Actions

Work Header

Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil

Chapter Text

The bell rang. Myron Stray looked up and stared at the back of the door. No one came to visit him anymore. Hardly anyone, at any rate. The Monster Hunters had a few months ago, but Stray didn’t think they counted. One was all hot air in a human-shaped body, like a Hollow Man but more authentic looking, and the other was a pom.

Maybe they’d done some advertising for him.

Hah.

The bell rang again, so Stray got to his feet and kicked one of the microwavable aluminium trays under his couch, and tied his dressing-gown more securely around his waist, and went to open the door. There was a woman behind it, which was a surprise. Stray had been expecting the Monster Hunters again. Or, worse, Pleasant or one of his cohorts.

She was the kind of woman people would have said was pretty if only she hadn’t pulled her hair back so severely or gone without makeup or pursed her lips like she was concentrating so hard that words were a distraction. Stray hadn’t been humbled enough to be above being one of those people.

She had freckles, though. They were almost lost in the shade of her skin, but she had them.

“Mr Stray?” she asked. “Mr Myron Stray?”

“What?” he snapped.

She smiled. It was an unexpectedly bright smile. It was a relieved smile, and that was the part that took Stray aback. “Good, I have the right house.”

“What do you want?” Stray was rattled. Who wanted to talk to him, in particular? Someone a couple of centuries behind in their news, maybe.

“I want to know,” said the woman, “how much you’d like your life back.”

“What?”

“May I come in?”

“No.”

The woman nodded, like this was to be expected. “I understand. You don’t trust anyone, because when other people are around you can’t trust yourself.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m a scientist,” she said, “and I want to offer you the chance to take part in an experiment to nullify the power of true-names. If it works, you’ll be free of the leash around your neck everyone flaunts at you.”

Stray stared at her. “That’s impossible.”

“That’s what everyone said about computers, Faceless Ones and Skulduggery Pleasant.”

Get his life back. It was impossible. True-names were true-names. Incontrovertible and unassailable. Stray looked behind her, at his yard with no grass and a few weeds, and then behind him, at the wallpaper peeling and the general shabbiness of several centuries of neglect, because what the hell was the point?

A chance to get his life back. His work. His dignity. His self.

“Tell me what I have to do,” he said.

Chapter Text

The world around Valkyrie was dulled, and the sound of her heart in her chest was more than just something she felt. It filled up her head until her ears rang, but she stubbornly refused to go to the surface. Under her hands she felt every loose molecule in the lake, and between the watery ones she felt the ones that weren’t water, like a kind of dark matter. She could feel the molecules of water – but they weren’t. Bloody. Moving!

Her head roared and Valkyrie jerked and kicked the bottom, and after an eternity of nothing but her heart shrieking she burst through the surface and sucked in air.

“Almost five minutes, you’re getting good at that,” said Rover cheerfully, and kicked water at her.

“I still can’t breathe,” Valkyrie pointed out, and leaned back to float for a bit, staring up at the sky.

“Eh.” Rover waved a hand. “I couldn’t even swim until I was … um. Let’s see.”

“You can’t remember how old you were when you learned how to swim?”

“No, I’m just trying to figure out which age you might want. Let me put it this way: Hopeless taught me and Anton. Ghastly tried, but he kept getting distracted by our clothes, Dex also tried but he kept getting distracted by me and Skulduggery and Erskine mostly just sat by and made comments.”

“And when was that?” Valkyrie asked.

“Sometime in the eighteenth century, I think. Ho, the house!”

“Ho, the pond,” came back Dex’s response, and Valkyrie flipped over and ducked under the water to head back to the dock with strong strokes.

They were on Gordon’s land, at the pond where Valkyrie had first learned to swim, only it wasn’t really a pond anymore. Her parents had noticed her missing the docks in Haggard so they’d hired some construction experts – magical ones, because of the magic-eating tunnels underneath – to turn the pond into a lake for Christmas.

Valkyrie hadn’t told them that she’d discovered it early. Neither had Rover. If Dex was planning to, he hadn’t said so, and if he actually had, neither were her parents.

Her fingers slipped on the ice at the edge of the dock. It melted under her touch and she slipped again because of the water. Valkyrie grimaced and managed to scramble out of the lake, and yanked her coat around her.

“Ready?” said Rover cheerfully.

“Ready.”

He snapped his fingers and the bubble of warmth around her collapsed, and Valkyrie shivered as the cold air struck her properly. And the ice under her feet. Ow.

“I always knew you were crazy,” Dex said, shaking his head. “Swimming in this weather.”

Valkyrie grinned and pulled a towel around her head. “Isn’t that why you adopted me?”

“Our pet’s gotten smart,” said Rover, and sprang to his feet. “Come on, chop chop, can’t wait all day!”

Valkyrie grumbled wordlessly and then took a deep breath and closed her eyes and focussed on the water on her skin and in her bathing-suit and hair. Drying yourself, she’d learned, wasn’t a matter of making the air warmer. That just meant things got humid, and you’d have to turn your body temperature up too high to dry anything fast. Drying slow was better than being dead.

It was harder to find all the bits of water than it was while in the pond, and Valkyrie couldn’t do more than one body-part at a time yet. She also couldn’t do more than shove the water off, and she started with her hair. The result was that it looked like her towel was bleeding water that rolled down her face and neck and into the coat, and then spilled over the coat’s collar and under it, and finally gushed down her legs like she’d really, really needed a bathroom.

Rover cackled his head off. He always did.

“I hate you,” Valkyrie growled, but at least she was dry, and in under a minute this time. She stepped out of the puddle and shoved her feet into her warm, fuzzy-lined boots.

Dex was grinning too, but it was a nice grin so Valkyrie decided to ignore it. Well, ignore the fact that he was grinning, not the grin itself.

“Need me to carry anything?” he asked, so she gave him her work-out duffle and pulled up her collar and shoved her hands into her pockets. He slung the duffel over his shoulder with his good hand, his left hand, and then they both turned to walk back toward the house, leaving Rover giggling in his deck-chair.

“How’s the physical therapy?” Valkyrie asked.

“It’s going,” said Dex, and showed her his right hand. It was gloved, but the glove matched his skin-tone. It looked like an ordinary hand. It even had fingernails. “Bane and O’Callahan did a few more tweaks on the glove and it’s helping with the every-day stuff, but Grouse says I’ve about hit the limit on my own.”

Valkyrie lifted an eyebrow. “They gave it fingerprints. That’s a ‘tweak’?”

Dex grinned. “Authenticity. Anyway, just don’t ask me to do more than pick up a pen with it, if I’m not wearing the glove. And maybe write with it, if the message is short and you don’t mind it looking like it belongs to a five-year-old.”

You are a five-year-old, Valkyrie meant to say, and couldn’t quite over the sound of his sizzling flesh and screaming in her memory. “And with the glove?”

“Are you kidding? Gracious wants to see if he can fix it so I’m stronger than Bliss, and Donegan is still figuring out how to let me charge my beams through it. By the time they’re done I’ll be Superman.”

“In one hand,” Valkyrie pointed out.

“One hand is better than no hands,” said Rover, and he came up and matched their pace, a frosted straw hat on his head and the deck-chair under one arm, and still slurping at the dregs of his smoothie.

Valkyrie ignored him and asked Dexter, “How’s the investigation going?”

“Which investigation?”

“The investigation you’re doing a lot of work keeping me away from,” Valkyrie said, and even managed not to sound bitter. She wasn’t sure what was going on there. What she did know was that lately the Dead Men were hurrying around looking grimmer than usual and, above all, not giving her details.

Valkyrie hated it. They’d never not given her details before. Hell, she’d helped them on the paperwork! She could have helped them on this paperwork! But she wasn’t. They weren’t even telling her why, just that there were some things they had to work out, but in the meantime pretty pretty pretty please just do the things they asked and don’t try to eavesdrop on what they weren’t telling her.

She wasn’t happy about it, but she was obeying. The Dead Men didn’t hide things, not from her, not unless it was really important. But it annoyed her, oh yes it did. Especially when Dexter didn’t look her in the eye.

“It’s going,” he said at last.

“Good or bad?”

“Well or poorly.”

“What?”

“Descry would be affronted by your terrible English. It isn’t going ‘good or bad’, it’s going ‘well or poorly’.”

“Now you’re just trying to distract me.”

“Yes, I am.”

“We haven’t managed to arrest Marr yet, if that’s what you were wondering,” said Rover with another loud and grating slurp of his empty cup.

“Rover.”

“What? This is dumb. Why can’t we at least tell her why we can’t tell her?”

“Because that would be telling her things about what we shouldn’t be telling her.”

“Dumb. Dumb. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumb.” Rover sang out the last, hopping over a rock in his path, and Valkyrie gave in to the urge to laugh.

“Alright, fine. Is there anything I can do to help with anything else?”

“Actually,” said Dex, “this might be a good opportunity for you to take a holiday.”

“A holiday? Where?”

“The Tír.”

“I’ve been to the Tír before,” Valkyrie pointed out.

“Well, yes,” Dex admitted, “but you haven’t visited your uncle, aunt and cousin yet, and your father sent me to tell you that he’s giving you an important mission to make sure Fergus hasn’t burned any soufflés, or something along those lines.”

Visiting her uncle. Two years ago Valkyrie would never have imagined even wanting to do that, but it had been almost two years now. Mum and Dad weren’t cleared to know about the Tír, yet, though Valkyrie knew her mum heard a lot around the Sanctuary, since she was the Administrator and all. Tír Tairngire wasn’t a Sanctuary affiliation. It was a good opportunity.

“In fact,” Dexter continued, “we’re ordering you to go and take your parents along, and give them a jolly old time before you’re all saddled with a screaming tiny human.”

“Mum and Dad have clearance for the Tír? Really?”

“Yeah. Descry said your father’s been feeling a bit disconnected from magical society, and he’s not wrong. Melissa knows more about current events, and she’s a mortal. She gave her blessing and said, quote, ‘it’s a good opportunity to find another good magical hotel for after the baby’s born’, unquote.”

Valkyrie groaned and covered her ears. “I didn’t want to hear that.”

“Well, I had to, and now I’ve passed it on to you.”

“What about me, oh husband of mine?” Rover chirruped, clamping his hat onto his head with one hand so he could turn and hop, skip and bounce backward down the trail. “Am I allowed to go too?”

Dexter shook his head. “Nope. No holiday for bouncy cretins, sorry.”

“Oy!”

“I’ll drive you home to pack,” said Dexter to Valkyrie. “Fletcher said he’ll take you to Roarhaven at our convenience, because the Hotel’s grounded here for a bit. Is there anywhere you want to go before then?”

“Hibernian Cinema,” said Valkyrie firmly, and Rover’s grumbles stopped, and Dexter nodded.

“Let’s go there first, then. I need to get the glove checked,” he said, and winced. “And get Kenspeckle’s lecture about appropriate swimming conditions over with.”

“Funny. He’s never lectured me.”

“No, he lectures me,” Dexter grumbled, “for not having better control over my husband.”

“I told you to have the handcuffs at the ready,” Rover said cheerfully, spinning around. Valkyrie had an image that was not as unwelcome as it should’ve been, and hoped neither of them noticed the blush.

“I always have handcuffs at the ready –” Dexter began, and they bickered the whole way back to the city.

Chapter Text

The alley was dark and dank, and ordinarily it was the kind of place Davina Marr would have stridden down like she owned it if only to make it clear that she did. That she could go anywhere and be untouchable, and if anyone tried, they’d regret it.

Tonight she scuttled down it, tripping and breathing ragged, one hand clutched around her ribs and the other trying to dial her phone.

It was the Russian. The Russian was after her; Tesseract they called him. The one with the mask over his misshapen face. Marr didn’t know what his magic was, except that he was Adept and terribly, horribly efficient. Wards, booby-traps – he’d dismantled them all. It was only the fact she didn’t much care about surrounding mortals and he still felt some inclination to keep magical secrecy that got her to the alley.

She hadn’t even expected him. Not him. Not an assassin. The Dead Men wouldn’t dare. Guild wouldn’t dare. Scarab’s body had turned up dumped in the dirty river Dublin prized as much as London prized the Thames. It took a week to confirm it was him. At the time, she’d thought someone had done her a favour.

She should have been safe. Scarab was the one who’d come after her, she thought. Not the man she’d met in the motel. She didn’t remember much about him, except that he hadn’t been a threat.

Up ahead, there was a street. Lights. Cars. Mortals chattering, oblivious. They were useless, short-lived creatures, but at least they might be a defence.

The phone finally picked up, the voice on the end disinterested. “Yes?”

“Where’s the extraction team?” she said into her phone, low and urgent.

“Ah, Detective Marr. I had thought you understood the value of patience.”

Marr looked behind her. The alley was empty. She looked in front of her and there was a shadow in the alleyway, a hulking figure with streetlights gleaming across its mask. Marr threw herself backward and Tesseract’s fingers touched the door behind her and it buckled. She let herself fall, rolled, and ran, sprinting into the darkness. Hopefully he’d have as much trouble seeing her as she was would have seeing him.

Something loomed out of the shadows but it was a pillar, so she ducked behind it and slammed the phone back up to her ear, and hissed, “Tesseract!”

There was a pause and her heart pounded, and everything around her was silent. Anyone else and their boots would have scraped, their breathing would have been audible. But Tesseract was an assassin, one of the best, and she couldn’t hear him. She was just thankful they were near enough to the street that the traffic obscured her phone call.

“You’ll just have to survive,” said the man on the other end. “They won’t be there for another few hours.”

“You promised me –”

“The Irish Sanctuary claims you were feeding information to Dreylan Scarab and kidnapped Elder Guild,” said the man coldly, and Marr bit her tongue so she didn’t hiss. She slid around the pillar and her eyes adjusted enough that now she could see shapes, but she couldn’t tell which one belonged to Tesseract.

It was probably one near the entrance. Waiting for her to try and escape.

“You wanted a reason to believe they’re unstable,” she said low.

“And you succeeded, and in the process managed to implicate yourself,” said the man on the other end. “If you’d done much worse, you would have implicated us. Four hours, Marr. Don’t die, and you’ll be rewarded. Do die, and I’ll at least make you a martyr.”

He hung up on her. The damned ingrate actually hung up on her. Grinding her teeth, Marr shoved the phone into her pocket and something shone in its screen, and she dropped to her knees. Tesseract’s hand slammed to the pillar and it splintered, raining concrete and dust all over her. Marr scrambled around the other side and got up and ran, snapping her fingers until flames roared in her hand. She threw it into the shadows under a stairwell as she passed and something under there must have been flammable, because it lit up like someone had poured gasoline on it.

Her shadow stretched out in front of her, but so did Tesseract’s. Her heart skipped. He was gaining on her.

She snapped her fingers again, and threw fire behind her. The building was empty and unloved and caught fast, and she ducked around a corner, then through a rusted door, hoping there was another one inside. There wasn’t, so she jerked her hand at the wall and blew a hole in it, and climbed through, pressing her sleeve to her mouth.

There was another hall beyond that, and there was already a glow of light down one end. Marr ran at it. Even Tesseract would have trouble in the middle of a burning building, but she wouldn’t be as troubled.

Marr came back out into the first burning room and Tesseract was already there, waiting. Marr turned and ran back into the corridor, snapping her hands at the ceiling until it fell down on him. Probably wouldn’t be enough to kill him, or even stop him.

Smoke drifted through the halls, so Marr covered her face with her hand, using magic to filter the air. Were there doors ahead? Exits? She had no idea. She was an Elemental, but there was only so long even an Elemental could stand in the middle of a fire.

Something shone in the distance and Marr realised it was a window, boarded up and papered over from the other side until only the light of flames on the inside made the grimy window glint.

Marr didn’t even slow down. She shoved her hand forward and the glass broke outward. She pushed her other hand behind her and ducked her head, tucked in her elbows, and sailed through the window. Glass cut her back and arms, snagging in her hair, and her jacket yanked. Then she hit the pavement outside and rolled, coughing and dazed.

People were screaming. Yelling to the cops on their phones. Usually Marr hated how easily mortals panicked, but right now it was in her favour.

Someone yanked her to her feet and she pushed them away with a snarl, and then something metal snapped around her wrist. Marr looked up at the Skeleton Detective.

“If I were you,” he said in a low, pleasant voice, “I wouldn’t make too much of a fuss. I do believe I saw a figure in that window.” Marr threw a punch and he caught her wrist and dragged it around her back to snap on the other handcuff, and held up a hand as a couple of bystanders hurried to try and help. “Police business,” he said cheerfully, and dragged her stumbling toward his car.

*

Inside the burning building, Tesseract reached down to scoop up the phone that had fallen from Marr’s pocket in her wild escape. There was something inherently distasteful about picking objects off his targets, particularly when he’d failed to kill them the first time.

His contract wasn’t over yet. He still had some time. And knowing who she felt so important to call while in the middle of fleeing could be useful.

Tesseract stowed the phone in his pocket and used his sleeve to pull the glass out of the window. It was a tight squeeze and mortals on the street stared, but he ignored them and strode away as the fire-trucks roared up. The phone’s screen was cracked but Tesseract still managed to find the call history and the last number Marr had contacted, and pressed the button. The phone rang and finally picked up. “Since you’re calling me I’ll assume you’re still alive.”

Tesseract paused. He knew that voice. It was the voice of the man who’d hired him. “She is.”

Now the pause was on the other end, and then his employer sighed. “And now I see she’s dropped her equipment. Sloppy. Not at all what her record suggested.”

“She was taken into custody by the Skeleton Detective.”

“Then you’d better kill her fast, hadn’t you? As long as she still thinks I’ve sent an evacuation team, she won’t talk. But since you’re already there, I want to add another target to your contract.”

“I don’t amend contracts after the fact,” said Tesseract.

“Then make it another one and kill her first; I don’t care.”

Tesseract considered. He wasn’t opposed to having more than one contract at once, so long as those who issued them understood he would do them in order and for the highest bidder. “The fee will be the same.”

“I’ll double it.”

Marr was a loose end. This target was the real reason Tesseract was in Ireland. “Who’s the second?”

“Grand Mage Hopeless,” said his employer, and Tesseract paused again, but his employer went on. “He won’t be easy. He’s got an advantage you won’t have seen before. He’s a mind-reader.”

“I’ve killed mind-readers before.”

“Not natural-born ones you haven’t,” said his employer, “because until now everyone thought they were flights of fancy. Hopeless isn’t. He’s real, and he’s a threat to every civilised sorcerer on the planet. Take him and take him fast.”

“It will require some time,” Tesseract said. “He’s high-profile, and I’ll need to give him a suitable distraction before I can properly approach.”

“Use poison.” Tesseract wrinkled his nose behind his mask. It wasn’t something he did often, because his nose rubbed against the metal, but on this occasion the action seemed warranted. Poison wasn’t his style at all. But his employer wasn’t the type to brook objections, so Tesseract said nothing as he went on. “You have until New Year’s. Non-negotiable. Make it fast, Tesseract. I’d hate to start losing faith in your record.”

Then he hung up and Tesseract lowered the phone, and tossed it into a bin as he passed.

Chapter Text

The Hibernian Cinema was one of those old buildings which looked too dilapidated to really be called ‘heritage’. It fit in alongside the rest of the buildings like a bewildered grandparent who had gotten separated from its tour group. It was familiar, though, and past the dusty screen inside, behind the door in the brick wall, were halls and halls of clean white linoleum and bright lights.

“We’ll meet you there,” said Dex with a wave, and both he and Rover split off from Valkyrie to go find Kenspeckle Grouse. Valkyrie hitched her duffle over her shoulder and made her way through the halls to a room in the very centre of the facility, yanking a lanyard out of a pocket and draping it around her neck. There was a Cleaver on guard, and its head moved to glance at her and the ID, but it didn’t stop her as she went in and dropped her duffel on the floor.

“Hey, Gail,” she said, and went to sit on the chair beside the bed. “You’re looking good. I mean, for someone who’s been lying in a guarded room for three months.”

That was because of the sigils. Valkyrie glanced down at them, glowing on the bedframe. It wasn’t one of the fragile gurneys. It was solid, and the sigils were drawn into it so no one could just roll the bed out of them. They kept Gail alive and her body working properly. If – when, Valkyrie corrected herself – she ever woke up it’d be like she’d just been sleeping. No bedsores or anything.

Magic was awesome, except when it wasn’t.

Valkyrie kicked her feet. “I’m going to be out of town for a while,” she said, “on some holiday-slash-mission. The others will come visit, though, they’re all allowed. I mean, except for Henry. His parents pulled him out of the school. They reckon the club’s been a bad influence, and whatever. That sucks, because he and Natalie were talking about some magical computer thing that might let us talk to you, you know, like those fancy chairs for people who can’t move or talk but know what’s going on anyway? He’s a little ponce, but I think he really wanted to do it, too, if only to prove he could.”

She had to wonder what Henry was doing now, though. He was a spoiled brat, there was no getting around it, and going to school and talking with other kids was the only thing that could cure that. Valkyrie remembered what she was like at that age, strutting around like she was above all the listless fools at the school in Haggard. Like she was destined for something better.

Well, I got there. I think. Look how that’s turned out.

Absently Valkyrie rubbed the leg Gail had broken a few months ago. Magic was awesome.

“Mum’s going well,” Valkyrie went on. “The baby’s okay. She’ll probably work right up until the birth; sorcerers are pretty good about that stuff. Mum says the people at the store and in the street are the worst with all the fussing and touching and baby-talk, but sorcerers remember how it was when women worked in the fields right up until the baby popped out, so they let her get on with things. Mum reckons a bunch of paperwork is probably easier, and it gives her something to do. Kenspeckle said he’d handle the birth, anyway, so they’re both in good hands.”

There was a pool going around the Sanctuary. Boy or girl, Elemental or Adept. The thought hadn’t even occurred that the baby might not be a sorcerer at all, but then, most of the people at the Sanctuary still didn’t know Mum was mortal. Even if the baby was magical, they might not know for years. Sorcerers had long-running wagers, that was for sure.

Hopeless had refused to weigh in, but he smiled a little secretive smile whenever Mum was nearby. Valkyrie was burning to ask whether he could hear the baby yet, but hadn’t got up the nerve to do it.

There was a footstep behind her and Valkyrie turned and saw Farley duck in and close the door, and peer through the gap in the jamb like he was hiding from someone.

“Oy,” she said, and he spun and then scowled. Farley didn’t blush. “Who’s after you?”

“Grouse’s other assistant,” he said. “That ditzy girl with the hair. She’s been following me around and staring lately.”

“Only lately?”

Farley laughed and Valkyrie grinned, and then he came in to lean on the end of Gail’s bed and look down at the clipboard on the end. He was wearing a lab-coat – he looked good in it. Kenspeckle insisted on lab-coats in his facility, and he’d confided in Valkyrie that Farley deserved to wear it more than his last four assistants put together. Then he’d immediately turned and snapped something to Farley about being useless because he’d forgotten to put some doo-hickey somewhere.

“How is she?” Valkyrie asked, nodding at Gail. She was so pale that a couple of tiny freckles popped out and it made her dusky skin look grey, and her eyes were closed. There was a band across her forehead with sigils on it, glowing blue. They kept her asleep. Valkyrie would have felt dumb talking to someone who was sleeping, but Hopeless was the one who had suggested she should, which meant that it made some kind of a difference. Hopeless would know.

At least Gail wasn’t alone. Her mum came to visit a lot too, but Valkyrie didn’t know how much she talked.

“Her brain patterns are all fine,” said Farley. “Except a thing –” He pointed to a little blip on the machine. “The professor thinks it’s something to do with the commands they put in her head. There’s been no change with that either.”

“So that’s bad, right?”

Farley shrugged and let the clipboard hang. “Search me. I just take notes of any changes and leave it to the professor to work out. You know more about it than I do.”

He sounded bitter, so Valkyrie said, “Don’t be a martyr. I know more about why she got like that, but you know more about what’s happening to her. That’s it. I don’t even know how it happened.”

The ‘how’ was part of that little something the Dead Men still weren’t mentioning.

“I thought the Dead Men told you everything.”

“Not this they didn’t.” Valkyrie shifted in her seat and looked back at Gail. “But they will. It’s probably an age thing. Mum kind of freaked after I got hurt.” And because she went and infiltrated Serpine’s castle without strictly telling anybody, or many people, or clearing it beforehand, but it all worked out.

Farley didn’t say anything, and when Valkyrie glanced over she saw him concentrating on the clipboard again. Belatedly she remembered why, and flushed. “Sorry.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said shortly, and went around the bed to manually check Gail’s vitals. Valkyrie got up and stretched.

“I’m being sent somewhere for a few days,” said Valkyrie.

“This close to Christmas?” Farley asked with that sort of disinterest which wasn’t really disinterest.

“Reckon I’ll be back by Christmas. Dad wants to go visit his brother and asked me along.” She wasn’t going to mention anything about the Tír. The Dead Men knew, Fletcher knew, China knew. Valkyrie wasn’t sure how many people they were planning to tell next, but she figured Bliss and Guild would be on the list. Farley probably wasn’t. “Just keep an eye on her, right?”

“Sure,” said Farley. “It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

It sounded sarcastic but Valkyrie knew it was true. The others didn’t know. Valkyrie wasn’t meant to know. She’d found out by accident after school one day, when he had a bad cough and a black eye and been even more snappish than usual about anyone getting worried about it. Well, ‘by accident’ – she’d followed him to see where he was going that he’d keep getting beat up.

Farley’s parents hadn’t shown up while he was in the hospital, and then at some point after he’d been released they tossed him out. Farley hadn’t told her much, but Valkyrie got the impression there had been some big argument and it had wound up that Farley was on the street. At least he hadn’t fought too hard when she did find out and dragged him to the Hibernian. Farley didn’t get angry over things that didn’t matter anymore. He just got really grumpy that he didn’t get to decide what to do about them.

“There’s always homework,” Valkyrie pointed out innocently, and grinned at the face he made, and went to pick up her duffel. “See you after Christmas.”

“Sure.”

Valkyrie left and went to go find Dex and Rover in the main part of the facility, where Kenspeckle usually saw his current patients. Dexter counted.

Kenspeckle was audible from a whole corridor away, grumbling about the stupid glove. Valkyrie grinned.

“It felt okay to me,” Dexter was saying defensively as she entered.

“And how long had you been wearing it?” Kenspeckle snapped, and answered himself. “All of a few hours. I guarantee you that you would have been in agony by the end of the day. Of course, there’s no reason to listen to me, I’m just a genius in the field of magic-science …”

“What happened?” Valkyrie whispered to Rover, trying not to look at Dexter’s bare hand. It didn’t work. She hadn’t seen it without a bandage or a glove since the day it had been injured, and her gaze caught on it, then refused to get dragged away.

It was sunken and scarred, ribbed with layers and layers of damaged or magically grown tissue. Some of his fingers looked almost skeletal, except they weren’t, because Valkyrie had seen Skulduggery’s bare hand-bones and this was different. This was more like someone had sucked all the flesh out from under Dexter’s skin and then dyed it an angry red.

Valkyrie swallowed. She’d heard Kenspeckle had trouble finding places to regrow the nerves, even with grafts, but she’d at least imagined the hand would look better than it had when it was burning.

“Grouse says the glove’s broken,” Rover whispered back. “Says the strength of grip will work but it’ll rebound and could wind up snapping some of the bones in Dexter’s hand.”

“Oh. That’s not good.”

“I thought it was meant to have some rebound effect,” Dexter grumbled.

Some, yes. What was he trying to do with this thing, turn you into a superhero?”

Dexter looked sheepish. Kenspeckle glanced over and rolled his eyes.

“I might have known. The glove will help, Vex, but it’s still going to be proportional to the strength in the hand when it’s bare, and it’s too soon for you to risk breaking your hand because O’Callahan got impatient about fine-tuning the thing.”

“What does that mean?” Rover demanded.

“It means,” said Kenspeckle, peering at the glove through his magnifying glass and twiddling with it in some fashion Valkyrie couldn’t see, “that the force exerted by the glove’s grip has to be set in stages. There. I’ve lowered it to something far more palatable. No doubt your hand will ache by evening, but unless it persists more than a few days that will be normal and may even encourage a bit of extra growth – provided you’re still paying it the proper attention.”

“Cover in green cream for half an hour, soak in the blue stuff for half an hour, rub in the orange cream,” Rover recited promptly, and Kenspeckle sighed.

“The day that Rover Larrikin is more responsible than you are, Vex, is a very sad day indeed. Fine. See how that progresses for a week and then we’ll see about increasing the glove’s force. If pain persists for longer than a day, cease its use immediately until you can see me with it.”

“Aye aye.” Dexter saluted with his spare hand and hopped off the bed, and when Kenspeckle handed him the glove he pulled it carefully on. When he turned Valkyrie tried to blank her expression, but it must not have worked, because he caught her eye and smiled ruefully.

“Okay?”

For just a second Valkyrie debated trying to play it off, and then decided that was really dumb because he’d know better anyway. “I didn’t realise it still looked like that.”

“Damned idiot nearly burned the whole lot off,” Kenspeckle snapped from across the room. “His bones are going to be brittle enough as it is, without the tendon graphs.”

Dexter put his bad hand on her shoulder, and it felt just the same as his normal one, with the padded glove on. Until he squeezed. She could feel the tremble in that squeeze.

“You haven’t tried to do it again, right?” she asked suddenly, and Dexter snorted.

“You think Rover would let me out of the Hotel without chains if I had?”

“Too right,” said Rover, nodding and glaring and crossing his arms. “No idiotic husband of mine is going to kill himself trying to be intelligent.”

“Out.” Kenspeckle pointed. Valkyrie turned to lead the way, and stopped because Skulduggery had appeared in the entrance, his head tilted in that new way he did like he was trying to figure out whether he was seeing what he thought he was.

“Ah,” he said. “You’re not meant to be here.”

Valkyrie stared. “Are you holding your hands behind your back?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “No.”

“You are. What are you hiding?”

“Ah.” Skulduggery coughed. “Do you remember that conversation we had, about not asking questions?”

I’m asking a question, Pleasant,” Kenspeckle barked. “What do you want?”

Rover peered around the doorframe and his eyes went wide. “Ooooh. You’ve been busy, dead man.”

“Pleasant, so help me –”

“If this gets me into trouble with Valkyrie’s parents,” said Skulduggery, “I reserve the right to blame all of you.” He stepped out of the doorway and rotated his wrist, and Davina Marr, handcuffed and unconscious and smelling distinctly of smoke, floated in from the hall.

Chapter Text

Life very recently had become, in a word, interesting. It was an overused word and China didn’t like to use it much, because in that ironic twist of the English language, double meanings and sarcasm, ‘interesting’ these days was coming to mean ‘dull’. True, it was frequently amusing to use it for its modern vernacular, but one had to be aware of how words could become rife with meaning.

In this case, it certainly wasn’t a stand-in for dull.

It was, however, a possible stand-in for tiresome.

China had become weary of being visited by Dead Men less than a month after Ravel’s precious city managed to anchor itself back to their universe. Gloating was only fun when she knew it wasn’t going to come attached with significant consequences. Ravel, alas, was a little too protectively unstable to press, and China knew quite well what that looked like these days.

Honestly. It was a miracle the man hadn’t turned into his own supervillain. Small mercies for Hopeless, she supposed, much as she wouldn’t say that aloud, or think it in the subject’s vicinity.

“Madam has a guest,” said her butler quietly, and because the Dead Men had been spectacularly friendly in the recent months China assumed it was one of them. It was a mistake. A very stupid mistake.

“You’d better bring him here, then,” China said with a delicate sigh, closing her book and rising to put it back on the shelf. It had been some idle reading, not the sort to bookmark but more a distraction while she looked for any damage caused by unconscientious patrons leaving the near window open, as it was now. She turned her back.

That was her second, very stupid mistake.

“My, my, how your business has grown,” said Eliza Scorn, and China froze for an instant before recovering. Her third, indescribably stupid mistake. In the balance of the universe, three mistakes in such quick succession should have rendered her dead, or if not dead – immediately – then with some excruciating humiliation or damage soon to occur.

And since China was not, currently, dead …

“You would be amazed at how many people enjoy quality reading these technologically marvellous days,” China said smoothly, and turned. “You’re looking well, Eliza.”

Well enough to turn heads in China’s own library, China noticed with displeasure. Some of her patrons had gotten overly used to her, it seemed. Of course, Eliza had always cultivated herself to be China’s contrast, with her figure and her vibrant red hair. China was porcelain. Fragile. Weak. Eliza, Eliza liked to claim, was earthy. Challenging. Strong.

“Oh, very well. You don’t mind if I take a seat, do you?” Eliza tossed her coat over the back of a chair and sat down without the benefit of an answer. China signalled her butler to fetch a tray of tea. If they were going to play, they were going to play properly.

“Really?” China asked smoothly, retaking her seat and touching a sigil on the bottom of the table to deter eavesdroppers in the vicinity. “You look a bit pale.”

She did look pale. Well enough to turn heads did not equal ‘well’, and there was a look in Eliza’s eyes that China had not seen in a very long time. A look that, even now, made her gut clench.

Eliza waved this observation off. “Not enough sun. It’s been a busy year and I happened to be in Dublin, so I thought, why not drop in on my old friend, China Sorrows?”

She smiled dazzlingly. China didn’t.

“So it doesn’t have anything to do with the rumours that Mevolent has returned from the dead, then, has it?” China asked sweetly instead, and the smile wiped away like words in the sand.

“How did you – not even you could know that.”

She was shaken. Badly shaken. Too easily shaken, in fact. Eliza Scorn was not a woman easily shaken. So whoever this was, and China wasn’t convinced it was true, was convincing enough that they had Eliza Scorn running scared. Powerful indeed.

“I have my sources,” China said simply, but Eliza was already jumping ahead.

“It was the Dead Men, wasn’t it? So they’re trusting you with that much?” Eliza laughed and relaxed, shaking her head. “And I was worried that I would have to fight you for our master’s esteem.”

“I can’t imagine why you ever thought that would be possible,” said China, and Eliza smiled that smile that said she was thinking of hurting people, because frowning would wrinkle her brow.

“You can’t imagine what’s in store for the world, China dear.”

“I can imagine quite a bit. Is that why you’re here, Eliza? To try and tempt, or threaten, me back?”

“Tempt?” Eliza smiled again, and this smile was different. It was the smile of a cat with a mouse beneath its paws. “No. Threaten, maybe. I prefer ‘extort’. Or ‘blackmail’. They get right to the point, don’t you think?”

They paused for China’s butler to return, bringing the tea, but China waved him off before he served them.

“Your preference hasn’t changed at all, I hope?” China asked, and calmly served Eliza, then herself. Only once she was settled back with her tea in hand did she lift an eyebrow. “Go on then, Eliza dear. However are you intending to extort me?”

“I’m going to impale you upon your own sword,” said Eliza, and smiled slowly, lifting her tea. “And I’m going to enjoy it very much.”

“You’re certainly taking your time about it,” China said. “I’m actually getting bored. You should know, Eliza, that threats aren’t threatening unless you can back them –”

“I know that you’re the one who led Pleasant’s family into the trap,” said Eliza, and just like that the excruciating damage made itself known. China would have to review, later, whether there was something she could have done about it and didn’t due to complacency. Right now, there wasn’t time for it.

“And yet you come to tell me this in the middle of my own library,” she observed. “You’re either much braver than I thought, or have become suicidal in the service of your master.”

“China, dear.” Eliza laughed. “Everyone knows a bear must be baited in its den. They’re far too wary anywhere else.”

She wasn’t, China couldn’t deny, wrong. China just didn’t like the fact that she couldn’t deny it. She also wasn’t exactly as vulnerable as Eliza thought. Nearly, yes – but not quite.

“And how, precisely, is this a threat?” she asked, and sipped her tea.

Eliza didn’t buy her air of concern. Of course not. Always needle, always look for weaknesses. It hadn’t been a game. It had been a way of life. “Come now, China. Whatever will happen to the Dead Men’s trust if they find out that you’re directly responsible for the deaths of Skulduggery Pleasant’s family?”

“What,” said China, “makes you think they don’t already know?”

She had to admit to some intense satisfaction at seeing Eliza’s smile slip, even for just a moment. “They don’t know. They can’t. They’d have killed you.”

China shrugged gracefully. “And yet. Perhaps their trust in me is stronger than you gave it credit.”

People had been walking past the alcove China called hers when there were patrons inside the library. China hadn’t been paying any attention to them, because they couldn’t hear anything. She regretted that in this instance, because it meant that when her butler stepped through the soundproofing wards with Erskine Ravel behind him, she was completely surprised.

“Mr Ravel claims he has urgent business with you, Madam,” said her butler, and withdrew, and from the way he didn’t pass directly by Ravel China knew that he hadn’t been given a choice. She still felt a surge of irritation. This was exactly why she hired the man, trusted the man – in as far as she trusted anyone.

Ravel didn’t look happy, either. Probably he’d found out about her overtures to the sigil developers in his precious Tír. For an instant China wished she’d curbed her curiosity a little better. Fortunately, Scorn and Ravel eyed each other warily long enough for China to recover any loss of equilibrium she might have shown, so that by the time they both turned back to her – Scorn wearing a brilliant smile, Ravel wearing a suspicious frown – China sat composed in her chair with her cup of tea in her hands.

“The Dead Men trust you, you say?” Eliza asked, putting down her cup and rising. Ravel tensed as she turned toward him, but she only picked up her coat to pull it over her shoulders. “Then they know all about how you’re the one who led Skulduggery Pleasant’s family into the trap. They know that you watched while his family was killed, and while he screamed their names and took up the knife.”

As irksome as it was to find out that Ravel had built an entire mortal-magical city in another dimension, without anyone knowing, China found herself unbearably grateful for the practice he must have had honing his poker face in that time.

“Gee,” he said flatly, “what a shock.”

Surprise flickered across Scorn’s face, and she paused in donning her coat to study his face and posture. Ravel looked at her steadily back, and not even China could tell there was anything amiss – more than usual, anyway. She even wondered whether Hopeless actually had confided in some of the Dead Men after all. He’d told her he wouldn’t, but she hadn’t believed him at the time.

“I see,” said Scorn after a moment, and nodded to China. “A delight to catch up with you, China dear.”

They both watched her sashay between the bookcases, silent and unmoving until the moment they heard the door click shut.

Then Ravel whirled on her, his hand already raised to slam her deeper into the armchair, a truly horrendous snarl twisting his face. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you right here.

If he didn’t let up, China thought dizzily, she might well suffocate before she could answer. Caught off guard by Scorn, then Ravel – truly, if she survived this day it would be a miracle.

Fortunately Ravel seemed to realise that he was pressing her too hard, and the layer of air let up enough that China could take some breaths. She did it carefully, without fighting the air holding her bound. There were half a dozen sigils she could touch to disrupt his hold on her, of course, but that would only make things worse. She wouldn’t win against him – not even Mevolent had been able to win against all the Dead Men, working together and furious, to save one of their own. He had survived, yes, but he hadn’t won.

No. Fighting wasn’t going to save her. But maybe talking would.

Hopeless would laugh when he found out.

Hopeless was also going to be her saviour once again.

“Because Hopeless hasn’t,” she said, very carefully, and Ravel’s hand lowered slightly.

“So that’s how he made you stop,” he said in a low voice.

“I’m surprised you never asked him.”

“I didn’t need to ask him,” Ravel said coldly. “I trust he’s got my best interests in mind.”

China lifted an eyebrow. “I spent years needling you in the wake of his recovery and you didn’t ask how he made me stop because ‘he’s got your best interests in mind’? Honestly, Ravel, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you can resist my magic because you’re already enthralled.”

Ravel’s fingers curled in slightly, and China’s breath caught at the weight against her ribs. It was a warning and she took it as such, saying nothing else, but watching him.

“I came here because I heard you were making overtures to several prominent sigil-masons and researchers,” he said. “I don’t usually get involved in the politics of the Tír on this level, but I was the only way they could reach you.”

He put his hand in his pocket and withdrew an envelope, and threw it at China. The air let up enough so that, when it landed on her lap, she could pick it up and slit it open, and read the letter inside. Under any other circumstances she would have laughed at the contents, but since that, currently, was suicide, she merely kept her expression blank instead. “A fine for operating without a licence,” she said flatly, and looked up, regarding Ravel. “And if I pay this, you won’t mention my … indiscretion?”

Ravel smiled. It wasn’t a smile she’d seen on him before. It wasn’t a smile she’d seen on any of the Dead Men before. Not even Skulduggery back when he’d been alive; arrogant, charming, righteous Skulduggery. It wasn’t Saracen’s lofty, knowing smile; it wasn’t Skulduggery’s warm haughtiness. It was cold, and imperious, and would have made even Mevolent’s generals check themselves. The smile of a prince.

This, China suspected, was a look the other Dead Men simply hadn’t had a chance to adopt yet.

“No,” said Ravel, very calmly. “You’re going to pay the fine because you broke the law, knowing you were breaking it, and you don’t have a right or dispensation to ignore it. Whether or not I tell anyone about your indiscretion isn’t something you get forewarning about, and isn’t something you can bargain for.”

In other words, if she didn’t want him to say anything about that indiscretion, she was going to have to dance on his hook for as long as he chose. Damn. This was what she’d killed Crux for. That wasn’t an option here. Ravel would fight back, for one. And he might win, for another.

China watched him silently as he pulled back his hand and the pressure lifted off her. He didn’t say anything while she got to her feet and went to her desk, and wrote out a cheque for the amount stated in the fine. Ravel took it, and then turned and strode away with regality in every inch of his bearing.

Chapter Text

Things were different. The little things were different, not because they’d changed, but because now Guild was more aware they existed. Everything he did these days was meaningless. How did the Dead Men manage it? Surely the effort of keeping up mental defences wore on even them? Or had they just stopped trying and let their friend rifle through their heads at will?

It took effort not to pause before the Grand Mage’s door, to go in as if Guild belonged there. He did belong there. This office should have been his – it would have been his, if not for Hopeless’s manipulations.

“Grand Mage,” he said noncommittally. “I have a report from our contacts investigating other Sanctuaries.”

Was there any point to this façade? Hopeless had to know the report, yet he rested his elbows on his desk and waited as if he didn’t. After a long moment of staring, Guild conceded and went on.

“Bliss you’ve heard from, I imagine. There’s some movement in England but Bane wasn’t able to say with regard to what. For all we know it could be regarding some minor indiscretions of the pact. Australia appears to be safe for the moment, and if any nations in Africa are having extraordinary trouble it would be difficult to tell between the ordinary ones. O’Callaghan did mention something about the Ottoman Empire, so I imagine they intend to head to Eastern Europe next.”

Hopeless nodded and remained silent for long enough that Guild almost excused himself. Then Hopeless finally held up a written note. ‘Security sigil, please.’

Yes. The security sigils. Guild hadn’t known about them until a few months ago. Keeping his face blank, Guild touched it and felt the hum of magic against his back. He looked at Hopeless but Hopeless rested his chin on his hands and looked back. His face had lined over the past few years, but he carried them well. His hair was liberally grey, rather than mostly redheaded as it had been before he became Elder.

His eyes seemed to see straight into Guild’s soul. Now Guild knew why and it made his heart pound and a sweat break out on his palms. He kept it off his face, but Hopeless smiled sadly.

“Don’t,” said Guild shortly, speaking before he thought. Of course, that was the only way to circumvent someone like Hopeless, wasn’t it?

Natural-born mind-reader.

Hopeless held up another note. ‘I can’t help it.’

“I don’t believe that,” said Guild, and now he was getting angry, and it felt good. Vindicating. Guild usually tried not to let his emotions rule him, but he sure as hell would use them for strength. “You’re at least five-hundred years old and a natural-born mind-reader, and you say you can’t control it? I don’t believe it.”

Hopeless shook his head. ‘I said I can’t help it, not that I can’t control it. I can dull the noise, not turn it off.’

What was Guild supposed to say to that? He couldn’t even think to organise himself, because Hopeless would know whatever he came up with.

“How can I serve, Grand Mage?” he asked flatly.

The cards Hopeless reached for were prepared, Guild could tell. There was a stack of them on the desk, as if Hopeless had written down responses to things he knew Guild would say. ‘Please sit down.’

Guild stared at him, keeping his face hard and trying not to think.

‘Please.’ There was something resigned in the way Hopeless held up the next cards. ‘I need you to understand how my magic works.’

That was surprising enough that without intending to say anything Guild snapped out, “Why?” Then he stopped and covered his discomfort with a glare. “You barely even trust me. The other Dead Men certainly don’t. You’ve got to know that if I thought for a moment your magic was a detriment to this country I’d –”

Guild froze. Hopeless’s smile was lopsided and wry.

‘Kill me,’ his handwriting suggested. Another card. ‘Yes. I know.’

Guild’s heart was thudding in his chest. “Of course you do,” he said in a low voice, kicking himself for not having made this connection earlier. He had been so worried about the privacy of his present thoughts that he’d completely forgotten to consider past ones. “Because you know what I did to Vanguard. You know I could get away with it. I was good at that.”

Back then, Hopeless couldn’t have told anyone without them asking how he knew, and weaving a lie about the Elder Journals would have become complex to maintain after a while. But now that he was Grand Mage, all he had to say was that he found it in Meritorious’s books.

Of course, with how many lies he must have maintained over the centuries, that one would be nothing in comparison. And Guild wondered why Hopeless hadn’t told anyone. It hadn’t been a guess. He’d known.

Guild stared at Hopeless and Hopeless watched him back and didn’t answer the wondering. Why didn’t he? If he knew all of Guild’s thoughts, why didn’t he answer them?

Hopeless held up a card. ‘It’s rude.’

Guild barked a surprised laugh. “You’re inside my head and you’re worried about being polite?”

‘Just because I know what people are thinking doesn’t give me the right to air those thoughts without their permission except under highly extenuating circumstances.’

“You expect me to believe you didn’t tell your friends about Vanguard?”

‘I didn’t tell the others about Vanguard.’

“Why?”

Hopeless shrugged and held up the same card: ‘It’s rude.’

Guild stared at him. Hopeless smiled gently and motioned at one of the chairs. For a moment Guild considered refusing again, just on principle, but … could he afford to be proud? He and Hopeless had spoken only once about his magic, under security sigils, and that had been for Hopeless to confirm that Marr hadn’t been lying. Here was an opportunity for Guild to learn more about the least known and possibly the most powerful of the Dead Men.

Only a fool would pass that up. Only a fool would refuse advantages when he was so disadvantaged.

Guild sat, back rigid, still just short of glaring at Hopeless.

‘Ask your questions.’

“You have a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips,” Guild said, “and you don’t use it because it’s rude?”

That was practically idiocy. No matter how much Guild didn’t like the man being inside his head, when you had an advantage you pressed it. Always.

Hopeless nodded and picked up a chalkboard, and rose to come sit opposite Guild. ‘If it makes the idea more palatable,’ he wrote, ‘consider my own sanity. If I paid as much attention to every thought as people thought their every thought deserved, I would be insane.’

