on the grimy, misshapen tile.
“Are you awake? I want you to be awake when I break your legs,” seethes Gant, kicking Skulduggery in the ribs. “You remember doing that to me, don’t you?”
“Vaguely,” mutters Skulduggery, tasting blood.
“Oh good, it graces me with a proper response. What about one for my earlier question? Did you think it would be that easy? Were you truly ignorant enough to think Abyssinia wouldn’t be watching?”
Skulduggery lifts his head. His vision is blurred, and Gant is just a shape looking down at him, backlit by a closed window offering weak daylight. There’s movement just out of where he can see.
“It was easy,” Skulduggery offers.
Gant crouches down to smile fiendishly at him. “Of course it was. As planned. Abyssinia said you would remain close. And you did! For a couple of months it seemed like my tracking device idea had been pointless after all.”
A tracking device to find them in the event of another escape across the world, an event that hadn’t transpired because Valkyrie and Skulduggery stayed in the mansion. Abyssinia must have considered them to still be in her clutches this entire time. That is, until they came here.
“I’m almost glad it wasn’t. It was expensive,” Gant goes on. Skulduggery props himself up on one elbow and Gant smacks him back down. “Don’t embarrass yourself, Pleasant.” He stands. “I’ll be back in a moment with Cain and then we can all go back to the fortress, how does that sound? I’m sure you two can manage to play house in a dungeon just fine.”
The glass behind him shatters as Valkyrie’s top half launches inside. She wraps one arm around Gant’s neck and hauls him back out through the window. Her coat is armoured and keeps her from being nicked by the glass. Gant’s clothes are without protection and his back gets shredded, and he kicks and screams as she drags him headfirst out of the house, where he’s just a normal man.
Skulduggery’s head buzzes as he sits there for a second. The tracking device must be very well hidden, not sewn into clothes or bags. It could be jammed into the mechanisms of the motorcycle, but that would risk damaging it, and Gant mentioned the expense. It has to be somewhere neither Valkyrie nor Skulduggery would happen upon it, nestled somewhere deep and safe and guaranteed to always be with them.
It took a month for Abyssinia to find the right magic to fuel Skulduggery’s resurrection. Some days he would just lie there, barely aware of himself, a half-finished body on a slab, bones and nerves and organs out there for anyone to access.
Skulduggery clutches his broken hand and gets up. He runs back the way he came, out to the front door. There’s an opportunity for him to get his gun, but he leaves it, comes outside and circles to the backyard. Valkyrie - his Valkyrie, strong and brilliant and consumed with rage - catches Gant’s chin with her fist and kicks his legs out from him, and he goes down. Somehow he’s still conscious, and wriggles on the grass, shuddering and cursing.
Valkyrie turns her back on the body, but that’s fine. Skulduggery’s got an eye on it. She marches over to him.
“ Stay here? ” she thunders.
“There’s a tracking device inside me,” says Skulduggery.
Her eyes widen and her mouth opens, but no words come out. Gant makes a valiant attempt to scramble to his feet, even has the gall to start to say something about how they’ll never find it, or never get away - something along those lines. His own shadow rises beneath him, sharpens. Gant trips over himself and goes back down, and Skulduggery lifts the shadow at the same time, impaling him on it.
When Valkyrie looks back and sees this, she still doesn’t say anything. Instead, she gently but quickly returns Skulduggery to the house to find something for his hand.