“It’s not like he’s constantly sick, or anything,” Marr had said. Guild narrowed his eyes at Hopeless.

The first words were scrubbed off with the sleeve of Hopeless’s robe, and Guild winced at the dust. ‘There are lots of minds inside my range. I keep them dim and only hear thoughts associated with loud emotions.’

“And that’s it?” Guild demanded.

Hopeless shrugged. ‘Reminding myself it’s rude gives me incentive not to get in the habit of looking deeply.’

“As if keeping your sanity wasn’t enough,” Guild muttered.

‘That’s why you’re a problem.’

“I beg your pardon!”

‘You’re a bundle of emotion and it all revolves around my magic,’ Hopeless wrote. ‘Emotion is like a rip-tide, and these concern me directly. Two strikes. Most of my headaches lately have come from you. You won’t kill me unless I’m a threat to Ireland, but I can’t do my job while you’re constantly seeing me as a threat.’

It sounded paradoxical. It also sounded like a load of horseshit. Guild never had thought much of Sensitives, let alone all the modern trite about understanding how the mind worked, and now he was having it shoved at him unwanted because his Grand Mage was practically omniscient.

“You are a threat,” Guild said.

‘Yes. Bliss is concerned about the same thing. He’s already said he’ll kill me if he has to, for Ireland’s sake.’

He was so … accepting of the whole thing. Both of his Elders now had stated outright they would kill him, and Hopeless sat there in that robe and in this office with his eyes all full of gentle understanding, and didn’t care? Guild felt a pang of something that felt a lot like doubt, but which he knew was something else entirely, something he hadn’t felt since he was a young sorcerer looking up at the men on the landsmeet who seemed like titans keeping their world from falling apart.

It was respect. Totally illogical, infuriating respect.

“Why are you so –”

Damn him. Damn him for having secrets and having the gall to use those secrets to make himself the better man for the job.

Hopeless waited but Guild couldn’t find the words to finish his sentence, so he rolled his hand impatiently.

‘Sanguine?’ Hopeless suggested. ‘Accepting? Uncaring?’

“Why haven’t you put your friends in our places?”

‘Why should I?’

“They’re ridiculously blind to the idea of killing you, for a start!”

Hopeless laughed quietly and Guild hated him for that, for the way he made Guild feel small and insignificant and petty, and inferior, for caring about living.

‘But they’d put other nations on guard,’ Hopeless wrote. ‘Three Dead Men in office? Ireland has no objectivity. Ireland is being ruled on the merit of strength by force. Ireland is under martial law.’

The words echoed any number of arguments Guild himself had been prepared to make for why Bliss should be Elder and not one of Hopeless’s friends. He’d never understood why he hadn’t needed to make them.

Hopeless scrubbed off the chalk and kept writing. ‘If I’m to lead a country I need people around me who can be my mental boundaries. I need people who won’t let me rest on my laurels and forget that I am powerful.’

Guild laughed again, and it was as incredulous and sardonic as the last. “How can you forget?”

‘You think in terms of what you can get. To you it’s unconscionable to have something and not use it, because having it is the reason to use it. But nothing I have is mine. It’d be like you using your wife as bait.’

The laugh stopped abruptly. “Don’t you dare –”

But Hopeless kept writing. ‘That wasn’t a threat. It was an analogy. You don’t have a right to use your wife’s life like that. Nor do I have the right to use others. But I need someone to remind me why.’

“Are you saying you don’t trust the Dead Men to tell you what to do?” Guild snorted.

Hopeless shook his head, and his face was sombre. ‘I occupy a space in their minds they don’t stop to question. They’re just not capable of it anymore. In my position that’s dangerous, because it means I won’t stop to question it either.’

“You make it sound as though you won’t have a choice in what to believe,” Guild said with a sneer. “At least own your opinions.” One thing Guild had never had trouble with, fortunately, and it made him feel a little better to know that. At least he had that over Hopeless.

‘It’s not that simple.’ Hopeless went to his desk and put an empty pitcher where Guild could see it. He put a row of filled glasses there too. It was only water, Guild could tell, but they had been dyed different colours.

There was a label on the side of the pitcher, reading ‘Hopeless’. Hopeless picked up a glass filled with bright orange water and poured it into the pitcher, and held up a card. ‘This is me.’

“And the glasses are the other Dead Men,” said Guild irritably. “Yes, I see the labels. So what?”

‘Watch what happens when they all combine.

Hopeless poured each of the glasses into the pitcher, creating swirls of colour which settled into a murky grey brown. Guild sat there, annoyed and confused. He’d never had much use for metaphors, either.

Finally Hopeless held up another card. ‘Where am I now? Can you see me?’

“What?”

‘The orange water. Can you see it?’

“Of course I can’t –”

Guild’s voice died. He’d had to stop himself short before, but it’d been a long time since he’d felt the sensation of his words shrivelling in his mouth against his will. He didn’t get shocked. It was useless.

And yet.

He looked wordlessly at the pitcher, and Hopeless nodded, and came back to the sofa and the chalkboard. ‘It’s not a perfect example, but that’s what happens when I’m around too many people who agree all at once. I get lost. I forget whether I believed anything different. I need dissenting opinions. I need people who encompass different perspectives. I need it, in order to function as anything other than a puppet for the desires of a select few. That’s why I need you and Bliss as my Elders. I need you to be willing to disagree.’

Guild found his voice and it came out sharp. “You said just before that was a problem.”

‘That wasn’t because you disagree with me. It’s because you’re hyper-focussed on what I can do. Have you never noticed that the more you try not to think about something, the more it stays in your head? It’s the same thing. You’re trying not to think. It only makes it easier for me to hear.’

Stealth and avoiding notice. Doing things in plain sight without being seen. It was a facet of the Exigency Mages which made them so effective. But the principle was the same. Why shouldn’t it be? Just because it was something most people couldn’t hear didn’t change the basics of remaining unseen. If Guild didn’t want his thoughts to be heard, he should keep his thoughts no more obvious than the rest.

“That will stop you from hearing me?”

Hopeless shrugged. ‘It’ll stop you from giving me a constant headache, and might distract you a bit less with trying to circumvent me. You can’t circumvent me. It just hurts us both to try.’

“So you’re saying,” said Guild, trying to keep the tightness from his voice, “that I should just trust you?”

‘You should trust that my sanity is more important to me than spying on you every second of the day.’

At least that was marginally selfish, and better than the alternative. It was good to know Hopeless had a modicum of concern for his own state of being, instead of being so patiently giving. So the man wouldn’t be able to stop listening – but it sounded like he wouldn’t be able to actually pay attention, and sometimes that was even better than just not hearing.

“Fine,” Guild said shortly, and rose. “Anything else you need?”

Hopeless shook his head and gave him a small, encouraging smile, and Guild hated the way it made him feel like a little boy trying to match up to someone far older and wiser. He had at least a century on the man, for God’s sake.

Guild tried to stop that thought from ending and then gave up. Hopeless was right; it was too exhausting walking on eggshells every second of the day.

“I won’t be held responsible for the content of my thoughts if you don’t like them,” he growled. When Hopeless laughed it was quiet, but with that knowledge of something Guild couldn’t begin to understand.

‘Thurid,’ he wrote, ‘after Mevolent’s mind, the content of your thoughts is like a mosquito bite.’

He rose while Guild stood there frozen, trying to wrap his mind around that and failing. He’d always prided himself on his lack of imagination. Now he was glad for it. Hopeless unlocked the security sigil and opened the door, and gave Guild a warm smile. Mechanically Guild left the room, and heard the door close softly.

After Mevolent’s mind.

After MEVOLENT’S mind.

A cold chill swept down Guild’s back and all over his body until he shivered violently, all the more with the realisation that Hopeless knew. He knew everything. He knew when Guild walked unsteadily back to his office, when his hands shook as he poured himself some whiskey, when he had to sit down behind his desk and rest his head in his hands until he felt possessed enough to actually be a leader.

Was this, he wondered, how the Ancients had felt so long ago, living under the rule of gods whose power they could barely comprehend?

Was this how mortals felt when they found out about magic, and looked at sorcerers in wonder and fear?

Guild stared at his undrunk whiskey and then picked it up and gulped it down. He needed to talk to Bliss. They needed to make plans.

They needed to figure out how to prepare a possible coup against a demi-god.

Chapter Text

“Why not?” Skulduggery asked.

“Because,” Anton said in that long-sufferingly patient tone he did so well.

“I do hope you’re not going to leave it at that. I’m not Rover, you know.”

“There are different but equal levels of annoyance, Skulduggery.”

“Are you saying I’m annoying?”

“Perhaps.”

“Excellent.”

“You’d think he wouldn’t be quite so happy about being annoying,” Saracen muttered, watching Skulduggery wander away from the front desk while humming The Girl From Ipanema.

“Be fair,” said Ghastly, “he did just catch Marr after weeks of dead ends.”

“I still say he cheated.”

Given that it was Saracen saying it, both Anton and Ghastly turned to fix him with identical stares, and Saracen went red and scowled at once. “Shut up. I’m allowed. I’m using my resources. Where is she now?”

The change of subject wasn’t surprising, though Ghastly got the feeling it wasn’t just to divert attention. It was the nervous tension. Catching Marr was progress, but until she was capable or willing to answer questions, she wasn’t a breakthrough. Until then, it felt as if they weren’t doing anything but waiting, and worse, waiting for things they could barely foresee.

The only good thing about the situation at large was that hearing about Mevolent’s return seemed to convince Skulduggery all this was real – because a hallucination would be far sweeter and less dangerous.

“Kenspeckle healed her and Skulduggery took her to the Sanctuary. We even managed to convince Macha not to rip out her spleen, but Marr shouldn’t expect quality treatment for a while.”

“Great,” said Saracen, watching Skulduggery. “What’s he doing?”

“He’s mapping,” Ghastly said.

“Mapping what?”

“Shouldn’t you just know?” Ghastly teased with a smile, and Saracen scowled again.

“Alright, my magic has limits and can, in fact, run out or be circumvented, and has, in fact, run out or been circumvented a lot in the past few months. You’d think you lot didn’t know that before. Now tell me.”

Ghastly laughed and it was Anton who answered. “He’s remembering.”

“He remembers everything.”

“Some memories are getting in the way of the ones he wants to remember. Are you certain you’re related to your father?”

“I hate you all.”

Ghastly didn’t pay attention. He watched Skulduggery move around the lobby, as he had every time he visited in the month immediately after his return and now only if he hadn’t been there for longer than a week, tapping the walls and setting fire to the curtains before snuffing them out an instant later.

“Ghastly’s grinning,” Saracen said to Anton conversationally.

“He is quite ghastly,” said Anton seriously, and Ghastly laughed – out of sheer surprise, he defended himself – and Saracen groaned.

“Really. Really. Terrible. Absolutely terrible.”

“Thank you.”

Ghastly got to his feet and stretched, and slipped in behind the desk. “’Scuse me.”

He selected a very specific book from the bookcase.

“Oh,” said Saracen. “Is that the book? Are you sure you want to give him that book? Dexter and Rover are due to walk through the door any minute.”

Ghastly paused. He’d thought he might as well break the news while Skulduggery was particularly pleased with himself, but if Saracen thought otherwise maybe it wasn’t a good idea. “Does anything bad happen?”

Saracen grinned. “Does embarrassment count?”

Ghastly winked at him and went to where Skulduggery was peering into a sofa’s upholstery, and tapped him on the shoulder.

“I know you’re there,” said Skulduggery without turning.

“I have a surprise for you.”

“It isn’t a punch in the face, is it? I admit, the tension of waiting would be relieved somewhat, but I rather think the circumstances call for a little more professionalism.” Skulduggery straightened and turned, tugging at his hat just so, and Ghastly pushed the book into his gloved hands. Skulduggery looked down at it with a vague air of surprise. “Ah. Throwing the book at me at last, are you? I’m fairly sure there’s some distance required for that.”

“Read it,” said Ghastly.

Skulduggery turned the book over. “I know this book. This book is what Gordon left to Dexter, isn’t it?”

“Read it,” Ghastly repeated.

“Knowing some of the things Dexter enjoys, I’m not sure I want to.”

“Dexter reads Greek physics manuscripts from before the first century,” Anton pointed out.

“Exactly,” Skulduggery agreed. “Who knows how he’s butchered the English language?”

Ghastly stared. “Wait. Dexter reads what?”

“You didn’t know?” Saracen asked innocently.

Ghastly scowled at him and pushed the book closer to Skulduggery’s chest. “Read it.”

Skulduggery sat primly on the sofa, crossed his legs, and opened the book delicately to the first page. Ghastly sat down next to him and said nothing. The door chimed. Someone came in and went to the reception desk, and Ghastly heard Anton checking in a new customer, but he didn’t look over in favour of watching Skulduggery’s body language. Watching Skulduggery’s body language was an art unto itself.

At first it was simply attentive, if slightly bored. Ghastly could tell that from the way he sat and the speed with which he turned each page. When Skulduggery became more absorbed the page-turning slowed down, and his finger-bones rested on the very corner of the page, almost delicately so, instead of flicking through them from the side.

His skull tilted slowly, and then lowered in which might have been – for someone with eyes – a squint. He was already still, but this was a stillness leaning toward rising at any moment, as if his every bone was already halfway suspended and just hadn’t realised it yet.

“This,” Skulduggery said at last, “is truly atrocious.”

“Is that all?” Saracen asked after a moment.

“Hm?” Skulduggery looked up and then pointed at the page. “Oh, yes. Look at this grammatical construction. It’s appalling.”

Saracen leaned over to look where he was pointing and his eyebrows shot up, and he snatched at the book. Skulduggery resisted giving it to him for all of a second before Saracen wrenched it out of his hands. “Wait. This is the book? This? Ghastly!”

“Yes?” Ghastly asked, and Saracen waved the book at him.

“You gave him this? Why didn’t anyone tell me this is what’s in this book?”

“I don’t know if you’ve realised this, Rue, but it’s not the kind of thing I really want to talk about.”

“You’ve had this behind the desk for four years where anyone could read it?” Saracen demanded of Anton.

“I felt it was the safest place for it,” said Anton without looking up. He was still serving the new customer – Myron Stray, Ghastly realised with chagrin. Stray stared with that calculating look of a man who, even now, was used to filing away the little things. Ghastly nodded toward him. Stray blinked and then belatedly nodded back and looked quickly away.

“Behind your desk?” Saracen sounded really, unusually upset.

“Both Larrikin and Vex have a tendency to go through my office,” Anton explained, and looked up. “Besides, I thought you know how they react when they arrive.”

Saracen spluttered and then admitted, his ears going red, “I was faking.”

Skulduggery held out his hand. “May I have the book back, please? I want to see how Ghastly and I escape these evil witches.”

Now both Saracen and Ghastly were staring. “And that’s all?” Saracen demanded.

“Is there something else I should be reading into it?”

“No.” Saracen thrust the book back toward him and Skulduggery took it and rearranged himself, and settled back down with the open book.

His head was pulled back now, rather than leaned closer, and he held the book away slightly more than he had been, and it was because of those things that Ghastly knew Skulduggery was faking not having noticed … everything else about the book. Ghastly smiled to himself and sat back into the sofa and whistled softly.

Saracen kept looking back and shaking his head and then pacing. It was worrying. Maybe he was taking not knowing harder than Ghastly had thought. For all that Saracen claimed they knew his magic had limits, he had always implied that the knowing was still something that ‘just happened’ rather than something he controlled. That part really was news, and now Ghastly was wondering just how much he relied on his magic every day if he got so upset by minor surprises.

Hopeless wouldn’t let him if it were bad, Ghastly reminded himself, but he couldn’t ignore the lurking uncertainty that sometimes Hopeless couldn’t tell what was bad if the subject had already convinced themselves it didn’t matter.

Stray went up the stairs, Anton closed his ledger, and Saracen whirled around to the door as it was flung open in a way that only Larrikin ever did.

“Hello hello hello,” Rover said cheerfully, strolling in and half sprawling over the desk. “Anton, my love! Hi.”

“Valkyrie?” Anton asked, pushing Rover off the desk to give himself room for the money lockbox.

“Packaged, stamped and delivered,” said Dexter, but he was staring at Skulduggery with a kind of disconcert that was very close to fear, and pointed. “Is that the book?”

“Is what the –” Rover whirled and saw Ghastly wave cheerfully, and he actually paled. “Oh. Uh. I had nothing to do with it!”

“Thanks a lot,” Dexter muttered.

“Alright, I had a little to do with it.”

Skulduggery looked up, skull tilted. “Nothing to do with what?”

“The – book?” Rover suggested weakly. “That is the book, right? Dexter’s glorious magnum opus?”

“Is it?” Skulduggery looked at the cover. “‘Guilty Pleasures’? This is what’s classed as a magnum opus these days, is it?”

“I think I should get a day’s head-start,” said Dexter, stepping toward the door.

“Whatever for?”

Dexter and Rover stopped and looked at each other, and this time concern surmounted disconcert – but only just. Dexter asked slowly, “You don’t see anything wrong with that book?”

Skulduggery looked down and held the book out as if it had developed fangs. “Should I?”

“Er.” Dex and Rover glanced around as if searching either for a quick exit or the punchline. They looked at Anton. Anton lifted an eyebrow at them. They looked at Saracen. Saracen threw up his hands. They looked at Ghastly. Ghastly gave them the broad, airheaded smile he didn’t use very often these days but which had made his parents laugh every time.

Ghastly knew what they were thinking: Where’s Hopeless when you need him?

“No,” said Dexter finally, and coughed. “Not at all.”

“Excellent.” Skulduggery nodded and turned back to his page. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Ghastly just hung someone up by the ankles using my belt.”

“You do that,” said Dex in a strangled voice, and he motioned furiously until Ghastly got up and moved over to them by the desk. Rover hopped from foot to foot with a low-grade whine in the back of his throat.

The moment they were near enough Dexter whispered furiously, “What happened?”

“What happened when?” Ghastly asked.

“He’s all –” Dexter motioned toward Skulduggery. “That is the book, right?”

“It’s the book,” said Saracen, scowling, “and remind me to ask Hopeless just how often you think about a skeleton’s flexibility, Dex.”

“I don’t!”

“You wrote the book!”

“I was bored!”

“Maybe he just didn’t notice those parts?” Rover suggested brightly, and even Anton snorted his disbelief.

“He’s faking,” he said, and Ghastly nodded, grinning hugely.

“He’s playing you,” he said, and wagged his finger at them. “You’re both just going to have to walk on eggshells waiting for his revenge for the next, oh, decade. And I, for one, am going to enjoy every minute.”

“Anton kept it behind his desk,” Dexter protested, pointing at Anton. “Why isn’t he getting into trouble?”

“Because I,” said Anton, “as everyone knows, am as fresh and innocent as a daisy.” To a man they looked at the double-barrelled shotgun hanging in pride of place over the bookcase, while Anton locked up the moneybox and put it under the desk. He looked at them. “Is something amiss?”

Dexter coughed. “No. Nothing. Never mind. Now that most of us are here, are we going to actually discuss this little problem we have?”

“Which little problem we have?” Rover demanded, waving his arms. “We have, like, ten. Six. Three. Whatever, we have lots.”

“Some of them are pretty big,” Ghastly said.

“What we’re going to tell Valkyrie,” said Dexter. “She’s been amazingly patient, all things considered.”

“Why can’t we just say her parents are being silly?” Rover grumbled. “Who needs ’em, anyway?”

“Valkyrie’s younger sibling, for one,” Saracen pointed out.

“It’s not fair to throw them under the bus, for another,” Dexter added. “They have a right to want some say over what their daughter does until she’s of age, and we haven’t really been taking as much care of her lately as we promised.”

“She’s alive,” Rover protested, “and talented, and getting better all the time!”

“Yes, and in mortal danger three years running. Valkyrie’s going to be an older sister. It’s not unreasonable for her parents to want to make sure she’s still around by the time the baby’s born.”

“Sending them all to the Tír was Descry’s idea, wasn’t it?” Anton asked.

“Of course,” said Skulduggery from across the lobby, not looking up and still leafing, slowly, through the book. “It’s been a while since they spent any time together, and it may break the ice. Hopeless knows this is our last play; if Melissa and Desmond keep being stubborn they could be putting Valkyrie in very real danger, far greater than anything thus far.”

“Except the Faceless Ones,” Dexter corrected.

“The Faceless Ones would only have killed her.”

“Ah,” Anton observed. “So we aren’t here to discuss what more to do to convince them; we’re here to discuss whether or not we’re going to honour their wishes.”

“Aren’t we?” Ghastly asked with a frown.

“Psh.” Rover waved a hand. “Okay, they love her, but they don’t know best. She’s fifteen. She’s practically an adult already.”

“Hopeless has a lot to say on the subject of teenage emotional development,” Anton murmured.

“Hopeless has lots to say about everything,” Rover grumbled. “You were a daddy at fifteen, Anton.”

“They were my siblings.”

“So? It’s the same principle. You were taking care of them and you were Valkyrie’s age.”

“Society is different now,” said Anton. “Even with our influence and her experiences, Valkyrie was still raised in a household which lives in a world which lets her be a child. We can’t apply the same principles to her as we would have to ourselves.”

Rover pointed at him accusingly. “You’ve been talking to Descry about all that ‘environment matters’ stuff!”

“You’re a part of my environment, Larrikin.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re such an insufferable irritation that if he can stand you he can stand anything,” said Skulduggery cheerfully, closing the book with a snap and tucking it into his coat. “Like the gist.”

“Oh, well …” Rover frowned. “I don’t know if that’s meant to be a compliment or an insult.”

“Compliment,” Dexter and Saracen chorused, and Saracen explained, “It’s a fuzzier feeling.”

“That it is,” Rover agreed, opening up his arms, “and fuzzy compliments demand hugs in return!”

“No.”

“Pleeeeeeeeease?”

“No.”

“We’ve gotten off topic,” said Ghastly. “What do Erskine and Hopeless say? Where is Erskine, anyway?”

“Hopeless is holding out for the holiday changing things,” said Dexter over the sound of Rover and Anton arguing, “and who can tell with Erskine, except Hopeless? I’d have said he’d want to keep word, and then I find out he’s hidden a city of half a million people from the world. I don’t know where he is, by the way.”

“He’s crafty,” agreed Saracen. “I don’t think we should go behind their backs. You’ve got to respect your parents, and Descry could use some faith in his judgment right now. Guild is treading lightly around him.”

Ghastly nodded. “We need Melissa and Desmond’s trust. They’re our friends. Since when has being Dead Men meant we don’t need the trust of friends outside the group?”

Rover winced. “When you put it like that …”

“The other thing to consider is Valkyrie’s safety,” Anton observed, laying his key-ring on the desk and sliding the keys between his fingers. He could always tell when rooms were in use or not. Ghastly didn’t know quite how the wards tied into them, but they did, and they made good notice for private conversations. “Without forewarning, there’s no way she can prepare for the worst. Her life is more important than our trust with her parents, and they care for her too deeply to hold it against us if the worst does happen.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Saracen demanded.

“Then it won’t matter that they don’t know.”

Saracen stared. “I’d expect that sort of manipulation from Skulduggery, or even me, but you, Anton –”

Dexter left them arguing and went to Skulduggery still seated on the sofa, and offered, “I’m really sorry?”

Skulduggery tilted his head at him. “About what?”

“The book.”

“Oh, is the book worth an apology, is it?”

Dexter winced. “Look, I was bored, it was a lark, I got a bit drunk and let Gordon read it, I didn’t think it would go this far. And even then it’s only gone as far as us.”

“You aren’t very good at apologies,” Skulduggery observed.

“You’re right. I’m not all that sorry, I just don’t want to get punished for the next ten years.” Dexter sat down beside him, tugging at the pads of the glove. For all that he was hopeful about what it could do, it still felt strange. Then again, he hadn’t gotten used to how his hand felt just yet. Most days he forgot it was a husk of its former state. “Are you actually angry?”

“I have no idea what you mean,” said Skulduggery.

“I mean I want to know how you are.”

“Whatever for?”

“Because,” Dexter said, “you were horribly tortured for a year and only got back a few months ago, when we found out that Mevolent has apparently been resurrected.”

“Shouldn’t you be talking to Erskine, then?”

“Erskine’s … I don’t know. Probably with Hopeless.”

“Ghastly’s with me.”

“You’re so wound up over Ghastly that you wouldn’t worry him if the world depended on it.” Dexter managed not to snap. “It’s not working, by the way. He’s already worried and you can’t stop it.”

“Is there a point to this conversation?”

Dexter sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know what the point is, I don’t know what we’re going to do to stop things from getting worse, I don’t know what we’re going to do about Mevolent, and I don’t know how much more all of us can take. So in all that not knowing, I’d really like to be assured you’re actually getting by and aren’t lying because denial is a more comfortable place.”

For a few moments they sat in silence, watching the others argue. They had moved on from arguing about Valkyrie’s parents to arguing about the Hotel’s wallpaper, which was perhaps by design since someone had come down the stairs and gave them a startled glance before detouring into the common-room.

“You haven’t spoken to Hopeless in a while, have you?” Skulduggery asked suddenly.

“Hopeless has enough on his mind without –” Dexter stopped. “Sod you. When did you last talk to him?”

“I’m not the one whose thoughts are going to be weighing on him because of all my unexpressed emotions. How’s the hand?”

“How’s the mind?”

Skulduggery nodded. “You’re right. Denial is a more comfortable place. And the answer is, I don’t know. Some days I’m not sure what’s real. I’m not entirely sure you’re real. Usually when Dexter expresses vulnerability it’s to someone else, and he isn’t nearly cunning enough to open up just to guilt me into opening up.”

Dexter shrugged. “So if I’m not real, you’re not telling me anything you don’t already know and it doesn’t matter if you say it out loud, does it?”

“Ah, you see? That’s far too cunning for Dexter Vex.”

In spite of everything, Dexter grinned. It wasn’t quite as good as his usual, but it was better than most. “Maybe I’m just learning.”

“Maybe I’m too intelligent for my own hallucinations to be believably unintelligent enough to pass for you.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Still hallucinate?”

“That depends. Are you one?”

“That depends. Was it Rover you asked?”

Skulduggery chuckled this time, and Dexter felt his grin sit more properly on his face. He glanced back at the others. Rover was on Anton’s back, arms wrapped around his shoulders, chanting something in his ear. Ghastly was laughing and Saracen was pretending not to, but failing.

“Sometimes,” said Skulduggery quietly.

“Hm?”

“Sometimes I still hallucinate. They’re just not the same they used to be.”

“What are they like?” Dexter asked, and Skulduggery looked up. Dexter felt a chill. If Skulduggery had eyes, Dexter thought he would have been looking at something specific.

“Most of the time,” said Skulduggery finally, “I see the Faceless Ones coming for me.”

“How do you know they’re not real?”

Skulduggery looked at Dexter, and the chill down Dexter’s back deepened. “I don’t,” said Skulduggery. “I still don’t. But if I’m going to be insane, this is a much nicer place to be, and …” He hesitated and Dexter took a page out of Hopeless’s book and waited in silence. Finally Skulduggery said, “I was afraid to hope.”

“When you were in the other dimension?”

“No. Before then.” Skulduggery looked toward the desk, where Anton was holding Rover around the neck, not tight enough choke him or break the rules but enough that Rover’s theatrical flailing seemed genuine. Ghastly, still laughing, moved in to ‘separate’ them and Saracen ducked his head the way his father did when amused. “Since Vile, I’ve been afraid to hope for anything more than what I deserve. Now I find that I can. I’d forgotten what it felt like to have that freedom. Is that strange?” He turned suddenly back to Dexter. “Is it strange, that I’m possibly utterly insane and find that more freeing than anything else?”

“I don’t know,” Dexter admitted uncomfortably, wondering what he had gotten himself into. He’d never quite believed that would work. Maybe he hadn’t meant it to work, and just wanted Skulduggery to tell him he was alright. “I’ve never been insane before. Maybe you should ask Hopeless.”

“Maybe I should.” Skulduggery nodded. “But not now. If you don’t mind, I’d like to bask some more, just in case talking to Hopeless puts some weight back on my shoulders.”

“You mean there wasn’t already?”

“Oddly enough,” said Skulduggery under the sound of Rover squawking for help, “no. No, there isn’t.”

Chapter Text

“This is incredible,” said Valkyrie’s dad for the twentieth time, gazing around in wide-eyed awe like a child holding his mother’s hand.

“I can’t believe Erskine managed to keep this secret for so long,” said Valkyrie’s mum, shaking her head, and pulled her husband back before he could wander off and ask the deckhand how, exactly, he knew which rope to pull when and why they didn’t capsize.

Valkyrie grinned. That was going to get old fast, but she didn’t mind. Tír Tairngire was incredible, especially from the height like this. She leaned on the edge of the air-ferry and looked down at the ocean lapping at the docks two hundred feet below, and wondered what would happen if she jumped. She could slow herself down approaching the ground now – but what would happen if she did it over water?

Dad turned to her and asked, “And you’ve known about this for how long?”

“About two years,” said Valkyrie, striving for nonchalance. “Dex and Erskine asked for help with Fletcher.”

“Hey,” Fletcher protested. He’d been hovering sulkily nearby since he’d brought them. Valkyrie thought it was because Dad had been sick right after they’d teleported, and said he didn’t much like teleporting, and Fletcher took it as a personal affront.

“Oh, what do you do here?” Mum asked, and Fletcher paused to decide whether he wanted to keep being indignant or preen a bit.

“I’m helping the precinct,” he said, rubbing his fingers over the fabric badge sewn into the arm of his uniform jacket. He wasn’t actually wearing a uniform – just the jacket. “We had some problems with insurgents not long ago. I take the teams in for surprise attacks so hardly anybody gets hurt.”

“Then why were you sent to bring us?” Dad asked, puzzled, and Fletcher reddened.

“Well – it was a favour, see. I mean, I can’t stay cooped up in the city forever, right?”

Why did he agree? Valkyrie wondered, and then shrugged. Not her problem. It was great, not having to think of things that weren’t her problem. Dexter and Rover had ordered she not think about problems, in fact, and to use Hopeless’s little mission as an excuse to see awesome things.

The air-ferry came to the Central Deck, wooden planks groaning. Mum eyed them warily but of course nothing happened, and within a few minutes they were safe in the netting and disembarking.

“You don’t have to stick around, you know,” Valkyrie said to Fletcher. “You can get back to work.”

He scowled. “That’s gratitude for offering to guide you around.”

“I have been here before.”

“Not as long as me.”

“And there are maps in, like, every corner.”

Fletcher glowered and snapped, “Fine!”

Then he vanished and Valkyrie rolled her eyes, turning toward her parents. “Idiot.”

Then she caught the amused glances they were exchanging, or in her father’s case the thoughtful, almost stern expression. He said, “I think I’m going to have to have a talk with that young man.”

Valkyrie blinked. “Fletcher? Why?”

“No reason,” Dad said evasively, and Valkyrie frowned. Was her mum hiding a smile? Her mum was hiding a smile. Valkyrie wrestled with the temptation to ask and then gave up.

“Come on,” she said, picking up Mum’s bag. “It’s a two-hundred-foot staircase, so we’ll take a circle.”

“A flying circle?” Dad asked excitedly, following her, and Valkyrie laughed.

“No. A teleportation circle.”

“Oh.” Dad’s shoulders slumped and Mum laughed and patted his hand.

“Now you can feel my pain for a change,” she teased, and his protestations were lost in the crowd.

*

Valkyrie had tried to visit her aunt and uncle nearly two years ago and hadn’t managed it, but she still knew their address, and it was easy to get there now she knew how to use the maps. The whole city was built in circles, which made them really easy to navigate. Fergus and Beryl’s house was only a couple of streets away from the Watercourse, in an area where the houses were all narrow and cheap enough for new arrivals to live there instead of the public houses.

There wasn’t any garden, and every storey was maybe fifteen feet along, but they were four or even five storeys high and the windows were big with a planter practically in every sill. Valkyrie knocked with her spare hand and then saw the bell-sigil and waved her hand over that, and heard the chime inside the house. There was a pause between that and the sound of footsteps, and then Fergus opened the door.

He looked tired and his face was lined and there was even some grey in his hair, Valkyrie saw to her surprise, but when he saw them he visibly brightened. “Steph? Des? Melissa!”

Valkyrie got hugged and then she stared as Fergus stepped through the door to hug Dad and Mum too, apologising when he jostled Mum’s stomach. He was practically beaming. That was weird.

“Hello, Fergus,” said Dad, smiling a bit uncertainly and looking frazzled. “Been well?”

“Not bad,” said Fergus with a grunt, like he’d just realised he’d been happy to see them and was trying to compensate by being gloomy again. “Come in.”

He took Mum’s bag from Valkyrie’s hand and led them inside. The house was as small on the inside as it was on the outside, but it didn’t look it. The front door opened right up into the living-room slash open-plan kitchen, and with windows nearly all around, there was a lot of light in the room.

“Where’s the stairs?” she asked, and Fergus put his hand on a floral pattern on the wall, and a set of stairs lowered from the ceiling along one wall. Valkyrie grinned. “Cool.”

“It takes away from storage,” said Fergus, “but we’ve got that upstairs. Dexter said you might be coming.”

“Dexter says a lot of things,” said Mum, glancing around. “Where’s Beryl?”

“Counselling,” said Fergus, and took Dad’s bag from him, and headed up the stairs. “She’s been doing much better lately. There’s a local ladies’ magazine club which she joined, and she barely even flinched the other day when one of them was making her knitting needles knit by themselves.”

“Oh,” said Mum, glancing at Dad, whose expression was contorted. “I imagine that costs a bit?”

“Not really,” said Fergus. “Counselling services are free to newcomers for the first three years, and afterward can be paid for through healthcare subsidies. They really believe in mental health here.”

Because of Hopeless, Valkyrie thought, and grinned, and followed her uncle up. She’d seen kitchens made of sigils before, and they were always built to be compact. She hadn’t seen a compact bedroom. Did the beds fold into the walls? That would be cool.

“You’ll have to share with Carol, Stephanie,” Fergus was saying over his shoulder as she reached the top of the stairs and followed him straight up another set. “We’ve only got the one spare room and it takes up the whole second floor. I use it as kind of an office, most days.”

The second set of stairs came up into a short hall where there was a third set waiting, but Fergus turned to the side and took Valkyrie and her parents into the living-room-sized bedroom. There was a desk to one side, and the bed, and a deep wardrobe next to a bathroom, and that was about it.

“It looks lovely,” said Mum, looking around as Fergus set their bags down. Valkyrie thought it was too pastel, herself, but judging by some of the bad cross-stitch on the walls it was also where Beryl displayed her show pieces. Valkyrie hadn’t even known Beryl did cross-stitch. Maybe it was a new thing.

“Look, Melissa,” said Dad with delight, pointing out the window. “We can see the water from here! Do you go swimming much?”

“No,” said Fergus. “Though there’s a pool near here. Well, part of the ocean with barricades around it, but ten to one you’ll find some Elemental there willing to heat it for you.”

“Next stop, swimming-pool,” said Valkyrie with a grin. “Is Carol around? Can I take my stuff up?”

“Go ahead,” said Fergus with a wave of his hand. “But Carol’s still at school – she’s taking university classes now, actually. Elementalism and hair-care.”

“That’s wonderful, Fergus,” said Mum sincerely, but Valkyrie slipped out and went up the stairs again. Their voices drifted up and even though she couldn’t hear the words, it was still nice – a reminder that the house was still a house, even four storeys up.

Carol’s room was almost the size of the one the floor below, but it looked smaller because of the clutter. There was one bed, but all Carol’s stuff was on one side, like the other had been left bare for someone who wasn’t coming. They’d already made up a mattress on the floor and Valkyrie tried not to feel like she was intruding as she dropped her bag on it. It was a good thing she’d gotten used to Rover’s slumber parties, or sharing a room with someone else would have been really weird.

Valkyrie went back downstairs and called out, “I’m going to the university,” and waited just long enough for an acknowledgement before leaving the house. Seeing Carol’s room like that had sucked all the excitement out of her. How was she meant to sleep in that room when the way it was laid out was a constant reminder of why her cousin was here?

The university campus was at the end of the very long street. Valkyrie had only been there once, on her first tour of the place, but she remembered there were map pedestals around. It wasn’t until she got there that she remembered she didn’t know where Carol was taking classes.

Most of the grounds had lawn and trees, but they were carefully tended and in separate gardens, and fenced with low stone walls good for sitting. That was probably because it was so hard to grow stuff, Valkyrie reasoned. They didn’t seem to be having any trouble with the Green, but maybe the campus was different. Valkyrie wandered along the cobble paths, passing students on their way to classes or studying underneath trees, until she found the main reception building.

That was the other thing she’d noticed last time. The university liked glass. Their buildings were stone on two sides and glass on the others – sometimes she could see right through them.

“Excuse me,” she said, catching the eye of one of the receptionists who looked like they weren’t too busy. “I’m looking for my cousin, uh …” Oh, damn. Valkyrie didn’t even know if Carol had taken a name yet. She floundered for a minute and then shrugged. “Well, I know her as Carol Edgley.”

“New to the area and you don’t know if she’s taken a name?” asked the receptionist with a grin.

“Does that happen a lot?”

He shrugged. “Not everyone takes a name. Some people take one and only use it among certain people. Basically, we cross-reference. Can you give me any other details? Birthday?”

“Um …” Valkyrie flushed. She couldn’t even remember her cousin’s birthday. “I know her address?”

“That’s fine.”

It took a few minutes and the receptionist couldn’t tell Valkyrie any of Carol’s classes, due to all that privacy stuff, but he directed her to the right area of campus. The rest was process of elimination. Classes got out on the hour and the hour was already gone, so Valkyrie just went past all the doors and peeked in until she saw her cousin. Easy, right?

Kind of. It wasn’t until Valkyrie’s second round that she even recognised Carol. She’d been imagining a plump, plain-faced girl with brown eyes and a bit of makeup that at least did her justice – the way Carol had looked the last time Valkyrie had seen her.

Carol was still what a lot of people would call plump, but in that way that was gorgeous and curvy, and if she was wearing makeup Valkyrie couldn’t tell. Her face was still the same, but it was different as well, and it took some staring before Valkyrie realised that was because of the way Carol had done her hair – it was shorter than it had been, but looked thicker because of the curls, and framed her face in a way that highlighted her eyes and made her look a lot prettier than in Valkyrie’s memory.

And her eyes looked huge. That had to be because of the mascara, or eyeliner, or something. Or maybe it was just because she was laughing when Valkyrie looked at her, and chatting to a girl in the next seat. Valkyrie couldn’t ever remember Carol being anything other than either hesitant or stuck-up.

“Wow,” Valkyrie whispered, and went to sit by the wall until the class let out. She let the students stream past her until she caught a glimpse of Carol’s blouse, and then got up and slid through the crowd in that way Rover had shown her. “Carol!”

Carol turned and Valkyrie saw her scan the crowd behind for the person who’d called her name, but not recognise her. It was a long enough pause for Valkyrie to walk up, grinning, and that was when Carol’s eyes widened. “Stephanie?!”

The next few minutes were a matter of hugs and laughter and maybe some tears. On Carol’s part, of course. Valkyrie totally wasn’t going to tear up for a cousin she hadn’t even liked three years ago.

“This is your cousin?” asked Carol’s friend, and Valkyrie put out her hand.

“Yeah, Valkyrie. Hi!”

“Melanie.” They shook and it felt weird, meeting new people because of her cousin, but what the hell. Valkyrie had gotten used to things being weird. This was a good kind of weird, so Valkyrie would take it.

“Dad wasn’t sure when you’d get here,” said Carol, leading Valkyrie out of the building and into the courtyard, where they weren’t squished by all the other students. “Or why, actually.”

“Honestly I think it was just to get the lot of us out of Ireland for a few days,” Valkyrie admitted. “Mum’s the Administrator, did you know?”

Carol shook her head, her eyes wide. “I didn’t think Sanctuaries hired mortals.”

“They don’t, usually. But Hopeless does.” Valkyrie grinned. “You should hear them all making bets on the baby and what its magic will be. It hasn’t even occurred to them Mum’s not a faery.”

“Do you have magic, though?” Melanie asked. “Even if your parents aren’t, sometimes it runs in sibs.”

“Dad probably does, but he’s decided to stay mortal.”

“Good chance the baby will, then.” Melanie looked thoughtful. “You hear the Sanctuaries have hang-ups, but it’s still weird hear it talked about as if it’s normal. I mean, what’s the point in it?”

Valkyrie shrugged. “Pride.” Melanie intrigued her. She was exactly how Valkyrie how imagined a hippy, with a long bright skirt with dangly things on it and a tie-dyed shirt knotted at her midriff, and her hair braided. Kind of like Finbar Wrong, but without the tattoos. And she hadn’t even blinked when she heard Valkyrie worked with a Sanctuary. “Most of them haven’t caught up to the twenty-first century yet.”

“Physically, mentally or technologically?” Melanie asked with a grin, and Valkyrie laughed.

“And she’s only known for a year longer than I have,” Carol said to her friend.

“You said she was involved in the stuff with the serial killer last year. Those experiences force adaptation.”

“What are you studying, again?” Valkyrie asked, and Melanie’s grin widened.

“Psychology.”

“Oh, God,” Valkyrie muttered, and they both laughed, and she looked around the walkways. She’d been paying attention, but in an absent way, and even though she was pretty sure she could get back to the building she wasn’t sure where they actually were. “So anyway, we’re here and Mum and Dad are setting up at your place, but Hopeless asked me to play fetch for him. Do either of you know where the entrance to the under-surface research labs are?”

“I don’t know, do we?” Carol asked Melanie, and it was so typically Carol that Valkyrie almost missed the little twinkle in her eyes.

Valkyrie doubted she even saw it at first, until Melanie replied, “I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it.”

“Very funny,” Valkyrie muttered.

“It’s in the middle of campus,” said Melanie. “We’re going the wrong way. Over here; we’ve got time.”

“So much for secret developmental facilities.”

“Everyone knows where the main entrance is,” Carol said, “but rumour has it there’s all kinds of secret exits around campus. It’s exciting.”

Her eyes were shining. She looked good, she was having fun, she had friends and seemed like she was enjoying her degree. It was only the fact that her room had space for her twin’s bed that told Valkyrie Carol hadn’t forgotten. Valkyrie didn’t know how she could do that; keep her sadness over Crystal’s death so close, and be so happy out of the house. Didn’t she feel like she was being torn in two?

The research lab was a round, domed building with multiple exits. Central was built in a spider-web pattern around the tower and the Green, but the university campus was a web within a web around the labs. It looked larger on the inside because of all the empty space. There was a huge spiral escalator in the middle, like the room was a giant whirlpool, while around the edges were plants and seats and reception-like desks. The dome had a mosaic map of the world on the ceiling, like the domed rooms which housed the interdimensional bridges and had the maps of their Cradles.

Valkyrie looked up and up to view it, craning her head and letting the others and the air tumbling over her fingers to guide her. “Wow,” she said. “Is it blinking? Are those sigils?”

“Yep,” said Melanie. “This is where the interdimensional anchor is housed and regulated. The IDBs keep us in Earth’s dimension, but –”

“The anchor’s what draws the city back to that other dimension,” said Valkyrie. “That’s why you shunted there when the bridges were destroyed earlier this year, instead of just appearing on all the satellite maps on Earth. Erskine told me about it when I was recovering from my broken leg a few months ago.”

“Not that I thought you were exaggerating about the prince being the one to bring you here,” said Melanie to Carol, “but damn, girl.”

“I don’t know him as well as Steph does,” Carol pointed out. “I’ve known Rover for longer, though.”

“A year ago, I probably wouldn’t have known who that was, except for the guy who gave you a leg up in your makeup artistry,” said Melanie. She looked at Valkyrie to explain, “I don’t keep up on the Tír’s celebrity mags. But he was one of the Elementals who drove the lightning storm, wasn’t he?”

Valkyrie nodded. “He wouldn’t shut up about it, either.”

“Excuse me.” The girls turned toward a handsome young man with a frown on his face and a fussy manner. It was in the clothes. His clothes were all perfectly creased down the lines. And he wore a turtleneck. “Are you students attached to the facility below?”

“Oh, right.” Valkyrie dug in her pocket for her dimensional key, and held it out. “I’ve got authorisation to pick something up for the Irish Grand Mage.”

The man looked slightly disappointed that he didn’t get to exercise his authority and took them over to one of the desks before walking grumpily off toward the doors. The receptionist behind the desk took Valkyrie’s dimensional key and fit it into a slot sigil-to-sigil, so his computer could read it. Valkyrie went cross-eyed trying to read the holographic dash from behind. It was like trying to read through transparent paper.

“Name?”

“Valkyrie Cain.”

“Confirmation word?”

Valkyrie sighed. “Ooga-booga.”

That,” said Carol, “sounds like Rover.”

“Tell me about it. He kept chanting and dancing at me until I agreed to make it my password.” Dimensional keys didn’t need passwords just to move in and out of the city, because it was so hard just to get one in the first place. There was more security on them these days because Scapegrace’s had gotten into the wrong hands, but the passwords were only for when the keys were used as ID, and they were only used for ID access into restricted zones like the labs or the prison.

There was a bit more to it, like a brainwave imprint and a heat and magic reading (to make sure she wasn’t an enthralled reanimation or under an uncharacteristic illusion, the receptionist explained), but finally the key was handed back and Valkyrie was directed toward the whirlpool-escalator in the middle of the room.

“See you guys later.” She waved to Carol and Melanie and stepped onto the escalator, and looked up at the ceiling rotating over her as she descended beneath Tír Tairngire.

Chapter Text

It had been a long time since Myron Stray had left his house. Even groceries could be delivered these days. He was nervous, excited and a bit hungry, and couldn’t stop pacing in his room. What if this went wrong?

What if it didn’t?

She’d promised him a distraction, but he couldn’t use any distraction as long as he was lurking around in a room. Reluctantly Myron left it and went downstairs, passing the lobby on his way across the landing. Shudder was the only one at the desk. Maybe the others had left.

Myron wandered across the landing into the commons and there weren’t any Dead Men in there, either. Just a few other patrons sitting around reading and relaxing and whatever it was people did when they weren’t losing parts of themselves. The fact that Myron didn’t know where the Dead Men were made him almost as worried as if they were still right there in the Hotel.

Besides, he couldn’t stay in the commons. He needed to be able to tell that the distraction had arrived. He went back across the landing to the small sitting-area over Shudder’s office, by the stairs, and slumped in a chair. God, what he wouldn’t give to get this over with. At least he could see the door from here.

She’d promised, Stray reminded himself. He didn’t think she’d follow through, but what did he have to lose? His name, again? No one had much bothered with Myron Stray after his true-name came out. Even those who thought he still had something useful to say, like Pleasant, didn’t have much to say about fixing the damned problem. And now Bliss was an Elder.

Life wasn’t fair. Well, maybe this was Myron’s chance to make it unfair in someone else’s direction for once, and he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

It’d been a long time since Myron did much observing, too. He sat watching the occasional traffic in and out of the Midnight Hotel’s lobby, watching and drawing conclusions and listening into conversations. Sound, he found, carried well up to this corner of the first floor.

He was also watching the clocks over the lobby door. The Midnight Hotel ran on its own time, but there were clocks for the time-zones intended for the Hotel’s next location-shunt as well. They were in Ireland. They were often in Ireland. Nearer evening they’d be in Australia. Then, 4am Irish time, they’d be back.

His distraction had better arrive before then. He was only checked in for one night, and there wouldn’t be much time. He definitely didn’t want to have to wait for a whole day before getting this over with.

Erskine Ravel wandered in, looking annoyingly handsome in that way he did, even with anger on his face.

When’s the last time he’d ever had trouble finding company? Myron thought bitterly.

Ravel greeted Shudder with a nod and by lounging on the desk, and Myron listened to them swap some of that stupid banter the Dead Men were known for, even though Ravel’s sounded forced.

“Rover and Dex not coming?” he heard Ravel ask.

“The Monster Hunters arrived today. They have plans.”

“You know what, I don’t even want to know. If only we all were gifted with such distractions tonight.”

“If you wanted distracting, Erskine, you should have gone to Hopeless’s.”

“He’s at the Sanctuary all night. It’s boring, Anton. I want some fun.”

“And you came here?”

“I live in hope for you, my friend.”

Shudder grunted, but Myron relaxed into his seat. Only two. One too many, but better than most of them. He’d been expecting Vex and Larrikin too, at the very least – everyone knew they lived at the Hotel with Shudder. If he only had to contend with Ravel and Shudder, this might work.

Or, Myron realised, it might go very wrong. Even the Dead Men were going to have trouble with –

Someone else came through the door and Ravel’s voice went flatly cold. “Caelan. Just what I needed today. What are you doing here? You look like you’ve been savaged by a pack of wolves.”

“Dusk,” said someone else, very quietly, and Myron peered through the railing to see Caelan standing in the doorway. He was young and handsome, with dark hair, and he stood with the unconsciously graceful stillness of a vampire. His clothes were dirty and torn, and his face was cut, and he held one arm gingerly.

“What did you do this time?” Ravel asked.

“Nothing. He’s been hounding me for days. May I have a room?”

“You’re fortunate,” said Shudder, beckoning Caelan nearer. Caelan obeyed, but warily, keeping his distance from Ravel. Likewise, Ravel’s lounge against the far side of the desk was more akin to a cat ready to show its claws at the slightest threat. “Next location-shift will be to Australia. You’ll have time to heal before you change for the night when we return.”

“You won’t need to lock me in,” said Caelan, and rifled in his pocket for a vial of amber liquid. “Dusk dropped some of the serum the last time he attacked me.”

“We’ll see,” said Shudder, and Myron sat back and rested his head against the armchair, and ignored the rest of their conversation to listen to his heart pounding. This was it, then. He’d find out soon whether she meant to follow through on her promise. And then he’d find out whether it was possible for someone to take back their true-name even once already known.

Chapter Text

The whirlpool-escalator took Valkyrie down into darkness only dimly lit by the glowing blue sigils on the walls. There was another greenish glow lower down, but it wasn’t until the steps reached it that Valkyrie realised the glow wasn’t sigils, but the light of sigils off water. The steps descended into a circular glass hallway, and all of it was glass. Even the floor.

Valkyrie stepped off the escalator staring past her feet, watching the sea-floor drop away beneath her. She didn’t usually get vertigo, but it was definitely eerie. She moved to the wall, so she didn’t get in the way of traffic, and stared. Most of the facility was visible from here. The largest buildings, the actual labs, were clustered near the ground or the hill the city was built on, shaped a bit like fungi platforms on a tree but with a glass wall facing the water. The halls stretched between them, usually sticking to the ground but occasionally extending straight through water. Those were often glass – Valkyrie could see people walking through them even from this distance, before they vanished behind opaque walls.

When she looked up she saw the Tír spreading out from the spit that supported Central Tower. From beneath the whole city looked like fungi too, with the three spreading circles of the districts connected by the thin shadows of spider-webbing bridges. The hull of a ferry cut through the water and Valkyrie saw dolphins following it from underneath, occasionally vanishing abruptly as they breached the surface before plunging back into the water.

“Wow,” Valkyrie muttered, looking around again. There were fish, but they weren’t very interesting. Just fish. There was seaweed in a lot of places, especially past the facility’s halls – further out where she could also see the hydraulics beneath the districts.

She glanced down at something moving under her feet and jumped when she realised it was a shark. A small shark, but still a shark, just casually swimming by.

Wow,” Valkyrie repeated. Now that she was looking closely she could see other things close to the rocks. Was that an octopus? She was pretty sure that was an octopus. And those jellyfish – were they glowing?

It was like the most amazing aquarium ever. Valkyrie started walking, moving around the circular hall where the escalator was. There were three corridors leading off it, and the fourth quadrant – where the facility was too close to the hill to go anywhere – had an elevator leading to the halls on the seafloor.

There were also signs. Valkyrie wondered if anyone would believe her if she said she’d gotten lost, if she tried to look around. Probably not. Then she wondered if anyone would mind her looking around. If there was any security, she couldn’t see it. Just getting down here was probably hard enough.

She studied the signs anyway. They were in half-a-dozen different languages, and Valkyrie couldn’t tell what most of them were. One was probably Chinese, one was English and one was Irish, and she could only read the last two. The fact she could read the Irish at all made her grin triumphantly. Having centuries-old tutors definitely helped.

The lab for experimental technologies was on the seafloor, which made sense; if anything was going to explode at least it was far enough from the city’s foundations not to be a threat. Valkyrie punched the button for the elevator and waited, watching the shark moseying beneath her until the elevator arrived.

It was, surprise surprise, made of glass. Valkyrie got to watch the shark the whole way down, but apparently it was used to humans in glass boxes travelling up and down all the time, because it paid no attention to her. Still, Valkyrie was relieved when she got downstairs and the walls became opaque. She didn’t like closed-in spaces, but the glass walls made things so open it was frightening.

There were handfuls of people around, hurrying from one lab to another or – Valkyrie saw while peeking in through doors – inside the rooms. Some of them had airlocks and Valkyrie really wanted to ask what was going on in there, but she didn’t, and kept going. Her footsteps echoed, but dully.

The experimental technologies lab was a whole wing to itself, nestled under the Watercourse and on the outskirts of the facility boundaries. When she looked back the whole facility was in sight. Looking out was like seeing a valley whose borders were in shadow right as the sun fell on it. She was on the edge of the city looking out into the ocean, though the most she could see in the sunlight was that the water was cloudy.

She looked at the door, and they were big doors; she saw there was a security pad and for a moment hesitated. Then she realised that that was what her dkey was for, and dug it out of her pocket and pressed the sigil-side to the pad. The doors hummed open and Valkyrie stepped in, and stopped to look around.

The wing was laid out like a really big office, with low walls dividing all the work spaces so the researchers could lean over them and chat. As Valkyrie watched, two women doing exactly that traded some of their gadgets and went back to their own desks. There was equipment everywhere, too, but Valkyrie had no idea what any of it did. Gracious and Donegan would’ve been in heaven.

At the far end, over everyone’s heads, Valkyrie saw some bulky doors. That was probably where the really dangerous stuff was done, so as not to risk everyone else’s experiments.

How as she meant to find Hopeless’s contact in this?

Valkyrie wandered down the lane between cubicles, clearly marked by glowing sigils along the edge. Like the walking-space between chairs on an airplane, except for the fact that they were sigils.

“You’re new.” Valkyrie turned toward the woman smiling at her. She was pretty, with skin somewhere between dark and light and her hair pulled back off her face so it showed off her cheekbones.

“Yeah, I’m down on assignment,” said Valkyrie, awkwardly sticking her hands in her pockets and then instantly taking them out again. Got to keep your hands clear.

“Can I have your name, please?” asked the woman, bending over her holographic computer’s keyboard. That was still one of the most awesome things about the Tír.

“Valkyrie. Valkyrie Cain.”

“And your given name?”

“Uh …” Valkyrie frowned. No one bothered to ask after given names when they already had a taken. There was no point, since they couldn’t be used for magic by then. “Why?”

The woman looked up, startled by the refusal. “Oh, I’m sorry; did you just move here?”

“No. But I’m … new here.”

“A lot of public services here ask for both names, if they’re to be had, for cross-referencing,” the woman explained. “In my case, I need a control. I’m studying the nature of names in connection to magic.”

“Is that possible?” Valkyrie asked. She’d never heard of anything like that before. She hadn’t thought it was possible to measure how names worked. Or she wouldn’t have, if she’d ever thought about it before.

“Oh, yes!” said the woman. “It’s just really, really difficult. I’ve measured the names of everyone in the facility and I’ve done semi-blind studies with volunteers from the university, but more data is always better! Do you mind?”

Valkyrie shook her head. “For something like this? No way. My given name is Stephanie Edgeley.” She waited, managing to keep her impatience to a slight fidget while the woman checked the spelling and typed it into her spreadsheet. “So how do you measure the magic in a name?”

The woman grinned and beckoned her closer. The workspace was square, with a desk at the front and two in each of the back corners. Another couple of researchers, a man and a woman, were at each of the desks, backs to the main path. In about the middle of the floor was an orb suspended inside a ring of glowing sigils, large enough for someone to stand inside it. There was another, smaller circle off its centre.

“With this,” said the woman, motioning at the orb.

Valkyrie pointed at some of the sigils. “I know those. They’re on the dimensional keys, aren’t they?”

“You’re observant,” said the woman with surprise. “Yes, they are; the orb is meant to tap into a substrate of our dimension. The second circle is a protective measure so we can use it without being touched by the minor dimensional shunt.”

“What does it do, exactly?”

“It distinguishes between names,” said the woman, and raised her voice. “Lindsey?”

Both man and woman looked up and came wandering over. The man held a clipboard with a stack of papers bent over it. The woman had been working at her computer and was empty-handed.

The lead researcher motioned at Valkyrie. “This is Valkyrie Cain. She’s lending us her name.”

“You’re new,” said the second woman – Lindsey? – in almost the same way her superior had. “I haven’t seen you around here.” She grinned. “Perfect. Everyone else gets bored when we show off now.”

“These are my grad students, Lindsey and Lindsey,” said the lead researcher, and Valkyrie stared. Lindsey, the woman, was tall and thin and blonde, with her hair tied in a thick, messy braid that hung almost the whole way down her backside. She was pale, with a lot of freckles across her nose. Lindsey, the man, was short and on the wide side, with smooth features and almost golden skin, and silken hair.

“That was on purpose, right?” she asked, and Lindsey, the woman, laughed and nodded. Lindsey, the man, just grinned. “How do you tell each other apart?”

“That’s what taken names are for,” said Lindsey, the woman, almost as cheerfully as Rover.

“I’m R,” said Lindsey-the-man, “and Lindsey’s D.”

Valkyrie laughed. “Seriously? Your taken names are R and D?”

“Well, they were only nicknames at first, but if you can’t beat ’em …” R shrugged.

“How did you find two people with the same name interested in name-magic?” Valkyrie asked their lead.

“Oh, neither of us are studying names,” said R. “I’m an anthropologist. R for Research.”

“I’m the shunt engineer,” said D. “D – Development, see?”

“D helped me build the orb,” explained the lead researcher whose name Valkyrie still didn’t know. “R keeps track of our control groups. Childhood, language, country of origin, city of origin – everything about all our participants which makes them different.”

“It’s a huge job,” said R. “Nothing I thought I’d be writing my thesis on, but since most of our test subjects were born and raised in the Tír there’s an element of control in the groups. I meant to study ethnographic diversity here, so studying that on the basis of name-magic isn’t too far a step to the side.”

“I’m not from the Tír,” said Valkyrie.

“That’s okay,” R assured her. “You’ll be added to a specific group. We need data from outside the city too; we just need to know it is from outside the city. D’you mind sitting down with me for a few minutes?”

Valkyrie pointed at the orb. “Only if I get to see how that works.”

“We’d have shown you anyway,” said D with a laugh. “It’s not always we get to show off. Just a tick, let me get the audio-recorder.” She went to her desk and grabbed a microphone, except that it had sigils at the bottom of it instead of a wire. She held it out to the orb as the supervisor stepped into the smaller circle.

“Lindsey, you should come with me to the staff party tomorrow night,” said the lead researcher, and the orb spun gently and then played back her voice, verbatim. The only difference was that there was a sound under it, almost like static. “Lindsey, you should come with me to the staff party tomorrow night.”

Valkyrie waited until the lead researcher stepped out of the circle before asking, “That’s it?”

“You haven’t seen the best part yet,” said D, taking the microphone back to her desk, and the rest of them followed. “It doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s actually easier to get data when the orb plays back the words instead of just the underlying sound.”

“What underlying sound?”

“Listen,” said D, and played back the lead researcher’s first recording. There was definitely sound in the background. “And now we take out the words …”

The sounds that played then sounded almost like music, beating and pulsing. It wasn’t bad, Valkyrie thought, except it wasn’t exactly music – just a rhythmic string of sounds.

“Now listen to the second recording.”

“Aren’t the recordings the same?” Valkyrie asked, and watched the three of them grin at each other with a kind of fervent excitement Valkyrie had only seen on Rover, pretty much all the time, or Hopeless, when he got talking about books or computers or bees.

“Listen,” said R, and D played the second recording.

It wasn’t the same. Most of it was – the bits in the middle and the end were nearly identical to the first recording – but the bit at the beginning was definitely different, and that wove a subtle underlying change through the rest of the recording too.

“They’re different,” said Valkyrie, astonished. “But the words were exactly the same.”

“That’s because the names are different,” said the lead researcher. “Every name sounds different on the underlying fabric of our dimension, even if they sound the same to our limited hearing. That’s why what R does is so important – everything that makes us individual, everything about our birth and upbringing and environment and behaviour – changes what our name represents. We don’t know how, yet, but they do.”

“And intent matters,” D added. “We haven’t figured out how the – we call it the dimensional strings, you know, like a violin? We haven’t figured out how the strings can tell the difference between us, but it can.”

“It’s never failed yet,” the lead researcher agreed. “Even when I don’t want either of them in particular – just one of them – the orb picks up something in-between. Like a default, I guess.”

“Oh my God,” Valkyrie said, staring at the orb. It looked so innocent, just hovering there. “That’s … really cool. Like, really cool.”

“It’s ground-breaking,” said D. “Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to trace magic right to the source.”

The lead researcher shooed Valkyrie toward R. “Go on. The more data, the more specific our findings.”

“Sure.” It hadn’t been all explosive and flashy, but Valkyrie was learning that sometimes the most powerful magic wasn’t. Hopeless wasn’t showy at all, and look at him. So Valkyrie sat willingly in R’s chair and answered as many of his questions as he could, and let him record her. They were mostly about her home-life and childhood – her ‘environment’, they called it. Where was she born? Did she have any siblings? Were both her parents still alive and together? Were they male and female, or same-gendered? Had she lived in the same place all her life? How was she schooled? What sort of teachers did she have? Did she have many people she’d call close friends? Was she faery or mortal? Did she interact more with faeries or mortals? Why and how did she choose her taken name? Did she know what she wanted to do once she finished her schooling? What did she think of secrets? Did she have a particular faith?

‘A few minutes’, my arse, Valkyrie thought by the end of it, but R was almost vibrating with excitement, so she managed to smile when he thanked her profusely and shook her hand and then, promptly, turned to his computer to get all his notes down.

Valkyrie got up and stretched, and the lead researcher looked up from her desk as Valkyrie wandered past.

“Thank you,” she said warmly. “It’s not exactly ordinary, I know, to get shanghaied into a research project.”

Valkyrie shook her head. “It really is amazing,” she said, glancing back at the orb. “And I know someone who might be able to help you, even – I remembered while I was talking to R. His name’s Dexter Vex.”

“Isn’t he an Irish faery soldier?” asked the lead researcher. “Why would he be interested in this?”

“Because he’s an energy-thrower who studies the manipulation of energy,” Valkyrie explained. “Earlier this year he managed to conjure an organic object using energy. It’s a totally different way of conjuring than anyone else has used. He was talking about particle currents, or something. Maybe there’s a connection.”

The lead researcher looked thoughtful. “There might be, at that. I suppose Central’s registry might have his contact details? I mean, he’s been here before, yes?”

“Yeah, they probably have them.” Valkyrie almost offered her his phone number, but didn’t. There were probably official channels, or something. “By the way – I don’t know your name.”

“Oh!” The lead researcher laughed and held out her hand. “Silly. Call me Pandora.”

“Like the Greek myth?” Valkyrie asked, shaking her hand. “Wasn’t Pandora the one who opened the box and let everything evil out?”

“Well, yes,” said Pandora with a shrug, and smiled. “But I like to keep the hope inside.”

That was one way to look at a story which had, when Valkyrie read it in one of Hopeless’s books, been kind of depressing. She grinned. “Cool. I think a lot of people could do with that. Listen, I don’t suppose you could tell me where to find –” Valkyrie rifled in her pocket until she found Hopeless’s card, and read the name off the back. “Julian?”

“Sure,” said Pandora, and pointed over the cubicles to the far corner. “He’s got the cubicle in the corner, near the sound rooms.”

“What does he study?”

Pandora smiled. “Sensitivity. We’re probably going to wind up collaborating – he measures brainwaves, we measure the strings. How and where do Sensitives hear what they hear?”

“The strings,” Valkyrie said.

“That’s the theory. We’re just limited by technology – we haven’t been able to connect the two, like with verbal sounds and the strings through the orb. D’s already working on a shunting attachment for it.”

“Good luck,” said Valkyrie, sincerely, and as she turned away she added, “Thanks.”

She left Pandora and jogged between the cubicles. Some people looked up as she passed, but no one tried to stop her. There was only one person in the cubicle at the far end, their back turned until Valkyrie knocked on the low wall separating the cubicles. “Excuse me? I’m looking for Julian.”

“That’s me,” said the person in a low voice not quite as silken as Skulduggery’s, but definitely melodious, and they turned to face her.

Valkyrie blinked. “Er …” Julian was swarthy, with high cheekbones and dark hair plaited so tightly against the skull that they gave Julian’s face a severe look. And … he? … had breasts. Not big ones, but they were obvious under the skin-tight T-shirt. “I’m Valkyrie Cain.” Valkyrie stuck out her hand and Julian shook it, and Valkyrie tried not to look at her – his – chest. “I’m here to pick up something for Grand Mage Hopeless?”

Julian’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the thoughtspeaker. Come in.”

Well, Pandora had called him ‘he’, Valkyrie argued with herself as she stepped into the cubicle space, following Julian across to a desk laden with bulky equipment on the far wall. They looked like x-ray machines or something, and it was the neatest desk in the cubicle. All the rest of the space was filled with stacks and stacks of papers and folders. At least they were neat stacks. “What’s the thoughtspeaker?”

“This,” said Julian, picking up a disc about the size of a bottle-cap, and almost half a centimetre thick. It had a faint glow around its edge, and when Valkyrie peered closer she saw there were tiny sigils there. “It’s a device for translating thought into sound.”

Valkyrie’s eyes widened. “Oh my God, you guys play with such cool stuff.” Julian chuckled. The sound was as low as his voice, and almost as nice on the ear as Skulduggery’s. “This is so Hopeless can talk again without needing to sign, right?”

“That’s right,” said Julian. “I’m sorry he couldn’t come in to test it himself. This version is still a prototype, and we’ve had to calibrate it to Sensitives on the Tír – no one with as much range and power as the Grand Mage has. He might find there’s interference, so you’ll have to give him this.”

Julian gave her the thoughtspeaker and picked up a stack of folders to look underneath them, and found a little booklet he showed to Valkyrie. It didn’t look official – it was stapled together. “Just a list of instructions and potential side-effects. And we need him to record any changes and effects in this log-book in the back until the testing period’s over. I wouldn’t be surprised if it glitches at first.”

“Because it’s never been tested on someone with the Grand Mage’s range and power?” Valkyrie asked, taking the book.

“Exactly.” Julian sighed wistfully. “What I wouldn’t give to have him under my scanner. That would be an eye-opener. But, something about migraines and magical interference. Oh, well.”

Okay, that was a little bit creepy. “Right. Thanks.” Valkyrie waved the book. “I’ll get him to fill this out.”

“Oh, wait a minute. I need you to sign something for that. Chain of custody.”

It took a minute for him to find the clipboard with the equipment list on it, and Valkyrie scrawled her name, signature and dkey number.

“Let me know how it goes,” Julian said as she left, carrying the thoughtspeaker in a little jewellery box. Valkyrie waved to R & D as she passed, and checked her phone clock. The interview had taken longer than she thought, and it was still a decent way back to the escalator. That was the problem with this place – there was only one entrance. For security, fine, but it was also inconvenient.

Then again, Carol had suggested there were secret entrances all over campus. Maybe they weren’t all on the campus. Valkyrie left the developmental tech room and went right to the glass wall, and craned her head up. She was under the Watercourse, and one corridor led back to the university. But the other …

Valkyrie followed it around the corner to the very end, and at first she thought there was just another set of doors leading into the developmental tech lab. Then she spotted the sigils glowing on the floor at the far end of the hall, and the seam along one edge, and grinned. “Bingo.”

She stepped onto the platform and sigils lit up all along it and made it hum, and then it lifted her upward at a speed that made her sway without any walls to hang onto. It was just a platform, like a freight elevator. It took her all the way up to a little reception-like area off the far hall of the facility, with a spiral staircase framed with sigils off the water.

This one didn’t move, but it took her up to a small room in a small building with a man at the desk. He looked up at her and checked her dkey before letting her exit out into the street. The sign over the building was written in some European language. German, Valkyrie thought it might have been. That probably meant she was in Éire; that was where most of the European residents lived.

Unfortunately she didn’t know which part. Valkyrie checked the clock again, and looked around, and then finally just picked a direction and started walking. She’d get to the water’s edge soon enough, and then all she’d have to do was follow the Watercourse all the way to a ferry-dock.

Easy peasy.

Chapter Text

Getting into the Irish Sanctuary wasn’t easy. Tesseract was actually impressed. There were wards upon wards, far more than he recalled any other Sanctuary having. Was that because of Mevolent, or Hopeless?

That was the sort of question Tesseract asked, but for which he had accepted he’d never get an answer. Perhaps he could ask Hopeless, when he found him. If Tesseract’s employer was to be believed, Hopeless would know, whether the extra wards had been his actions or not.

Tesseract set the possibility aside in order to focus on dismantling the wards around this door. He couldn’t hope to dismantle all the wards, but creating a hole in them was always a potential avenue. It was just more difficult on this occasion. Difficult enough that Tesseract actually gave up on trying. That happened rarely enough that he didn’t even feel bad about it. Just impressed.

Fortunately Tesseract had accounted for the paranoia of a mind-reading Grand Mage and brought with him a long grey coat with a hood, like the Cleavers wore when they were among mortals, and walked in the front door. He did not think about what he was doing there. Just that he had purpose, and place. One among the many.

Poison might have been the safer option, but it wasn’t the only option. Logic dictated that Hopeless couldn’t possibly read everyone’s deepest thoughts every moment of the day, or he would be insane. Further logic dictated that, if he did indeed avoid doing so, he wouldn’t notice specific individuals unless they drew attention somehow. Therefore, to get in and out all Tesseract would have to do was be part of the masses, mentally as well as physically. It was something he had done many times before, physically. Doing so mentally shouldn’t be much more difficult.

And so it wasn’t. Tesseract walked all the way down to the gaol without anyone stopping him. Most people didn’t notice that he wasn’t carrying a scythe, as a Cleaver would have. They just gave him a wide berth.

The man at the door to the gaol was asleep. Tesseract walked in and down the lines of cells, ignoring the jeers and shouts which came at him from the prisoners on either side. One of them spat at him. He wiped it calmly off his mask, where it landed under the hood, and kept walking until he found Marr’s cell.

She was awake, angry and sour, and looking up and down the hall. When she saw him, her expression first showed relief. She snapped, “You took your time.”

Tesseract didn’t bother to answer. Marr was standing at the bars, and if she recognised his voice she would step back into the cell, where he couldn’t reach her. These were warded bars, after all. One touch wouldn’t break them, and he didn’t have the time to spare to fail to dismantle them.

Marr wasn’t stupid. Foolish, but not stupid. His lack of answer made her eyes narrow, and she glanced behind him. “There aren’t more of you?”

Tesseract reached the bars and put one hand on the lock like he meant to open it, and his other hand went between the bars and touched her chest. She died instantly with fragments of bone through her heart and folded up against the bars, sliding softly to the floor.

A sigil glowed in the back of Marr’s cell. The shouts of the prisoners reached a fevered pitch. Tesseract strode out, moving fast but not too fast. The man at the entrance had wakened. Tesseract seized him.

“Someone’s killed Marr inside her cell,” he said, and gave the man a shove. “Go and alert Elder Guild.”

The man staggered and caught his balance and ran off, looking pale and ill. Tesseract wondered what he’d been hired for in the first place, and then left before real Cleavers could arrive. He took an indirect route, moving with purpose and without changing his thought patterns. This was a job. Perform one task, move onto the next. There was nothing objectionable about banality, surely. Not in a place filled with Cleavers.

He passed several squads of Cleavers and they gave him no notice, not even a nod. The Grand Mage’s office was in a well-used hall, but no one stopped him as he moved down it in his Cleaver’s coat, or prevented him from entering the office as though he was meant to be there.

Hopeless was at the back, by a bookcase. His back was to the door. It couldn’t have gotten any better.

Without breaking his stride Tesseract moved toward the Grand Mage and reached out for the back of Hopeless’s neck, avoiding the collar of his undoubtedly enchanted Grand Mage’s robes. Hopeless bent and metal flashed under his arm and Tesseract barely stepped back in time to keep from being impaled by a machete. He had to step back again to dodge another strike, and steel scraped across his mask.

Already he was on the defensive. Hopeless had taken his surprise and turned it against him. Tesseract took a blow to his augmented glove and threw a punch to move off the defensive, but Hopeless was already a foot to the side, using Tesseract’s arm as a fulcrum to escape and retaliate in one motion.

Tesseract had never fought anyone so fast. Not without the use of a physical magic. Of course, it wasn’t exactly that Hopeless was fast, was it? It was that he already knew.

Without overtly thinking, Tesseract fell into a pattern of blows, blanking his mind and letting reflexes command. Hopeless dodged or parried everything Tesseract used, and his robes prevented the possibility of taking him with a brush of Tesseract’s finger. It was impossible to even get that close.

Tesseract pulled back and there was the desk between them, and a moment’s pause to gather themselves. That was when Tesseract looked into Hopeless’s black eyes, his pupils dilated so far they obscured the irises, and knew that he would lose. It was a very rare occasion when a man like Tesseract could lose and not expect to pay with his life. He did not think this would be one of them.

Hopeless moved around the desk and Tesseract matched him. He couldn’t be completely sure who moved first, but neither of them thought. Tesseract punched and dodged and let the machete glance off metal, while his fists met with nothing but air and the tip of Hopeless’s blade caused a dozen near-misses between the joints of Tesseract’s armour, until the inside felt clammy with blood.

The door opened. “Grand M –”

Tesseract threw himself toward Guild and steel flashed in his peripheral vision. Tesseract jerked back before it struck the side of his mask, where the hinge sat on the soft flesh of his neck just below his jaw-line. Guild swore and leapt away, his palms already flattened to the air, but Tesseract rolled to the side and used the wall as cover, and spun back as soon as the gale died.

Guild wasn’t fast. He screamed as his hand broke where Tesseract gripped it and shoved him into the hall, and then something struck the back of Tesseract’s neck and he was the one screaming as blue sparks arced across his armour. His heart skipped beats. The strength drained out of him. He almost blacked out.

The pain stopped and Tesseract caught himself on the wall opposite the office, and saw Hopeless carrying a glowing baton, and those inhuman eyes. Even Guild looked unnerved, cradling his hand.

Hopeless picked up the machete from the base of the wall inside his office and came out. Tesseract pushed himself to his feet. His legs felt like jelly. It was quite an unnerving sensation. At least his knees held, so he couldn’t die cowering against a wall.

“What are you –” Guild seized Hopeless’s shoulder and froze at the blade to his neck. His throat bobbed as he looked at Hopeless, and Hopeless looked back. His expression was impassive, but with a puzzled caste, as if the only reason he hadn’t slit Guild’s throat was because there was something odd about him. To Guild’s credit, he managed to say in a low voice, “We need him alive for information. Grand Mage.”

Tesseract watched in silent fascination as the Grand Mage blinked and mouthed a word. His pupils started to retract, and all the hardness in his frame softened, and he seemed to grow smaller as he lowered the machete, as if casting off a shield. The lines around his eyes tightened with pain. Tesseract sympathised. Guild exhaled and looked shaken. Tesseract sympathised with that too.

Cleavers were coming down the hall. Guild ordered, “Take him to the gaol.”

Warily he reached out to take Hopeless’s machete and Hopeless let him, turning toward his office. Tesseract let the Cleavers pick him up by his shoulders, but when one of them came at him with a set of manacles he flexed his fingers and touched the Cleaver’s wrist where it cleared his sleeve. His arm broke with a crunch and the Cleaver reeled back without a sound.

Hopeless’s baton shot up, but Tesseract ducked beneath the second Cleaver’s scythe and fled, limping, down the hall before the Cleaver could clear the way.

Chapter Text

“That was fun,” said Mum, glancing around at the boulevard as they ambled back toward Fergus’s house.

“It was cold,” said Dad. “I’m frozen. See?” He held up his hands. “I’m frostbitten.”

“You aren’t frostbitten, Des.”

“I’m going to keel over from hypothermia at any moment. Just wait and see.”

Valkyrie listened to her parents banter, and grinned. An excuse to get them out of the country or not, this was a really good idea. It had taken a while for Valkyrie to find her way back to Fergus’s house after picking up the thoughtspeaker, but since Fergus had some work to do he suggested taking her parents to the swimming-pool, so Valkyrie had.

It was getting dark and the stars showed, in droves the way they did this far from most light pollution. The Tír, for a city of a million people, was one of the least light-polluted cities ever, Valkyrie was sure.

The breeze was crisp but Valkyrie practised her heating and kept the warm bubble of air around her. Her parents were in thick coats, since Valkyrie couldn’t yet summon a warm bubble any larger than herself, and in spite of Dad’s complaining he wore a grin and looked around with interest.

“Ravel did a good job,” he commented, and patted a light-post with a nod. “Very authentic.”

“A very authentic what, though?” Valkyrie asked, and Dad gave her an injured look.

Obviously it’s an authentic city on water filled with people who can do magic.”

Valkyrie and her mum laughed and they kept walking, and by the time they reached Fergus’s house they had warmed up nicely, and didn’t leave any drips in the entry-way.

“Ah, Melissa, how nice to see you!” Beryl exclaimed. “And Desmond, and Stephanie!”

“Hello, Beryl,” said Mum, moving past Valkyrie to give Beryl a hug. Valkyrie made a face before she turned around to greet her aunt, and found herself shocked.

Beryl was as thin as ever, but it was the kind of thin where some of her bones were showing and she looked sallow, as if she hadn’t been eating right. She moved with a terrible kind of fragility when she hugged Mum, as if she was keeping herself together with gum and toothpicks and too robust a greeting would make her shatter. But the worst was her face and eyes – her face was a mask of a smile, not a real one, and when she looked at Valkyrie her eyes still carried a vestige of lingering horror behind the glassiness of her gaze.

“Hi, Aunt Beryl,” Valkyrie said quietly, and gave her a hug, and tried not to be worried about the tremble in her aunt’s body. It was Beryl. She hated Beryl.

Once greetings were exchanged Beryl looked around with a glassy sort of enthusiasm. “Excellent. We’re all here. Are we all here? Where’s Carol?”

Valkyrie blinked. “Isn’t she at the university?”

“She should have finished her classes by now,” said Fergus from the kitchen, where he was doing some washing up. He’d probably made dinner, too. Valkyrie couldn’t imagine Beryl near the knives in this state. “We thought she might have gone with you.”

He spoke casually, but Valkyrie saw him shoot a worried look out the window while Beryl was turned away.

“Did you call her phone?” Mum asked.

Fergus cleared his throat. “She … she doesn’t have one. We can’t afford it. And for the most part the city’s more secure than … anywhere else.”

“Oh, she must be here,” said Beryl brightly, and went to the door and clapped her hands. “Come inside, Carol, that’s a good dear. Chop chop!”

There was a moment of heavy silence, and Beryl’s face went brittle, like the mask was stretched thin.

“I’ll go take a peek at the campus,” Valkyrie said quickly. “I saw her with Melanie earlier today, I’ll bet they’re studying in one of the cafes there or something.”

Beryl’s face cleared. “That’s probably it. Thank you, Stephanie. Aren’t you a considerate girl?”

Mum took Beryl’s arm and led her away from the door. “Why don’t you show me your projects, Beryl?”

Valkyrie darted up the stairs before them, and into Carol’s room. Hurriedly she changed into a set of the clothes Ghastly had made for her, the ones that slid around the spectrum of ‘blue’, like shadows slid around the spectrum of ‘grey’. They were made for night.

Then she took a deep breath. Carol wouldn’t be late. Not with guests. Valkyrie didn’t know her very well anymore, but she knew that just from meeting her earlier today. Carol wouldn’t worry her mother. The only place Valkyrie knew to start looking for her was campus, so she rifled around Carol’s desk, feeling guilty and trying to be as circumspect as possible, until she found a class timetable. Right. It was a start. Valkyrie folded the timetable and stuck it into the big pocket on the inside of her jacket, and kept looking.

She found a picture of Melanie and Carol together, along with some others. Carol, Melanie, a white girl with dark hair and two boys, one with dark skin and one swarthy. Valkyrie’s gaze lingered on the way the black man’s hand rested on Carol’s shoulder. Then she slipped the photo into her pocket too.

Valkyrie went downstairs, passing the doorway to the spare room only when Beryl’s back was turned. Dad was all but twiddling his thumbs on the couch, still dressed in his swimming clothes and the thick jacket. Fergus roamed around the kitchen like a man with something to do, even though Valkyrie could tell from dinners at the Midnight Hotel that everything on the stove could take care of itself.

They both turned toward her with identical expressions. Nervous expressions, like they weren’t quite thinking about what they were thinking about.

“I’ll call you in half an hour,” Valkyrie said, making sure her phone was in her pocket and tying up her hair.

Dad stood up. “Maybe I should go with you.”

“No, Dad. You’ll slow me down, and you don’t have any training.”

His face turned stubborn. “I can at least get in the way of … of …”

He floundered on the shores of that thing they weren’t thinking about, and Valkyrie kissed his cheek and went out the door before he could find the words he wanted. It was still light, but the streetlamps had come on, and Valkyrie pulled on her gloves and jogged toward the campus until the wind didn’t blow through her. If she was lucky the reception would still be open. There would be night classes, right?

The campus was quiet and empty when she got there about five minutes later, out of breath because she’d jogged the whole way. She counted the turn-offs along the paths until she found her way back to the reception desk, and gave herself a few seconds to be pleased she’d remembered so well, and then went in. The lights were on but at first she thought there was no one at the desk, until she dinged the bell and a man poked his head out through the staff doors in the back.

“Just a tick,” he called and vanished, and Valkyrie waited impatiently. She checked her clock.

He wasn’t coming out. She dinged the sigil again.

“Just a minute!” His voice wafted through the doors, sounding annoyed. It figured even the Tír would have cruddy customer service.

“You said a minute five minutes ago,” Valkyrie said. “Either you come out here right now, or I’ll come in there and drag you out. Whatever you’re doing in there, I’m sure you don’t want to be doing it out here.”

Valkyrie didn’t care what it was, and didn’t really want to know. People only hid when they had a guilty conscience. Anyway, it got him hurrying out right quick, looking annoyed and embarrassed, and glaring at her. “What do you want?”

“Information.” She took out the picture of Carol and her friends, and pointed. “Have you seen any of these people around campus this evening?”

“No.”

“This one’s Melanie. She’s a psychology student. Can you look her up and tell me her phone number?”

The receptionist crossed his arms. “Why should I do that?”

“Because if you don’t,” said Valkyrie with the charming smile she was trying to copy from Erskine, “I’ll punch you in the face until I do.”

“That’s assault!”

“I’m in a hurry. If you’re prefer, I can call the precinct and tell them what you were doing in there.”

Aha. The man’s eyes flickered. “You don’t know what I was doing in there.” Valkyrie stared at him. “You couldn’t possibly know! The windows are too dark!” Valkyrie narrowed her eyes and reached for her phone. “Alright, wait a minute.” He coughed and turned to his computer, muttering under his breath. He glared at Valkyrie and pointed to a sigil in a circle on the side of the desk. “Put the photo up against that.”

She did and didn’t see any difference, but then an image of the photo appeared in the holographic dash and she realised it was a camera.

“You guys have facial recognition on a university admin system?” Valkyrie asked with a frown.

“Shapeshifting exists, you know.”

“Then what’s the point of a facial recognition system?”

He scowled and didn’t answer, probably because he didn’t have an answer. He was a low-level secretary who worked at night. Valkyrie made a mental note to ask Erskine or Digger why that kind of software was standard-use on a university computer. Maybe it was a study of some kind. Maybe it was just to keep track of newcomers. It just seemed remarkably convenient right here and now.

“Here.” The receptionist slapped a print-out in front of her and Valkyrie scanned it quickly. The idiot hadn’t even tried to make private the information Valkyrie didn’t need. He was a terrible, terrible secretary.

“You’re a terrible secretary,” she told him, and wrote Melanie’s number in her little detective’s book, and then her address just in case. Then she scrunched up the sheet and burned it in her fist.

“I gave you what you wanted!”

“Yeah, and you’re lucky I’m in too much of a hurry to point out to your employers that you gave a student’s entire profile to a total stranger. I just needed her number.”

She walked away while he was spluttering, punching Melanie’s number into her phone. She had fifteen minutes to call in.

The message bank picked up. “Yeah, this is Melanie.”

Valkyrie disconnected the line and swore one of Rover’s favourite Irish swears, and then hurried out of reception. The receptionist was an idiot, but the information had been valuable. Melanie didn’t have any late classes either today, which meant she was either at home having dinner like Valkyrie was supposed to be, or she was with Carol wherever Carol was.

Valkyrie paused outside the reception doors to let her eyes adjust to the dimming light, taking a deep breath. Right. Time to think, Val. What would Skulduggery do?

Probably fly over to Melanie’s place to check if she was there. But Valkyrie couldn’t fly, and didn’t have the time to run all the way there, especially if it turned out she had to come back. She could also look around campus, but that would take hours because she didn’t know where all the buildings were – and in the dark?

When you’re in a pinch, open up other options. Call for backup.

Valkyrie dialled Digger and put the phone to her ear, and breathed evenly until Digger picked up.

“Didn’t know you were in town.”

“Surprise,” said Val. “I need your help. My cousin is late for a family thing and she doesn’t have a phone to call. Her mum’s a little off the rails, so she wouldn’t be late without warning. She was with a friend earlier today, but now that friend isn’t picking up. Do you guys have, I don’t know, GPS or something?”

“Something,” said Digger, “but it’s not a something you give a burl on a whim.”

“It’s either that or you burrow to her friend’s address to see if she’s here while I look at the campus.”

“Bloody demanding, aren’t you?” Digger sighed. “What the hell. I’ll blame Ravel if it gets me in strife, and you’ll owe me a fat load of bikkies in the meantime. Number?” Valkyrie gave her the number and waited with still impatience. It cycled through her with her breathing, in and out, in and out, and filled her up with tension until Digger finally came back on the line. “Righto. Phone’s still on campus, north-east quadrant, a few hundred metres from you.”

“What’s that in Imperial?” Valkyrie asked, glancing up at the stars and the moon and orienting herself toward the north-east. Anton had refused to let her buy a compass, the slave-driver.

Digger snorted. “Just keep walking. I’ll ring it for you on my office phone.”

The path led her toward one of the small cafés on the edges of the campus, still open and almost thriving. The main cafeteria must be closed by now, so the small cafés lived on the campus nightlife. Valkyrie squinted at the opening hours; they would have been closed when Valkyrie visited earlier in the day.

“Hear it yet?”

“Not yet.” Valkyrie turned away from the café and put out her hand to feel the tumbling air. With the loud noises and big movements behind her, it was easier to tell movements out on the paths. Valkyrie followed them. She breathed slow, trying to keep her air from interrupting her magic. Reading body movement was easy. Reading sound wasn’t. Valkyrie could only get it two out of ten times when Skulduggery tested her.

She was banking on the fact that a lot of phones vibrated too.

The movements she was tracking started to split to either side, and then one of them stopped, and she paused and turned toward it. “Ring again.”

The very slight movement tumbled against her hand, but she didn’t hear a ringtone. Valkyrie stepped off the path, moving slowly and carefully and keeping her breathing constant and turned away from her outstretched hand. The tumble got stronger and it led her right up to a circular stone wall around a garden, and Valkyrie poked about in the pushes until she found the vibrating phone. “Got it.”

“Just the phone?”

“Just the phone.” Valkyrie snapped her fingers to make some fire and looked around. The darkness made everything full of shadows, but the phone told her that Carol and Melanie didn’t go willingly. And she saw the scuff of garden mulch over the wall, like someone had struggled, but there were no bags and books. The phone was in the bush two feet away. “They cleaned up after themselves. She tossed the phone on purpose, but forgot it’d be on vibrate because of classes. How far is the campus border?”

“Another hundred yards,” said Digger. “If you kept following that route you’d have reached it easily.”

“The café’s about a hundred yards back.” Valkyrie stood there in the darkness, listening and keeping the flames down low and cupped in her palm so they didn’t ruin her night-sight. Her gaze roamed the garden and the ground. “It’s off the path, just here. People could have walked by and not seen anything.”

“Two grown women aren’t easy to smuggle out of a public area, kiddo. Any turned-up ground?”

“No.” That fact made Valkyrie’s chest loosen and her gut tighten. At least if it had been Sanguine she would’ve known who was responsible for it. “Either it’s nothing to do with them or they decided not to risk sending him back. Or he didn’t burrow.” Her phone beeped. “I need to call my uncle.”

“Stay where you are while you do,” said Digger. “I’ll come to you. We’ll find her, Val.”

Digger disconnected the call and Valkyrie stood there in the near-darkness, taking a few deep breaths before she dialled her father’s number.

Chapter Text

Myron sat in a corner of the commons. There was an open book in his lap, but he wasn’t reading. He was watching the clocks. They ticked down to the Hotel shift back to Ireland, the only sound in the room save the low crackle of the fire.

He wasn’t alone. There were a couple of other patrons by the mantle, taking advantage of the heat. Ravel was sprawled on a couch in the corner, his face buried in a pillow. It was hard to tell if he was asleep or not. Myron had preferred to stay by the stairs. It was safer. It would have been safer even if he weren’t about to try what he was about to try. Especially since he was going to try it with a Dead Man in the room.

The walls shivered and the ground thudded. Nothing trembled, not even the tea-cups on the coffee-table. For some reason that made Myron nervous. What if the tools he was given didn’t work? What if he couldn’t get through Shudder’s wards? He’d be caught red-handed without anything to show for it.

Myron heard the lobby door open and shut.

“Hallo, the Hotel!”

“Shut up, Dex, people are trying to sleep,” Ravel grumbled into his pillow, either already awake or the world’s lightest sleeper. Vex poked his head in from the lobby as Ravel pushed himself upright with a yawn. How could he still look like he’d come out of a magazine with his hair all tousled like that?

When I get my name back, Myron thought, I wonder if I’d be able to fix up a few things.

Myron Stray wasn’t a man given to vanity, but this was a chance to get his life back in ways he hadn’t had even before he lost it. Who wouldn’t consider tinkering a bit, to make things run smoother?

“Where’s Anton?” Vex asked, coming properly into the room. He was wearing a suit, but his tie was open around his neck and only half the buttons on the vest were done.

Ravel’s expression soured. “Caelan came in. Anton’s making sure the serum he stole from Dusk works.”

“Anton stole serum from Dusk?”

“No, Caelan stole serum from Dusk.”

“Caelan stole serum from Dusk?” Vex let out a low whistle. “That’s impressive.”

“More impressive than Anton stealing serum from Dusk?” Ravel scowled, but it didn’t look genuine. “I think I should be offended on his behalf.”

“Yeah, but I already know Anton can kick Dusk’s arse. Why’s Caelan here?”

“Dusk’s been harassing him lately. Or something. See how much I care about vampire politics. Look, I need to talk to you.” Ravel got to his feet and stretched.

“You are talking to me.”

“Shut up and come here.”

They went into a corner and Ravel put up his hand, and the air around them thickened until it distorted their quiet voices and obscured them with a faint mist. Myron watched them anyway, but it was useless trying to listen in, and he was distracted soon enough by the vibration of footsteps coming down the stairs. It made him tense up and push himself deeper into his chair. This was it.

He reached for the phone he’d been given and fumbled it, and then clutched it tightly. He hoped his nervousness would be chalked up to being in public for the first time in decades, and being in public with a vampire. Especially since Vex and Ravel both glanced in his direction.

“Looks like it worked,” Vex said as the vampire, Caelan, stepped down into the commons, Shudder at his back. Caelan looked warily at Ravel, but he nodded.

“It wasn’t a trap.”

“Seems elaborate for a trap just to get you,” Ravel said.

Myron clutched the phone, staring at Caelan’s back and wishing he would step further into the room. Finally he did, but carefully, like he was half expecting his skin to slough off as he walked. Not all vampires were fortunate enough to get the serum. Myron looked down at the ‘phone’. How did this work? It had been simple when she showed him. This app here and then that button there …

“Or it was a mistake. Even Dusk makes mistakes, sometimes. He made one when he underestimated you.”

“Flattery from vampires doesn’t work on me,” Ravel said, and Myron activated the app, keeping the phone pointed at Caelan. He’d had been helpful, stepping in front of Myron like that – Myron didn’t even need to try to make it look like he was just texting on the phone.

She’d said it would take a few moments to work. Myron closed the book and dropped it on the chair, and quickly went up the stairs, trying not to look behind him or draw attention.

“I wasn’t flattering. I was telling the truth.”

“Valkyrie isn’t here. You don’t need to pretend for her sake.”

There was a pause. “I didn’t say anything about Valkyrie.”

“You didn’t need to.”

“I promise you, Mr Ravel –”

The vampire’s words cut off on a strangled note. In the mirror at the top of the stairs, perfectly angled to display the commons, Myron saw him quiver. He hunched with another strangled noise and the Dead Men moved in a hurry. Vex went for the staring patrons. Shudder went for the vampire.

Ravel, for some reason, clutched at his head and shook it violently, and went grey.

The vampire shrieked in pain and Myron jumped and spun around and saw it raking its claws across its face so that its skin came off in bloody ribbons instead of easily like it should have. Shudder didn’t have a weapon but he threw a punch and Myron turned and ran down the hall, his heart pounding in his chest.

They’d take care of the vampire, he told himself as he climbed the stairs to the second floor. There were three of them now. They’d be fine.

He wished he’d asked more questions about the device he’d been given. All he knew was that it was meant to change a vampire’s brainwaves to trigger a change. It wasn’t meant to hurt anyone else. If the Dead Men found out he’d hurt one of them, even by accident –

If the Dead Men found out what he was doing right now he was screwed, no matter what. Right now, getting his name back was his only chance to live at all.

Myron was on the second floor by the time Ravel’s voice came over the intercom, tight with pain and tension. “Patrons lock your doors and stay in your rooms. There’s a vampire loose. We’re handling it.”

For the first time Myron actually started to think he might pull this off. The vampire would distract the Dead Men, and his room was on the second floor. All he had to do was get what he came for, go to his room and lock the door. They wouldn’t know the difference.

He reached the twenty-fourth room and his hands were shaking, but he pulled out the pistol. Or at least it looked like a pistol, and even worked like a pistol, sort of – it was some kind of ray-gun. She’d told him it had been specially made to look like one that fired bullets, for his cover. Myron Stray needed protection.

Only this wasn’t even an ordinary ray-gun. It took Myron a few tries to fit the module into where the clip should have gone into the handle, and then twist the muzzle like a spray-gun to emit a pulse. Then he stood back from the door to Room Twenty-Four and pointed the weapon, and fired.

Every sigil and ward in the walls lit up and alarms pealed throughout the Hotel. Myron clapped a hand to his ear and fired again, and the wards collapsed with a fizzle and the smell of the walls burning. The sigils remained visible, blackened and ashy.

He was screwed.

It took Myron two tries to disarm the weapon and shove it back into the large pocket of his coat, and then he took out another device and stepped forward, and gripped the door-handle. The tremble in his gloved hand made it rattle. He took a deep breath, and then another for good measure, and lifted the soul-catcher. He’d seen a soul-catcher before and this didn’t look anything like it; the other one had been made of glass in a stone base, but this one was metal, smooth and inlaid with sigils on sigils.

Myron held it to the door and opened it a crack, and thumbed the absorption sigil. The soul-catcher glowed and something black sucked through the crack in the jamb and Myron quickly pulled the door closed.

The soul-catcher seared unexpectedly hot in his hand and with a yelp he dropped it. It hit the floor and smashed to wafer-thin fragments like it had been made of glass all along, and a slip of darkness darted up toward Myron’s face. He jerked back but tiny little arms reached for his mouth and forced it open, and he collapsed gagging against the wall as it forced its way down his throat.

For a few seconds Myron Stray sat slumped against the wall. Then he straightened up and black veins bulged around his face and eyes, and he smiled. “Well, well, well. I haven’t had this much fun in centuries.

He took a step and the fragments of the soul-catcher crunched under his boot, and he ground them into the carpet. He twisted the knob to Room Twenty-Four, and with a delicate little push he opened the door.

Chapter Text

The vampire lunged and Erskine threw himself over the lobby armchair to use it as a shield. He heard the sizzle of Dexter’s beam and the vampire’s howl of pain. It was a young one – not Caelan anymore, but young, less than a century. It shouldn’t be giving Erskine this much trouble.

His head still throbbed from whatever the hell had made Caelan turn. He pushed himself up and saw Caelan dodge Anton and then Dex, trying to play them against each other. They weren’t buying it, but the vampire was too fast for them to pin it down between only the two of them.

Erskine struggled to his feet. They needed an edge.

He turned and ran for the kitchen and stumbled against the doorjamb when dizziness swept over him. He groped for a cupboard and yanked it open and grabbed the salt, and with a fist of air broke one of the dining-area’s chairs into shards. He bent to pick up one of the most stake-like pieces and had to steady himself against the floor.

“Drop!” Dex roared behind him and Erskine dropped and rolled, and the vampire collided with the broken chair, and rebounded off the table onto its feet again. It snarled and lunged for him and Anton got in the way, punching it in its solar-plexus and its throat and blocking its claws when it tried to perforate him.

Erskine dumped salt on the floor and clenched his fist to wet it. He shoved the stake into the melting pile of salt, and used a table to pull himself upright. “Anton!”

Anton pulled back and Dex covered him with an energy-beam, and Erskine lobbed the stake. Anton caught it and whirled and stepped into the vampire’s attack, blocking with one arm and plunging the stake into the vampire’s chest instead of punching him.

The vampire went berserk, shrieking and tearing at Anton with its claws, driving him back against the table. Erskine summoned another shard of wood to him and dipped it into the puddle, but by the time he’d gotten to his feet the vampire was jerking like it was having a seizure instead of in a fury. With a grunt Anton pushed it off him and it tumbled, twitching, to the floor, its red eyes swivelling this way and that and fangs bared, letting out little squeaking growls like a giant kitten in pain.

“Are you kidding me?” Dex asked. “I thought the stake thing was a myth.”

“Not when they’re dipped in saltwater, it’s not.” Erskine dropped the stake and leaned against the table. God, his head hurt. “It’s not ingested so it won’t kill them, but it’ll paralyse them. Corrival told me.”

“I think we need to bring out those Corrival the Vampire Slayer jokes again,” said Dex, and then the Hotel shook and alarms blared all around the walls.

Anton straightened up from binding the vampire’s hands with his tie and ran into the lobby, toward the stairs. Dex glanced back and Erskine waved him to go on. He followed after, his head still throbbing.

He was at the bottom of the stairs when he heard the screams. He looked past Dex and Anton, saw one of the patrons stumble against the landing and flip over it in their panic. Erskine’s hand shot out and he caught them on air, and lowered them to the lobby floor. The man rolled over and grinned at him with black veins bulging all around his face, and Erskine jumped back with a curse to avoid the flames the man threw at him.

“Secure the exit!” Anton shouted, and Erskine shoved with the air and sent the Remnant tumbling backwards, and turned. He heard Dexter curse and the sizzle of his energy-beam, and the world turned on its axis as he ran for the door.

“Erskine!” Erskine dropped and rolled and his stomach churned when he saw the slip of darkness shoot by. He lashed out with air and sent it flying with a smack into the lobby’s opposite wall, and turned to see Anton vault the landing’s rail – and behind him darkness came swamping down the corridor.

Erskine got to his feet and his vision bled white, and then Anton and Dexter’s steady hands were holding him up, pulling him along. His vision started to clear.

The door flung open before they got there and Rover stepped in with a flourish. “The fun has arri –!”

A Remnant darted toward Rover and Dexter cursed and lunged at him. Rover hit the wall and the slip of darkness struck Dexter’s face. Rover rolled over and stun melted into shock and he leapt at Dex, but Erskine and Anton caught him by the arms and yanked him through the door while Dex sagged against the wall.

Rover struggled and for a second Anton was all but dragging the both of them. Then Rover wriggled free and ran ahead to his orange buggy and flung himself in the driver’s door. By the time Anton and Erskine piled into the back the engine was already roaring, and Rover spun the wheel and they sped away from the Midnight Hotel as darkness boiled out its door and shot into the lightening sky.

*

Myron Stray’s boots thudded on the landing as he strolled down the hall. He grinned as he looked around at his brothers and sisters coming out of their rooms. This had turned into a good day.

“Come along,” he said, hands in the pockets of his coat. “Lots to do. Anything you want, in fact.”

Anything,” said one of his sisters speculatively.

“Anything,” Myron agreed. “We could take over the country, if we wanted. With some coordination, of course.” As soon as Myron went to collect his payment – got his name back – he really would be able to do anything. No one could stop him. If any of his siblings complained, well, they wouldn’t complain for long.

He hopped the last step and only then turned and saw Dexter Vex leaning against the jamb to the kitchen. His face was clean of veins but he was wearing an amused little smile, and Myron froze. None of the idiots upstairs knew his true-name, but Vex did. Myron would need some autonomy to get his name back.

“Anything,” repeated Vex thoughtfully, and smiled. “Within reason, before the spoilsports get involved.”

Myron eyed him distrustfully. He was the more powerful sorcerer. Myron had freed them, but Vex had authority. This could mess everything up. “What do you plan to do about it?”

“Me?” Vex’s smiled changed, became more vicious, and he stretched luxuriously, strolling closer past their siblings leaving the Hotel. “I don’t need to take over the country. I’ve already got shares in it. So I’m going to see an old enemy instead.” He was getting very close. Myron moved to step back but Vex’s hand shot out and gripped his wrist, and Vex leaned in to whisper, “Do tell me your plans, Laudigan.”

Damn him. Damn him. Myron ground his teeth and glared, and growled low: “Kill you.”

… Wow. That actually worked. It wasn’t inaccurate, but it wasn’t what Vex had meant, and Myron had never been able to pick and choose even his truthful answers before. He was still startled by that fact when Vex smiled.  “And the rest? To what occasion to do we owe this sudden release, Laudigan?”

Myron’s mouth moved, but now he was paying attention, the uncontrollable response felt different than it had every other time someone had used his name against him. He had to respond, but how he responded felt less rigid than it should have. “Someone wants to study us and promised to restore my true-name.”

“That isn’t possible.”

Myron smiled. “That’s all you know.”

Vex eyed him suspiciously. “Where are you going after this?”

Myron shook off his hand and stepped away from Vex. Something was smoking. He glanced in the kitchen door and saw the vampire’s headless corpse and the smouldering patch on the floor where it had been. He looked back at Vex and smiled. “Where are you?”

For a long moment Vex looked at him thoughtfully. The only ones of their siblings left were looting the Hotel and paying no attention. Finally Vex smiled. “So you’re not as stupid and broken as everyone thought. Congratulations.” He turned as one of their brothers hurried toward the door clutching wads of cash, and Vex calmly lifted a hand and his energy-beam took off their brother’s head. “No stealing,” he admonished the slumping body. “This is my home, after all, and I have to get ready for a party.”

Chapter Text

Tanith’s motorcycle wove between the traffic and cut down an alley which spilled out near the Waxwork’s back entrance. Tanith pulled them up by the door, on the sidewalk, and cut the engine.

“Looks like Skulduggery’s here,” she said as Ghastly stepped away from the bike, pulling off the helmet Dexter had handed to him with an exasperated look sometime last year. Ghastly didn’t know whether it had been conjured or not, but he suspected it had, because Dexter’s inorganic conjurations were as strong as the amount of magic he put into it. Sometimes they were even stronger than Ghastly’s suits.

“Looks like,” he agreed, glancing at the Bentley. “He did capture Marr yesterday.”

“He did?” Tanith asked, hanging her helmet on the bars. “You didn’t mention that. What happened?”

Ghastly hadn’t mentioned it, in fact, because they’d been talking about other things. Or, alternately, not talking but looking at each other and then blushing and looking away again.

It had just been breakfast. Tanith dropped by the shop to see how he was doing, what with handling Skulduggery and … everything else. They got hungry, they went to get something to eat. It wasn’t planned but it was still, Ghastly thought to himself, a date. And that thought made it very hard not to grin foolishly.

He told Tanith what Skulduggery had told the rest of the Dead Men yesterday as the two of them walked into the Waxworks and between the creepy figurines, down into the Sanctuary. He’d just gotten to the part about having to talk Valkyrie out of asking questions when they reached the bottom of the stairs and a Cleaver’s scythe fell across the entrance into the atrium.

Tanith reached for her sword and Ghastly tensed, but neither of them attacked. The atrium was a huddle of people whispering, and there was a Cleaver by every door.

Ghastly cleared his throat. “We’re just going to the gym.”

The Cleaver said nothing, and didn’t raise his scythe.

“I’m just going to call Macha,” said Tanith cautiously, and pulled out her phone, and when the Cleaver didn’t move to take it she dialled. They waited in silence until Tanith lowered the phone. “It rang out. She must be busy.”

“Oy,” Ghastly called at a passing official, and motioned her closer. She glanced nervously at the Cleaver but sidled near enough to talk. “What’s going on?”

“Someone tried to kill the Grand Mage in his office,” she said, and Ghastly took a breath.

‘Tried’. That meant they didn’t succeed. “I’m coming in,” he said, and took a step, and found the Cleaver’s scythe just under his nose. He put a finger against the side and his bicep bulged under his shirt as he pushed it an inch further away from cutting off his face. “If I were assassin in disguise,” he said to the Cleaver, “why would I try to re-enter the Sanctuary from the front door?”

The Cleaver glared at him. They got a bit narky when they got shown up. Ghastly didn’t really care, but his finger was starting to hurt, so he stared back silently and hoped someone came by soon before he was the one getting shown up. Hopeless, a little help with my pride, please?

He was starting to think his finger would break when Saracen appeared and hurried toward them. “They’re clear,” he said to the Cleaver, and turned to Ghastly. “Hopeless says, and I quote, ‘If you’re going to be more like Rue or Ravel, I’m going to start charging’. I think I should be insulted, but I’m not sure why.”

The Cleaver lifted his scythe and went back to standing at attention. Ghastly grunted and stepped into the Sanctuary proper, resisting the urge to rub his aching finger or look over at Tanith.

“I think you should too,” said Tanith, “unless you’re going to claim you can keep a Cleaver’s scythe off your face for a whole five minutes using only your index finger.”

Ghastly managed to keep his face impassive and Saracen pretended to mull that over as they walked down the halls toward the Grand Mage’s office. He shook his head. “Nope. Not even I’m that ambitious. Ravel, maybe, but not me. I’ve got some humility.”

“Some humility, he says,” Ghastly muttered. They got to the office and Saracen pushed open the door, and Guild looked up sharply. His hand was encased in a temporary mobile cast the healers used to repair bones. He didn’t relax when he saw them, but he stood close by where Hopeless sat on one of the couches, head in his hands. If it hadn’t been Guild, Ghastly might have called the motion protective.

“Where’s Skulduggery?” Tanith asked. “We saw his car.”

“Searching,” said Guild shortly.

“Searching for –?”

“Tesseract,” said Saracen, and Ghastly felt Tanith tense.

“The Russian assassin?” she demanded. “He’s the one who tried to kill Hopeless? He’s lucky to be alive.”

“Hopeless, or Tesseract?” Ghastly asked, and turned to Saracen. “Is he okay?”

“He’ll be fine,” said Guild, equally shortly. He had a strange look on his face.

But Guild didn’t really know Hopeless, so Ghastly looked at Saracen and waited expectantly. Hopeless lifted his head and managed a smile. It was a tight smile, a subtly pained smile, and his eyes had that kind of blank dread they always did when Hopeless had just come back from being lost. But he was back, and that was what mattered, so Ghastly gave him a nod. “What’s the plan?”

“Tesseract ran away,” said Saracen. “Skulduggery’s working with Macha to try and track him down.”

“They can’t have been looking long,” Tanith pointed out. “Tesseract can’t know the Sanctuary as well as they do.” She glanced at Hopeless, and then away again without asking the question Ghastly knew she wasn’t sure she should.

But Ghastly wanted the answer too, so he asked, “How did he get so close?”

“He already knew,” Saracen said. “He kept his thoughts unobtrusive, like he belonged here. Descry didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary until Tesseract came into the office. He must be hiding them now the same way. Skulduggery thinks he’s in the medical wing – the other patients there will cover any pain he might be feeling. Though according to eyewitnesses he’s probably feeling quite a lot.”

Most of this was said quite cheerfully, but Saracen moved around the office, getting a glass and a couple of Hopeless’s pills, and checking the sheet on the wall where Melissa had pinned Hopeless’s pain-relief schedule. “You should really think about some safe, natural remedies,” he told Hopeless. “Like magic mushrooms. Lots of research going on again these days, to do with magic mushrooms. Or pot. Pot works.”

Hopeless shook his head but his smile was genuine. He took the water and the pills and gulped them down.

“What can we do?” Tanith asked. Hopeless took a deep breath.

‘Skulduggery is examining the crime scene,’ he signed.

“Crime scene?”

Hopeless nodded, his mouth drawing tight. ‘T. killed Marr inside the gaol. Tanith, Saracen, go help Macha in the medical wing. Ghastly?’

“Keep Skulduggery in check,” said Ghastly, and grinned. “You’re almost getting predictable, Grand Mage.”

Hopeless made a face and Saracen laughed as he and Tanith left. Ghastly followed them out and stood by the wall to take a deep breath. He almost choked when he found Guild beside him, closing the door. There was still that strange look on Guild’s face and this time Ghastly recognised what it was. It wasn’t exactly fear. It was more like a hollow kind of horror. That was surprising – after the Exigency Mages Ghastly didn’t think Guild had much idea of what constituted horrific.

Guild didn’t say anything, so Ghastly turned to make his way through the halls, and this time managed not to be surprised when Guild fell into step beside him. Eventually Guild spoke. “He nearly killed me.”

“Tesseract, or Hopeless?” Ghastly asked bluntly, and Guild threw him a look and didn’t immediately answer. Ghastly nodded. “Hopeless.”

“He showed me the trick with the dyed water and the jug this morning,” said Guild.

“But you didn’t take it seriously.”

“I did,” Guild snapped. “I take it seriously when my Grand Mage can be so easily compromised.”

“But you didn’t really understand what it means,” Ghastly said, and stopped, and waited until someone had passed by them. “No one does, until they see it happen. Even people who accept it better than you don’t really understand it until then. People talk like Sensitivity is simple, but it’s not. Every single day Hopeless has to fight just to keep some sense of who he is.”

“And it doesn’t concern you that the man you support as your leader could at any moment be taken over by someone else?” Guild demanded.

“No,” Ghastly said simply. “No more than it concerns me about Anton being taken over by the gist, or –”

Or Skulduggery being taken over by Vile.

“– Finbar Wrong getting possessed by Ghengis Khan, or someone equally horrible. Some magic comes with a price, Guild. Good men don’t let the price stop them from being good men.”

For a long moment Guild said nothing, until Ghastly got impatient and asked, “What do you really want?”

“Just earlier today,” Guild said slowly, “I was considering how to stage a coup.” Ghastly stopped and clenched his fists but Guild was watching for it, and there were Cleavers nearby so there wasn’t much Ghastly could do anyway. But he glared. Guild glared back. “If you were thinking clearly you’d do the same,” Guild snapped. “You think the Sanctuaries in any other nation is going to accept him as Grand Mage, if they knew? His very existence is a threat.”

“That’s not his fault,” Ghastly growled. “He bends over backwards trying to accommodate everyone just because of how he was born. Don’t you dare blame him for something he can’t help and call it good politics. This isn’t a war, and you aren’t head of the Exigency Mages anymore.”

Guild wasn’t a small man, but he wasn’t Ghastly’s height and he wasn’t Ghastly’s width. He didn’t need to be. He was solid, and stood his ground despite Ghastly’s loom, and answered glare with glare. “I think he should tell them.”

That was a surprise. That was such a surprise that Ghastly reeled, and caught the look of grim satisfaction on Guild’s face. “But you just said –”

Guild shook his head and opened a door just beside him, and Ghastly followed him into the room – empty, as it turned out. It might have been an office once, but now it didn’t even have furniture in it. Guild closed the door and pressed the privacy sigil, and turned back to Ghastly.

“They’d consider him a threat,” said Guild. “As they should. He is a threat, whether he can help it or not. But he’s a threat because no one knows he exists. Like my Exigency Mages.” Guild’s eyes were hard, now. “We worked because we kept out of sight and worked behind the scenes. But secrecy is only a weapon if it holds, Bespoke, and his secrecy is failing. Tesseract knew what he was up against. Who told him? How? If Hopeless’s secret is going to come out, it’s got to come out on our terms, as our weapon.”

“So instead of taking him out yourself you’d throw him to the wolves?!” Ghastly clenched his fists again and felt them shake. Adrenaline. When was the last time someone had threatened Hopeless’s secret like this? Had anyone ever? Even Bane last year had been airing discomfort, not stating a plan.

“You seem to have forgotten, Bespoke,” said Guild coldly, “but Hopeless can take care of himself. He isn’t a fragile flower to be protected. He’s practically an Ancient come to life. You think Bisahalani or Dragonuv stand a chance against him? Mind-games are what he’s made of.”

“You think Ireland can withstand all the other nations in the world uniting against us?” Ghastly demanded.

“Use your head,” Guild snapped. “We don’t tell them at once. But we tell them, and we control how it happens. We turn it to our advantage, instead of sitting on it and hoping no one will notice we’ve been harbouring a man more powerful than Mevolent himself.”

“Hopeless isn’t –” Ghastly started, and then had to stop. He didn’t even object to Guild’s bitter laugh.

“‘After Mevolent’s mind, the content of your thoughts is like a mosquito bite,’” Guild quoted. “Mevolent had to have known. That’s why he captured Hopeless. But he didn’t say anything after Hopeless escaped, even though it could have broken our war effort. Why? Because even Mevolent was afraid Hopeless’s reputation would supersede the Faceless Ones. And most of those who command the Sanctuaries aren’t like Mevolent. They wouldn’t dream of a secret like this coming into the open on purpose.”

Most of those, Ghastly noted Guild said, but Ghastly stayed quiet as Guild went on.

“That’s why we have to. It’s unravelling. We need to control how it does, or things will wind up much worse while the other Sanctuaries sneak around preparing for an attack we won’t be able to predict.”

Ghastly didn’t want it to make sense, but it did. The Dead Men had spent so long keeping that secret. None of them would imagine letting it out on purpose, let alone to the people from which it had to be hidden most. But if Tesseract knew then whoever had asked him to kill Hopeless knew. That was probably why Tesseract had been hired in the first place.

“Why are you telling me this?” Ghastly asked.

“Because Rue’s too emotional,” said Guild, “and Pleasant is insane, and the rest of you aren’t here.”

“Hopeless is.”

“Hopeless just spent time as Tesseract,” Guild pointed out. “And he won’t accept my idea, whatever he says about needing dissenting opinions. He said that he occupies a place in your minds that you don’t question, but he doesn’t question you, either. He won’t compromise himself without your say-so.”

Ghastly stared at Guild. What had happened? This wasn’t the Thurid Guild they knew. True, he was still cold and calculating, but where had he learned to judge character like that? It couldn’t have been as easy as Guild witnessing Hopeless getting lost inside Tesseract’s mind. Could it?

“How do you know that?” Ghastly said finally, and Guild gave him a baleful stare.

“I didn’t want Dead Men as Elders,” he said. “Hopeless didn’t argue the point. He told me it was because you wouldn’t question him, but he was wrong, or lying. It’s because he’s already the sum of you. It doesn’t matter whether you hold office or not. He can’t function without the lot of you, whether I like it or not.”

He sounded irritable but not resigned. Not as if he was trying to fight it, but as if he was trying to get this awkward moment over with so they could focus on what was really important. Ghastly couldn’t help but stare some more, until Guild got impatient enough to shift and glare, and cross his arms. “Well?”

Finally Ghastly asked, “What do you want me to do?”

Chapter Text

It was cold in this corner of the Sanctuary. Cold and sterile. It would have been bright but for the fact that Tesseract was inside a broom closet, but the doorframe was edged white from light in the corridor. He only hoped that no one had a pressing need to clean. A sudden death might ruin everything now that Hopeless was undoubtedly paying attention.

Tesseract sat on an upturned bucket, his back against the wall and gaze on the door, watching the shadows of people pass by outside his door. He kept his thoughts unnoticeable, never wondering about the mechanics of the Sanctuary’s operation or its layout. The fact that he read as though he belonged there was his only protection. And he did. He was injured. He was in the medical wing. It wasn’t a particularly common feeling, for him, but it was at least helping him in some fashion.

While he sat, waiting patiently for his limbs to display some semblance of power after the shocks from Hopeless’s baton, Tesseract considered. Poison may well have been the most logical course of action, as his employer had suggested, but Tesseract had learned some very important things about Hopeless’s magic nevertheless. They didn’t replace the fulfilment of Tesseract’s contract, but they were interesting.

In the first place, Hopeless didn’t bother with everyone all at once. That was logical. Tesseract considered that confirmed. In the second place, not only could Hopeless not bother with everyone all at once, if he focussed too hard on just one person, he reflected them. Tesseract was not a man given to looking himself in the mirror, but the way Hopeless moved at the last had been eerily familiar. And he had almost killed his own Elder. That wasn’t the action of a sorcerer fully in control of his magic.

Hopeless could be circumvented, up close. That was really all Tesseract needed to know. How to get to him a second time, now that Tesseract had blown his first chance – now that was the question.

Tesseract sat, silent and considering, and listened to the chatter passing by his door, and then, unexpectedly, the dull voices issuing through the wall at his back.

*

“I don’t suppose there’s any way you and your magic can make even this easier?” Tanith asked Saracen as they moved down the Sanctuary halls. They had already seen numerous Cleavers, but Saracen hadn’t stopped to ask any of them questions. Tanith had meant to search each room, but whenever she put a hand on a doorknob Saracen shook his head. He certainly acted like he knew what he was doing.

“What am I, a blender?” Saracen grumbled. “Turn me on, turn me off, to whatever intensity suits you?”

“Isn’t that what you said when we first met?” Tanith said pokerfaced, and then grinned, and Saracen laughed even though he didn’t sound like he wanted to. “Ghastly said something about how you’ve been running out of magic lately.”

Saracen’s laugh cut off and he looked almost ill. “It’s not like that.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No. It isn’t. I just keep getting put into situations where I actually have to explain why I’m not using it.”

“I thought it was automatic for you,” Tanith said, and Saracen scowled.

“I never said that. I may have constantly implied that, but I never said it.”

Ghastly was right. Saracen really was touchy about this. It was one of the things Ghastly had talked about during breakfast – although he’d talked about the Dead Men a lot. Not in a boring way, but because he was worried and needed someone to talk to.

He was worried about Skulduggery. He was worried about Erskine. He was worried about Hopeless. He was even worried about Anton, although that line of conversation had cut off quickly with a blush and a mumbled apology when Ghastly realised the explanation included something Tanith didn’t know yet. That might have been annoying, the hiding of secrets, but it was obvious Ghastly had forgotten she just didn’t know, and it clearly wasn’t something he could talk about until she did. That was fine.

Ghastly had been worried about Saracen too. About how personally he’d taken not knowing some things. About how tense he’d been about things he didn’t know. Even about jokes about things he didn’t know.

“You’re not useless, you know,” Tanith said, and Saracen looked at her sharply.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Isn’t that why you’re all tetchy? You think you’re useless without your magic?” Tanith tapped the hilt of her sword thoughtfully. “A lot of sorcerers think that. They make their magic define them until they can’t do without it. That’s why when I did my training I chose wall-walking. I can do cool things, but I haven’t put all my eggs in one basket.”

“Some of us didn’t exactly get the choice,” said Saracen. That was interesting. Saracen was natural-born?

… Given what his father’s magic was, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Tanith shook her head. “Maybe not. But you use it an awful lot, don’t you? Even for stupid little things that don’t really matter. And you like people thinking you’re mysterious. Why is that?”

Saracen didn’t answer for two whole corridors. They got to the end of the hall, past the last Cleaver and into an area which hadn’t been searched yet. Saracen opened a door and they went in and searched the room, and all the closets and doors, until they were satisfied they were alone. Then Saracen said, “You remember back when we fought the Baron?”

“You mean when Dexter fought the Baron? Sure.” It had been a weird fight. Tanith had been too keyed up to really pay attention to the conversation between Vex and the Baron, but she remembered it being weird. She frowned. “Didn’t he say that he was you, back then? That Rue was a cover?”

“It was,” said Saracen, pacing back and forth by the gurneys. “It didn’t occur to you what that means?”

Tanith stared at him and said, “You do remember I’m not a detective and didn’t live during the war, right?”

Saracen smiled slightly. “Right. Well, that was way back just after the Dead Men started doing suicide missions. Dexter was me because I wasn’t born yet.”

“Oh.” In her defence, Tanith argued, she hadn’t lived through the war. Most of those tales got mixed up. But now she was interested. Now that little titbit about Saracen being Hopeless’s son was starting to make some sense. “When were you born, then?”

“Not ’til the late eighteenth century,” said Saracen. “And I didn’t even know about the magical community until I was past sixty. The Rue cover was wearing thin by then, so they let me take it over.” He ran his hands through his hair, messing it all up, and then turned back to her. “So maybe you’re right. Maybe I do rely on my magic. But my magic’s the only reason I got into the Dead Men. They felt they had to protect me.”

Tanith opened her mouth and closed it again, and leaned back against a gurney. “Have you been feeling like an outsider all this time?”

Saracen hesitated. “Not … all the time. But I was still a late addition. I’m still the youngest. I didn’t even exist for most of my reputation. It’s a lot to live up to.”

“Didn’t Rue used to be a flowery ponce who wore makeup and high-heels?”

Saracen laughed. “Well, yes. I mellowed him out a lot. Couldn’t go around looking like that forever.”

“Not even once for me?” Tanith wheedled, and Saracen laughed again, shaking his head.

“Not even,” he said. “I nearly got captured by the Butcher because of those damned heels.”

“I remember hearing about him,” said Tanith, going to the door and pulling it open. “Tell me more.”

“About the Butcher?” Saracen grinned. “Ask Anton sometime. Just make sure I’m not there. He gets all proud; it’s lovely but it’s embarrassing, and I’d really rather not –”

There was a sound out in the hall and they both looked. They saw the Cleaver slumped against the wall and gagging, clawing at his helmet. Tanith took a step toward him but Saracen grabbed her arm and yanked her down the hall, suddenly grey-faced. Tanith caught her balance and matched his pace. “What is it?”

“Remnant,” Saracen gasped out, already red in the face. Not as red as he could have been. Boots pounded the floor. Tanith glanced behind them both and saw the Cleaver following, and getting closer. He’d yanked off his helmet and his face was lined with black veins, and snarling.

“Run faster,” she said. Saracen didn’t spare the breath to answer. He accelerated, but Tanith knew it wouldn’t be enough. She’d seen Saracen in the gym once or twice in the past few months, which was once or twice more than she ever had. He wasn’t as in shape as he used to be.

“Go,” he gasped out. Tanith glanced behind her again, judging the distance. She could get away if she wanted, but that would mean leaving Saracen behind.

She stopped and whirled, her sword drawing and aimed for a seam in the Cleaver’s armour so he’d impale himself on her sword with his momentum. A door slammed open and Tesseract stepped out. His open palm collided with the Cleaver’s head and it exploded into pieces of bone and brain matter.

Tanith’s sword snapped up but Saracen gasped out: “Wait!”

Tesseract wasn’t attacking. He stood staring at the Cleaver’s slumped body, his hands loose and ready. After a moment the Cleaver stirred and something black leaked out of its shattered neck, draining out of it like blood or poison.

“Run,” said Saracen. He slapped the wall and klaxons peeled, and then they ran, all three of them, before the Remnant could gather itself from being exploded.

Chapter Text

Valkyrie trudged up the path to her aunt and uncle’s house, stifling a yawn. A shadow moved by the door and she snapped fire to her hand, but it was Xun.

“No good, huh?” he asked.

“Not yet.” Valkyrie rubbed her eyes. “Thanks for keeping watch.”

“I am being paid to do this.” He smiled at her and Valkyrie laughed, pushed open the door and went in. Her parents were sitting together on the couch and they got up when they saw her, relief and guilt crossing their faces. Fletcher was hovering nearby for some reason. Fergus turned from the kettle and looked at her anxiously, and Valkyrie took a deep breath.

Digger offered to come. Valkyrie said no. Digger shouldn’t stop searching because Valkyrie wanted support. The more time spent finding Carol and Melanie, the sooner they’d find Carol and Melanie.

At least Beryl wasn’t there.

“We haven’t found her yet,” she said, but Fergus’s face had already fallen.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Neither do I.” Her stomach rumbled and she flushed.

“We saved you something to eat,” said Mum quickly. “In case you didn’t.”

“Yeah, thanks.” She had, but that had been last night. The sun had risen some hours ago.

Fergus wordlessly put a plate in to reheat and Valkyrie took a seat by the counter, looking at Fletcher. “What are you doing here?”

Fletcher jumped and shrugged awkwardly. “I was at the precinct when Digger called Xun. Figured, you know, I know your parents and all, maybe I could help somehow.”

“Oh.” Valkyrie couldn’t imagine how he could’ve helped staying here at the house. Then again, if anyone had tried to attack at least they would have been safe. “Thank you, Fletcher,” she said, and for some reason it made him blush and look away, mumbling something she didn’t hear. “Where’s Beryl?”

“Upstairs,” said Mum, gripping Dad’s hand.

“Okay.” Valkyrie took a deep breath. The magical microwave chimed and Fergus took out the leftovers and put them on the counter. It was casserole, and smelled heavenly, and Valkyrie’s stomach growled again.

“Carol was with her friend Melanie earlier today,” she said. “They were definitely taken somewhere against their will. I found signs of a struggle and Melanie’s phone, and there was only one way they could have been taken off campus. No suspicious vehicles stopped, but the Tír doesn’t have many cars anyway. Their stuff was taken too, so they were trying to hide the kidnapping.”

She knew from Xun reporting to Digger that no one had tried to approach the house or left any notes.

“But why Carol?” Fergus asked, and it came out like a small explosion.

“I don’t know,” Valkyrie said. “I don’t think it’s about Carol. Skulduggery says there aren’t many coincidences, and if no one has a problem with Carol then she probably got taken because me and Mum and Dad are here. But we haven’t been here long enough to do much. So I don’t know.”

But she wondered. The only unusual thing she’d done yesterday was go to the research facility. She’d talked to people. What could she have said that would make someone take Carol? Why not take Valkyrie?

“I don’t know,” she repeated. “But I’m going to find out. Just let me eat first.”

“You should sleep too,” said Mum.

“Sleeping is very important,” Dad agreed anxiously, glancing at Fergus. Valkyrie smiled a bit.

“I know. I’m going to call Skulduggery and see what he says. Just a minute, I’m starving.”

They watched her wolf down the reheated meal. Fergus kept twisting the dishtowel and looking at the stairs. It made Valkyrie’s throat tighten, but not enough to make her stop eating. She needed it.

Finally she put down the cutlery and got out her phone and dialled Skulduggery. It rang for a long time and then went to voicemail, and Valkyrie frowned and dialled again. This time Skulduggery answered, but he sounded terse and she could hear the sounds of a fight behind him. “Valkyrie. Aren’t you on holiday?”

“What’s going on over there?” Valkyrie demanded.

“Ah.” He paused and she heard a grunt and then a thud, and he came back on the line. “Nothing much. Just a spot of bother. Nothing you have to worry about. You’re on holiday.”

“Carol’s been kidnapped.”

“… Ah.”

The sounds got dull, like he was holding the phone away or maybe covering the speaker, but she heard more muffled sounds of battle. Valkyrie took a deep, slow breath and avoided her family’s questioning eyes. How was she meant to answer their questions when she didn’t know the answers herself?

Finally Skulduggery came back. “You’ve gone to Digger?”

“Of course. But I thought it might have something to do with what you weren’t telling me.” Out of the corner of her eye, Valkyrie saw her parents look at one another.

“It’s certainly – a moment.” His voice pulled away and she heard him bark: “Fall back to the Grand Mage’s hall!” She’d never heard that tone from him before. Usually everyone knew their jobs before things happened, or he knew them so well he didn’t need to give orders.

“Skulduggery?”

He came back on the line, sounding brisk in that way Valkyrie knew was his version of breathlessness. “Unfortunately, we can’t help right now. In fact, tell the governor she ought to shut down all passage into and out of Ireland, and leave it closed until I – specifically me, mind – calls and tells you it’s safe.”

“What’s happened?” Valkyrie demanded.

“We’re a tad under siege,” said Skulduggery, “by the Remnants from the Midnight Hotel. It isn’t safe in Ireland, currently. I’m the only one they can’t possess, so it’s me you’ll have to trust. But if you can, send Fletcher to the Grand Mage’s office. We’re going to need him.”

Valkyrie took a deep breath. She wanted to ask what she should do about Carol, but Skulduggery was in the middle of a fight as it was. She could hear footsteps in the background. “Got it,” she said. “Who did it?”

“We don’t know,” said Skulduggery, and the sound dulled again, but then he was back in a few seconds. “I have to go. Digger’s a good detective, Valkyrie. Carol will be fine.”

“I’ll send Fletcher over,” said Valkyrie, but Skulduggery had already hung up. She lowered the phone.

“What is it?” Fergus demanded. Valkyrie took another deep breath before turning to look at her parents’ worried expressions and Fergus’s pinched face. She felt very calm. She’d felt this way before and knew that things were going to hit harder later because of it, especially on so little sleep, but right now she needed it.

“Someone broke the Remnants out of the Midnight Hotel,” she said. Mum looked blank but Dad and Fergus blanched and looked at each other. Valkyrie figured they would know. She only did because of Echo-Gordon’s stories. He liked trying to ‘prepare’ her, he said. Really she knew he just liked telling tales about the Dead Men. Valkyrie knew better than to disbelieve they were all true.

She turned to Fletcher. “They need you in the Grand Mage’s office,” she told him. “But you have to be quick, so you don’t get possessed.”

“Possessed?” Fletcher squeaked, and then cleared his throat. “Possessed?”

Valkyrie nodded. “Remnants are these little demonic shadows which take you over, and if someone doesn’t get them out within four days they can’t be taken out at all. So don’t spend more than a second anywhere other than the Grand Mage’s office.”

Fletcher paled. “Oh.”

“There’s a package with a stapled book in my bag, on top. Grab it and take it with you. It’s for Hopeless; it’s the prototype of thoughtspeaker upgrade he ordered. He might find that useful too.”

“Okay.” Fletcher nodded jerkily and hesitated for a moment, but then went upstairs without saying anything. Valkyrie looked at her parents.

“I’m going to talk to Corrival,” she said.

“You should be going to bed,” Mum argued.

“He has a sofa,” said Valkyrie. “I’ll sleep there. But the situation in Ireland is dangerous right now. He needs to know so he can talk to the governor about closing the Irish Bridge until the Remnants are sorted.”

Mum frowned, clutching Dad’s hand and rubbing her belly. “These things are really so dangerous?”

“Yes,” said Fergus, and everyone looked at him. He looked down at the dishtowel as he shook it out to wring it again. “I heard stories about the last time they got out. In Kerry.”

“They’re out now,” said Valkyrie. “They can’t possess Skulduggery, so if he calls, you know you can trust him. But he’s the only one you can, okay?” She checked her pockets and made sure she had everything she might need even though she hadn’t even had time to take anything out of them yet. “I’ll call when I can. And get some sleep.” She added the last as her mum opened her mouth, but she was already moving for the door. The last thing she did before she left was look back at Fergus.

“We’ll get her back,” she said firmly, and then strode out of the house.

Chapter Text

It took an unforgiveable length of time before China felt balanced after Scorn and Ravel’s visits the day before. Not that China showed it, of course; to her library patrons she was as gracious and charming as ever. But when she wasn’t being gracious and charming, she was checking her wards and taking a few extra … precautions. Just in case. Ravel was among the least stable of the Dead Men, but there was no telling what the others would do if he told them.

There wasn’t much China could do to stop them, if they collectively decided to come after her, but there were avenues of escape she could facilitate.

At least this time she was prepared when one of them appeared in her library, sprawled in an armchair and flipping through one of her books. China eyed Vex from the aisle. If he knew, he wouldn’t be so cavalier, surely. Then again, Dead Men being cavalier was the predominant cause of death among their targets.

No way to know. Into the lion’s den, then.

“Dexter, how wonderful to see you again,” China said, stepping out into the alcove, still carrying one of the books she’d been using as a cover. Vex looked up and smiled. There was something strange about that smile. Something not quite like Vex, but not quite like any of the other Dead Men, either.

“China dear, how terribly delightful,” he said, tossing the book aside. China winced and Vex saw it, and he laughed. “It’s not made of china, China.”

“How hilarious,” she said dryly, picking up the book and putting it away in its bookcase. She didn’t turn her back. “Whatever might I do for you today, Dexter?”

He got up and she felt him behind her. China turned around and he was right there, closer than he ought to have been, and with that strange little smile. China stared back and didn’t move, but she flattened a palm in preparation to use the sigil on it.

“Erskine told me an interesting little story last night,” he said, and then paused, tapping his chin. “Or was it this morning? It’s a bit unclear. We were using Hotel time.”

“I’m sure all of you tell each other plenty of stories,” said China and stepped forward to give herself more space without trying to squeeze past him. China Sorrows didn’t squeeze. At least, not in situations like this.

Bu Vex didn’t move. If anything, he took a half-step in, so they brushed one another when they breathed. His smile was practically unnerving. Where had she seen such a smile before? China couldn’t remember, which meant that today was shaping up to be nearly as bad as the day before.

“This story,” said Vex in a low voice which did not mean in the least that he was keeping quiet for the sake of her privacy, “was about a story he first overheard from someone else. About who, exactly, is responsible for leading Skulduggery’s family into the trap which killed him.”

China’s fist came up, sigils already glowing. Vex twisted to the side and her powered strike missed, but his own hand was glowing as he lifted it. China’s other hand pressed against the bookcase and it slide aside, and she threw herself backward. Vex’s energy-beam sizzled overhead and China rolled and came up again. She didn’t even wince at the smell of burning paper. She just ducked behind another bookcase.

“Come out, come out, China dear,” said Vex a low voice. She could hear his footsteps as he moved through the library, slow and deliberate. “I wasn’t planning on killing you, when Erskine told me what you did, but let’s just say that I’ve had a change of heart. There are so many people left in the world who deserve killing, don’t you agree? Did you have a fine time pretending you aren’t one of them?”

China didn’t answer. She knew he wasn’t expecting her to, anyway. But she moved between the shelves, letting them react to her need for cover by getting in his way. She heard the sizzle of his energy-beam, and now allowed herself the luxury of a wince. Still, it was magic. The books were warded against magical damage while still on the shelf. She’d made sure of it, after the Baron’s visit.

Someone loomed between the cases and China’s palm snapped up, but it was only one of her patrons, looking vaguely confused, like he had heard Vex’s threats but hadn’t quite registered they were so near. She left him standing there blinking in favour of finding her way to the door without presenting Vex with anything he could use as a target.

“The real question on my mind is how I should kill you,” said Vex thoughtfully. Thud, thud, thud went his footsteps. It was entirely unfair, China thought, that anyone could be so menacing in her own territory. Nevertheless here she was. Not scuttling, but something near enough. It was demeaning.

What on Earth had happened? This wasn’t like Vex. He could be a tease, but he wasn’t cruel. He was trying to make her afraid. He’d succeeded, too. There weren’t many things China feared, but the Dead Men happened to be eight of them.

The bookcases reshuffled themselves and China spotted the door, tantalisingly near. She didn’t run for it. One of her patrons did, looking very nervous in the cover of a bookcase. He saw the door and broke for it, his feet flying. He was a foot away when Vex’s beam struck him in the back, sizzling through his torso and illuminating practically every vein in his body. The man slumped to the floor, his back and chest charred messes. China blinked away the afterimages.

If she’d had any doubts about whether Vex was playing around, she didn’t now. He meant to kill, and he didn’t care about collateral damage. That was exceptionally unlike Vex.

China abandoned the door and strode toward a secret exit on the far side of the library instead. There were only two people who knew about this exit – herself and her butler. And he would die before he revealed it.

Which was why she was resigned but unsurprised to find him standing before it once she had navigated her way through the shifting bookcases. How else had Vex gotten into the library without her knowing it beforehand? How else indeed.

She watched her butler from an aisle. He was waiting patiently and with a funny little smile. It was a pity. He had been trustworthy, all things considered. Exactly why he was helping Vex was beyond China right now, but if she tried to be anything other than lethal Vex would catch up with her the minute he heard the scuffle. Fast and simple it would have to be.

With a tap to her thighs China sped out from her cover, quicker than human reflex. Even still her butler’s head turned toward her, but by then she had already activated the sigils on her knuckles.

The wards exploded behind her and threw her against the wall, and she tumbled to the floor with her ears ringing. Luckily it had the same effect on her butler. China was the first one standing, albeit dizzily. She lunged for him but her sigils had deactivated and Vex caught her by the arm and swung her into his fist. This time when China went down she stayed down, breathing as even as she could make it. That was rendered especially difficult when Vex put his foot on her back to keep her there.

China exhaled and inhaled shallowly, and exhaled again, forcing herself to think. If she so much as twitched, Vex would undoubtedly notice.

“She was going to kill me,” said her butler, sounding vaguely put out, as though someone had left a tea-stain on a linen serviette. “After all these years of service.”

“Be fair,” said Vex. “You betrayed her first. You were helping me kill her.”

“Hardly. I just wasn’t going to let her leave.”

Slowly China turned her head to view her library. There was a truly horrendous hole, large enough to fit a man, sheared like a tunnel through every bookcase from here to the door. And through the books which had been on them. The edges glowed red, cauterised so not a single page was actively on fire, but still. Hundreds of books not much more than ash.

The men were still arguing over whether her butler’s actions counted as betrayal. It wasn’t like him, to argue. China turned her head again, this time in the other direction. Arguing he might have been, but at least he was doing it with his back straight and without getting actively angry.

Then Vex held up a hand in a ‘stop’ motion, and China closed her eyes. “You know what? Forget it. I’m not going to bother arguing with you.”

“I appreciate it,” said her butler. Blinding light seared the rims of China’s eyelids and she heard a sizzle, and when she opened her eyes again her butler’s headless body was slumping to the floor.

“He was difficult to find,” China observed dispassionately.

“Sorry about that,” said Vex, not sounding sorry at all. “But I can’t abide traitors.” He paused. “Really, I’m surprised he didn’t see that coming. I took off his head in his last incarnation too. Only that time it was for theft.” China filed that away somewhere she could look at it later and clenched her fist, but Vex’s foot came down and ground her hand into the floor and China swallowed a cry. “Don’t make this difficult, China.”

“Hopeless wouldn’t want you to do this.” Her voice was even, if slightly breathless due to the weight of the man on her back. Marvellous. Vex would have to divine how terrified she was through other means.

“Hopeless tends to be a mite caught up in mental red tape,” said Vex.

China craned her head just enough to see him towering over her, her eyes narrowed almost to slits. “Why are you doing this? It isn’t like the Dead Men to gloat. You’re all of you far too heroic for that.”

“Like I said.” Vex smiled, but his face didn’t stop moving; veins bulged and blackened, and so did his eyes and his lips. “I’ve had a change of heart. Oh look, there he is.” He pointed at her butler’s body and China followed the direction automatically, her heart pounding. Something black oozed between the cauterised tissues of her butler’s charred neck – or tried. The seared edge was making it difficult for the Remnant to properly leave the corpse.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, and was pleased when the fear didn’t show.

Vex already knew, and laughed. “Oh, I’m not going to let him have you, don’t worry. It’d be boring to kill him again. I’m sure there’s someone cowering around here who’ll be a perfectly serviceable host. No, China dear, you are going somewhere else entirely.”

His hand glowed. He lifted it and China tensed herself against the floor to perform some idiotic but desperate manoeuvre. ‘It’s a Small World’ cut through the sound of energy humming, and Vex frowned and pulled out his phone without dimming the magic in his hand. “Dexter Vex. To whom am I speaking?”

China exhaled slowly and forced herself to relax, her palms flat against the floor. Vex wasn’t precisely distracted, but it might just be enough. China had to find a way out, now she had the time to think.

“What a lovely and unfortunate name. What can I do for you?”

Absurdly, China was also curious as to what kind of phone call could delay a Remnant from killing someone they very much wanted to kill. She pushed it away and examined her surroundings without moving.

Coffee-table. Carpet. Singed books.

“Actually,” said Vex, sounding genuinely apologetic, “I do hate to be rude, but I’m right now in the middle of something. Can we talk later?”

Damn. The fingers of China’s injured hand curled in as she considered how to twist to throw an energy field, but then Vex laughed suddenly. “True, that. I suppose I can spare a minute. How can I help?”

China’s other hand stretched out again, as if scrabbling. Absently Vex rocked his foot enough on her back so she’d be reminded he was still paying attention despite the light-hearted conversation.

“I have been dabbling here and there,” said Vex.

China remained tense, listening hard and judging distances, her fingers groping blindly across the floor. All she could hear through the phone was an unrecognisable voice.

“You think it’s a quantifiable form of energy-manipulation?”

The foot eased off just the slightest. Before China could make any moves he ground his heel in behind her shoulder-blades in a fashion that drove all the air out of her lungs, so she was left gasping and unable to even scream. As if she would have, even to try and ask for help over the phone. Ridiculous.

Vex gazed down at China thoughtfully. His hand looked red with the energy in it, but his aim was still true. China lay very, very still. Even her hand had paused its desperate movements, resting limp just off the carpet under the coffee-table. “What are you asking, exactly?”

The voice on the other end spoke again, intelligible.

“Oh, that will be fine.” Vex smiled. “I can get there today, no problem. Couple of hours?”

China’s fingers swiped the floorboards.

“You’re quite welcome. See you soon.” Vex hung up and loosed his energy-beam casually on the butler’s corpse, the floor and likely the wall of the flat blow. The Remnant that had been trying to climb out was flung wide before it caught itself and shot deeper into the library.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he told China. “It would be rude of me not to share you with my brothers. Rover and Anton will probably be here soon, at the very least – I’m sure Erskine’s already told them what he told me. If you’re very lucky, they won’t kill you on sight.” He paused. “Of course, it might be wise of you not to struggle. That way you might stand more of a chance when they untie you. If they untie you.”

China considered this earnest wisdom thoroughly. “Thank you for the advice,” she said, and then she slammed her palm against the sigil she had drawn under the edge of the carpet. A shockwave ran through the floorboards and Vex stumbled, cursing and firing. China rolled and sprang to her feet and with a snap of her hand flung the coffee-table at him, and he jerked his glowing palm up. It exploded and shards of wood cut her back as she vaulted through the shattered window, chased by another energy-beam.

She touched her legs and sigils glowed, but the landing was painful. She actually stumbled before she regained her balance, and limped as quickly as possible down the street, ignoring the staring passers-by. If the Sanctuary disliked the public seeing a beautiful lady leap from a multi-storey building and land easily on the pavement below, they would just have to keep better control of their detectives.

Right now, China just hoped whatever that call had been about was interesting enough that Vex would decide not to chase after her for at least a few hours.

Chapter Text

Ghastly had never seen the Grand Mage’s office while the Sanctuary was under siege. It was pretty, in a tacky way; it looked like it had been done up in terrible Christmas decorations. The rug was pushed aside to show the circle of sigils lit up on the floor, and there were strings of sigils all along the walls and door. Every now and then they’d chime. Some of them would go dull, indicating areas the Remnants had taken.

There were more of them than there had been since Ghastly stepped in.

“We’re losing ground fast,” said Macha.

“Not so fast as we could be,” Skulduggery observed, sourly fingering a singe on his jacket and shooting injured glances over at Ghastly. Ghastly only raised an eyebrow back. There were any number of reasons why the suit might have gotten slightly singed. Skulduggery attempting to run through a fireball sprang to mind. “You upgraded the Sanctuary’s wards while I was gone, Hopeless.”

Hopeless only smiled wearily from where he was sitting back in his chair, his eyes closed and his fingers moving his prayer-rope between them. Fletcher stood nervously in the corner. Guild hovered by Hopeless’s desk. Saracen hovered on the other side of Hopeless’s desk. Tanith stood near Macha, watching Tesseract. Tesseract was sitting in an armchair, very still, with Tanith’s sword against his throat.

“What are your orders?” Macha asked, but it was hard to tell whether she was directing the question at Hopeless or Guild. Guild glanced at Hopeless.

“Wait,” said Hopeless, and it made Ghastly jump. The little disc on his temple glowed as he spoke; his voice was blurred by static but it was understandable. It wasn’t the first time Hopeless had spoken through the little piece of magical technology Fletcher had brought with him, but it was strange, after a few years of having gotten used to Hopeless signing everything.

Macha’s eyes flickered and from the way she glanced at Guild she expected Guild to object, but he didn’t. “Grand Mage, we can’t hold off Remnants forever,” she said bluntly. “Even if it’s not all of them pressing their advantage here, they can get through the wards in their natural form.”

Hopeless nodded and said nothing.

“Can’t we evacuate the rest of the Sanctuary staff?” Tanith asked. “Even Fletcher only taking a handful at a time, we should be able to pull out under their noses.”

“We can’t lose the Sanctuary,” Guild said shortly. “It would be seen as a weakness. Even if we win in the end, the other Sanctuaries would use it against us.”

“Is this really a time to be thinking of politics?” Tanith demanded, glancing at Ghastly as though she expected Ghastly to back her up, but he didn’t say anything. After the conversation he and Guild had not too long ago, he couldn’t.

“We’ve got the majority of the Sanctuary out, at least,” Ghastly said instead. “And the other Remnants aren’t likely to pinpoint where they went. It’s not an official safehouse.”

“We should still send someone to keep an eye on them soon,” Saracen pointed out, glancing at Skulduggery. Skulduggery saw him looking and sighed.

“I knew this would happen. Next thing you’ll want ten of me. It’s very difficult to investigate the cause of an outbreak when I’m needed in so many places.”

“Don’t you hate being popular?”

“Extremely. Hopeless, may I go? I have a lot to do, since, as usual, I’m far too talented for my own good.”

“Wait,” said Hopeless again, his eyes still closed. Everyone stood there in awkward silence. One of the sigils chimed and then dulled as the defenders abandoned it and fell back to another checkpoint.

“Grand Mage –” Macha began, and Hopeless nodded to her.

“Go on.”

Macha bowed and left, and Ghastly wished he was going with her. It was almost better being out there, fighting the Remnant-possessed, than waiting in here.

“What are we waiting for?” Tanith asked Saracen, but he only smiled and tapped his nose. Tanith glared. “The worst part is that I can’t even tell whether you’re taking the mickey or not these days.”

Hopeless opened his eyes and sat up, and reached for the phone. It rang as he pushed the button to pick up, and then the loudspeaker. “We’re here.”

There was a startled pause. “You talked,” said Erskine, and Ghastly let out his breath in a rush. He’d been trying not to think about the others, about where they were or what could have happened. The Remnants had to have come from the Hotel, and half of the Dead Men were meant to be at the Hotel.

“Fletcher delivered the thoughtspeaker,” Hopeless explained. It was surreal, seeing him smile as he spoke, but without the benefit of speaking around the smile.

“Oh. We have a problem. I’m guessing you know what it is.”

In the background they heard Rover holler: “Of course they bloody know what it is!”

“We know,” said Hopeless. “They’ve cut off the exits. We’re using Fletcher as an emergency escape.”

Skulduggery leaned in close. “What happened?”

“Caelan,” said Anton over the line. “Someone arranged for Dusk to drive him into hiding in the Hotel, and use the serum so he wouldn’t be in his room at nightfall. It must have been doctored in some fashion.”

“It didn’t last,” said Skulduggery. “So while you were dealing with him, someone went upstairs to break the Remnants out.”

“Yes.”

“How did they get the key?” Skulduggery asked.

“They didn’t. They nullified the wards somehow. I didn’t have a chance to see how. But I suspect Myron Stray was part of it; he was in the commons when Caelan and I came downstairs, and he was the only one who left afterward.”

“He was watching for you,” said Tanith.

“Yes.”

“And we know you’re all perfectly safe,” Skulduggery said, “or Hopeless won’t have told us to wait for you to call.” He paused. “I assume this means you’re near enough for him to hear.”

“Payphone near the Waxworks,” said Erskine, over the sound of what might have been a snarl. “But we’re not all perfectly safe. They got Dexter.” There was a hefty pause inside the office, which was fine, because Erskine went on, sounding terse. “He might have beat us here. I’m not sure. But we think we know where he’s going, and if we’re fast we might catch him.”

“You can’t,” said Hopeless. “You need to go to the Temple and talk the necromancers into helping.”

“Hopeless –” Erskine cut himself off before he finished whatever he’d meant to say, and the sound of his deep breath was audible.

“Rover and I don’t need to go with him,” Anton said.

“I know,” said Hopeless. His eyes were so wide they were all black, and the thoughtspeaker glitched. Some of the static sounded like voices, but then faded back into the general electric buzz. Ghastly glanced at Guild. Guild was staring at Hopeless, his eyes narrowed and expression thoughtful. “But it doesn’t matter, anyway. China is about a block away from you. Please don’t kill her.”

“Must we not?” Anton asked, and Ghastly honestly could not tell if it was a joke or not. Sometimes not even the Dead Men could tell whether Anton was joking. A lot of the time he wasn’t, but last Ghastly had checked he didn’t have anything against China except general principle.

“You must.”

“We’re to protect her instead,” said Anton, and he didn’t sound happy.

“If the necromancers say no you’re going to need her to turn the Hotel into a soul-catcher.”

“Is that possible?” Tanith broke in, and Hopeless nodded slightly.

“Theoretically. Anton won’t be able to do it on his own, though.”

“And if the necromancers say yes, where am I going to bring them?” Erskine asked. “Here?”

“No,” said Hopeless. “There’s not even close to a third of the Remnants here. The ones here are a distraction, not an invasion. They’re going to cut their losses eventually. They just want to keep our attention. Take the necromancers to Fionn, if you can. If you can’t, go there anyway. Once Skulduggery’s investigated the Hotel he’ll meet you there to help.”

“Who’s Fionn –” Ghastly started to ask.

“Oh, you didn’t,” said Saracen in the same moment. Hopeless smiled at both of them, and with his eyes in the state they were it only made him look more alien.

“How can you be sure the necromancers are clear?” Tanith asked, and it was Skulduggery who answered.

“The Remnants know the necromancers are the only ones who can stop them without the Receptacle. If they bother the Temple it will only make the necromancers more likely to get in the way. If I know the necromancers, right now they’re hiding in the Temple waiting for everything to blow over.”

“So they’re probably not possessed.” Tanith nodded. She’d barely taken her eyes off Tesseract this whole time, and Ghastly spared a moment to admire her focus. Especially with Tesseract looking back at her.

“Fionn’s people might be,” Erskine said grimly. “Skulduggery won’t be able to help tell that, and if the necromancers say no we won’t have anyone who can ward the place to help, unless you want to take China off turning-the-Hotel-into-a-soul-catcher duty.”

“If they say no, you can have China. You won’t have any trouble convincing her to help.”

“It’s going to take us a few hours to get back to the Hotel,” Anton warned.

“You can borrow Fletcher.”

Fletcher started at the sound of his name, looking around wildly like he was expecting there to be another Fletcher in the room. Ghastly smiled at him encouragingly and Fletcher managed to smile back shakily.

“And you?” Erskine asked. “Skulduggery’s going to the Hotel. The rest of you aren’t staying there, surely?”

“Thurid’s going to the backup Sanctuary,” said Hopeless, and told him the address. “You’ll need to send some necromancers there too, but they’ll find it’s already got some basic wards. Saracen’s going with him.”

You’re staying there.”

“They need someone to try and get to.”

“You’re going to pretend to distract them.”

Hopeless shrugged. “They seem like they want to be distracted.”

“I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Guild growled, and Hopeless smiled at him. Guild looked away.

“I’ve got my phone. And I’ve got Ghastly and Tanith, if they want to stay.”

“I’m staying,” said Ghastly immediately.

“Me too,” said Tanith without taking her gaze off Tesseract.

“There you go, Erskine. I’m perfectly safe.”

“Sure,” Erskine grumbled, “if they can manage to keep their hands off each other.” Ghastly felt his cheeks warm and didn’t look at Tanith, but Erskine let out a longsuffering sigh – the kind faked for the humour of it. It was almost lost beneath the sound of Rover shouting things in the distance. “Fine, fine. But I need to go, or Rover’s going to disobey your order not to murder China in the street. I’ll call back in an hour.”

He hung up.

“Why does everyone suddenly want to murder China?” Skulduggery asked Hopeless conversationally.

“Later,” said Hopeless. “Possibly much, much later. Fletcher?”

“Um.” Fletcher gulped. “Yes?”

“Please take Skulduggery to the phone-booth on the corner of the block to pick up Anton, Rover and China, and take them all to the Midnight Hotel’s usual location. Then, if you’d be so kind, come back here to take Thurid and Saracen to the Edgley mansion.”

Fletcher shuffled his feet awkwardly. “I’ve never been there.” Hopeless gazed at him wordlessly until he flushed so deeply his hair almost went red. “Okay, okay! I’ve been there. Once. On accident.”

“Try not to ‘accident’ your way there again,” Hopeless said mildly, and Fletcher gazed at the floor, shuffling his feet some more. “But feel free to go if you’re invited.”

“What about him?” Tanith asked, nodding at Tesseract. The only indication Tesseract was even still awake was that he turned his head toward Hopeless.

“He’s staying here,” said Hopeless, “with us. For the moment. That’s it, everyone. Check in every hour.”

“Tally-ho,” Skulduggery murmured, prodding forlornly once more at his singed sleeve before putting his hand on Fletcher’s shoulder, and they both vanished.

Chapter Text

Valkyrie was dreaming. She was dreaming about a pumpkin that kept turning into a ship, and Skulduggery was at the stern guiding it with the wheel. She was fairly sure it was Skulduggery, even though he kept turning into a cat. They were talking, she wasn’t sure about what, and then the boat thumped against the side of the wharf and she woke up. She sat up blinking, looking around.

“Sorry,” whispered Peep, rubbing her knee.

“S’okay,” Valkyrie mumbled, and rubbed her eyes, and looked around again now that she was actually awake. The blinds were drawn and it cast Corrival’s small office in a kind of plump shadowy clutter. “What’s the time?”

“’Bout midday. General told me to see if you were awake for lunch.”

About four hours of sleep. Valkyrie grimaced and swung her legs off the couch and surreptitiously tried to give herself a sniff. Maybe she could take a time-out for a shower. Did they have showers at the precinct?

“Yep,” she said, and got up and stretched, and followed Peep out of the office. The girl carefully locked the door behind them with a key around her neck. She was taller than she was a couple of years ago, Valkyrie noticed. Was it really a couple of years?

Was that how it felt to be a sorcerer, missing when time went by so fast?

“Do they pay you?” she asked, and Peep drew herself up proudly.

“Sure do.”

“Cool. How’s your dad?” Valkyrie walked beside her as she trotted down the hall toward the elevator. There was a cafeteria a few floors down.

“Fine,” said Peep. “General took me to see him a couple of weeks ago. He’s been workin’ with one of ’em mental therapists, even though he ain’t crazy.”

“A lot of people who have therapists aren’t crazy. I’ve got one.”

“Then what’s the point of having one, if you ain’t crazy?”

That made Valkyrie laugh, because she remembered asking the same thing and now she couldn’t imagine not being able to go to Hopeless and know he already knew what was wrong. Of course, not everyone’s therapist was a mind-reader.

Peep scowled. “Sorry,” said Valkyrie as they stepped into the elevator and punched the button. “You sound like me a couple of years ago. Just because he’s not crazy doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some things to work out. If you have a broken leg, that doesn’t mean you’re a cripple. Just that you have a broken leg, and need to get it fixed. It’s like that.”

Peep grunted in a very Corrival-like way, and Valkyrie grinned, and didn’t argue when she changed the subject. “Heard you’re looking for your cousin.”

The smile faded. “Yeah. Have you heard anything?”

Peep’s only living parent was in jail. Valkyrie didn’t even know where she slept, though she suspected it was often at Corrival’s apartment. Then again, Valkyrie was also pretty sure that Corrival would have made sure Peep had bothered to brush her hair that morning, so maybe she wasn’t. Either way, she overheard a lot of things when adults talked like she wasn’t there. Or maybe that was just because her dad had asked some of his ‘friends’ to keep an eye on her.

“Ain’t the Old Guard,” said Peep promptly. “They’re scared shitless of the General. They’ve got stories from the war. Heard ’em telling some to the young ones.”

“You’ve been hanging around your dad’s friends.”

Peep shrugged and didn’t answer.

“If you hear anything, can you let me know?”

“Dunno that I’ll hear anything,” said Peep, “but if you think it’ll help.”

“Thank you.”

The elevator took them to the hallway just outside the cafeteria and Peep trotted off to do whatever it was she did when she was running errands. Valkyrie got a tray and loaded it with food at the buffet. It was an open café. Only people in the precinct were allowed there, because it was unpaid. Valkyrie wasn’t entirely sure she qualified, but no one had stopped her and she didn’t want to ask in case she was told she couldn’t.

Valkyrie took one of the empty seats and was nearly done eating when Corrival strode into the room.

It was interesting, watching everyone else. Valkyrie had heard a lot of stories and she’d spoken to Corrival a lot herself, but she’d barely ever seen him interact with the precinct. He was wearing his ratty and faded rainbow coat, but the officers nearest to the door leapt to their feet, and the ones not so close lowered their voices until the noise level was a pleasant hum instead of a hubbub.

Impatiently Corrival waved the officers back to their seats and made a bee-line for Valkyrie, and sat like a mountain coming to rest, complete with a little groan. “You’ve made my poor feet complain, girl.”

“It’s not my fault the rest of you needs more exercise,” Valkyrie said. “What have I missed?”

“Got you clearance to go back downstairs,” said Corrival, “but first there’s something over in forensics for you to see. If you’re done stuffing your face.”

He got up and Valkyrie shovelled the rest of her food into her mouth, but he went to the buffet first and came back with a sandwich in hand, already taking a bite. He snapped his fingers at her to indicate she should follow. Grinning, Valkyrie did.

They took the elevator back up a couple of floors. Valkyrie had never been into forensics before – it was a restricted area. She knew it was one of the most advanced levels in the tower, and that was all. In Ireland, most of the forensics was done by the detectives. There wasn’t any specific ‘forensic’ division. Just the medial wing, which doubled as research and autopsy, but nothing only for forensics. Valkyrie wondered whether it was like a sci-fi version of some CSI show.

It actually looked a lot like the facility downstairs, except the halls weren’t made of glass. They were white and sterile, and separated out into doors; but they weren’t as sprawled, being tightly clustered instead. To move evidence faster, Valkyrie thought.

Corrival knew his way around. He strode down the hall, eating his sandwich on the quick, and finally paused by one of the doors to shove the last bite into his mouth every bit as inelegantly as Valkyrie had. Only then did he push open the doors, wiping his hands on a handkerchief.

“What are we here to look at?” Valkyrie asked, and Corrival held up a finger until he finished his mouthful.

Finally he swallowed and said, “Digger had some of the techs take a look at the city footage.”

“The city has cameras?”

He waggled his hand. “Sigils. They’re inside the streetlights. Theoretically the population knows they’re there, but since they don’t look like anything people forget they exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Hallo, the lab.” A man working at one of the desks swivelled on his chair to look at them and Corrival said, “Taking a look at some recordings for the Edgley kidnapping.”

“Over there.” The man pointed toward a woman by an alcove who was looking at a flat physical screen in the wall. There was an unused chair next to her. They went close to get a look and Valkyrie gasped at the sight of a street cast into the alcove, like a 3D still image.

“That’s awesome,” she said.

“Thank you,” said a woman, but it wasn’t the one in front of them. The chair swivelled and Valkyrie realised there was another woman there, short enough that the chair had hidden her. Her face was squashed and misshapen, and her head rested on her shoulder as though it was too much effort to keep up. Her hands were small and twisted, prodding at the control-stick on the chair – it was a movable chair, with electric wheels. Valkyrie stared, realised she was staring, flushed, looked away, looked back.

“Um …”

“Piper,” said the woman, but her mouth didn’t move and that was when Valkyrie saw the glow of the thoughtspeaker under her shaggy hair. “Doctor Yvette Sala. But call me Piper. You’re the Devil, aren’t you?”

“That’ll be me,” said Corrival. He probably wasn’t staring. Valkyrie looked down at her shoes. “Digger said you have something.”

Piper’s head bobbed forward and her face twitched, and Valkyrie realised she was trying to smile. “Bulwark?”

“I’ve got it,” said the woman by the controls, nearly as cheerful as Rover, and the hologram inside the alcove shimmered and changed. It was zoomed out this time, and located above and somewhere to the left of the whirlpool escalator Valkyrie had used yesterday.

“This is the main entrance downstairs, on campus,” said Piper, “when Cain went down to visit.”

Valkyrie watched herself descend the stairs. It looked like one of those magic tricks were a mime pretended to vanish behind a wall. Carol and Melanie left.

“We followed Edgley and her friend until the point where they were taken,” Piper explained, and the image changed again, this time to the path Valkyrie had followed in the dark. She only recognised it because she’d been back there earlier in the morning, after sunrise, but she thought she could remember the streetlight the image was probably from. “It was four hours later, after they left the café.”

Carol and Melanie meandered off the path into the bushes, and – Bulwark? Seriously, her name was Bulwark? – fast-forwarded the image until someone else came up the path. They were wearing a hood and a bulky jumper so Valkyrie couldn’t tell the gender, but they were very tall and thin, and nervy, glancing around. They also vanished into the trees.

Valkyrie frowned. “Just one person?”

“That’s all we can see,” said Piper. “We thought someone had come in from the other direction, but now we think they have some kind of magic to help them move two bodies. Or they’re packing an illegal pistol.”

“Why?” Corrival asked, and Piper’s head jerked toward Bulwark, flopping onto her other shoulder.

“Bully?” The image was already shifting back to the facility entrance, but this time it zoomed in and Valkyrie spotted the same hooded figure at once. “This is about an hour after Cain went downstairs.”

“They were waiting for me to come out,” said Valkyrie. “But I didn’t come out through there. I went out through the exit near the developmental tech lab.”

“They weren’t expecting you to be familiar with the layout,” Corrival said grimly, and Valkyrie shrugged.

“I’m not. I just thought it was dumb that the developmental tech lab could be so far out and not have an entrance, and the Tír isn’t usually dumb like that.”

“And you only spoke to a handful of people down there.” It wasn’t a question. Valkyrie had already told Corrival what she’d done that morning that might get someone’s back up. The only thing they came up with was her talking to the researchers. She’d even told them she was new.

“Anything else?” Corrival asked.

“They’re a faery,” said Bulwark promptly.

Valkyrie blinked. “How can you tell?”

“For one thing, ten to one someone that tall is a faery,” said Piper. “For another, we ran the hologram through a scan. Magical energy registers on the spectrum, if you know what you’re looking for. They’ve definitely used magic recently enough to be having an impact on their physical makeup.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Corrival said to Piper, and her head flopped to her other shoulder and she looked up at him lopsidedly, one side of her mouth drawing up in a grimace that was probably meant to be a smile.

“Don’t mention it, General Deuce.”

“Don’t call me that,” Corrival grumbled as they left, heading back toward the elevator.

Valkyrie hid her grin and said, “I didn’t see anyone that height downstairs. It’s kind of noticeable.”

“Probably someone else,” said Corrival. “Anyone who was physically downstairs when you were would have to have speed magic to beat you out, no matter which way you went.”

“It still doesn’t tell us why they would kidnap Carol and Melanie.”

“Nope,” said Corrival, and called the elevator. It opened right away and they went in, and he closed the doors and hit the temporary stop, pulling out his phone. He called Skulduggery and put it on speaker. They waited in silence while it rang, until finally Skulduggery picked up.

“Ah, Corrival. Fancy getting a call from you.”

“Cain delivered your message,” Corrival said. “The Irish Bridge is locked. Got any more details for me?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Skulduggery, “I do.” It certainly sounded a lot quieter on the other end, except for the crunch of shoes on debris.

“The Sanctuary isn’t being attacked anymore?” Valkyrie asked.

“Oh, not at all.” Valkyrie relaxed. Skulduggery went on, “The Sanctuary is going to continue being attacked for the foreseeable future. Hopeless wants to keep as many Remnants as possible occupied while we take action behind their backs. But I am at the Hotel, and I can tell you Anton’s suspicions. I can even send you a picture of the evidence.”

He sounded annoyingly perky. The kind of perky he got when nothing was going right, but he felt as though everything was going well, and he was really enjoying his work. Valkyrie couldn’t help but grin, because it was that or cry at the fierce warmth she felt inside her. God, she’d missed him while he was gone. It’d only been a few months since he’d come back.

“Don’t wait on us,” Corrival said dryly.

“Anton suspects that Myron Stray was responsible. I agree. Stray wouldn’t leave his house without a damn good reason; I don’t think he has left his house in years. But he checked into the Hotel yesterday, and he was conveniently present just before the planned distraction and conveniently absent during.”

“What distraction?” Valkyrie asked. What could distract the Dead Men from noticing someone going after the Remnants?

“Caelan,” said Skulduggery with distaste in his voice.

“That vampire bloke who was creeping around on me?”

There was a significant pause. “You never told me that.”

Belatedly Valkyrie realised it had been before they’d rescued Skulduggery, as a result of preparing to rescue Skulduggery, and therefore there was a very good reason why Skulduggery didn’t know. Valkyrie had only noticed because Erskine thought she ought to know how to detect vampires, after all the times Dusk had shown up. “Yeah, well, he only showed up near the school once and the others told him to stop it or else.”

“I wasn’t aware you’d even met him,” said Skulduggery conversationally, and Valkyrie winced.

“He was being held in an underground fighting ring, okay? I helped Dexter with the witness statements after he and Erskine raided the place.” This was ridiculous, Valkyrie thought irritably, and let it grow. She could use anger to liven herself up a bit. She didn’t need anyone to act like she was too silly to notice guys being creeps nearby. “Look, I don’t owe you explanations. It’s not my fault or the Dead Men’s fault a stupid vampire got a crush on me, and it’s dealt with so it’s not important anyway, so let’s move on.”

There was another pause and Valkyrie was prepared to argue, but then she felt a rush of affection when Skulduggery did exactly that: moved on. “Caelan checked into the Hotel for protection after having stolen some serum from Dusk, but either it was a dud or something else was going on. It worked for an hour, and then he turned.”

“Vampire serum is too complicated to go adding things like time-delays into it,” said Corrival. He hadn’t butted into the little argument, even though it was his phone and his call. Valkyrie felt a rush of appreciation for him too. “It might not be impossible, but it’s not going to be of benefit and no one’s going to care enough to get it done even if it was.”

“No one in Ireland or most other countries,” said Skulduggery, “but judging by Hopeless’s new toy, the Tír has quite the drive for technological development.”

“Good thing we’ve got a warrant for that section, then. How did they get through the wards?”

“From the looks of the burn damage,” said Skulduggery, “with brute-force magic of some kind. They took down the ward, which of course opened the lock. It wouldn’t have been difficult, after that.”

“That’s one hell of a punch,” Corrival muttered. “Shudder must be beside himself.”

“He actually frowned when he looked at them, if you’ll believe it.”

No,” Valkyrie said in mock horror.

“Oh yes. I almost went and hid under the table. By the way, have you ever heard of a soul-catcher not made of glass and stone?”

“Never,” said Corrival.

“Someone has. I’m fairly sure that’s what I’m looking at. I’ll send you a picture. How’s the search for Carol?”

“Proceeding quite nicely, thank you.”

“I gave you your only leads, didn’t I?” Skulduggery sounded smug. “I do enjoy being exceptional at my job.”

“You’re not that good,” Valkyrie grumbled, “and they weren’t our only leads, so shut up.”

“Anything else you have to tell us?” Corrival demanded.

“I could always come up with something, but I suspect you’re talking about something pertaining to your investigation. In that case, no.”

“Then we’d better get going,” said Corrival. “We’re holding up the elevator. Keep us in the loop, Pleasant.” He hung up and looked at Valkyrie, and Valkyrie looked back. “The researchers you spoke to. They say anything about true-names or Myron Stray?”

Valkyrie had to think about it, frowning. She was at that stage where she didn’t feel like she was tired, until she had to actively work something out. “I don’t think so,” she said finally. “It was all about names and environmental changes, measuring dimensions and brainwaves and whatever. But why would a sorcerer want to help Stray enough to let out the Remnants?”

“A sorcerer wouldn’t,” said Corrival. “A faery might, depending on any ulterior motives. In any case, it’s a good thing I got that warrant from Khutulun to inspect the developmental tech lab, and you’re coming down with me. If we’re lucky we might be able to solve both mysteries at once.”

Chapter Text

Erskine’s head still hurt when he made his way through the cemetery to the Temple entrance. It was a dull ache behind his temples which should not have been nearly enough to make his sight and smell as sharp as they were. He tried to put out of his head the idea that there was something else involved and sent a blast of air into the door like a dull gong.

He had no idea what to expect. No one had heard anything from the necromancers since Lord Vile’s armour had assassinated half their High Priests, and that pretty Italian necromancer, who was their only source of current information, had gone with Wreath to India.

Ordinarily Erskine might have felt disappointed he’d missed all that, up until he remembered how close to the edge he’d been at the time. Right now he was too close to the edge again to bother. In a few short hours everything had gone bust. It would have made him feel alive, if it weren’t for China’s secret and the way Dexter had been forcibly changed.

No one was coming to the door, so with a twist of his hand Erskine sent another blast of air against the door and listened to the dull thudding echo behind it. Then he did it again, and again, until finally a voice issued from the gap on the side.

“What?!”

“Erskine Ravel to see anyone who’s able to make deals with the Sanctuary on the Irish Temple’s behalf,” Erskine said tersely.

“What for?”

“The Remnants are out.”

The grate slammed shut and Erskine leaned back against a gravestone and looked up at the dreary sky, and tried not to think of Dexter with bulging black veins around his face. They’d been fortunate last time. None of the Dead Men had been taken. Now it left Erskine’s gut twisted. Over the last five years they’d come this close to losing one or another of them every single year. When would it stop?

The doorman came back sooner than Erskine expected, swinging open the Temple’s entrance and glaring at Erskine as if this was some trick to infiltrate. “Door to your left. No further.”

Erskine followed the directions into an antechamber someone was still using as a crypt. He looked down at the figure on the tomb and wrinkled his nose. “Charming.”

He dusted off the edge of the tomb and leaned against it, and waited. There was a window, a tiny slip of a thing more for escaping gasses than light, but he was glad for it. He wasn’t even in the Temple proper, here.

Finally the door opened. Erskine straightened and stared, and it took a moment to recognise the man who entered – only partly because his thoughts were somewhere else. Solomon Wreath stepped into the room with his hand on the shoulder of a gangly young lady who couldn’t have been more than fourteen. Wreath was pale and thinner than Erskine remembered, and had a few more lines on his face and a bit of grey in his hair – frankly alarming, given that Wreath wasn’t any older than Erskine was.

But the part that gave Erskine pause was the tattoos. Erskine hadn’t seen the tattoos before now. When Dexter said ‘everywhere’, Erskine thought it was a mild exaggeration in the name of simplifying language. Now he wasn’t so sure. They were all around Wreath’s face and went down his neck into his collar, and came out his sleeves over his knuckles, on his palms, on the tip of every finger.

How everywhere is ‘everywhere’? Erskine wondered, and then put it out of his head. That wasn’t a thought he wanted to have about anyone, let alone Wreath.

The girl took Wreath’s hand and put it on the wall of the crypt, and then left again.

“I didn’t know you were back in the country,” said Erskine.

“You’re possessive, for a man I’ve only met twice,” said Wreath. Erskine didn’t particularly feel like laughing, but it startled a bark out of him anyway, and he answered before he meant to.

“I already thought you were a crazy ex by then.” He shook his head. The sooner he got this done, the sooner he could leave. “I’m not here to bring you champagne.”

“I’ll do my best not to be disappointed,” said Wreath. “The Remnants?”

“Someone broke them out of the Hotel using experimental magical technology,” said Erskine. “Skulduggery’s investigating, but we’re more concerned with the recapture.”

“You have a plan?”

Erskine hesitated. Hopeless hadn’t actually explained the whole plan. There were enough bits that Erskine could put it together, or guess at it, but the details were lost on him. “Well, it doesn’t involve the Receptacle, let me put it that way. The Remnants aren’t going anywhere near MacGillcuddy’s Reeks this time around. And urbanisation has made finding another location to build a giant emergency soul-catcher a mite difficult in the four days we have.”

“You don’t have a plan,” said Wreath. “Dear me. I do hope you can afford me.”

“You’d rather sit around waiting for the Remnants to turn Ireland to anarchy around you?” Erskine asked flatly. Wreath turned his head toward him, and for the first time it seemed as though Wreath was looking properly in his direction.

“The last time I helped the Sanctuary with one of their messes,” he said, “I wound up with Lord Vile’s armour sealed inside me.” Erskine stiffened and opened his mouth to retort, but Wreath went on before he could. “The least you can do is offer recompense. Hell, I’d settle for dinner and a show.”

Instead of answering, the last bit made Erskine laugh unwillingly. “You’re a cheap date.”

“I have to take them as they’re offered, Ravel. Otherwise I’d get bored.”

Damn it. Erskine didn’t want to like this man, but the sardonic banter wasn’t too far from how the Dead Men spoke to each other. Erskine hadn’t realised how tense he’d been getting without it – none of them, on the drive to Dublin, had been able to summon much in the way of humour. Now he found some of the tension unwinding from his shoulders, and he could think more clearly without the constant fury lurking in the back of his head. That made it easier to put aside thoughts of China and guilt over Dexter.

“We do have a plan,” he said. “If you help us, we have a piece of real estate to ward in preparation for the Midnight Hotel’s arrival. And we have China working with Anton to fix the Hotel to act as a soul-catcher.”

“Suction high enough to pull the Remnants in is likely to blow every magical line in the Hotel,” Wreath observed. “Not to mention everything around it.”

“That’s why we’re going to lure the Remnants to the location instead of relying on the Hotel to suck the Remnants toward it from too great a distance.”

“How?”

Erskine hesitated again. He didn’t know whether or not Hopeless planned to tell the others this, or whether he already had, or whether he was withholding it in the event of any of them being taken. As of right now, only Erskine understood the nature of the plan. That was risk enough, if Erskine was possessed. Especially since he couldn’t actually be sure whether the Temple was clean.

“You’ll find out if you agree to help,” he said finally, because it was the truth. There was no need for Wreath to know, and every reason for him not to know, if he turned Erskine down.

Wreath hummed. “On the one hand, I do occasionally like surprises.” He turned his head toward the hall, but Erskine couldn’t tell if he was hearing something out in the passage or just thinking. His eyes didn’t move. “On the other hand, you haven’t even promised me a date yet, and if I’m going to help it’ll be against the orders of the High Priest.”

So that was why Wreath had taken it so personally. He was the only one who’d bothered to come hear Erskine out. Like last time, he was the only one considering helping. Erskine probably couldn’t expect much from him, then. The reason he’d helped fight the Baron was to make sure Vile didn’t rise again.

However …

“Then why are you here at all?” Erskine asked.

“Because the High Priest is an insufferable git,” said Wreath, “and I still believe the Temple is as responsible for some things outside its walls as the Sanctuary is.” He turned his face back toward Erskine, his sightline going off somewhere to Erskine’s right. “I have a few more supporters than I did before I became the armour’s meatsuit, God only knows why. Where’s the address that needs warding?”

Erskine told him and grinned as Wreath’s eyebrows shot up. “How audacious of you.”

“That’s me,” said Erskine, “always bucking expectations. I’ll wait here until you’re ready. I might be buying dinner, but you’ll have to pay for the taxi.”

“That’s not very gentlemanly, Ravel.”

“People keep telling me that. It’s like they expect me to be a gentleman in the first place.”

Erskine was almost sure he saw a faint smile before Wreath turned toward the door, his hand sliding down it until it found the handle. “Give me an hour. By the way, where’s Vex?”

Erskine had already been wrapping up the meeting in his head. This new question came out of nowhere and made him blink. “What?”

“Vex is the one I worked with last time – both times. Why didn’t they send him?”

It was a Skulduggery thing, Erskine decided. A very Skulduggery thing, to end a conversation and then restart it when the other person’s mental guard was down. All of a sudden Erskine really wanted to know how Skulduggery and Wreath knew each other. “He was taken in the outbreak.”

For a moment Wreath did nothing. Then he nodded and opened the door, and stepped out, and Erskine was left with the irritating sense that he’d missed some kind of calculation.

Chapter Text

Plans went wrong. Rover knew that. He really, really hated it, because he, personally, quite liked plans and it sucked when they went wrong. But he hated even more when things went wrong and there wasn’t even a plan to begin with. That was just … poor form.

The window clattered. Rover looked at it and then looked down without seeing much of anything, including the puppet in his hands. It wasn’t a young puppet, but it wasn’t an old one either. One of his best ones. One of the ones which, instead of being given away or sleeping in warm fragrances in the wooden chest Anton kept just for Rover’s puppets, Rover kept sitting out on the mantle.

He fussed with the little collar of the tiny suit, and buttoned the minuscule buttons.

You’re being an idiot, he told himself, and it didn’t make one whit of difference, because the thought of going out there and trying to help the others put a flutter of panic in his chest. It was dumb. It was monumentally dumb, because Dex needed help and going out there would be the best way to help.

Instead Rover sat there, in the room they all shared but which was mostly Anton’s. He sat there surrounded by his puppets, and couldn’t find the nerve to start a new one just to keep his hands busy.

Dumb. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb …

If Hopeless were there, he’d be able to tell Rover exactly why it wasn’t dumb and help him do whatever he needed to do to help Rover stop feeling like it was dumb. But Hopeless wasn’t there. Hopeless was off playing bait for the Remnants, and meanwhile –

The window banged again and this time Rover turned his head and stared. The window’s frame quivered and rattled, and Rover heard what might have been a branch hitting the wall but might also have been –

Belatedly he jumped to his feet as the window unlatched and swung open. Dexter grinned through the opening, looking delightfully ruffled and resting his arms on the sill. “Hi.”

Rover’s hand snapped up and Dexter ducked below the sill, but the gust that hit the wall was half-hearted at best, and after a moment Dex’s head reappeared. “Just for the record,” he said, “shouldn’t you be waiting until I’m in the room before you go trying to capture me? Isn’t it kind of difficult the other way?

“Shut up,” said Rover. His heart was pounding, throat was tight, hand still raised. Just in case. Dexter held up his own, palms facing himself, backs to Rover. Like he was concerned about Rover’s welfare.

“I’m just saying. If you were aiming to get me all tied up, it would help if I was in the same area.” He gripped the sill and vaulted through the window, his shoulders contracting under his shirt as he squeezed in. He hit the floor rolling onto his feet and dusting himself off. “See? There. Now I’m at your disposal.”

Rover stared and Dexter smiled encouragingly and Rover still couldn’t find the words to speak. Had he seen what he’d seen? Had Dexter somehow managed to escape the Remnant after all? China said he hadn’t, but what would China know, anyway?

“You’re a Remnant,” he managed to say at last, and Dexter held up a finger.

“But still Dexter Vex.”

“You’re not Dex. You’re a Remnant.”

“It’s not necessarily an exclusive thing, you know.”

“Of course it is. You’re a Remnant.”

“I’m starting to feel hurt, here,” said Dexter, and Rover backed up toward the door.

“Shut up.”

“Okay,” said Dexter with a shrug. “But then it means I won’t be able to tell you my plan.”

“Your plan to what?” Rover eyed the door in one of the many mirrors Anton kept around for this sort of occasion, trying to judge how far he had to go before he could leave and lock Dex in. If Anton was nearby maybe they could block his way out. Because Dex – the Remnant – was right. They couldn’t just let him go.

“My plan,” said not-Dexter, “to capture the Remnants.” Rover stopped and looked at him again, and not-Dexter smiled winningly. “See? I knew I could get your attention again.”

Rover unstuck his throat. “Why?”

“Because most of them are gits, really,” said not-Dexter, and paused like he had to think about it. “Of course, when I say ‘most of them’ I really mean ‘all of them’.”

“You’re one of them.”

“Really.” Not-Dexter shook his head, but at least he had lost Dexter’s smile. “I’m not. I’m nothing like them. Sure, there was a time when I used to be other people. But not now. I’m still a Dead Man. Why would I want to be anyone else?”

Shit. Rover wasn’t equipped for this. He couldn’t do this, look this man in the eye and tell himself that it wasn’t Dexter, and actually believe it. Was he lying? Remnants lied a lot, didn’t they? But didn’t they also take on aspects of the person they possessed? If the Remnant claimed he really wanted to help, that he really felt the same things Dexter did except for that one detail of a loss of morals, could Rover believe him?

“Wait here,” he said through a tight throat.

“Wasn’t planning on anything else.” Not-Dex – no, the Remnant – went to the giant bed and flopped on it with a sigh, snuggling down like he had a right to. Like he belonged there.

Rover slipped quietly out of the room and locked it, and then pressed his back against the door and took a deep, shuddering breath that turned into a sob. His knees felt like jelly and he hoped that the part of the wards tuned to spikes of emotion was still working, because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to walk a step.

He thanked whatever gods were listening when he heard Anton’s quick steps passing overhead and down the steps, but his vision was still blurry by the time Anton came around the corner. “Rover?”

“He’s in there,” Rover managed shakily, and he was fairly sure Anton at least gave the locked door a glance before he pulled Rover into an embrace. A ward chimed by Rover’s ear, so at least the ground floor was locked down. It meant the Remnant wouldn’t be able to escape out the window again.

“Did he hurt you?” Skulduggery asked, and Rover blinked at him with wet eyes. He hadn’t even heard the skeleton arrive. He definitely didn’t see him, what with something being in his eyes and all.

“No,” Rover mumbled into Anton’s shoulder. Was China there too? Was she getting to see him fall apart so he couldn’t even help his own husband? “He said he wants to help get the other Remnants back.”

There was a very pregnant pause and then Anton stepped back with Rover still against his chest, and Skulduggery stepped forward. Rover twisted in Anton’s grasp to watch as Skulduggery unlocked the door. Anton pushed it open for him and Skulduggery strode in, both hands lifted.

“Oh, come on,” said the Remnant, voice muffled. Probably because he still had his face planted into a pillow. “I don’t even get a little consideration? No? Guess I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“I realise that the wards will dampen fire when applied to furniture,” said Skulduggery, “but it should still do some damage to you, and if not, there’s always suffocation.”

“I’m hurt. I’m wounded, Skulduggery. You’d hurt another Dead Man?”

“You’re not a Dead Man. You’re an evil spirit inside of a Dead Man, pretending that it’s him.”

“That’s just mean. I have feelings. I can feel things.”

“If you felt anything at all, you’d leave Dexter right now and vanish. Or do you take obscene delight in what you’re doing to Larrikin?” Rover closed his eyes and took a deep shaking breath, and pressed his face against Anton’s chest.

There was a thud of springs and all of a sudden Dexter’s voice came unmuffled and alert. “What? What’s wrong with Rover?”

There was a pause. Then Skulduggery said, “Congratulations. I can’t actually tell whether you’re putting that on or not. Good job.”

Why would I be putting it on?”

“Trying to lull us into lowering our guards, perhaps?”

“Look,” said the Remnant, “okay, so I’m a little bit more than I was – or, in your view, I guess I’m a little less. But I’m still Dexter Vex and I’m still a Dead Man and I still want to help. And I can. I already would be, and would’ve used that to convince you I’m still me, except that I didn’t expect you all to be here already so I couldn’t borrow the Hotel. Which means I had to convince you without it.”

“Borrow the Hotel to go where?”

“Nuh-uh. You lower your hands, dead man, and we can talk like gentlemen.” There was silence, and then the Remnant said, “See? Was that so hard?”

“You still haven’t convinced me it’s not all a trick yet,” said Skulduggery. “The Remnants are furious at being locked away. Why aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you be, when all you wanted was settle down and have a peaceful existence?”

“Remnants aren’t peaceful.”

“I’ll admit we’ve got some issues, but in the end, all we really want is the same thing you do.”

“And what’s that?” Skulduggery asked in that tone that was just this shade of disbelief.

“Connection,” said the Remnant. “And I got it. The others didn’t. You can deny it all you like, but I’m still one of you. That means I’m on your side. And that means I’m not going to screw you.” There was a considering pause, the same one Dexter had when he was mulling over his words mid-conversation. “Well, maybe Rover. But in a good way. He’s earned that, after a couple centuries waiting on me.”

Anton’s grip tightened ever so slightly but Rover’s face had gone abruptly red, and his heart was now pounding, and he was trying very hard to keep certain memories where they ought to be: out of mind.

“Dexter Vex,” said Skulduggery very slowly, “wouldn’t talk about Amsterdam in public.”

“I told you; I’m a little more than I was. That’s a good thing. There are things I can do now that I wouldn’t have before. Besides, the fact you even know what I mean when I haven’t mentioned it to you tells me how stupid it is to pretend it never happened.”

“Wait here.”

“I’ve got nowhere to go.”

Skulduggery’s footsteps came closer, right next to them, and there was a soft thud as he closed the door. “What do you think?”

“I think it isn’t so easy,” said Anton grimly, and his chest rumbled under Rover’s cheek. “But I also think he’s not … completely … wrong. The Remnants do take on their hosts’ characteristics. He might well be telling the truth when he says he’s on our side.”

“But?” Skulduggery asked.

“But Remnants are still Remnants. No matter how much he claims he’s on our side, he will always take routes which would make Serpine seem reasonable. Even if it was to benefit us.”

“I agree,” said Skulduggery. “But since neither of us are entirely objective bystanders –” Anton grunted. It would have been a snort, on any other person, but on Anton it was a grunt. Skulduggery paused for a fraction of a second to acknowledge the opinion and then went on. “– I’m also going to call someone.”

“Hopeless isn’t objective,” Anton said as Skulduggery got out his phone.

“Maybe not, but I’m about seventy per cent certain it was the Remnant outbreak which ultimately pushed him to study psychology after the war was over.”

“As if everything else weren’t enough,” Anton murmured, but it wasn’t dissent and it wasn’t long before Hopeless picked up. Rover listened their words half muffled because he had one ear squashed against Anton’s chest. Muffled or not, the ensuing conversation nearly made him laugh.

“We have a slight marital problem,” said Skulduggery.

“If you and Anton were that pressed, I could have performed a ceremony on the quick while you were here,” said Hopeless promptly, and Skulduggery paused, and then laughed. It was the same sort of laugh he’d had right after he’d come back from his five-year stint; as though there had been a recent time when he’d forgotten how to, and had to remember that he could, but was especially free because of it.

“Anton is far too much man for me to handle alone. Dexter wants to help.”

“Ah.”

Distantly, Rover heard Tanith say, “I thought Dexter was taken by a Remnant?”

“He was,” said Hopeless, his voice further away, before it came back again. “What does he have to offer?”

“He says he can help capture the other Remnants.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, but it involves the Hotel.”

“I imagine,” said China overhead, “it has something to do with the phone call he received in my library.”

Rover froze and hunched inward, but he caught Skulduggery looking up. “Phone call, you say?”

“I do say, dear Sk –” China cut off and Rover tensed and Anton’s chest felt warm under his cheek. China cleared her throat. “Skulduggery. I do say, yes. He received a call about a, ah …” She hummed as though in thought. “… a potential ‘quantifiable form of energy manipulation’. He agreed to meet someone within a few hours, though obviously our being in possession of the Hotel has thrown a wrench in that plan.”

“That sounds like research,” said Anton. His voice had roughened ever so slightly. If Rover didn’t know him so well he wouldn’t have noticed it. Of course, being this close to him made a difference too.

“It does, doesn’t it?” said Skulduggery. “Did you hear that, Hopeless?”

“Yes,” said Hopeless. “And we all happen to know a place that does a lot of research like that.”

“I was hoping you weren’t going to say that,” said Skulduggery with a sigh. “Can we risk taking him there? I did tell Valkyrie to close the bridges, you know.”

“But not the Hotel’s foundation. And he is Dexter, after a fashion. His desire to help is genuine. He has literally lost the ability to empathise and that will be a problem no matter what, but he is Dexter, and Dexter’s conditioned to be one of us.”

“You make it sound like indoctrination,” Skulduggery observed. “Does this mean I can accept his help and blame it on you if it goes wrong?”

Hopeless laughed and that was a weird sound; a tinny recording of something that should have had an actual sound. “What else is a Grand Mage for?”

“Excellent. Thank you.” Skulduggery hung up and turned to look at them. Rover wriggled in Anton’s arms to face him, wiping away the drying tears and sniffing. Skulduggery looked at him. “Can you handle this?”

Could Rover handle it? Could Rover handle being around his husband, watching him be his husband and know that there was an evil little gremlin inside of him, and never quite be able to let down his guard?

“I don’t know,” Rover said miserably.

“Then let me put it this way. Can you watch him? Make sure he doesn’t leave? Contact one of us if he does something Dexter would never ordinarily do?”

Rover took a deep breath. Right. The time for moping on the bed was done, obviously. If Rover had to make the decisions, then no, he couldn’t have handled it. But he could maybe handle just keeping an eye on Dexter. It’d hurt, but at least Rover would know where he was, up until they could get the gremlin out.

So he nodded and Skulduggery turned back to the door and pushed it open, and stepped in. “We’ve decided to accept your help,” he said to the Remnant. “But you’re going to have to tell us who on the Tír you spoke to.”

The Remnant laughed and it was Dexter’s laugh, that was, so gloriously amused and unrestrained. “You figured it out. That’s typical. I can’t even be sure you rang Hopeless or not.”

“I’ll leave it to your imagination,” said Skulduggery. “Our conditions: You will stay within eyesight of one of us at all times. You won’t go anywhere without permission, especially anywhere outside the Hotel. If we give you an order, you obey it. You tell us everything, always.”

“Got it,” said the Remnant. “This isn’t my first rodeo either, Skulduggery.”

“You don’t torment Rover.”

“I would,” said the Remnant, “never torment Rover.”

“If I could, I would also tell you not to lie so convincingly, but I’m not entirely convinced you know it’s a lie.” Finally Rover heard Skulduggery sigh. “Okay. Come along.”

He backed into the hall and Dexter, grinning hugely and with his eyes sparkling and his hair tousled in that way that made Rover want to run his hands through it for hours, stepped out of the bedroom.

Chapter Text

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach Ide Kavanagh wasn’t entirely sure about the Taoiseach. He was a young man, an idealistic man, and far be it for her to judge anyone earnest about making the world a better place – but there was something fanciful about him. Given that his mother had been in the military, Ide felt that this was something of an accomplishment.

He was a dreamer. His head was in the clouds. Usually, this would have gotten in the way of Ide feeling any respect for the man, except that he was insightful enough to realise he needed people like Ide to remind him when to keep his feet on the ground, and wise enough to make it happen.

And then, every now and then, there were times like this.

“Call security,” she told her secretary tersely. “The last thing we need right now are doomsayers on the grounds. Has anyone spoken to the Taoiseach in the last hour?” She raised her voice and received a medley of shaken heads, between talking to each other, talking on the phone, or typing madly.

“I’m going in there,” she said to her secretary.

“Don’t go in there,” he said, keeping up with her a half-step behind.

“I’m doing it. I’m going in there.”

“The Secretary General is in there.”

“All the more reason for me to go in there.” When the Taoiseach and the Secretary General got together they had a tendency to whisper in hallways and keep secrets. Secrets were damaging to the office. Secrets were damaging to the country.

They were facing a national emergency. They had already closed the airports and harbours.

This was no time for secrets.

“Before you do,” her secretary began. Ide held out her hand. Gratefully he put the folder into it. “Press release.”

“Thank you,” said Ide, but she was already concentrating on the door to the Taoiseach’s office. She was a tall woman with a long stride, but her stride lengthened as she got closer, as though gathering momentum for knocking and entering without actually waiting for permission. This was no time for permissions, either. “Sir,” she said, two steps into the room before she’d really seen the room.

It was as she expected: the Taoiseach at his desk, and the Secretary General sitting in front of it. Both of them looked tense. Both of them sat back when she came in, as if to pull out of their secretive huddle.

Ide put the folder firmly in front of the Taoiseach. “Press release.”

“What’s the damage so far?” the Taoiseach asked. Dreamer he might have been, but something else Ide respected about this man was the fact that emergencies seemed to vitalise him instead of the opposite. Though looking harassed, he was sitting up and paying attention. He looked more like a military man this week. He’d gotten his hair cut short, and laughed at himself as he explained to Ide that his mum always said there was nothing you couldn’t get through without a good haircut and a clear mind.

“About as well as can be expected,” said Ide. “The screenings are going as fast as possible and no one has been picked up as infected yet, but without a baseline, how can we tell?”

“The departments?”

“Panic is on low heat.” That was Ide’s job. To keep the office together, and running, and as disciplined as possible. No Government Chief Whip ever expected that to happen with a health hazard as sweeping as this one, but the principle for herding chickens in to vote was just the same as herding them toward potential solutions. “We’d be doing better if it weren’t for the idiots downstairs trying to raise a fuss.”

“Which ones?” demanded the Secretary General. Ide wasn’t much fond of him, Pearse O’Byrne. He wasn’t exactly disrespectful but he tended to act as though Ide didn’t exist unless she was right in front of him, and then was mildly surprised she was there, in the same way that a cat would be surprised if a canary was trying to hunt alongside it.

But he did his job. One thing she and Pearse agreed on, was the need to keep the Taoiseach’s feet on the ground.

“It varies,” said Ide. “People convinced it’s the apocalypse. People demanding compensation. People wanting to hold prayer-meetings.” She let out a short laugh. “The latest was a group who looked like they’d come from a fancy-dress party or a carnival. They insisted they had inside information, but had no health or service identification.”

God only knew why they wanted to see the Taoiseach personally. There were always people who showed up during an emergency and, generally, got in the way. But the Taoiseach and the Secretary General exchanged glances, and the Taoiseach lowered the press release.

“I don’t suppose one of them claimed to know me?” asked the Taoiseach.

“A lot of people claim to know you, Taoiseach,” Ide reminded him. “Most of the time, they’re lying.”

“Yes, but –” Someone’s phone was ringing. Someone’s phone was ringing to the tune of ‘We’re off to see the wizard.’ The Taoiseach fumbled in his pocket. The Secretary General leaned forward. Ide’s eyebrows lifted. After a moment the Taoiseach put the phone to his ear and said, “Hello?”

The eager tension in his expression dissolved into wary relief. “Yes, well, you’ve come to visit at a bad time. Most people who say they know me usually ring beforehand and make an appointment.” He put his hand over the speaker and said to Ide in a low voice, “Call security off the visitors who say they have information without ID, please, Ide?”

Ide crossed her arms. “With all due respect, Taoiseach, this is no time to be distracted. If they had information, they would have identification. They don’t. You need to focus on more important things.”

“Not these people,” said the Taoiseach. “Ide, I promise you, they’ll be able to tell us more about what’s going on now than all the doctors on the island.”

Ide tried to soften her tone. “Sir, whatever they’ve promised you –”

“They didn’t promise me anything. They just have a tendency to know things.”

Ide glanced at the Secretary General, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t say anything, which was so supremely not helpful that Ide wondered exactly what they had been hiding from her and the rest of the department. The fact was that the Taoiseach shouldn’t even be in office. He had been a nobody before the last election, a university graduate with big dreams and no funding.

And then, somewhere, he’d gotten funding. Funding and an exceptional speech-writer, and a good team of people to help him run for office, most of whom had faded into obscurity the moment he was in office. That was strange enough. Who could a Taoiseach possibly trust, if not the staff who had won him the election? Yet Ide had met only one of them once, and that had been for an interview.

But add to this, when in a moment of emergency, they come out of the woodwork all mysteriously?

“Taoiseach,” she said firmly, “whoever they are, whatever they want, you don’t owe them anything for being in office. In fact, I would like to point out that it would be a major breach of ethics if Ireland’s foremost leader could be so easily controlled by an outside party.”

“They don’t control me, Ide,” said the Taoiseach. “They’re just asking for us to let them help.”

“Sir, if they know what’s behind this outbreak and they haven’t already reported it –”

“For God’s sake,” said the Secretary General, “stop nagging and show them up, and then satisfy your need for control by, I don’t know, baking a cake.”

There was a pause. Ide didn’t say anything, primarily because she was, for a moment, too surprised to say anything. She had never had the sense that the Secretary General appreciated women in high positions, but he had also never been anything other than professional – at least as far as the actual words.

It was the Taoiseach who broke the silence first, sounding worried. “Are you okay, Pearse?”

The Secretary blinked at him and frowned. “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” He shook his head and rubbed his nose the way he did when he was developing a tension headache, and still Ide said nothing. This time, it was because her mind was rushing.

The disease they were facing presented through a marked inability to empathise. But then how could the Secretary General possibly have been exposed? He had been one of the first people who underwent an examination. Surely the doctors must have found something …?

“I’ll show them up, then,” Ide said finally, and though she tried to keep her tone cool it wasn’t as cool as she would have liked. Pearse looked at her like she was that canary again, as if he’d dismissed her from his mind the moment he’d given her an order, and at least that was familiar.

“Thank you, Ide,” said the Taoiseach, and at least his voice had a note of gentleness. Ide nodded at him shortly and strode out of the office. She heard him talking on his phone before she closed the door, and then made for the downstairs lobby, moving briskly to burn off her shakes.

By the time Ide reached the lobby she felt steadier. No less wound up, but steadier. She knew who the Taoiseach’s friends were right away, thanks to security staff segregating them from everyone else in the lobby – especially a few reporters outside the press office, hoping to get lucky. They hadn’t been let even near a waiting room yet. Not until they had the say-so from someone higher-up.

“This way,” she said to the nearest garda, and led the way into one of the closer waiting-rooms, where they could get things sorted out without being under the noses of half the city. She seized the minute or so at the front of the group to properly compose herself and run through the questions she both had to and wanted to ask. They were very different categories, and right now the urge to mingle them was strong.

When they reached the waiting-room, security staff took the doors and Ide examined these ‘friends’ of the Taoiseach’s as they settled around the room. She was glad for the minute, when she laid eyes on the first one. He was the sort of man who would have cemented her dreams of magic and faeries when she was a girl – tall and beautiful, more because of how he moved and his unconscious confidence within his skin, and a superbly tailored suit that Ide would kill for. She wondered if he’d give her his tailor’s number.

He wasn’t smiling, and the focus in his face led to an intensity which made part of Ide hope he didn’t look her way. Which was ridiculous. Beautiful, powerful men hadn’t cowed her in a long time. He was the one who led into the room, so he was most likely the leader, and Ide allowed herself an extra gratified second to observe him before moving onto the others.

There was a pale white woman and a dark-skinned man, and there was something strange about their clothes; it actually took Ide a minute to realise they were wearing robes of all things. On the women it could have been a dress with a shawl, but – no, it was a good old-fashioned cloak. On the man it could have been a trench-coat.

But they were ultimately the same outfit, like a uniform; just tailored differently for the male and female bodies. Not bad looking, but … anachronistic. That was why the description of having come from a carnival.

They arranged themselves around the room – the pretty man sat easily in an armchair, like a lord, and the robed visitors stood to the side. Security kept the door open, though, and a moment later another woman came in, swarthy but pale and wearing the same robes as the others.

“He will be a moment,” she said in a softly accented voice – Italian, Ide placed her.

“Fine,” said the pretty man, and then he did look at Ide and she was struck by his golden eyes. It was an unusual colour, and it turned his face from merely beautiful to otherworldly. “Minister Ide Kavanagh, I assume?” His tone was droll.

“Yes,” said Ide, lifting an eyebrow at him. It wasn’t impressive, to know her name. It was gratifying, that he led with her title. “You’re the one who rang the Taoiseach?”

The dark-skinned man stirred.

“That’s me,” said the man, and he bowed, and while it was perfunctory it wasn’t sardonic. Not the way a bow that perfunctory would have been from practically any other man Ide knew. “Erskine Ravel. We’ve known one another for a few years. I encouraged him to run for office.”

Ide took note of the word ‘encouraged’ and substituted a number of potential synonyms.

“I’m curious as to why you haven’t gone to the health authorities.”

Mr Ravel shrugged as he straightened. “Let’s not dance, Minister Kavanagh. Most of the health authorities are on the grounds, and I’m well aware of the importance of filtering knowledge appropriately.” The white woman let out a little hum, but Mr Ravel barely looked her way. “We came here because the Taoiseach is the person best able to decide how what we know should be disseminated, medical professional or not.”

“That’s it?” Ide asked, sceptical.

“That’s it.”

“How did you, specifically, the man who … encouraged … the Taoiseach to run for office, manage to get hold of vital information regarding a sudden health crisis?”

“Just luck,” said Mr Ravel grimly. “Though I don’t know whether it’s good luck or bad luck, yet. That depends on how all this turns out.”

He was good. He was very good. If Ide weren’t so conditioned to being suspicious, if she’d met and spoken to him anywhere other than here and for any other reason, she would have believed him right off. She honestly could not tell whether he was lying or obfuscating. All she had was her gut – that it was downright strange for ‘old friends’ to call up the Taoiseach right now.

“The Taoiseach asked for me to send you to him,” said Ide. “But to be perfectly frank I’m still not convinced that’s a good idea. He certainly hasn’t mentioned you before. Things that go unmentioned tend to be –”

“Shameful?” suggested a voice from the doorway, and Ide glanced toward the newcomer, annoyed at the interruption. Her remark died on her lips when she saw the man. He was as well-dressed as Mr Ravel, but all in black and with a long coat that mimicked the line of the robes the others were wearing. He was taller, though, and similarly dark-haired, and would have been handsome himself except for the tattoos that were scribed on every available inch of him.

They made him look paler beneath the lines, as if his skin was just white space between the important things, but they looked like letters. Letters in some ancient language. Mr Ravel looked otherworldly – but this one looked arcane.

He tilted his head, but his eyes didn’t shift, and that made his whole countenance even eerier. Ide suppressed a shiver. “Did I say something wrong?”

“It’s you, Wreath,” said Mr Ravel. “She took one look at you and went white.” He shook his head despairingly. “I told you, you were going for the wrong style, but you did insist.”

“How terribly remiss of me,” said Mr Wreath dryly, taking a step into the room and holding out his hand. The swarthy woman stepped forward to take it, and guided him around the small coffee-table to sit in another of the armchairs.

He sat like Mr Ravel had – like a lord, but a different kind. Mr Ravel was sprawled, all easiness and grace as though he expected to be something to look at, but knew exactly where all his limbs were going. Mr Wreath sat with dignity and poise, reclined and legs crossed, but he filled the chair just as much as Mr Ravel did, as comfortable there as Ide imagined he would have been in his own sitting-room.

Who, Ide wondered suddenly, were these people? Not even actors in a period-era play or movie exuded that kind of … of … Ide couldn’t think of a word. It wasn’t aristocratic, because ‘aristocratic’ implied a kind of arrogance and entitlement these men didn’t have. But there was something old about it.

They were talking. They were talking and Ide hadn’t even been listening, but as she blinked and tuned in she realised she probably hadn’t missed much anyway. They were insulting each other with a kind of easy banter that was as distracting as it was thoughtless.

“– asked you, Ravel, but I’m not sure you know the meaning of the word,” Mr Wreath was saying.

“Wreath, if on any day I need your help to figure out how to chat to a lady, it’ll only be because you’ve brought me back from the dead.” Mr Ravel shot back.

Ide glanced at the other three. The swarthy woman was standing by with patient resignation, the darker-skinned man was tapping his arm, and the white woman sighed.

“Was that a request?”

“Over my –” Mr Ravel paused. Mr Wreath grinned, and it made the tattoos warp. “Let me rephrase that.”

Ide cleared her throat and they both looked at her with an undivided attention that implied they had simply been waiting for her to recover herself, rather than letting themselves get distracted. At least, Mr Ravel looked at her, and that was unnerving all on its own; Mr Wreath looked past her shoulder, but it was near enough that his dark, sightless eyes contrasted with pale skin and black tattoos made her skin crawl.

“You’re hiding something,” she said flatly.

“Good job,” said Mr Wreath. “A politician has figured out that another politician is hiding something.”

Mr Ravel frowned. “I’m not a politician.”

“You lurk around the Sanctuary and you’ve been whispering sweet nothings into the Taoiseach’s ear. I don’t think you get to choose whether you’re a politician or not at that point, Ravel.”

“Whispering sweet nothings?” said Ide sharply.

“I hate you, you know,” said Mr Ravel conversationally to Mr Wreath. Wreath only grinned again.

“My lot in life,” he said. “I may as well be good at it.” He turned to Ide. “However, as I’m sure you know very well,” he said, “just the having of a secret doesn’t mean the secret is anything to do with you. Or that it’s going to interfere with what we’re here for.”

“What are you here for?” Ide demanded, and Wreath widened his eyes innocently. That was unnerving.

“Why, your health crisis, of course.”

Ide sighed. They weren’t really getting anywhere. She was sure she wasn’t wrong – but neither was Wreath. The only reason it mattered was because the thing they were hiding was the nature of their relationship with the Taoiseach, and that was something that could impact the nation.

“Look,” she said directly, “since you’re obviously no political slouch yourself, you should know very well that a secret is best-kept when it’s not turned into a secret. You have some sort of influence over the Taoiseach. In my book, that makes you a liability, and I can’t do my job unless I know how and why.”

“Frankly, my dear,” said Wreath, “I’m not sure why you don’t already know.”

“Don’t look at me,” said Ravel, even though Wreath hadn’t. “I didn’t tell him who to tell. He decided that all on his own. And, for the record, I don’t think we should be pulling the rug out from under his feet. I like him. I’m not going to undermine his authority by choosing his most trustworthy staff for him.”

“Then we’re at an impasse, aren’t we?” said Wreath cheerfully. “We need to see the Taoiseach to ask who we can tell, but to see the Taoiseach we need to tell someone without asking.”

When he put it like that, Ide thought, it did sound ridiculous. But he didn’t have to sound so happy about it.

Ravel narrowed his eyes at him. “I know that tone of voice.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“That’s nearly the same tone of voice Skulduggery gets when he has another obvious idea no one else could possibly see and is waiting for someone to ask.”

“Is it? Amazing.”

“I really, really dislike you, Wreath.”

“So you’ve said,” said Wreath, looking amused. “Much more and I’ll think you’re protesting too much.”

Ravel glared but Ide could see the way the corner of his mouth was compressed to prevent a smile. “Okay. Fine. Give it over: what’s your amazingly obvious idea no one else could possibly see?”

Wreath shrugged. “Conspire to have Minister Kavanagh find out entirely by accident.”

“How?”

“The garda is infected.”

Ravel shot to his feet and the garda reached for his gun with a snarl, black veins bulging over his face. Ide leapt back, her heart hammering, but the guard pointed the gun at the back of Wreath’s head. “Don’t m –”

Ravel froze but the guard’s shadow rose up behind him and grabbed him, wrenching his arm up. Ide expected the gun to discharge but it didn’t, and the guard gagged and choked.

“Let him go,” she cried, springing forward, but the pale woman moved from one side of the room to the other in the blink of an eye and grabbed her arm. Something black was struggling from the guard’s open mouth, like a bird shoving itself out of an egg, and then it was free and it pinged across the room toward Ravel. His eyes widened and he threw himself back, but the darkness’s speed was slowing and it grabbed at the air with tiny black claws.

There was a sphere glowing on Wreath’s lap, Ide realised, and as she watched the slip of darkness was dragged back and sucked into the orb, where it bloomed with black mist. Wreath turned it carefully in its setting and cocked his head.

Ide’s heart hammered. She heard the sounds of people talking and walking outside the door, but no one came in. No one sounded any alarm. They were lucky. If the gun had gone off they would’ve been swarmed, and that thing could have gone into any one of them and vanished –

“You can let me go now,” she heard herself say stiffly, and when the pale woman let go Ide straightened her clothes. Her head was buzzing.

“Are you okay?” Ravel asked, and it took a moment for Ide to realise he was talking to her.

“Fine,” she said, even though it was a transparent lie. She wondered what her face looked like.

He accepted it, though, because he turned toward Wreath next. “What the hell was that?”

“Really, Ravel –”

“If you make a smart remark I’m going to punch you.”

“And you compare me to Skulduggery,” Wreath muttered.

“Wreath …” Ravel’s tone was warning enough that the dark-skinned man shifted closer to Wreath, his hand on a gun that Ide was sure he hadn’t had before. Wreath didn’t seem concerned. He only shrugged.

“I could feel it.”

“You could feel it,” said Ravel flatly. “How?”

“I know this may come as a shock to you, Ravel,” said Wreath, “and I prefer to think it’s because you regard me so highly as to think I know everything, rather than simply believe I’d stupidly withhold information relevant to not getting all of us killed or worse, but my condition isn’t exactly common and I don’t actually know how it works most of the time. I just know I knew he was possessed.”

“And you didn’t tell us this as soon as the door was closed?”

“Frankly, it took me a little while to figure out why he felt so wrong. Well, that and …” Wreath inclined his head in Ide’s direction. She noticed it, didn’t dwell on it. She was focussed on something else he’d said.

“Possessed,” she said flatly. Some of the distance between what she was thinking and what she was doing had closed, but she still felt numb. “This isn’t a disease, is it?”

Ravel glanced at her then glanced at Wreath with evident frustration. Finally he abandoned whatever he’d been thinking of saying to Wreath to turn properly to Ide. “No,” he said gently. “It’s an outbreak, but not a disease. They’re called Remnants. They possess people, and turn them psychopathic. They’re very hateful little things and they’ve very angry at having been imprisoned for a good long while. And they really, really want control of your government.”

Ide stared at him, at those beautiful, inhuman golden eyes and that inhumanly perfect face. “You’re not human, are you?”

“I’m not not human –”

“Don’t be an ass. My parents were both historical and mythological professors. I know all about the previous races.” She’d loved them as a child, all the stories. By the time she’d grown up she’d thought her parents were both crackpots – one to look wistfully onto a past that didn’t exist and the other who went chasing faeries and never came back. “You’re one of the sidhe, aren’t you?”

Ravel hesitated. “Would it make you more or less likely to break down if I said ‘yes’?”

Wreath laughed.

“I’m not going to break down,” said Ide.

“You’re white as a sheet,” said the pale woman.

“Maybe you should sit down,” Ravel suggested.

“Hell. No.” If she sat down, she would break down. No, the best way to handle this was to stay on her feet, keep moving, and above all don’t bloody think too hard. Especially not about the fact that the Taoiseach had been funded by faeries all through his election.

Shit.

Her vision was bleeding white so she forced herself to take a deep breath and shook off Ravel’s hand on her arm, and pointed at the object in Wreath’s lap. “I’m fine. How do we get rid of them? What’s that thing you used just now and where do we get more?”

“This?” Wreath lifted it with one hand. “This is a soul-catcher. It draws them in and traps them inside.”

A soul-catcher. That wasn’t the least bit creepy. “Fine. How many do we need?”

“Two thousand.”

Two thousand. Two thousand. Ide’s vision greyed, so she made herself take a step, and walked around the room once, aware that they were all watching her. She turned and crossed her arms. “Okay. Scratch that, then. So there are two thousand of those things out there, grabbing people? Anyone they like? Jumping from person to person?”

“More or less,” said Wreath. He wasn’t looking in her direction. Just had his head tilted. To hear her better, maybe. Ide didn’t know how blindness worked.

“What happens then? Once they find someone they like?”

“If they’re not out in four days they can’t be removed.”

Right. Four days. That was better than an estimate of one or two, at least, back when they were wondering if the thing was lethal. This was probably the point where she should take them to the Taoiseach – except, Ide realised abruptly, she didn’t know whether the Taoiseach was one of them or not. “Are there any others in the building?”

“A few,” said Wreath. “But I won’t know who until I get closer.”

“Just out of curiosity,” said Ide, “how the hell were you planning to figure out whether the Taoiseach was possessed before you knew that you could see them?”

Wreath’s mouth turned up at the side. “That’s what the soul-catcher was for. But, since you didn’t seem likely to let us see him, I decided it could be put to a better use.”

“You know,” said Ravel, “you and I need to work on our communications skills.”

“You can make an appointment for a couple’s therapy session later, Ravel. I should think we have better things to think about just now.”

“I really dislike you.”

But Wreath was smiling as he stood, turning toward the pale woman. “The Midnight Hotel, please, Pandemona. Give it to no one but Pleasant, if he’s still there.”

Pandemona bowed and took the soul-catcher, and her shadow came up and swamped her, and when it had dropped she was gone. Ide stared, and stared some more, and felt herself edging toward that line again.

“Are you sure you do not wish to sit down?” said the Italian woman quietly. Ide started and stared at her uncomprehendingly before she answered.

“Yes.”

“Oh, good,” said Wreath brightly. “In that case, do you think we can see the Taoiseach now?”

Chapter Text

When all this was over, Valkyrie thought, she was going to fall into bed and not move for twenty-four … well, twelve hours. A whole twenty-four might be pushing it a little.

“Coffee,” she said, and Digger handed her a mug, and Valkyrie took it with a hand over the top, taking the edge of heat away. Twin ribbons of steam blasted from either side of her hand. When she took a sip the temperature was just right, and she gulped down the rest. “I don’t even like coffee,” she muttered. “Bugger it. Twenty-four hours. When this is over I’m spending a whole twenty-four hours in bed.”

“If you want to be held to that, we can make sure Larrikin’s there with you,” said Corrival as he came in. Valkyrie got to her feet, but Digger only waved a hand, her bad leg propped up on a footstool she kept under her desk these days. “Are we ready?”

“I think so,” said Valkyrie, and Corrival raised an eyebrow.

“You think so, Cain?”

Valkyrie took a deep breath and shifted into the parade rest Rover had taught her, and made her expression blank enough to make Anton proud. “We have the warrant. We’re cleared to inspect Pandora’s cubicle, as well as any cubicles involving or related to the research of name-magic, soul-capturing, vampires, ward-breaking, and other undetermined research with elements that have been explicitly used in the release of the Remnants or the kidnapping of Carol and Melanie, as determined by you, oh Great General, sir.”

“Stow that,” said Corrival, but he looked amused more than annoyed, and Valkyrie grinned at him. “Gear?”

“O’Connell’s team on backup,” Valkyrie said promptly. “I have faery dust and a stunner, and Digger’s lending me her magic-detecting monocle.”

“Magic detecting?” Corrival looked at Digger, and Digger tilted her head back in her chair until she was looking at him from upside down.

“What? You think burrowers wear sunnies just to look cool?”

“They also have a video-recording feature,” Valkyrie added in her best perky saleswoman voice, and Corrival laughed.

“Oh, good. If we don’t find anything at least we’ll have them on tape to ogle behaviour.”

“Tapes are oldschool, General. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”

“Shut it, Cain.” He swatted her and turned and left Digger’s new office. Valkyrie followed, matching his pace and glad for her long legs. Corrival was short, but he was used to matching the pace of men much taller, and that made him faster than most people Valkyrie knew.

On their way down they were joined by Bev’s team, including Xun. That made Valkyrie a little bit nervous, but he caught her eye and gave her a smile, and she took a breath to force herself to relax. Whoever he’d gotten to keep an eye on her family, they were probably good. He trusted them, so she’d have to trust him.

By the time they reached tech development the coffee had kicked in and Valkyrie felt like she was buzzing. It was a good kind of buzz, though. She could use it, if she was forced to fight.

Corrival led the way into the laboratories, striding in as if he was a bull and everything had better just get out of his way. There was no amusement on his face now. It made Valkyrie glad that she wasn’t on the other side of him.

Most researchers were still in their cubicles, doing whatever they were doing. Digger and Corrival had agreed not to alert them anything was going to happen by sending the Guard down, and Digger was monitoring the security feeds (which were not in the least bit inside the monocle she’d given Valkyrie). Everyone looked around at the sound of Corrival’s thudding footsteps, and activity came slowly to a halt as the researchers stopped to see who was in trouble. Behind them, Valkyrie knew, Bev’s team was spreading out to cover the exits. By now Xun would already be on the other side of the room.

Valkyrie’s heart fluttered. She was on a real, honest-to-God, officially sanctioned raid, and she hadn’t even had to fight to be in on it. The only thing that made her nervous was that they’d insisted she take a stun-pistol. It felt heavy on her hip, alien – she knew how to use it but she’d never been trusted with one before, let alone in a situation like this. Not officially.

She put aside that feeling for later enjoyment, and followed Corrival quietly as he came loudly to the edge of Pandora’s cubicle.

R & D exchanged glances, but Pandora came to meet them, looking confused and worried. “Ah – General Deuce, isn’t it? Can we help you?”

“We have a warrant to seize all your research and equipment,” Corrival told her, putting his hands in his pockets. It would have looked casual, except that Valkyrie knew Corrival knew perfectly well how to manipulate air through fabric. “But I really can’t be arsed to cart it all upstairs, so we’re going to have a look at it right here. Step out of the cubicle.”

Pandora crossed her arms. “Warrant first.”

Corrival regarded her coolly for a moment and then glanced over his shoulder. “Cain?”

Valkyrie stepped forward and looked Pandora square in the eye, and handed her the warrant. The whole very large room was quietly tense while Pandora read it. When she turned over the page it sounded unbearably loud. Finally she looked up, looking at them, then glanced over her shoulder at R & D and nodded, and stepped out of the cubicle.

Corrival and Valkyrie waited. R & D followed Pandora while exchanging confused and uncertain looks, going to stand by their research lead.

“Do you know how any of this works?” Corrival asked Valkyrie.

“Not really,” Valkyrie admitted. “I was here for half an hour.”

“Do you know how to turn a computer on and work a search?”

“Oh, that. Yeah, I can do that.”

Corrival turned to speak to Pandora while Valkyrie went to R’s desk. “We need the password to your name database, if there is one.”

“There isn’t,” said Pandora coolly, “but go ahead.”

“But –” R drooped at Corrival’s glance. “Okay.”

Valkyrie shot a look back at him and then looked down at the dash, feeling guilty. It was possible, probable even, that R & D had nothing to do with the Remnants and Myron Stray. She turned on the dash and found the search function, and typed in his name, listening to Corrival ask questions behind her.

“Have you ever heard of Myron Stray?”

“Of course,” said Pandora. “The only currently living faery whose true-name is known.”

“Have you ever met him?”

“No.” Valkyrie glanced over her shoulder. Pandora held Corrival’s gaze. They were practically the same height. “I’ve considered contacting him, but I didn’t want to do so unless I could give him something tangible.”

“Like what?”

Pandora shrugged. “A cure.”

“True-names can’t be cured. They’re true-names.”

“Only because no one’s ever studied them properly until now,” said Pandora. Valkyrie kept an eye on the search. How many people called Myron Stray could there be? How big could the database be?

Oh, wait. There it was. But it was just that – just Stray’s taken and true-names. When R had input Valkyrie’s details it’d included her name and whole bunch of the information Valkyrie had given him. “Got it,” she said, and turned around. “But it’s just Stray’s names. They could’ve gotten them from a public reference.”

“Or just didn’t put in the details they gathered about him,” said Corrival, and Pandora’s mouth tightened.

“Why are you doing this? What does Myron Stray have to do with my research, beyond the obvious?”

Valkyrie stood up, ostensibly to look at the desks, but really keeping an eye on the researchers nearby. They weren’t trying to hide the fact they were listening, all strung out along the paths and leaning on cubicles.

“Myron Stray,” said Corrival, “last night released the Remnants from their prison in the Midnight Hotel.”

There was a shockwave of gasps and whispers, and the blood drained out of Pandora’s face. “Why would he do that?”

“Maybe someone offered him a cure.” Corrival lifted an eyebrow at her and then looked at R & D.

“It wasn’t us,” D blurted out. “The orb’s nowhere near that level yet. Nowhere near. We’d need to test the strings between a true-name and its owner before we could even say whether or not it’s viable.”

“Lindsey’s correct,” said Pandora. “Myron Stray might become a vital part of my research, but any cure would come about as a result of his help, not the opposite. We’re not at a point of approaching him yet. We’d have to tell him about the Tír, for a start. We haven’t even applied for authorisation.”

“Do you have something to say?” Valkyrie asked one of the researchers in the walkway. He had long hair and was frowning, looking very worried and glancing over his shoulder. He started when she spoke to him.

“Well,” he stammered. “It’s just that – why would he let out all the Remnants?”

“He didn’t mean to,” Valkyrie said. “He thought he could contain them, with this.” She dug out her phone and showed him the pictures Skulduggery had sent her, and the researcher looked sick.

“That’s mine.”

“You make soul-catchers?” Valkyrie put her phone back in her pocket and rested her hand on her hip, right above the pistol. “Why?”

He held up his hands. “I don’t! I mean, not on purpose. It’s meant to be a magic-nullification grenade. Put it down and it turns off all magic? Only when we reversed the …” He coughed with embarrassment. “… the polarity, just for kicks, it, uh …”

“Tried to eat your soul?” Valkyrie suggested.

“Our magic, anyway,” he said shamefacedly, hunching into his lab-coat as if it would save him from being watched by every single one of his peers. “We’re researching the result, but it’s not really … effective. The material’s strong on its own, but the transfer of energy after it’s absorbed something makes the casing hot – there’s no way anyone could’ve held it in their hand and not hurt themselves.”

“So he dropped it,” said Valkyrie, “and because of the superheated material of the casing, whatever it was, it shattered and let out the first Remnant, and then the first Remnant let out all the rest.”

“It’s gone,” said a woman behind the man, much younger than he was and wearing glasses. She spoke directly to Valkyrie. “We made three of them, for control. One of the ones we had set to absorb is gone.”

“Does anyone here put any security on their work?” Corrival demanded of the room at large.

“We help each other,” D explained. “We talk. We’re part of the same team. Why would we want to hide our research from each other?”

“For times like this,” said Corrival. “Anyone working with ward-breaking? Yes? Speak up!”

“Um.” The man with the long greying hair lifted his hand. So did the short-haired woman wearing glasses. “Magic-nullification orb. I mean, the orb wasn’t working, but …”

“The orb was too unfocussed,” said the woman with glasses. “So we … adapted.”

“Adapted how?” Valkyrie demanded, and the woman shrugged.

“We made a gun.”

Corrival sighed and Valkyrie had to fight to keep a straight face. It made sense, she reasoned to him in her head. They already had weapon technology which stopped magic from working. But she still knew what he was thinking: Damned unsupervised scientists.

“What about vampires?” Corrival asked. “Anyone working with vampires?”

Researchers glanced at each other and shuffled their feet and looked at the floor or ceiling, and none of them quite managed to answer. It wasn’t that they were hiding something, exactly, because they were so obvious about their discomfort, but some of the faces were mutinous.

“Out with it,” Corrival barked, and his voice carried all around the laboratory.

“Excuse me,” said a woman who stepped between the researchers. Some of them edged away. None of them said anything. The woman was beautiful in a way that made chills run down Valkyrie’s spine, because it was more about how she moved than how she looked and she moved too gracefully to be human. Corrival tensed and curled his fingers into a fist, and the woman stopped a good distance away. “I am a vampire. My name is Isara.”

“And who’s researching you?” Corrival asked coldly. Isara didn’t blink.

“No one. I work here. I’m researching myself.”

“Yourself?” Valkyrie asked, and Isara turned her head slightly to look in Valkyrie’s direction, but without presenting Corrival with any vulnerable spots.

“How to cure vampirism.”

“Why?”

“Why does anyone want to change their condition?” Isara said. “I’m not happy with mine.”

“First I ever heard of a vampire being unhappy with a vampire,” said Valkyrie.

Isara shrugged. “You know many vampires, do you?”

Valkyrie felt her cheeks heat and glanced at Corrival. Erskine didn’t like vampires. He hated vampires. Would he really let one of them live and work on Tír? Did he even know?

Corrival was frowning, staring at Isara. He hadn’t loosened his hand, yet, but his stance had shifted from a solid expectation of attack to something closer to parade rest. “Do you know anything that might trigger a vampire to change after he’s taken the serum and after night’s already fallen?”

Isara shook her head. “No.”

Valkyrie opened her mouth, shut it, and glanced at Corrival. His eyes were narrowed at the vampire, but he turned to Pandora. “Has anyone else been interested in your research? Someone here, in this lab?”

“Of course,” said Pandora. “Everyone wants to know how names work. Everyone.”

“This will be someone especially interested,” said Valkyrie, keeping an eye on the researchers. “Someone you’ve talked about details with, enough that they thought you would be able to fix someone’s true-name.”

“There’s –” Pandora went very quiet, very suddenly. “Julian,” she said, almost a whisper. “I shared my research with him. I told him about Myron Stray.”

“Which one’s Julian?” Corrival demanded, and some people looked over their shoulders toward Julian’s cubicle, but Valkyrie was already pushing through them toward it, almost jogging. She caught a glimpse of Xun matching her at a normal pace, but kept her focus on Julian’s cubicle so she didn’t telegraph that someone else was there.

He looked up from his computer when she cleared her throat. “Yes?”

“You’re under arrest,” said Valkyrie, “for theft, conspiracy to release Remnants, and …” She hesitated. “… possibly treason. Is this covered under treason? I’m sure it’ll be added to the list, if so.”

Julian regarded her for a moment and then shrugged and held out his hands. “Okay.”

“You’re not going to try and whammy me?” Valkyrie asked suspiciously.

“I’m in a room full of researchers from whom I’ve stolen valuable things and I’m sure you’ve got someone around to hit things if I try to make a move,” Julian said. “I doubt I’ll get out the door.”

Valkyrie didn’t move. She heard Corrival coming up behind her, heard the crowd whispering, felt them watching, and still she didn’t move.

“Cain?” Corrival asked.

“He’s studying brainwaves,” said Valkyrie out loud, watching Julian. “He can change how the brain works. Maybe even make a vampire change. And Stray said he was approached by a woman.” Julian looked like a woman. He even still had breasts. Maybe he was okay with that, but Myron Stray didn’t sound like the type of person who would consider the possibility that someone with breasts wasn’t a woman.

“Good enough for me,” said Corrival.

“And he’s just turning himself over.”

“Now that is strange.”

“He has my cousin. He has her and Melanie here, close by.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” said Valkyrie, watching Julian frown, “he’s too eager to leave.”

“Now you’re thinking like a detective,” said Corrival approvingly, and Valkyrie managed to feel some pride at the fact that she didn’t even blush.

“Move,” she said to Julian. “I want to see your computer.” Julian sighed and strode across the cubicle, and held out his arms to his dash.

“Be my guest.”

Valkyrie looked at the floor under his feet, searching for seams. A lot of the floor in the labs downstairs was made of steel panels, etched to keep in the atmosphere – where they faced the ocean, anyway. But this lab was right on the floor, or almost. Except for the foundation. So there was space beneath it.

“Well?” Julian demanded, but Valkyrie ignored him. It took two passes before she spotted the hinges, they were so small.

“Move,” she said again.

“You can see my computer.”

“I don’t care about your computer,” said Valkyrie, and shoved him back with a blast of air, and strode forward. Julian hit the bench but Valkyrie didn’t pay him any mind, because Xun appeared in the cubicle nearly fast enough to be a teleporter. Valkyrie crouched by the panel. It was a small one, probably a maintenance shaft for the sigils in the foundation.

Valkyrie pulled Digger’s monocle over her eye and spotted the handle-sigil at once, and put her palm to it. The panel released and ran smoothly beneath its fellows, and like sound had suddenly been turned on Valkyrie heard her cousin’s voice.

“– elp! Stephanie?”

Valkyrie snapped her fingers and conjured fire, and peered into the shaft. There was a ladder, but if the latch could lock from the outside that wouldn’t have helped at all. She saw Melanie standing up, looking relieved, and Carol sitting at the base of the ladder with her face in her hands, taking deep breaths.

“Hey,” Valkyrie called. “Need a hand?” She spotted another lump in the shadows and at first thought it was a bundle of blankets, but then she saw the hand. “Who’s that?”

“Some guy called Myron Stray,” said Melanie as she bent to put a hand on Carol’s shoulder, and Valkyrie’s heart sank. “Come on, Carol, we’ve got to go.”

Valkyrie drew back and glanced over her shoulder. Corrival was right behind her, and behind him Xun was pulling Julian out of the cubicle and Bev was going to the computer. Modeste and Aria met Xun in the path and the three of them escorted Julian away.

“Stray’s there,” she said to Corrival, and he swore.

“Right then. Tell them to stay where they are. I’ll get those people who were fussing with soul-catchers.”

Valkyrie leaned back down and her heart leapt to see Melanie halfway up the ladder. “Wait,” Valkyrie said urgently. “You can’t come up yet. Just stay there for a bit, okay?”

Melanie looked up. Her eyes were ringed and her face was grimy. “What? Why not?”

“Because there was something in Myron Stray when he came here,” said Valkyrie, “and it might have gone into one of you.”

Carol was standing at the bottom of the ladder, gripping her hands to her shirt and looking up. She said anxiously, “But if one of us says the other isn’t, isn’t that okay?”

“Not really, no.” There could have been two Remnants. One of them could be being coerced. Melanie could have been Julian’s accomplice. What did Valkyrie know about her, anyway? “We’ve got something that will tell us who it is, hang on. Just a little bit longer.”

For a moment Valkyrie thought Melanie was going to argue, with her set jaw. Then she muttered, “Fine,” and climbed back down the ladder. She was a little shaky, and Valkyrie felt a pang of doubt. Had Julian bothered to feed them? Carol was an Elemental. They’d be okay for water. But food?

Valkyrie straightened back up and turned, and demanded, “Where’s the soul-catcher?”

“Here, I’ve got it,” said the nervous man who led the project, almost tripping over himself as he ran into the cubicle and held out the manufactured soul-catcher. “Remember, don’t hold it while you’re using it.”

Valkyrie took the thing without bothering to answer and held it in her palm, and concentrated. It rose up off her hand and she directed it over the hole with a movement of her fingers, and lowered it down until it settled on the bottom with a soft thud.

“What is that?” Melanie asked. “Is that a grenade?”

“No,” said Valkyrie, and had to use both her hands to poke the ‘on’ sigil, one to hold the soul-catcher still and the other to make the air prod. It activated, because some of the sigils glowed, but nothing happened. No Remnant burst out of Melanie, or Carol, or Myron Stray.

“Nothing’s happening,” Carol said in a small voice, but Valkyrie’s gut tightened and with a snap of her wrist she turned the soul-catcher off and brought it zooming up to her hand, already pushing herself to her feet.

Corrival turned with surprise from where Bev was briefing him. “They’re clean,” said Valkyrie shortly. “The Remnant, it’s in Julian –” She couldn’t see him, and her skin buzzed with adrenaline. “Where did he go?”

“Bev’s team have already taken him upstairs,” said Corrival grimly, and Valkyrie lit off toward the exit as if a fire was under her feet, the soul-catcher clutched in her hand.

They were sure to use the secondary exit. It was the nearest and they would have to get Julian out of the secured area as soon as possible – it was policy. Even taking him into the wrong district they could buff security in the district tower and claim an air-ferry for Guard use.

By the time Valkyrie slammed the button on the elevator her breathing was fast, but she kept it even. She wanted to keep running, wanted to do something, felt like pacing like Tanith did. Instead she made herself still, paid attention to her breathing and imagined that all her tension was coiling in her, making her senses sharper until all she smelled was the steel hall and all she heard was the dull thud of water against glass.

The elevator hit the floor and opened on Aria pulling herself up on the wall. Julian was curled in the corner, looking confused and wary. Valkyrie leapt inside and slapped the button for ground-level, and kneeled by Modeste. Her eyes snapped open and focussed on Valkyrie.

“Just dizzy,” she said quietly. “It was in him. It took Xun.”

“I know,” said Valkyrie. She felt very calm and her mind felt very clear, as though it was busily ordering itself without her needing to fight it into obeying. “I need you to make me look like Corrival Deuce, and then I need you to stay with Julian.” She looked at Aria. “You’re coming with me. Make a call to the Éire Tower to tell them a dangerous prisoner has escaped and we need their help around the lab exit.”

Aria frowned. “No, we need to get Renn. He’s the only one faster than Xun.”

“The Remnant doesn’t want Xun,” said Valkyrie. “It wants someone more important. Someone it can use to manipulate everything else.”

“Someone like Corrival Deuce,” said Modeste, and she sat up, one hand pressed to her head. She touched the hollow of her throat and the illusion she favoured collapsed with an audible snap, and then she put a hand on Valkyrie’s shoulder and took a deep breath. And then another. Valkyrie hoped she wasn’t too dizzy to manage it. She also tried not to stare too much at Modeste’s face under the illusion.

“The Remnant might not be fooled once it’s let go of Xun,” Aria warned, disconnecting her call. “They’re not physical beings. It might be able to tell the illusion.”

“I know,” said Valkyrie. Her heart was pounding. She was trying not to think too hard, and she hoped that Modeste would hurry up, because if Valkyrie couldn’t act very soon she was going to lose this weird but useful calm. “But that’s what this is for.”

She held up the soul-catcher and the elevator ground to a halt, and Modeste pulled back and leaned against the wall, and unholstered her pistol to point it at Julian. “Go.”

Valkyrie got to her feet and she felt weird – like her equilibrium was trying to make her unbalanced but not quite managing it, because there was really nothing wrong with it. And her skin felt tingly. Almost … itchy. She hoped that was because the illusion was bigger than her, because if not then this was what Modeste felt like all the time and it really sucked.

Valkyrie strode out of the elevator, and then also hoped that the size of the illusion meant that it compensated for her walk or … whatever might be different. The guard examining the door looked startled and Valkyrie snapped, “Did the door slam?”

“Yes,” said the guard, looking puzzled. “But there was no wind, not even a fake one.”

“Move,” said Valkyrie, trying to keep her voice deep, and he moved, and she strode out past him, shoving the door open. If she concentrated she could hear her voice had changed just enough to make the illusion convincing, but it made her throat scratch when she spoke.

“He could have gotten to Madame Mist by now,” Aria said quietly as they strode down the street.

“Madame Mist can turn into a giant spider,” said Valkyrie, scanning the street around them. “They don’t have mouths to go down, not like us. I don’t know if the Remnant would know whether or not it can do that. Madame Mist is a wild card.”

Corrival was closer to the governor, and this was important enough that maybe the Remnant would assume he would leave Valkyrie, the child, behind to handle it himself. He was more experienced a fighter. He had probably helped catch the Remnants the first time. He was the greater threat. The Remnant would want him, would assume they’d send the greater threat.

At least, that’s what Valkyrie hoped and didn’t dare explain out loud, in case the Remnant was using Xun’s speed to listen in.

“How far away are the reinforcements?” Valkyrie asked brusquely. Calling them in would force the Remnant to act before they met. Before they met, and the Remnant would be able to use all its authority right away. After, and its presence would be too obvious.

“Couple of streets past the square.” Aria’s voice was terse and Valkyrie knew she didn’t approve, but she was following and that’s what counted.

They reached the square and it was quiet, almost sleepy. As though nothing was happening. Valkyrie envied the people in the residences nearby. For a few moments they stood there, tense and scanning the area, and finally there came the tramp of footsteps and Aria’s reinforcements came around the far corner.

Aria waved them over and went to meet them, throwing a sharp glance at Valkyrie, but Valkyrie stood there, thinking fast.

Remnants always wanted the most powerful people. Had it figured out that this Corrival wasn’t real? That the real Corrival stayed back? Was it biding its time? Or was there someone else in the city it was going for? The governor was a possibility, but the Remnant could have gotten the governor by trying to take Corrival. It was practically a direct line. Then again, Xun was fast. Maybe it was going to try zipping in and out.

Xun was fast, but not that fast. Everyone would assume the Remnant was going for the governor. There was no guarantee even Xun would get there first.

Aria called and Valkyrie looked her way. “We’re covering the governor.”

“It’s not going for the governor,” said Valkyrie.

“The governor,” sad Aria tersely, “is the only way out of the Tír.”

Valkyrie shook her head. The calm was wearing off, and panic fluttered. This had been their chance and she’d been wrong. But the governor was too obvious. She knew it. “Xun is a trained professional. He’ll know you’ll expect the Remnant to go after the governor, and that means the Remnant knows it too.”

“How do you know?”

“I read a book by a mind-reader who was there the first time,” said Valkyrie absently. “Remnants become the people they inhabit. They know everything the host knows. It’s going to know you’ll have to focus on the governor, so he’s going for the next best thing.”

“That would be Madam Mist,” said Aria, “or Deuce. They’re the nearest. But Mist is a wild card and he didn’t come after you, so it might have doubled back to find the real Deuce.” A squad parted from the group to head back toward the lab.

It still wasn’t right. It was too obvious. She was missing something she should have already seen. Valkyrie’s skin buzzed with alarm and frustration. She took deep breaths, clenching and unclenching her fists slowly.

“Why would it want someone higher-up on the Tír?” she said aloud.

“The Tír’s in lockdown. It’s the only way off.”

“He couldn’t just sprint out?”

Aria shook her head. “Not through lockdown. And there are policies to handle leaders being compromised.”

“Then it’s going to need leverage,” said Valkyrie. “Something the Tír hasn’t had to deal with before, like pressure from the outside world –” Then it hit her, finally, and she felt her legs go shaky. Carol. Carol had been taken. “My mother’s the Irish Administrator.”

She took off toward Fergus’s house but Aria grabbed her shoulder. The illusion almost made her miss and Valkyrie wrenched away, but Aria snapped, “Don’t be an idiot, it’ll take too long! Let me radio in.”

Right. Yes. Radios. Heart pounding, Valkyrie managed to stop, but her limbs were still shaky and she had to lean against the wall while Aria talked to despatch. It didn’t matter who made it there first, Valkyrie told herself. But she already knew what they’d find when they did, and called back.

Her parents were gone.

Chapter Text

“We’ve lost all the halls on the eastern side,” said Macha. Her tone was calm, but Ghastly fancied there was an edge of tension in it. It was hard to tell, with people who’d come off the Cleaver imprint, but he was pretty sure Macha was Not Happy. Not that any of them were, but for Macha to show it meant she was really unhappy.

“How many have we lost?” Ghastly asked.

“Two.”

“Good odds, given what we’re up against,” Ghastly said grimly, glancing at the glowing map around Hopeless’s office which bore out what Macha was reminding them.

“One of them knew the location of our secondary,” Macha said flatly.

“Oh.” Ghastly glanced toward his friend and Grand Mage. Hopeless sat straight-backed, with his hands clasped on the desk and his eyes closed, and the thoughtspeaker a half-hidden glow behind his hair. Had Hopeless even left his chair since this all started? Ghastly wasn’t sure.

“A bit longer,” said Hopeless in his new, staticky voice. Ghastly knew now that the static wasn’t the thoughtspeaker not working properly. It was the thoughtspeaker working too well.

“What are we waiting for?” Tanith asked. Without Saracen there was no one extra to watch Tesseract. Ghastly had taken over for a while, but the situation was wearing on them. “And why do we still have him?”

She nodded in Tesseract’s direction. Tesseract looked back at her from behind the mask. Was it just Ghastly, or did his eyes look tighter than usual? What Ghastly could see of them, anyway.

“We’ll be fine,” Ghastly assured her, and Tanith gave him a smile. A tense one, but it was a smile.

“I’m not worried about that,” she said quietly. “I just hate the waiting.”

“We all do, believe me.”

“That sounds like an offer to tell me some examples.”

Ghastly would have been quite willing to tell her some stories about Rover’s impatience, just to distract her from unintentionally bothering Hopeless with hers, but the phone on Hopeless’s desk rang and it drew all their attention.

Hopeless opened his eyes, finally, and blinked down at it with an air of bewilderment, so it was Ghastly who prodded the speaker button. “Grand Mage’s office.”

“Bespoke,” said Bliss. “The Grand Mage is there?”

“He’s here.”

“All flights to Ireland have been cancelled. Everything has been cancelled. Is there reason for concern?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Ghastly, “we’re handling a bit of a Remnant outbreak right now.”

“I see.” Behind Bliss’s deep, even voice, Ghastly could hear the sounds of an airport: the intercom, and the bustle, and people talking. Most of them were in English. “Status so far?”

“They’ve breached the Sanctuary, but we’ve evacuated most personnel and set up a secondary command centre. Guild is in charge of that; he should have his phone, if you need to get in contact.” Hopeless motioned to him and Ghastly added, “Hopeless has a new toy which lets him talk. He wants to tell you himself, apparently.”

Hopeless leaned forward. “I’m going to send Fletcher Renn to you,” he said, “and Fletcher is going to take you somewhere for your next diplomatic job.”

Ghastly raised his eyebrows at Hopeless. Hopeless smiled ruefully back at him.

“I believe I would be more beneficial helping you with the outbreak, Grand Mage.”

“This is still in relation to the outbreak,” said Hopeless. “There’s a secret place which has been doing research on some related fields of study. We think they might be able to help secure the Remnants again, and I’ve sent Anton, Rover and Dexter over there to look into it.”

“And yet you need me?”

“Dexter’s been possessed, and I didn’t ask beforehand whether I could send them over. Ireland is the first official contact this place has with any magical or known mortal government. I don’t want to kill relations.”

“I see,” said Bliss, and he paused, that weighty pause of Bliss thinking. “This place wouldn’t happen to be a place my sister has been smug over of late?”

“It might just happen to be, yes. We can’t afford for you to get taken by a Remnant, Bliss.”

“Nor we can afford you, Grand Mage. Why are you still in your office?”

“I’m buying time,” said Hopeless, “for Erskine and the necromancers to read the Taoiseach into the situation so we can set up our trap at the Government Buildings.”

There was a pause then that, even for Bliss, seemed startled. Ghastly smiled to himself. Hopeless did have a tendency to enjoy startling people like that. He knew it, too; Hopeless glanced his way, echoing the smile.

“Very well,” said Bliss at last. “I’m at JFK Airport. Has Renn been there?”

“No,” said Hopeless as Fletcher shook his head. “He’ll meet you at the Peninsula. Give him a call when you’re nearly there and he’ll pick you up.” He gave Bliss Fletcher’s number, and though Fletcher didn’t object he was frowning. Ghastly sympathised. Hopeless, when he was ‘in the zone’ as they said, had a habit of steamrolling over everyone worse than Skulduggery did. The Dead Men were used to it, understood that it only happened when it was necessary. Fletcher didn’t, yet.

“I’ll contact you this evening with an update,” said Bliss, and hung up.

Ghastly pushed the button and Hopeless sat back in his chair, rubbing his temples and looking longingly at his drawer. “Okay,” he said. “Tanith, if you’d like to leave you can. Fletcher can take you to our fall-back.”

“I’m staying if Ghastly is.”

“I’m staying,” said Ghastly. “I’m just wondering how long we’re staying.”

“The Remnants have pulled back to go after the mansion,” said Hopeless. “By now Guild’s had enough time to bolster the defences there, but with the Remnants divided between these two places there’ll be even fewer around to bother Erskine. Go and let them know please, Fletcher. Then come back.”

Fletcher blinked gladly away.

“Risky,” Macha said, and there was something about the way she eyed Hopeless that made Ghastly tense. It was difficult to remember who knew and who didn’t, these days.

Hopeless only smiled at her wearily. “Divide and conquer, Macha. Divide and conquer.”

He settled back in his chair. Ghastly exhaled and sat against the corner of the desk. Macha leaned against the wall, and Tanith watched Tesseract, and they all settled in to wait some more.

*

The crowd at JFK was bustling, a wide swarm of incoming and outgoing foot traffic which nevertheless gave Bliss a wide berth. He ignored them all and took the path he made before him without trying; he made it with his impassive face and peaceful eyes and the heaviness of his step.

Airports were … fascinating. Like a train wreck. Cavernous, chaotic, a homogenous mass of humanity – overwhelming even for someone like Bliss. Perhaps especially so. Even after so long there were few things which gave Bliss any pause. Airports, especially airports as large as this, did it. He was aware of that fact, but in typical fashion didn’t let it get the best of him.

But there was always an extra clip to his step when he was there.

Bliss couldn’t quite tell when she came to his side through the throng. That alone spoke how distracted he was. He didn’t let on that he didn’t know, but allowed them to continue apace through the crowd for some time before he said, “Elder Kerias.”

“Zafira, please, Mr Bliss,” said Elder Kerias. “I saw your flight had been cancelled. A shame.” Bliss said nothing. Kerias was the conniving sort; almost coyly English in her sensibilities, but with that presumptuous arrogance that had made the United States the nation it was. “I suppose you’ve heard why?”

“I’ve been recalled to Ireland,” said Bliss.

“I doubt that. We’ve heard there are some … issues in Ireland, currently.”

Bliss stopped and the crowd flowed around him. He looked at Kerias. She smiled at him with a smile his sister might have worn, but far more victorious. How old was Kerias? He didn’t know. Not experienced enough not to be arrogant at the perception she’d won a round, or simply too arrogant to let go her pride.

“How?” Bliss asked. Just asked. He didn’t usually need anything more.

“Every Sanctuary has their sources in other nations, Mr Bliss,” said Kerias. “Yours is under threat, so I’ve heard. But I’m not here on behalf of the American Sanctuary.”

She turned and started walking again, and Bliss matched her pace. “Then you’re here for another reason.”

“Of course,” said Kerias. “I’m here on behalf of some other stakeholders. Some of them are American; some aren’t. We’ve some concerns about the nature of your government.”

“These are things I’ve heard before.” Bliss had been, quietly, ferreting out important information over the past few months, among them just how many people knew about Hopeless’s magic. So far, he had had very little success on that front. Now he wondered.

“Not like this. For one thing, we believe your Grand Mage is plotting world domination.”

Bliss hadn’t laughed in a very long time. But he smiled, and heard Kerias’s footsteps falter. “You’re wrong.”

“Maybe not.” She reached into the thin leather briefcase she carried and gave him some pictures, printed from a computer. Bliss glanced down at them as he walked. They were images of the ocean, somewhere far from land perhaps – of distant chains of islands in the middle of nowhere. As he flipped through them, he realised that one was not, in fact, an island but a construction.

“What is this?”

“We don’t know,” said Kerias, “but we know that Hopeless has something to do with it, and that pretty lover of his as well.”

“You’re referring to Ravel, I assume.” Interesting, that wording. Nothing people hadn’t wondered, at some stage or another, but nothing that Bliss had seen borne out, either. If Bliss wasn’t mistaken, there was a trace of bitterness there.

Kerias shrugged. “They’ve been notably inseparable since before the war ended.”

“All the Dead Men are inseparable,” said Bliss, but he looked at the pictures. He could see four towers, bridges and arches, ferries in the water. A city, then. The scale helpfully provided on the image told him it was a decent-sized one, as well.

“Hopeless and Ravel are the ones who have been all over the world, talking to politicians and making connections,” said Kerias. “I’ve seen them at parties many times in the past – yet nothing since Hopeless became Grand Mage. I wonder why?”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“You don’t think your Grand Mage’s plots with secret cities has anything to do with you?”

“If you’ve photographed it,” said Bliss, “then it’s hardly secret.”

“We caught it by chance, and it was gone by the next day. We don’t know where it is now. But I would like to note that Shudder is a Dead Men and also the only person who’s managed to create teleportation magic using sigils.”

“You haven’t given me any reason to believe the Dead Men have anything to do with this,” Bliss observed, shuffling the pages back into a stack and holding them out.

“Can you take the risk that they don’t?” Kerias asked, pushing the pictures back. “Keep them.”

Bliss took them back, but he fixed Kerias with that pale stare few people could hold. Kerias wasn’t one of them, and she looked away. “Elder Kerias,” Bliss said, “I would advise against telling me how to determine who is loyal to Ireland and who isn’t.”

“Of course,” said Kerias. “But there’s a Remnant outbreak going on in Ireland.” So she did know. Discouraging. “If the Dead Men are affiliated with this city and if they’ve been keeping it secret, I imagine sooner or later you’re going to find out about it.”

“And if I do, what, precisely, do your stakeholders want me to do?”

Kerias widened her eyes. “What you always do, of course. Consider the threat to your nation.”

She split her path from his as they approached the door, and the last he saw was the whip of her hair before a crowd of tourists interrupted her wake.

Chapter Text

The last few years had been the most exciting in the last … well, century. Some days it was the kind of excitement Corrival Deuce could do without. Some days it was the kind he listed under ‘guilty pleasures’.

Some days it was both.

“Put that bloody thing down!” Corrival hollered across the room. The scientist, apprentice, or whatever-the-hell-she-was jumped and fumbled, and almost dropped that vital piece of evidence Corrival couldn’t quite see. Whatever it was, it was vital. Corrival put a hand over his face and exhaled slowly.

“Rigors of command getting to you, General?” Bev asked with a grin he could hear.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Put your teeth away, Deuce. She’s new; she isn’t an idiot.”

“You get many cases of treason, you lot, do you?”

“Green doesn’t equal kiddy gloves, Deuce.”

Corrival took a deep breath and shoved his hands into the pockets of his nicely colourful coat, and moved away from the empty bullpen they had taken over. There wasn’t any point to carting Julian’s whole lab-space upstairs, and the scientists down here mix-and-matched their work spaces so regularly that someone had been able to clear out inside of fifteen minutes. It wasn’t long.

Should’ve been long enough for Cain to call in.

Should’ve been long enough for a lot of things.

He felt a prickle on the back of his neck and turned to find the vampire watching, and he strode toward her in lieu of anything to do until the forensic team finished and Bev O’Connell stopped hovering while they moved Julian’s equipment out.

“Isara,” he said, and her fine eyebrows rose.

“You remembered my name.”

“Most vampires don’t introduce themselves, or neglect to try and kill me. It’s something of an occasion.”

“Yes,” said Isara, and smiled faintly. “Corrival the vampire slayer. That TV show wouldn’t have been nearly as popular if it was true-to-life.”

“One,” said Corrival with a grumble. “That’s how many brownie points you lose with me every time you make a stupid reference which I, believe me, have inevitably already heard.”

“Only one?”

“Every now and then someone comes up with something I haven’t heard before. Tell me about Julian.”

Isara shrugged casually, and it was a vampire’s casual shrug; the sort that made Corrival tense, because that shrug could herald a decapitation. Or it could just be a shrug. “What is there to say? He wooed me.”

“Didn’t figure it was possible for humans to woo vampires without going the whole hog. He studied you?”

“I was helping him with his studies,” Isara corrected. The laboratory was a low-grade bustle around them, and Corrival was vaguely aware of it: the low mutterings of the researchers, which he gathered was unusually quiet; the scrap and thud of equipment; the dim chime of sigils being pressed. It had been quite a while since he’d been this aware of his surroundings. For all that, his focus was on Isara, watching her every movement, or lack thereof.

She knew it, too. She didn’t show it, but she knew it, and she returned his gaze evenly.

Did Erskine know, Corrival wondered, that there was a vampire living and researching on the Tír? Especially one as old as Isara was? She hadn’t said so, but she was.

“You were helping him with his studies, right,” said Corrival. “You said you want to cure vampirism.”

“I do.”

“I’m failing to see how ‘curing’ vampirism relates to ‘triggering a massive homicidal fit which turns them rabid during the day’.”

Isara went very, very still. The kind of still that looped around to the point of being a visual black hole of movement. The kind that drew attention. “I beg your pardon, Deuce. So you said before; but I’m unsure whether or not to believe it.”

“I’d pay,” said Corrival, “to see a vampire beg.” He turned with a jerk of his head. “Come here. See what your Julian was wooing you for.”

He didn’t look back as he returned to the bullpen where they’d set up. He knew she was following. In the time he’d been gone, Bev O’Connell had taken back control of Julian’s computer and was going through it more slowly. “O’Connell.”

“Deuce,” she said without looking up.

“Show Isara here what you found.” Corrival took up a place beside her, leaning back against the desk, and crossed his arms. Bev showed no signs of being unnerved by a vampire hanging over her shoulder. A lot of fears had been bred out of people, here.

Even if Erskine doesn’t know there’s a vampire on the Tír, does he have a right to object?

Erskine had distanced himself because he wanted the Tír to become its own city state, independent of him. Corrival shouldn’t be feeling so defensive on his behalf. Hypocritical for one thing, after all he said to Erskine about stepping back. More the fool him.

“So he’s studying brainwaves, right?”

“I am aware of that, yes.” Isara’s tone had a bite of impatience. Bev took no notice whatsoever. Ovaries of steel, that woman. She brought up a couple of files, both of them with those wavy lines the movies always showed as representing brain patterns. That was the extent of Corrival’s experience with them, but even he could tell one set was different to the other.

“Are these brainwaves yours?”

“Yes,” said Isara, sounding less impatient now. “One as I am now, the other at night.”

“According to his notes,” said Bev, “Julian tricked your brain, literally, into making a vampire change.”

“Impossible.”

“Nope. He made a phone app.” Bev pulled up the software and pointed. “See? Easy as tapping a button. Hit that, the phone emits waves that altar a vampire’s brain chemistry and triggers the change. Even during the day. Even after the serum’s been used.”

Isara looked, and didn’t move. Didn’t even blink.

“Nothing to say?” Corrival asked.

“What did he use it for?” she asked finally, her tone neutral.

“Distraction. He got a vampire to check into the Midnight Hotel and gave an operative inside this software.”

“Which vampire?”

“Kid called Caelan,” said Corrival, and Isara finally glanced his way.

“I know him. He was exiled.”

“Killed another vampire. I know.”

“Who did Julian get to help him?”

“Dusk.”

Isara nodded then and said nothing else, and even though Corrival watched her face carefully he couldn’t tell what any of her thoughts might have been. He wasn’t surprised by it, but it was still annoying. Luckily, he didn’t have to try and press some more information out of her, because there was a clamour by the doors and he stepped away to deal with it.

A set of guards wearing the Tír’s colours and the Éire District’s crest came in, on high alert. The researchers around them stopped and put up their hands, but to Corrival’s surprise the moment he stepped into view they pointed their weapons at him.

“The bloody hell?” he snapped, putting his hands on his hips instead of in his pockets. That might have been just a bit too much of a threat.

“Sorry, sir,” said the team lead, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the soul-catcher Cain had run off with. “Couldn’t find the Remnant. Have to be sure.” He put it on the ground and pressed the sigil, and took his hands away in a hurry. The sphere glowed and no Remnants burst out of anyone’s mouths.

Corrival lifted an eyebrow. “Satisfied?”

“Yessir.” The squad leader reached for the sphere.

“Wait!” The woman researcher who’d been part of the magic-nullification project hurried toward them, carrying a pole with claws on the end. “Let me.”

She used the pole to hold the sphere still while it turned off. Corrival turned to the squad lead. “Report.”

“As I understand it, sir, the Remnant was in the subject being taken up for processing,” said the squad leader. “It escaped and went into Senior Officer Xun. Cain and Senior Officer Ritter hoped to trick it into coming after them, but it didn’t, sir. They’re covering the governor and looking into other targets, while we came down here to secure you.”

Corrival rubbed his head. Great. Just great. Now they had a Remnant loose in the city, and on his watch. This day was turning out better and better.

And then, quite suddenly, it looked up. The door shifted and Vex put his head through. “Helloooo?”

“Get your chiselled arse in here,” Corrival barked, and Vex grinned.

“Nice to hear your dulcet tones too, General.”

“Don’t call me that,” Corrival growled, but Vex only laughed and pushed the door open to enter properly, and while he was still smiling, it was a grim smile.

“I take it you’ve heard about our little problem?”

“You take things correctly,” said Corrival, and nodded to Larrikin, who was bringing up Vex’s rear with a strange expression on his face. Corrival puzzled over what was wrong for a second before putting it aside as immediately irrelevant. “What are the two of you doing here?”

“I was called,” Dexter explained. “By one Pandora, who wanted my help with some kind of metaphysical energy manipulation.”

“You think it might help with the current situation?” It was the only reason Vex would take the time away from a God-damned Remnant invasion.

“I do,” said Vex. “Which one’s Pandora?”

Corrival grunted and jerked his head behind him. “This way.” He pointed out Pandora’s bullpen, and dropped behind to match Larrikin’s pace and watch him frankly. He hadn’t even said a word, yet. Not a word, and he hadn’t taken his eyes off Vex. “Not going to flatter me today, Larrikin?”

Larrikin shook his head once, shortly and silently, and watched Vex be greeted by Pandora.

He wasn’t smiling, Corrival realised. That’s what was wrong. There was no smile. Corrival’s back prickled.

“Who’s Pandora talking to, Larrikin?” Corrival said, very low, and Larrikin’s gaze flickered. “Shit.”

He turned and caught the squad leader’s eye, and jerked his head at the soul-catcher, and then kept pace with Larrikin until they reached the bullpen, coming in halfway through a conversation that was already in full swing between Vex, Pandora and her research assistants.

“– trying to detect just how the different sounds formulate,” Pandora was saying, while the female assistant – Corrival thought maybe her name was Lindsey – nodded vigorously.

“So you need a comparison,” said Vex. “Something that’s unrelated to name-manipulation, something non-verbal, which might register on the same wavelength.”

“Yes, exactly.” Pandora all but beamed. “We have energy-throwers here, of course, but none of them have done the research you have and none of them have that level of fine control.”

“Sure,” said Corrival. “But I’ll bet none of them have burned off their own God-damned hands, either.”

“That was an accident,” said Vex with great dignity. It was chilling, it really was; if it weren’t for the way Larrikin was acting, like someone had been killed, Corrival wouldn’t have imagined something was wrong. “But I think I can help. If you can start to differentiate between the different kinds of energies –”

“– and how they’re connected –” Pandora put in.

“– you might be able to tell the difference between the metaphysical representations of biological imperatives and the properly metaphysical bits and bobs.” He smiled. “That’s a technical term. You’re trying to do with the soul what I can do with matter, basically.”

“Well, I –” Pandora blinked. “I suppose I am. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but yes, the name is a part of the soul.”

“Have you talked to necromancers?” Vex asked. “Maybe they can give you more insight into that.”

“No, there aren’t any here.” Pandora looked intrigued, and Corrival glanced away enough to see the squad lead coming up behind him, casually, but with the soul-catcher clutched in his hand. “But I think that’s a good idea. Firstly, though –”

“Right, yes,” said Vex, and he turned to Corrival. “Tell him to put it away.”

Corrival lifted his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”

“I felt it from out in the hall,” said Vex calmly, wearing that little smile he wore when he was trying not to frighten the bystanders. Corrival eyed the distance between him and Pandora. “Tell him to put it away.”

“Or you’ll do what?” Corrival asked, and then added, “Genuine question.”

Pandora stiffened and took a half-step back, and Vex didn’t stop her from doing it. He just shook his head. “It’s not a matter of what I’ll do. It’s a matter of what you’ll lose. Pandora’s research could enable us to manufacture a new Receptacle inside Dublin, using the Hotel as a go-between, but there’s no way she’ll get it done in time without a subject to experiment on. And, if I’m not mistaken, I’m the only one you have.”

Corrival stared. He’d been there, that century ago; he’d seen what the Remnants had done last time. He had never, ever heard of one being self-sacrificing. “You’re going to let us experiment on you,” he said at least, “so that the other Remnants can be captured?”

“Yes,” said Vex – the Remnant – simply.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Dexter Vex, and I’m a Dead Man, and I’m helping to save Ireland.”

“Yes, but why?”

Vex sighed and rolled his eyes, and turned to Larrikin. “Can you find the words? I don’t think he’s going to accept it, coming from me.”

“He’s a Dead Man,” said Larrikin, and Corrival stared at him too – stared between the both of them, in fact. Yes, it was true that the Remnants took on the personalities of the people they inhabited. Yes, Vex was still going to act like Vex. But he was Vex without a conscience. He shouldn’t have cared. Was it really as simple as that? The Remnant helping, because that’s what Vex would have done?

“What do you get out of it?” he asked finally.

Vex held up his hands, palms to himself. “Your trust.”

“You’re a Remnant.”

“And Dexter Vex.”

Corrival ran his hands through his hair. “Shit.” These were not the decisions he wanted to make this morning, but he was the one who was here, which meant he was the one left to make them. Unless – He looked at Larrikin. “Hopeless sent you both?”

Larrikin gave a short nod. Corrival exhaled, and turned, and saw Bev shoving through the hovering researchers. “Bug up your arse, O’Connell?”

“Call-in from Aria,” said Bev grimly. “The Remnant’s taken Cain’s parents. Cain thinks it was after her mother, in particular.”

“The Irish Administrator,” Corrival supplied, and cursed long in Irish. They only had one soul-catcher, and it would take hours to tune another – according to the idiots in charge of the project. Melissa Edgley was pregnant. God only knew what a possession would do to the child. Dexter Vex, if he was himself, would never let Corrival pick him over a pregnant woman.

Corrival turned toward the squad leader behind him. “Guard the door,” he said grimly. “If Vex tries to make a move to leave, shoot him.”

Then he turned back to Vex, who was suddenly grinning, and crossed his arms. “Get to it.”

Chapter Text

Ide couldn’t say she had much idea how quickly faeries got things done, but they damn well got things done faster than most of the government. It was almost eerie. They barely said anything; just bowed and went off on their business, subtle despite the way they dressed. Mostly they managed by not being seen, which Ide assumed was easy for a group of people who could melt into shadows whenever they chose.

They worked in teams, with a spotter and a warder, and aside from most of the department being jumpier than usual at moving shadows, they didn’t cause enough of a fuss to get in the way.

Aside from the original four there were close to two dozen of them on the grounds, working with a brisk and silent efficiency that made Ide wish she knew their secret. There was plenty of time to ask, given that Ide had, somehow, been promoted to ‘Liaison to the Sidhe’. She hadn’t even had a crash course on the reality of magical peoples yet, aside from learning everyone’s names and the Taoiseach being very apologetic that he hadn’t told her the truth. She forgave him, on account of the fact that he couldn’t have known if she was possessed.

Obviously, she wasn’t. Neither was the Taoiseach, fortunately. One or two Remnants had already been caught, mostly as a result of the parade of officials going through the Taoiseach’s office under the guise of sombre discussions, while Wreath sat quietly in the corner gathering stares and watching for Remnants.

“I feel like a sphinx,” Wreath muttered as an aside as one stage, though Ide couldn’t be sure if it was to his Italian companion or to Ravel. Either way, it was Ravel who answered.

“Don’t get cocky, Wreath.”

“I feel like I should request riddles from everyone who comes in the door. Whoever shall enter here …”

“Wreath, don’t make me get out a squirt-bottle.”

They were, Ide had noticed, a great deal like children. Children who nevertheless got things done. Ide couldn’t even be sure they disliked each other, but she could see how the Taoiseach had been captivated by Ravel’s manner and suggestions. He treated the magnitude of the situation they were in as if it was easily surmountable.

“Sir,” she said in a low voice during a break between the endless meetings, giving the Taoiseach a new report. She meant to ask, ‘who are they’, but then decided she probably wouldn’t get a very straight answer, or at least not a satisfactory one, given that the Taoiseach hadn’t seemed to recognise Wreath and his group. “How did you meet him?”

“Actually, he contacted me,” the Taoiseach whispered back, as if they were doing something unconscionable in his own office. “I thought the most I could do was raise awareness of certain issues during the campaign time and the next thing I knew someone was coming into my office asking if I wanted to be Taoiseach. He has a face it’s hard to say ‘no’ to, don’t you think?”

Ide looked over to where Ravel was arguing with Wreath and made a face. The Taoiseach grinned.

“If he wanted, Erskine could take the world by storm.”

“I’d just as soon he didn’t,” said Ide, and that was when one of the administrative assistants ran in, gasping and whimpering.

“Shadows,” he gasped out, and sank to the floor in a dead faint. Ide and the Taoiseach looked at him, and then looked at Wreath and Ravel. Ravel looked at Wreath.

Wreath rose calmly to his feet, and the door burst open again, and one of the other departmental assistants ran in. The difference here, beside the fact that she didn’t faint, was the grin she wore and the fact her face bulged with black veins.

She looked down at the fainted man and took out a gun which was definitely against policy, and shot him in the head. Ide jumped at the noise, her heart hammering. She didn’t know what she was meant to do, but she was gratified to realise she’d at least jumped in front of the Taoiseach.

“That’s for all the times you told me I should go out with you because you were the best I was going to find,” said the woman to the corpse, and shot it again. “And that’s for all the times you groped my arse. Bastard. Hello.” She looked up and waved.

“Hello,” said the Taoiseach weakly. Ide didn’t feel well. Every time she inhaled, the air smelled coppery.

“You’ve got a ton of people after you,” said the woman. “My kind of people, not your kind of people.”

“That’s a surprise,” said Ravel. “I’ve never heard of a Remnant who admits they’re a Remnant before.”

“Just because I’m a crazy incorporeal shadow who possesses people doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings,” said the woman.

“You could have reported him, you know.”

“I did,” said the woman indignantly. “He’s my boss. It didn’t get any higher. So I removed the problem. So you’re the one who can see us, eh?”

She looked at Wreath and the gun in her hand meandered in the air. Ide watched it carefully and did not look at the body on the floor. Where were the garda? They should have been on watch outside, just in case of times like this. What had happened? Didn’t they hear that someone was happening in here?

“You’re well informed,” Wreath observed. He was, Ide felt, far too calm for a man in a room with a maniac wielding a gun, particularly as he was a man who couldn’t see where the gun was pointing.

The woman grinned. “Word gets around. You’re not subtle.”

“I rather think you don’t have much ground to stand on,” Wreath pointed out, lifting an eyebrow and pointing at – directly at – the corpse on the floor. The woman followed the motion.

“Oh, yeah. I probably should have thought of that.” She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, anyhow. We’re this close to taking your Sanctuary, and your backup, and when we finally do take the Government Buildings you sorcerers won’t have anywhere to hide.”

“So that’s it,” Wreath murmured, as Ravel made a sound of realisation. “When you hold a grudge, you truly hold a grudge.”

“What can I say? I’m an incorporeal shadow with feelings. I didn’t say they were nice ones.”

The gun came up and fired and Ide flinched, but when she opened her eyes the bullet was hovering in front of her. “Oh, come on,” said the woman behind it. “You know you can’t kill me. You can kill the woman I’m in, but you can’t kill me.”

“You once possessed someone with grandiose tendencies, didn’t you?” said Wreath dryly.

“Psychologist.”

“Same thing.”

“Oy,” Ravel grumbled, and he closed his fingers on his outstretched hand. The bullet dropped to the floor. He was two feet from where he’d been, Ide noticed, and as she watched he took another, very slight, step.

“Why should I settle for anything less than I am?” said the woman, as if neither of them had said anything. “Why should I want to be stuck in one meatsuit for the rest of existence? I’m invincible. I tell you, it blew my mind.”

“You’re an incorporeal shadow,” said Wreath. “You don’t have a mind.”

The woman waved the gun impatiently. “It blew my soul, then.”

“You don’t have one of those, either.”

The woman glared and opened her mouth. Ravel snapped up his hands and she went flying backward as if she’d been struck by a cannonball, except with less perforation and guts. She sailed all the way through the open door and struck the opposite wall, and the door slammed shut of its own volition.

“Nice work, Wreath,” said Ravel. “You’re finally putting your annoying nature to good use.”

“I do try, Ravel.”

“And psychologists are not grandiose.”

“Your friend Hopeless is the exception that proves the rule. If he’s an exception. You all tend to be fairly grandiose.”

Ravel grunted. His hand was still up and his brow was furrowed. “Any chance someone can see about locking the door, please?”

Ide didn’t snap out of her daze, but she was moving without consciously intending it. She hurried over to the door and jumped as she saw it shudder. It held and she locked it quickly, and then turned around. The first thing she saw was the body on the floor.

Her ears were buzzing, and so was her head. That was a bad, bad sign. She forced herself to take a deep breath, a slow one, and it didn’t much help her stop feeling sick, but it did stop her from fainting. “How –?”

“I manipulate air,” said Ravel, but Ide shook her head impatiently.

“We had guards out there. You had guards out there. How did she get in? What’s happening?”

“There’s a useful little thing you lot invented about a century ago,” said Wreath. “They’re called ‘phones’.”

“They’re called ‘useless lumps of plastic’,” said the Taoiseach quietly, putting down the receiver. “There’s no phone signal.”

“Shit,” Ravel muttered. He and Ide pulled out their mobiles at once, looked at the screens, and then looked at each other.

“Do faeries curse?” Ide asked.

“Depends on the situation,” said Ravel.

“How about now?”

“Now’s good.”

Wreath closed his eyes and sighed. “No signal?”

“None whatsoever.”

“You’d better get out the blanket and firewood, then. We might need to send smoke signals.”

Something crunched outside the door. Ide whirled and Ravel flicked his hand and a bookcase moved in front of it. Ide stepped back, remembered the body, and stepped around it, managing not to look down. The bookcase was followed by another, and then a desk, and one by one the furniture in the room piled up by the door.

“I don’t suppose you could help by moving that body?” Ravel said to Wreath, his hands moving like a puppet-master.

“I’d love to,” said Wreath grimly. “I haven’t been able to use my magic since I was attacked by a five-year-old with a sharpie.”

Ravel said a word then which Ide was sure was very old, but still had quite a bit of meaning. “Not at all?”

“Not without summoning it.”

Ravel said the word again, followed by a string of others.

“You can summon a five-year-old with a sharpie?” Ide asked without thinking, and to her surprise Wreath laughed. So, after a startled second, did Ravel.

“Not the kind of five-year-old that’s fun to have around, anyway.”

“You find five-year-olds fun, Wreath?” Ravel asked, lifting an eyebrow without turning. “I’m surprised. Minister Kavanagh, Fionn – I hate to ask –”

“Where do you want it?” Ide asked. She would have been startled by the composure in her voice, if she didn’t feel so numb. She thought finding out about faeries was bad? This was worse. This was far worse.

“Anywhere that isn’t in front of the door.”

Ide took a breath, not too deeply because otherwise she’d throw up, and rolled up her sleeves. The Taoiseach came to her without his jacket, without his tie. Together they picked up the corpse by its arms and legs, and dragged it into a corner. Ide kept her face turned away, trying not to look too closely or breathe much at all, but it was hard; the body was much heavier than she thought it would be.

She straightened up and found herself thinking, What now? When she looked at the Taoiseach he was wiping his hands off on a handkerchief, having taken the corpse’s arms. He smiled at her grimly.

“Not what you signed up for, I’m afraid.”

Ide took a breath so she didn’t laugh. “Sir, I signed up for whatever it took to keep the nation safe in a way that honours ourselves. For what it’s worth, even though I think you need to be brought down to earth more often, I’m willing to concede that you know more about what’s down to earth at this point than I do. And that I think you’ve done a good job so far.”

His face softened. “Thank you. Honestly? That’s all I signed up for too.”

Ide held up a hand. “But you should know that I’m terrible at waiting.”

The Taoiseach laughed. Thud went the Remnant on the other side of the door, less audible now than it had been, and grimly Ravel stacked the barricade high.

Chapter Text

Valkyrie stood, very still, in the corner of her uncle’s living room. Her head was full of cotton. She was trying to remember what the Dead Men had recommended she do when her head was full of cotton. It had been so clear, before.

Luckily she was still wearing Corrival’s skin. She had enough space in her mind to be grateful for that, because it meant she looked like she was thinking hard instead of breaking down. She was trying to do it quietly, so she didn’t draw attention to that fact and ruin Corrival’s reputation, and thoroughly, so the cotton would get out of her head and she could think again.

There weren’t any tears. Even if this had been the time for them, there weren’t any. That was good too. She already knew she wasn’t the kind of person to break down in tears at times like this, but it was still nice to have confirmed.

The Remnant had her parents. It could be in a different body by now, but probably not, because Xun had the credentials to get nearly anywhere and had magic that could get him nearly anywhere else. So the Remnant probably hadn’t changed hosts.

Except why wouldn’t it? asked a voice in her head, the one that sounded like Skulduggery. It knows you know it’s in Xun.

Just because it knows that, she argued back, doesn’t mean it’s a good enough reason to leave, since Xun’s magic is so useful.

That depends on what the Remnant is after.

Valkyrie’s gut dropped and her spine tickled cold. “Aria,” she said suddenly, and Aria turned where she as giving orders to some of the patrolmen. “You said that Xun couldn’t speed through lockdown.”

“Even Xun at full speed can’t get through the doors,” said Aria. “He’d go splat.”

Valkyrie felt her mouth turn up at the corners. She still felt detached, but some of the cotton was clearing. “Is there any reason for the Remnant to stay in him?”

“I doubt it,” said Aria. “Your mother is the Irish Administrator, but without knowing what’s going on in Ireland we can’t say whether the Remnant would be better off taking her off-city or keeping her here.”

“Or possessing her.”

From the way Aria’s expression didn’t change, Valkyrie could tell she had already thought of that.

“Or possessing her,” Aria agreed calmly. She put her hand on Valkyrie’s shoulder. “I think it’s time we went to report to General Deuce, Valkyrie.”

Valkyrie took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, instead of in a sigh like she wanted. Part of her wanted to insist that they don’t. That she could fix this. But that part of her was stupid, and she knew it; it was the same part of her, years ago, which had tried to insist going on a raid on Serpine’s castle, even though she’d been completely unprepared.

It is not stupid to concede and get more help, she reminded herself. It is stupid to pretend I can do it alone when I can’t.

She nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

“Okay.” Aria turned around to give some last-minute instructions while Valkyrie stood quietly, looking around the living-room. She still felt as though she was missing something.

“Aria,” she said slowly. “Did someone call my uncle to let him know we found Carol?”

“Bev did that as we left,” said Aria, “but he might not have left by the time Xun got here.”

“Aunt Beryl isn’t here, either?”

“No one was in the house,” said Aria, her brow furrowing. Xun had been the one watching when Valkyrie arrived home after searching for Carol that first night, but Aria had been there to help too.

“Would Xun have risked trying to take four hostages all at once?” Valkyrie wondered.

“Xun wouldn’t,” said Aria, “but the Remnant isn’t Xun. You said it would copy his personality, not his logic processes, and if it was actually willing to kill, he could make four unarmed people do what he says. Especially when one is pregnant and another’s incognisant.”

Valkyrie felt a stab of resentment on her aunt’s behalf and it surprised her, and she took it and ran with it because it was sharp enough to cut through the cotton. “We should check the hospital, anyway,” she said. “The one where Carol was sent. If Fergus and Beryl are there, they’re out of the way.”

“If they’re not, they’re extra people to look out for,” said Aria. “I’ve got someone going to the hospital.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Valkyrie paused and looked around the house once more, and then nodded. She meant to say something but the words didn’t come, so she didn’t say anything and just left.

It wasn’t far to the campus entrance downstairs, but getting to the laboratory took a bit longer – altogether it was a roundabout route. They ferried across to Éire instead and took the secondary elevator, Valkyrie ignoring the sneaking looks the guard gave her.

There was a lot more activity downstairs than Valkyrie remembered. More precinct officers, for one thing: at the top and the bottom of the elevator, along the hall, and outside the laboratory. When they went in there were more guards every few cubicles, and the sight of them made Aria frown.

“Problem?” Valkyrie asked in a low voice, ignoring the startled looks the researchers were giving her.

“Liam or Bev called in reinforcements,” Aria murmured. “Makes me wonder why.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

The cubicle Corrival had commandeered was at the end, across from Julian’s, which was now fully occupied by the forensic team taking care of physical evidence. Or something. But when they got about halfway down, Valkyrie saw someone she recognised in a cubicle she also recognised, flanked by guards. “Rover!”

Rover turned and he looked more sombre than she’d ever seen; he wasn’t even smiling, and it was like someone had ripped a vital part of him away. Then his eyebrows shot skyward and he glanced up the lane toward the back, and then looked back, blinking. “Corrival?”

Valkyrie sighed. “Shit. I forgot.”

“You forgot you’re Corrival?” Rover looked bemused and that was better than his last expression, but he still didn’t smile.

“No, I forgot I was wearing Corrival’s skin. It’s an illusion. I’m Valkyrie.”

Rover stared some more and then turned and hollered: “OY! GENERAL DEVIL SAH!”

Valkyrie was fairly sure that he amplified his voice using air somehow because it bounced all over and made her cringe, and made the hum of chatter die down. There was a shuffle from up the end and Corrival came striding down the lane, his face strangely worried and patchwork coat fluttering behind him.

“What is it?” he demanded, and Rover pointed wordlessly, and Corrival looked. Then he looked some more, and said gruffly, “Cain? Care to explain this?”

“It was meant to make the Remnant come out so we could catch it,” Valkyrie said. “It didn’t work.”

Corrival looked again, and if Valkyrie wasn’t mistaken, that was the beginnings of a smile creasing the side of his face. A grim one, but a smile nonetheless. “Good plan. Creative thinking. Dead Men-like.”

Valkyrie grinned at him. “Cheers.”

“Don’t do that. You’ll make my face break. Come up this way.” He turned and Valkyrie followed, glancing back at Rover. Rover had already turned around to watch something inside the cubicle, but Valkyrie didn’t see what it was before they were too far away.

The moment they were out of earshot, Valkyrie asked, “What’s wrong with Rover?”

Corrival looked grim and answered low, and his footsteps were loud enough to cover the sound of his voice from passers-by. “Vex is Remnanted.”

Aria muttered a curse and Valkyrie’s heart skipped, and she felt all the blood drain from her face. The jolt of adrenaline was what cleared the cotton. “I gave Pandora his name as someone who could help her.”

“So that’s why she rang him.” Corrival shook his head. They came to the appropriated cubicle and he stopped to put a hand on her shoulder. “Not your fault. He wasn’t taken then.”

It still felt an awful lot like her fault, and Valkyrie suspected Corrival would know she felt that way. But she nodded, because practically all the Dead Men at one time or another had told her there was a difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’, and this wasn’t one of the times they were the same thing, and even if they were, ‘blame’ was worse than useless.

“Why’s he still down here?” Aria demanded, but quietly so as not to draw attention, and they stepped into the cubicle proper before continuing.

“Because he says he can help,” said Corrival, “and he was sent here by someone who’d know if he was lying, so I’m trusting in the people I have reason to trust.” He shook his head with a sigh. “Will it work? Buggered if I know. But right now it’s our best chance.”

“Of doing what?” Valkyrie asked.

“Vex thinks Pandora’s research can facilitate the removal of a Remnant.”

“Why would a Remnant help catch other Remnants?” Aria asked.

Valkyrie glanced over the low walls of the cubicles, and though she couldn’t see all the way to Pandora’s because of the people in the way, it didn’t matter. “Because Remnants aren’t whole, and they want to be, and Dexter is part of a group that’s more together than most people can dream. The Remnant in him got what it wanted, and it’s going to do anything it thinks it should to stay part of the group.”

There was a pause and Valkyrie looked back and scowled at the indulgent smile on Corrival’s face. “Shut up. I read. I’ve read practically every damned book Hopeless keeps in his office, and he wrote a whole bunch about the Remnants.”

“I believe you,” said Corrival. “Just didn’t take you for a scholar, that’s all. It’s a good thing you are. More information, more considered decisions – most of the time.”

Isara was at the computer with Bev. Valkyrie stopped short and watched her suspiciously. Bev glanced over and back at the screen, and then over again, her eyebrows shooting skyward. “Since when did you have a twin, Deuce?”

“Cain tried to use me as bait to trick the Remnant out.”

“Did it work?”

“No,” said Valkyrie. “Why is the vampire still here? Erskine hates vampires.”

Bev whistled. “What kind of training do you put fifteen-year-olds through, to recognise vampires on sight?”

“Cain’s got some personal experience,” said Corrival.

“Dusk,” said the woman.

“Oh, good, you know him.” Valkyrie turned to Corrival, very calmly. “Why the hell is the vampire still here?”

“Good show,” said Corrival, “sounded just like me. There’s a vampire still here because the city does what it thinks is best, not what Erskine likes, just as he wanted it to do, and for whatever reason a whole bunch of people think Isara here is trustworthy.”

She’s a vampire, Valkyrie wanted to reiterate, slowly, but Corrival had used to slay vampires – Rover and Erskine had made her watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer just so she could join in the fun at his expense – so he would know just what vampires could do. Better than Valkyrie did. Besides, saying it like that would just rub it in, so instead Valkyrie crossed her arms and looked at Isara.

Isara looked back. “I’m sorry about your family.”

“Don’t care,” said Valkyrie flatly, to hide the way her chest clenched. It didn’t clench as hard as it did, but sometimes, when she was blindsided, it felt a lot stronger.

“No, I imagine you don’t. But any moral creature would find it worth saying, regardless.”

“Isara was working with Julian to figure out how to stop the vampire’s change in a more economical way than the serum,” said Corrival.

“It’s a good idea,” said Bev. “Give vampires the ability to stop being monsters, and how many of ’em will take the plunge? I’ve heard there’s whole communities out there, trying to live quote unquote ‘civilised’.”

“It’s always only a façade,” said Isara. “Those communities are predicated on the need to hide the uncontrolled. They’re still brutal and savage; it’s just directed internally, instead of outwardly.”

“Except when they take victims,” Aria said.

“Actually, I’ll bet they have dozens of people lining up to be changed these days,” Valkyrie said. “Vampires are a hugely ‘in’ thing in popular culture right now.”

Aria stared at her for a moment. “Why?”

Despite everything, Valkyrie managed a grin. It was a deliberate thing, but it made her feel a bit better after. “Next time I come visit, I’m bringing you a copy of Twilight.”

Isara made a noise of disgust, and it only made Valkyrie’s grin widen, and then she remembered that her parents were gone and the grin died quicker than a candy bowl emptied when Rover was nearby.

“Those horrible books have been a boon to the vampire communities,” said Isara, “but none of them understand that our Edwards truly are monsters.” She glanced casually toward Valkyrie. “Caelan was particularly good at it.”

“I’ll bet he was,” Valkyrie muttered. “Dashing and creepy, what a combination. Bet they were sorry to see him go.”

Isara shrugged. “He broke the law. But this is neither here nor there; you came for an update, yes?”

“Cain’s parents have been taken by the Remnant,” said Corrival, “and we don’t know who it’s in or what it plans to do with them, and her mother’s pregnant. So, yes, I’m here to see what you’ve come up with.”

“Man might have been insane,” said Bev, and she motioned vaguely at the desk, “and terrible at filing in meatspace, but he was one hell of a conscientious administrator on hard-drive.”

“That’s good, right?” Valkyrie asked. She’d exaggerated, before. There were books Hopeless had written which she hadn’t read, but they were mostly about computers, so she didn’t care.

“Not really. A conscientious filer on computer puts security on top of security. Luckily for you, I’m damned good at my job.” Bev pointed at the dash and the flickering holographic screen. “He kept a good list of people he was using as subjects. Most of them are nicely catalogued, with permission and everything, but these are the ones that interest me.”

“That’s mine,” said Isara, pointing out one of the files Bev had copied away from the rest. “And this is Myron Stray’s, during Remnant possession and after.”

“We’ve already sent that little bit along to Pandora,” said Bev. “This one is the most interesting one.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s unnamed, for one,” said Bev. “So I ran it through the system. Look at what popped.” She brought up another brain scan, the kind Valkyrie recognised as being taken when one got a dimensional key. Moreover, she recognised the name.

“That’s impossible,” she said flatly.

“You know who this is?” Corrival asked.

“Yes, and it’s impossible. His dimensional key was issued decades ago, before brainscan security was –” Valkyrie’s tongue stuck in her throat and she stared at the scan, forced herself to exhale, and inhale, and then exhale again. “Shit.”

“Report,” Corrival barked, and Valkyrie answered automatically, even though her brain was moving faster than it had all day. She also, she noticed distantly, fell into the parade rest Rover had taught her.

“Vaurien Scapegrace was a resident of the Tír in the second rush up until about the 50s, at which point he left a reflection in his place and snuck out using a dimensional key. His key has since been appropriated by China Sorrows. His reflection is still working his old job, which no one reported because they all liked the reflection that much more. There’s been no record of Scapegrace returning to the Tír.”

“Until now,” said Aria quietly.

“He’s really tall,” said Valkyrie back, also quietly. “He’s really, really tall. And so is the hooded person who was trying to track me coming out of research and development that first time. He’s the one who took my cousin for Julian. He’s the accomplice.”

“I remember Ravel mentioning this bloke,” said Corrival grimly. “He’s meant to be incompetent.”

“He is. He and Crux broke into our house and I took Scapegrace out with a meat-fork and some curtain ties. When I was thirteen.” But a few months ago Saracen had said he’d gotten a lot faster …

“Looks like he’s gotten training somewhere,” Bev said.

“Can you do something?” Valkyrie demanded. “In forensics, I saw them tracking magic using the sigils on the lamp-posts –”

Bev was already shaking her head. “Can’t be done. We haven’t figured out how to tell the differences between magical types yet. But if he pretended to be his reflection in order to get a dimensional key, or update the records attached to one, it might be possible to track where his scan’s been used.”

“How long?” Corrival asked.

“As long as it takes.” Bev bent over the dashboard, gazed fixed on the screen and fingers flying, and Corrival turned to Valkyrie.

“New mission for you,” he said, and Valkyrie straightened up a little. “Go to the hospital and get Modeste to take my skin off you, will you? You’re creeping an old man out.”

Valkyrie was tired. She broke into giggles and couldn’t stop, and let Aria lead her toward the door.

Chapter Text

The Grand Mage’s office was very, very quiet. Tesseract sat where he had all afternoon. Tanith leaned against the wall by the sofa he was on. Fletcher lurked in the furthest corner. Macha stood by the one nearest the door, within arm’s reach of Tanith. And Ghastly was hovering by Hopeless, whose eyes were closed and head was bowed, while all around them the sigils that made the Sanctuary’s map turned red.

Something crashed outside. Something thudded against the door.

Hopeless lifted his head and got to his feet, and though his eyes were black and his face was lined with that inevitable headache, he was steady on his feet.

“Now,” he said, “we can go.”

Gladly Fletcher leapt forward. He took Hopeless and first and vanished, and returned in a blink, collecting them one after another. Tesseract and Tanith went together, Tanith with her sword at Tesseract’s jugular. Ghastly went to stand by Macha. The door started to splinter. They were probably using Cleaver scythes.

Ghastly felt a hand on his shoulder and he blinked and he was in the lobby of Gordon’s mansion, Sanctuary officials scurrying everywhere. Hopeless and Guild were already deep in conversation, and two of the free Cleavers were guarding Tesseract.

“Things are going well here, I see,” said Ghastly as Saracen jogged over and Macha left to catch up on her Cleavers’ reports.

“Sort of,” said Saracen. “At least, they were before the Remnants figured out where we were.”

Ghastly’s heart sank. Then he had a thought and it rose. “Are the wards still intact?”

“Some of them,” said Saracen. “We tore the rest down when …” He glanced at Hopeless. “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Hopeless, looking up. His pupils were wide again. Erskine was going to be unhappy Hopeless was overusing his magic. Ghastly was unhappy. So, from the critical look he was giving Hopeless, was Saracen. “The caves underneath bear some protection. The Remnants don’t like being close.”

There was a beat of silence among them. Hopeless smiled slightly and shook his head. “Mevolent was the one who released them the first time, remember? This is where they came from.”

“We all remember that,” said Saracen.

“We just don’t recall the part where that was the reason Mevolent based himself here for the last part of the war,” Ghastly added.

“One among many,” said Hopeless. Ghastly looked around Gordon’s magnificent lobby and shivered. This house had changed hands so many times and always from evil to evil, until Gordon. Before Gordon, the last time any of the Dead Men had seen this room it had been a wreck of splintered and charred wood, of blood and guts and righteous fury.

Ghastly wished Anatham Mire had never built this house. It was a useless wish and Mire wasn’t exactly a nice person anyway, so he put it out of his head. “So we’re safe.”

“Ish,” Hopeless admitted. “Possessed people might still be able to get close. It hasn’t exactly been tested.”

“We have guards and roadblocks up,” said Guild, “and a shield-mage moving into a position for Renn to pick her up. We’re as safe here as the Sanctuary once it had been breached. What are you going to do with him?” He nodded toward Tesseract.

“We’re going to let him go,” said Hopeless, and they all stared at him.

“Um,” said Saracen. “Even if he goes away right now he’ll probably come back to try and kill you again.”

“He can if he wants.”

“Why?”

Hopeless smiled, and Ghastly felt that familiar prickle on the back of his neck. Hopeless smiling with his eyes like that looked downright inhuman. “Every time he does, I’ll get closer to figuring out who sent him.”

Tesseract grunted.

“Don’t worry,” said Hopeless. “You’re holding out well. You understood me quicker than most people do. I’ll have to be on my toes. But sooner or later, if you try to keep up with this contract, I’ll figure it out.”

If it was Mevolent’s people behind the attempted assassination, that would be some valuable intel. If Hopeless didn’t die to get it. He must have been trying, all this time, and the thought made Ghastly shudder. If he didn’t know it, it meant that – well, that he’d been extraordinarily distracted by the Remnants besieging the Sanctuary, but also that Tesseract had a frightening amount of control.

“There’s other ways of getting information, you know,” Saracen muttered.

“How’s he going to get through the Remnants?” Guild demanded. “The last thing we need is a possessed Russian assassin running amok.”

“I’m going to tell him.”

“What if he doesn’t leave, and tries to kill you here?” Tanith asked, eyeing Tesseract while Guild spluttered. Her sword hadn’t wavered. Beyond the grunt, neither had Tesseract.

“He can’t,” said Hopeless. “He hasn’t got time. It’s going to take him a good couple of hours to get back to Dublin, and then he’ll need to find his trailer to take his medication. Or else he’ll die by the end of the day.”

For the first time in hours and hours, Tesseract spoke. “You’re frightening.”

Hopeless inclined his head. “Go out the back way. There’s a hidden trail across the pastures. Saracen can show you.”

With deep reluctance, Tanith removed her sword. Tesseract didn’t even rub his neck. He just stared at Hopeless until Saracen started walking, and only then turned to follow.

“Get on the phone to Skulduggery,” Hopeless said to Guild, and then turned to Ghastly. “And to Anton. We haven’t heard from the Government Buildings in a while, and I want to know how far Anton and China have to go with the Hotel. Fletcher?”

Fletcher’s eyes were wide. Tanith’s expression was blank. Ghastly knew her well enough by now to know it was covering deep unease.

“There’s someone I need you to pick up and deliver to the Government Buildings,” said Hopeless. “Thank you, all.”

He turned to stride away and it took a spellbound moment before Ghastly roused himself enough to pull out his phone. Hopeless as their leader; they could have done worse.

Chapter Text

Phil Marmot was having a very strange day. It wasn’t even a strange day in a nice way. It was strange in a terrifying, I-am-not-qualified-for-this way. In a Mother-of-God-that’s-the-Commissioner kind of way. The Commissioner was not, at this moment, present; but only because people were justifiably worried about him coming down with the same thing as people in the Government Buildings.

The Government Buildings which were, at this very moment, blockaded.

The Government Buildings which they had begun to evacuate before realising it was a very bad idea. Everyone who had been inside was now under quarantine, including the Taoiseach’s Secretary General, who was, Phil understood, fuming at the delays.

Because people were coming down with a disease that made them psychotic, and while there had already been numerous calls all over Dublin, most of the people infected seem to be fixated here.

This was why Phil was having a very strange day.

Because Phil was the one in charge of blockading the Government Buildings.

And because the Taoiseach was inside them, and Phil had been given orders not to let the Taoiseach pass if he happened to be found.

Phil had a very bad feeling that, if things went wrong and the Taoiseach wound up looking for someone to blame, Phil’s superiors may just wind up throwing him under the bus.

None of which was relevant, because the Government Buildings were blockaded and there were helicopters hovering overhead, some of them theirs but some from the news stations, and they were all getting very good looks at Phil and his immediate crew to one side with a foldable table and maps and emergency and that medley of necessities behind a police cordon.

Phil ignored all that. He wasn’t a young man, exactly, but he’d never been in this position, exactly. He was the highest ranking person they could spare to risk being infected. Which was fair enough, Phil supposed.

“These are the best places to breach, sir,” said the woman heading the rescue teams. Phil had never met her before. There were a lot of people here whom he’d never met before, but at least he was assured they were all taking their jobs seriously.

“Breaching would break the quarantine,” argued the man sent from the health department. “You can’t risk it. If it gets out, we may never stop it.”

“There have been contained breaks all over the city,” Phil pointed out.

“Yes, sir. Contained. The Government Buildings is the biggest one yet.”

“Well, we can’t stand around doing nothing,” pointed out the woman in charge of the rescue teams. “Sooner or later, they’re either going to break out themselves or we’ll have to shoot our own people.”

One of those many sudden decisions which Phil was hoping he would not have to make.

“We’ll sit tight,” he said. “There’s someone coming from McKee Barracks any –”

Someone cleared their throat behind him and Phil turned with a wave of relief to the man in the very nicely tailored suit. He was smiling, but there was something strange about the smile; it was oddly fixed, and his skin was waxen, his eyes a bit glassy.

Not someone from the Council of Defence, then. “This is a restricted area, sir,” said Phil firmly.

“That’s okay,” said the man. “I’m here for very restricted reasons.” He held out his hand. “Inspector Me.”

Phil reached out to take his hand automatically, and then frowned. “Your name is Me?”

“My parents were very self-absorbed.” Inspector Me paused. “Or very selfless, depending on your viewpoint. Are those the maps of the Government Buildings?”

“Yes, but –” Phil began.

“Excellent. Have you begun treating those infected?”

“Well,” said the doctor, glancing uncertainly at Phil, “we’re still not sure what to treat, to be honest. But they’re all in one place and quarantined, if that’s what you mean.”

“Do you have any plans to remove those inside who are infected?” Inspector Me asked. It should have been patient, but there was something in the way the inspector held himself that made Phil think he’d much rather be running inside, quarantine be damned.

“We’ve got some non-lethal weaponry arriving,” said Phil, and then he added very dubiously: “Sir.”

“Excellent,” said the inspector. “Any skirmishes?”

“A few,” said the woman in charge of the squads. “No one’s dead yet, but we’ve had a few injured and we’ve managed to subdue one of the infected.”

“I’d like to see them.”

“He’s out,” the doctor objected. “He fell unconscious after being brought in, and when he woke up he couldn’t remember a thing.”

Inspector Me nodded. “Spontaneous recovery?”

He didn’t sound as though he expected that to be possible.

“I doubt it,” said the doctor. “I’ve never seen someone recover like that before.”

“Any word from the Taoiseach?”

“A good question,” said someone new, and all of them turned as the Secretary General, Pearse O’Byrne, came striding up. He was rolling down his sleeves and Phil caught sight of the little band-aid over his elbow, where either blood had been drawn or an IV had been inserted. The Secretary General eyed Inspector Me.

“Inspector Me,” said the inspector, holding out his hand. The Secretary General didn’t take it, and after a moment Inspector Me let it drop. “I’m attached to the squad led by Erskine Ravel, if that helps at all.”

“It doesn’t,” said the Secretary General, “but I know who you people are.”

“Ah, good. He made it into the Government Buildings, then.”

“Yes, all your lot did. Now all hell is breaking loose and they’re nowhere to be found.”

He was almost glaring, was the Secretary General, and that struck Phil as rather strange. Accusatory.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said slowly, “do you suspect that someone may have planted this virus on purpose?”

“It’s a possibility,” said the Secretary General.

“Possible,” said the inspector, “but not relevant. And I imagine you’re supposed to be in quarantine. You could be infecting all of us, right now, and not even know it.”

Phil and the woman with the squads stepped back in alarm. The doctor didn’t.

“To be fair, Inspector,” he said, “we don’t know how the disease is spread yet. There’s no pattern that we can tell, and no way to tell who’s infected. But you’re right; the Secretary General shouldn’t be here.”

“We can help with that,” said a voice behind Phil, and Phil spun, again. At least this time the man behind him wasn’t in a very nice suit; but it was a very nice trench-coat. It was weathered and, with the gun on the man’s hip, made him look like one of those Midwestern demon hunters Phil’s son enjoyed reading about. Especially since he was accompanied by two women.

“Ah, Baritone,” said Inspector Me. “Good timing.”

The man, Baritone, nodded in the inspector’s direction. “Pleasant.”

“Pleasant?” Phil asked. “Your name is Inspector Pleasant Me?”

“Possibly my parents were just exceptionally hopeful,” said the inspector. “Where have you been? The Secretary General said you all disappeared when the barricade went up.”

“Just because he didn’t see us doesn’t mean we weren’t around,” said Baritone.

“We have been watching the alleys to ensure no one escapes,” added the shorter of the women, the one with the straight back and the even gaze, and Italian accent. “So far, successful.”

“Annunciata and I went back to get a – medical professional,” said Baritone. “Sweetgrass will be able to tell who’s infected.”

“How?” asked the doctor. “We haven’t been able to tell definitively yet. Your people – whoever you are – can’t have been working on the matter for longer than us.”

“Much longer,” said Baritone.

“Just one doctor?” observed Inspector Me. “Wreath’s holding back.”

“Wreath’s in there.” Baritone nodded at the Government Buildings. “Craven’s got the estate on lockdown.”

“He’s your commander?” Phil asked, trying to put some logic into the conversation. They were using words Phil recognised, but none of them seemed to make sense. How did these people have information the Department of Health didn’t? How did they get to an estate and back in the limited time since the barricade went up? What kind of a name was Craven? Who was Wreath?

For that matter, who were any of them? What were they talking about?

“No, he’s a power-hungry git,” said Baritone. “He didn’t want us out here in the first place. Sweetgrass is the only one I could get out. There might be others coming – someone’s working on it – but for the moment she’s all you’ve got, so don’t mess about.”

“In other words,” said Inspector Me, “Wreath might have landed us in the middle of a civil war.”

Baritone narrowed his eyes at Inspector Me, and Phil noticed, very suddenly, that his hand was on his gun, and had been all this time. “If it turns into that, it’s only because we’ve had to come out and help clean up your mess – thrice in as many years, no less. And given what Wreath’s suffered, you owe him more than to be snide about our politics. At least put blame where it’s due.”

Phil almost held his breath, looking between them. If the situation wasn’t so dire just across the road, he might have enjoyed the personal soap opera.

At least Inspector Me said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

The word came easily, but Phil got the impression the inspector didn’t say it very often. Baritone seemed, satisfied, anyway, because he turned away to motion Sweetgrass forward from where she was all but hiding behind him.

She was tall, wearing a very simple robe (which was odd) and carrying a bag. Her dark hair was plaited down her back and she kept glancing about with an expression that shifted between anxiety, curiosity and disdain. She obeyed quietly, though, and stood in front of the doctor, waiting for a direction.

“Well?” said Phil after a moment. “Are you taking her to the quarantine or not?”

“I suppose I am,” said the doctor, looking bemused, and he turned and led Sweetgrass away.

“Excellent,” said Inspector Me. “With any luck, we’ll soon know something about who’s –”

He stiffened. So did Baritone and the Italian woman. As one, they turned to look at the Government Buildings, and Phil followed their gaze.

He didn’t see anything. Didn’t hear anything. No bombs, no bits of the buildings breaking away, no gunfire. But Inspector Me and his colleagues suddenly seemed very grim. The inspector turned toward the woman in charge of the response teams.

“Get the teams ready,” he said. “We’re going to have to go in.”

She glanced at Phil. Phil shrugged. As far as he was concerned, he was just glad not to have to make that decision. He was perfectly willing to back up whoever else was making it.

“Alright,” she said. “Ten minutes.”

“Good.” Inspector Me strode off toward the bunting and stopped there, watching the street. Baritone and his Italian partner, when Phil turned around, were gone.

Chapter Text

“Persistent, aren’t they?” murmured the Taoiseach. Ide didn’t like to agree, but she had to. For the last hour they had been listening to the sounds of people trying to beat into existence an entrance into the office. So far, they hadn’t succeeded.

But the sounds were getting louder.

“Can’t you do anything?” Ide demanded of Ravel and Wreath. It hadn’t been a question she was sure she wanted answered, but at this point it was basically a necessity to put aside her personal feelings in favour of something that wouldn’t wind up with them shot by one of their own staff.

“We’re faeries, not miracle-workers,” said Ravel.

“Speak for yourself, Ravel,” said Wreath. He was seated in his chair in the corner, his eyes closed. If he was trying to do something, Ide couldn’t tell what. “I have plenty of worshippers.”

“Yes, and what have they done for you lately?” Ravel shot back.

“For one thing, bought me this very nice suit.”

Ravel barely gave it a glance. “It isn’t one of Ghastly’s.”

“Don’t gloat, Ravel. We’re not all so fortunate as to be friends with the greatest tailor in Ireland.”

“I wonder if I can buy a suit from a faery tailor,” the Taoiseach murmured.

“I’d kill for a suit from a faery tailor,” Ide grumbled.

“I hope not.” Ravel glanced Ide’s way and managed a smile, though it didn’t completely reach his eyes. “But it would probably save your life. They’re bulletproof.”

“That just means we’re shoving you out the door first,” said Wreath, but Ravel didn’t answer, primarily owing to the fact that part of the wall exploded inward. Ide felt her feet lift off the floor and her hand reached out to scrabble at anything nearby, and then she landed without remembering the world tilting.

She rolled and got to her knees, and only the fact that she’d been flung behind a dented cabinet saved her; she flinched as there was a crack and something dinged off the cabinet’s door.

“Stay down!” Ravel shouted as Ide lifted her head, and a rattle of gunfire convinced her to obey. She’d heard gunfire before, but this was drawn-out, not a handgun’s sound; it came too fast, too thick, too loud in the small office. She watched dents appear in the side of the cabinet, but couldn’t hear the ting of metal bending over the roar.

Where, she thought, did they get machine-guns?

The gun clicked empty and the silence was almost deafening, and Ide dared to raise her head again in time to see the people climb over the smoking debris of the wall. All of them were people she knew – people who worked here – and all had bulging black veins covering their faces.

The first few shot back into the others and something went across the opening so they couldn’t pass through. Ide saw the Taoiseach push a battered but still intact bookshelf across the opening, and something in her untwisted. He looked unhurt.

Ide jumped as a hand landed on her shoulder, and she looked up into Wreath’s sightless eyes. “Here you are,” he said conversationally. “Is there anything here still intact?”

The cabinet, Ide saw, was peppered with holes. It probably wouldn’t have held out much longer. If she hadn’t felt so distantly calm, she would have shivered with the thought. “No. Can Ravel hold it?”

The only thing keeping them at bay was a wall of nothing. Even a barricade wouldn’t be able to stop them, if they had explosives.

“There’s a lot of wall,” said Wreath.

This time Ide felt the chill, and she climbed to her feet, kicking off her heels. “Sir! Come away from there!”

She meant to move forward, pull him away and take care of the furniture moving herself, but the ground rocked under her feet and there was a burst of dust and debris before she registered the hollow boom of another localised explosion. Ide found herself on her hands and knees and she looked up, and stared with fascination at the bits of brick and dust caught in shadow between them and the new entrance.

Behind her, Ravel said some very old words that were no longer much of a curse, and Ide almost laughed at the dissonance. The shadow swirled and Wreath stepped forward, driving it back; behind it Ide saw the shadows of the infected stretch along the wall to join his solid barrier.

His feet, Ide realised, were covered in boots. They looked metal. He hadn’t been wearing them before.

The boots melted together and grew upward faster than she could track, moulding against his calves and thighs and back, becoming greaves and plates, until he was covered from head to toe in black armour that seemed to suck all the light from the room. Ide meant to move but found she couldn’t, because there was something about the sight of that armour that paralysed her.

Its gauntlet was still outstretched, but its helmet shifted and Ide followed its gaze, and saw the Taoiseach yanked toward Ravel as the bookshelf caved in and slumped to the carpet. The Remnants that came in were only a few feet from Wreath.

The first one crumpled bonelessly to the floor, but as far as Ide could tell nothing had struck him; then so did the next, and the next, a whole group of them just crumpling. Ide had enough time to wonder why before she felt, suddenly, incredibly sleepy; so sleepy it was no trouble at all to simply let go of thought or action, and be carried off on a distant sense of nothing.

Then, like a wave washing back and forth along the shore, it brought her close again, and groggily she groped with her hands and lifted her head. Her cheek ached where she’d landed on glass or splinters. She felt like she’d been very far away, or slept so deeply there was no sense of time.

“Ide?”

“Taoiseach,” Ide mumbled, and sat up, suddenly quite awake. She didn’t even feel dizzy, but she didn’t push away the Taoiseach’s hand on her shoulder, either. After the last few hours, it didn’t seem like much of an imposition.

To her surprise, there were tears in the Taoiseach’s eyes. “Sir?”

He didn’t talk. He just shook his head. Ide looked around to take stock, and saw there were no bodies in the room; no one collapsed by the new entrances. Even the corpse of the man who’d harassed his staff-member was gone.

So were the holes. There was, instead, blank black wall. If Ide hadn’t seen the way the shadows hung silent and vaguely transparent, she wouldn’t have known what it was.

And, finally, there was Ravel, looking likewise uninjured in what had to be a small miracle given how many bullets had been fired. Uninjured, but very pale, and holding a gun aimed straight at Wreath, or – whatever that was. There was only the great hulking figure of the armour where Wreath should have stood.

“What happened?” Ide asked.

“You died,” said the Taoiseach. Ide laughed and cut herself off when it edged a bit too close to hysterical. She was very good at not laughing.

“Wreath is the living jail of an immensely powerful necromantic item,” said Ravel, very tightly.

“Necromantic as in the archaic sense or as in the modern sense?” was the first thing Ide asked, which was a ridiculous question, but she still felt detached and far too calm, and if there was one thing she knew it was cultural shifts in relation to legend and superstition, thanks to her parents.

“As in death magic,” said Ravel. “The armour has a talent it can use which makes everything around it drop down dead. We call it the death-bubble. You got caught in it.”

“I’m not dead,” said Ide stupidly.

“No,” said Ravel. “The death-bubble can be reversed. That’s good. It means that Wreath’s still in there. It means that, right now, he’s in control – even if he can’t talk back.”

Ide looked at the blank, black walls. She felt cold, and wasn’t sure if that was because of what Ravel was saying, or because she’d just been –

Don’t think about it.

“What happened to the bodies?”

“Listen.”

They went quiet, and Ide heard the sound of screams, and curses, and the gunfire. The cold hollow feeling got deeper. “That isn’t a rescue team, is it?”

“No. Wreath reanimated some of the dead.” His brow crinkled, but Ide’s mind felt too fogged to ask why.

Ide looked at the armour again. It was very still, except for the drift of black streamers around the joints which Ide might have thought were moved by a breeze if there had been any. “What happens if someone else tries to come in?”

“I don’t know,” said Ravel. “Wreath killed the last man who wore this armour. That’s why it’s attached to him now. But the man before that, no one was ever able to beat. For five years, three centuries ago, he terrorised the world.”

“And no one noticed?”

Ravel turned his head toward her then, but only very slightly, not enough to lose track of the armour. His pupils were enormous. He was terrified, and that made Ide want to be terrified, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to be the calm, ready kind of terrified that Ravel was.

“Not every death attributed to the plague was caused by disease,” Ravel said, and that cold hollow yawned inside of Ide, so that she came aware that she was trembling, and probably had been for a while.

She got to her feet, stumbled, managed not to pull away from the Taoiseach. Part of her wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run; so she walked instead, back and forth across debris, taking deep breaths until the ringing in her head had faded enough that she didn’t feel as though she was about to break down.

Something scraped against brick and she whirled. Wreath’s black walls of shadow moved into the hall, and he took a step that looked nearly too dainty to belong to such massive armour. Gauntlet still upraised, he walked through the broken opening and out of the office.

After a moment, with Ravel in the lead, the rest of them followed.

Chapter Text

One thing Phil had to say about Inspector Me – well, no, actually, there were several things he could say about Inspector Me. But this particular thing was that, when things happened, Inspector Me thought quickly and acted equally, and radiated such a sense of authority that Phil couldn’t remember anyone actually objecting.

His co-conspirators were the Italian lady and the demon-slayer cowboy, both of whom were much less talkative than Phil thought. The Italian stuck around after that first disappearance, relaying orders quietly, but Baritone kept appearing and disappearing whenever Phil’s back was turned. Phil couldn’t figure it out.

At least Phil was qualified for insertion, for which he was glad, because he would rather have a riot shield and a weapon in his hands than be standing around a parked truck and trying to figure out how to not let the world fall apart.

There were teams all around the Government Buildings. Baritone’s people (Phil still didn’t know who they were except they were all dressed in black) had cleared most of the grounds, including the courtyard – which was, for some reason, of paramount importance. That was where the command centre had moved, though Inspector Me insisted an area around the fountain be left alone. ‘Just in case’, he said.

Just in case of what, Phil hadn’t asked.

Then, when they were all ready and Phil was going to report that fact, he found Inspector Me on the phone. At first Phil didn’t even think it was an important call, because the inspector’s voice was almost cheerful.

“My, it has been a while, hasn’t it? How are you these days?” He held up one finger, though Phil hadn’t said anything. “You’re better off calling Hopeless, you know.”

On the other end, someone squawked. Phil tried his best to listen without actually listening, but either the words were in another language or they were just garbled.

“And he didn’t pick up? Fancy that. I wonder why he wasn’t in the office.”

It sounded sincere on the surface, but a chill was going down Phil’s back and he suddenly wasn’t entirely sure this was a friendly conversation after all. He also hadn’t been aware that it was possible for sarcasm to sound so subtly menacing.

More talking from the person on the other end. The inspector listened patiently, and then said, “I’ll be sure to pass that on. In the meantime, Scapegrace, I’m sorry that I won’t be the one to kill you, but I have a prior engagement for something which is far more dangerous than you’ll ever be.”

Then he hung up and turned, with deliberate slowness, to Phil. Phil wondered if this was what it felt like to be a lion-tamer. Then he wondered if this was what it felt like to meet a lion in the wild, without the benefit of whip, chair, training or medical resources.

“We’re ready, sir,” he stammered, and caught sight of the Italian woman, Annunziata, behind Inspector Me. She was quite a few feet away, hardly within the conversation, but she was watching, very carefully. Not Phil – she was watching Inspector Me.

“Excellent,” said the inspector, but he sounded a bit distant. His phone was still in his hand. It took Phil a moment to realise he was sending a text.

Phil dared to ask, “Was that one of the perpetrators? Sir?”

The inspector tilted his head, and though his eyes didn’t quite focus, for the first time in the conversation Phil felt as though Me was looking at him. “Yes and no. He’s a lackey, but he is involved with the person behind this emergency. Got a bit out of their hands, but they’re trying to make the most of things.”

“Shouldn’t you be sending someone after him?” Phil said doubtfully. He was relieved to see – Sergeant? – Annunziata coming closer.

“Someone’s already taking care of it,” said Inspector Me. “Are we ready, then?”

Phil did not like to point out that he’d already said so, since he didn’t feel it was a good sign that the person ostensibly in charge was missing little details like that. He didn’t feel it would be good for his health to point it out, either, so he just said, “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Excellent.” There was a pause, and then Inspector Me nodded. “Carry on.”

“Please go to your station, Sergeant Marmot,” said the Italian woman softly. “We’ll be with you shortly.”

“Ma’am.” Phil saluted and moved off to take command of his group, but there were a lot of people around and, owing to that fact, he was not nearly as far from Inspector Me and Annunziata as he should have been in order to avoid overhearing other things.

“Detective Pleasant,” said Annunziata, “you need to do better than this.”

“You’re a very nice young lady, Annunziata,” said Inspector Me – Detective Pleasant? “But all the same I think you’d best be minding your own business.”

“I know who you were,” said Annunziata, and over Phil’s clipboard, he saw Inspector Me freeze. “I know that you were vile.” She said it like it was meant to have a capital. Judging by the theme of their names, Phil didn’t doubt that it did.

There was quite a heavy pause. Phil got the impression that Detective Pleasant was trying not to do something very rash, and eventually, the detective’s head moved. “Bane and O’Callaghan. The others wouldn’t have said anything.”

“No one told me,” said Annunziata, “but it was their fear which alerted me to the fact that the situation was more than what it seemed. And it was you who told me the rest. Your concern for Solomon.”

“I wasn’t concerned about Solomon. He’s quite capable of taking care of himself.”

“No. You felt guilty, because he suffered for your sins.”

She took a very small step to get closer to him, which frankly made her worthy of a God-damned medal as far as Phil was concerned, but she also lowered her voice so he couldn’t hear much else. But his heart was pounding, pounding hard.

Inanely, his first thought was: He can’t actually be a detective, then.

No, they were talking about other things – crimes people knew about, but for which Me, or Pleasant, or whatever his name was, hadn’t been arrested. Not only not arrested, but actively on duty. Which meant that he absolutely couldn’t be a detective, because only someone who didn’t officially exist could perform crimes and not be thrown in a very deep hole for it.

Somehow, the thought of Pleasant being a member of some kind of black-ops unit hadn’t occurred to Phil, but now it was occurring, and his mind was busy cataloguing every moment, action and word that pointed in that direction. Pleasant and Baritone had been speaking in code, for God’s sake.

Someone moved and Phil almost started, and realised Pleasant and Annunziata’s conversation had ended, because they were walking briskly toward Baritone, who had appeared near the edge of the bunting. That reminded Phil that he had a job to do, and strangely enough, he felt almost relieved.

He was just a field officer. He didn’t have to make the terrible decisions. He certainly wouldn’t have to worry about things going south anymore.

“Let’s go,” he said to his squad, who’d been waiting for him with radios checked, vests tightened, weapons primed, riot shields prepped. They moved off to the front doors, where they and another team were planned for insertion. Although Pleasant hadn’t explained himself, it was clear that something had happened inside, and therefore Phil didn’t argue when Pleasant insisted that each team be accompanied by one of Baritone’s people.

As they moved to their checkpoint, Phil’s ears strained themselves without permission and he caught snatches of Pleasant’s conversation with Baritone behind the general hubbub.

“– be responsible for this,” said Baritone.

“You won’t –” said Pleasant.

“– against our oldest law!”

“– lot cared much about the law.”

Baritone said something extremely rude in Irish. At least, Phil assumed it was extremely rude. The parts he heard certainly sounded rude.

“– outbreak like this,” said Pleasant. “Not with the technology these days. We’re just going to have to prioritise. Now –”

At which point Phil got too far away, and although he couldn’t quite tell how much was in code or not, what he overheard was straightforward enough to make him wish he hadn’t, if only for plausible deniability.

His group of five arranged themselves around the door and they waited until Pleasant came to join them. Phil wasn’t sure how to feel about that. He couldn’t quite look the man in his unfocussed eyes. That was okay, because Pleasant was looking straight ahead. Phil got the impression he wasn’t even paying attention to who was there.

“Two minutes,” said Pleasant, and waited until they set their watches. “But before we go in, you all need to know: magic is real.”

No one laughed. Phil held his breath. Some of the squad looked uneasily as each other, but no one laughed.

“Magic is real,” Pleasant went on without looking at them, “and there are magical creatures possessing people inside the Government Buildings. The people you see will not be under their own control. They’re being controlled by sadistic spirits, and they won’t remember anything once the spirits are gone.”

He paused for a moment, and even though he still didn’t look at them, Phil got the impression he was paying very close attention. “I’m telling you this,” he said when no one filled the silence, “because when we go in, you’ll be faced with some very strange things, and you’ll think they should be impossible. They aren’t. I’m telling you this so that you’re somewhat more prepared before you see those things, and are less likely to start fainting or shooting willy-nilly.” He paused. “But if you’re going to do either, make sure it’s the first one. I don’t want to have to shield innocents from you today. Questions?”

Even if anyone had questions, Phil thought, none of them would have been able to voice them before their alarms went off. Phil himself managed to look at his squad, but his squad were staring in disbelief at Pleasant. Except for one plucky young girl, fresh out of training, who looked grim.

“Sir?” she asked.

Finally Pleasant looked around, with a vague air of surprise. “Yes?”

“Remnants, sir?”

This time the surprise was distinct. “I’m sorry?”

“Heard about ’em, sir,” said the garda. “Family used to be from Kerry, sir. Story got handed down.”

“And you all still believe it?” Pleasant asked.

“Great-grandpappy told me, sir. He was one of you. Rest of us aren’t, sir.”

“Oh.” Pleasant paused. Phil got the impression he was nonplussed. “Please take point, Garda …?”

“Doyle, sir. Yessir.” She checked her gun again.

Their alarms went off. Doyle was the first one in, even before Pleasant, sweeping the entrance with her rifle. There was movement and she fired, and Phil saw the beanbag strike true; the man went down in a daze. Pleasant moved ahead and pulled him up with an arm behind his back and a gloved hand clamped over his mouth. The man’s eyes snapped open and he snarled, black veins bulging in his face.

“Remnant,” said Pleasant, and one of Baritone’s black-clad people strode forward behind them. “Got him?”

“I have him,” said the woman, and black tendrils whipped out and wrapped themselves around the man’s ankles and arms, and around his mouth.

“Things must be bad, sir,” Doyle observed, “if you’ve got them helping.”

“Your great-grandfather talked too much,” said Skulduggery, and looked at Phil. Phil realised he was breathing quite hard and felt lightheaded. “Ready, Sergeant?”

With a deep breath Phil consciously got hold of himself and checked his beanbag rifle again. “Ready.”

“And the rest of you?” Pleasant’s slightly unfocussed gaze swept the rest of them, and Phil felt a somewhat distant surge of pride that every one of them gathered themselves up and nodded. “Good. The clerics will be behind us, securing the possessed. If we’re lucky, we’ll get out of this without any further casualties. Move on, Garda Doyle.”

They moved on. Someone was keeping the – thingies – interested at the front door, but Phil’s team was near enough that they could hear the thud and taunts down the halls. They took down two people on the way there, and Phil didn’t know whether they were possessed or not; there weren’t any veins. That was when he found out that it was impossible to tell, unless they chose to reveal themselves.

“What happens if one of us gets possessed and no one sees?” asked one of the squad nervously.

“Then we’ll be in a bit of a pickle,” said Pleasant. Phil had something else in mind.

“How do we know you’re not possessed?” he asked.

“A bit late to be wondering that, don’t you think?”

Phil stood his ground, looking Pleasant in his waxy eye even though he was also getting the sinking feeling that he might have to take control back of the whole debacle. “Maybe,” he said, “but this is also incredibly easy. We’ve only come across three people, and no alarm.”

“Because they’re mostly upstairs,” said Pleasant with a snap of restrained impatience. “Concentrating on the Taoiseach, I suspect. Others of my people will have been with them, but one of them happens to be frighteningly powerful and may have done something indescribably stupid. Hence the emergency.”

“And your proof that you’re not leading us into a trap under the cover of emergency is …?”

Pleasant sighed. “I can’t be possessed. Baritone’s people can be, but they can track and remove the Remnants, so they’re rather necessary.”

Which was all very convenient. “That’s an excuse,” said Phil, “not evidence. I’m not moving my team anywhere unless you can –”

“Sir.” Doyle interrupted him and Phil looked at her with mild surprise. She looked very uncomfortable, glancing halfway toward Pleasant before looking away again. “Sorry. Sir. If my grandpappy’s stories are right – and right now I’m thinkin’ they are – Detective Pleasant is right. He’s immune to possession. Sir.”

“With all due respect, Garda Doyle,” said Phil grimly, “you could be possessed too. I’m taking a lot on faith here to begin with.” He was already planning the next month’s worth of church attendance. “I need something solid before I can move my people forward.”

“It was good try,” Pleasant assured Doyle, his hands lifting. Phil tensed. “But if you think you’ll have trouble seeing, now would be the time to look away.”

Doyle turned and marched to the door of the room they were using as a foothold, and focussed on keeping guard along with one of their squadmates. The third drifted over to them. Only Phil and his second, Connors, were left, waiting for Pleasant to do … whatever he was going to do.

He touched a couple of tattoos on his collarbone, and his face disappeared.

Phil was expecting a monster. Something grotesque.

He was not expecting a skeleton.

He stared a bit, and then managed to say, “Oh.”

Makes sense. Immune to possession, because nothing to possess.

The illusion of a face came back up, and while that was infinitely better, Phil still couldn’t help but visualise the lines of the bones under it. “Shall we move on, Sergeant?”

Phil nodded jerkily. Fighting weird black-veined possessed people was better than thinking about that. “Yeah, okay. Garda Doyle, take point.”

They moved toward the atrium, and Phil was cognisant enough to notice that all his people were in better form than they’d been beforehand. He would have felt proud, except that he knew it was because they were trying to forget some of the things they’d just seen or overheard by hyper-focussing on their job.

What the hell. He was proud anyway.

Voices came over the radio. Quiet updates, turned down so as not to alert the possessed. Some of them sounded rattled. All of them reported good outcomes. They were taking the lower floor.

For a second Phil hoped that maybe this was going well, and he almost managed to squash it, hoping in turn that the universe hadn’t heard – which was, of course, when they heard the screams from upstairs.

“Come into the lobby and hold it,” Pleasant ordered, and he nodded to Doyle, and they came into the atrium from the side, bean-bagging the defenders behind a makeshift barricade.

That was when they found out that there were more people in the atrium than they thought, creeping around the pillars, preparing for the insertion. Bullets thudded against the riot shields and hastily the squad made cover around the door. Across the room they saw another of the teams entering and stalling, and a wisp of darkness came down and pried open their lead’s mouth.

Phil didn’t see what happened next, because he was bunkering down with Doyle beside him, knocking over a woman sporting black veins with a beanbag bullet. Then they were safe – relatively – bullets chipping the pillars and against the riot shields.

“Shit,” said Connors, and Phil glanced at him and saw him looking up, and terrified. Phil risked following his gaze. The top of the atrium was boiling with darkness, and strips of it were peeling off, darting toward the people on the ground. This time Phil did see what happened after they landed on someone’s face, and bile rose in his throat.

He also saw Pleasant running for the stairs without bothering with his pretty revolvers, his face flowing off as it was buffeted by clawing little demons, and felt an unexpected pang of abandonment.

The darkness came for them, and another darkness – less black, more greyish; less a swarm, more a blanket – swept over their heads. A moment later it receded and the slips of darkness had ricocheted off, but there were more coming.

Whips of blackness shot out at the slips and wrapped around them, and at first Phil thought it was coming from Baritone’s shadow-people. Then the screams rose up, high-pitched things, inhuman, almost too much to hear; the sound of them made Phil’s body goosebump. The darknesses swarmed each other until Phil couldn’t tell what was what, except that his head was throbbing with the sound of those screams.

Then abruptly there was silence, and Phil finally felt safe enough to peek out, his head swimming. There were still black-veined people around, getting to their feet, but most of them looked stunned and even afraid. Phil followed where they were looking.

At the top of the stairs stood a man in a full suit of black armour, with tendrils of darkness streaming out of its joints. At least, Phil hoped there was a man inside it, because if there wasn’t, he wasn’t sure what he could do with that.

Especially since Pleasant was standing a few steps down, his revolver pointed unwaveringly at the eye-slit in the helmet.

“Skulduggery, wait,” someone called, and someone stepped out from behind the armoured man. A very beautiful someone, the sort that made Phil wish he was attracted to men. Somehow, the sight of that man made the idea of magic more believable.

For a moment Pleasant didn’t answer. Then he said quietly, “You’re alive.”

“Thanks to Wreath,” said the beautiful man grimly, and behind him – Phil felt weak with relief – he saw the Taoiseach and his Minister of State.

“Can he hear us?” asked Pleasant without lowering his gun. How long could he hold it? Phil wondered. If he was a skeleton all the way down, maybe forever.

“He hasn’t responded,” said the beautiful man, “but he did clear the Remnants, so there’s that, I suppose.”

Phil glanced around the room. Some of the possessed were engaged in scuffles with their forces, but no bullets were flying. Most were surrendering with glares and snarls and mockeries, arms raised. Some looked apprehensively up the stairs. Baritone’s people were securing them.

“Is the room secure?” he asked Doyle. “Is the building?”

“Looks to be, sir,” she said. “Some pockets of resistance in the halls. But the Remnants could possess any of our forces, if we don’t wait for more of the necromancers to arrive.”

“Oh, wonderful. Come on, then.” Phil turned away and went to mount the stairs, keeping his weapon in his hands. Pleasant and the beautiful man fell silent as he approached, and Phil ignored them both to salute the Taoiseach. “Sir. Room appears to be secure. Some resistance still in the halls.”

“Thank you,” said the Taoiseach, and Phil forgave him for probably not knowing his name. The man was young and white-lipped. Phil didn’t really want to know what he’d seen in his office.

“Don’t know where the other – thingies – went, sir,” Phil went on. “Seemed an awful lot of them.”

“They’re mine,” said a new voice, a deep voice so soft Phil almost missed the flat hollowness in it. Like it was speaking out of – oh.

“Yours, sir?” Phil asked with a carefully blank face, and chills ran down his back as the helmet of the armour turned slowly toward him. Phil looked into the slit in the helmet and couldn’t see anything inside. He swallowed hard.

“Wreath,” said the beautiful man quietly. “Good to hear your voice. Can you put the armour away?”

“No,” said Wreath.

“Is there a particular reason why?” asked the beautiful man.

“Tell him to go away.”

The beautiful man hesitated and glanced at Pleasant. The – skeleton – hadn’t moved. “Skulduggery?”

It was a moment before Pleasant answered, and his voice came out nearly as flat as the man in the armour. “I’m not sure I can.”

The beautiful man took a very deep breath and let it out very, very slowly. “Okay. Alright. If we leave the two of you, will you be able to resist each other’s charms until we get the Remnants sorted, or do we need to separate you forcefully?”

“Don’t do that.”

“That would be a bad idea.”

The both of them spoke at once, different words but nearly the same tone, as if it was blurring between them. The beautiful man nodded. Phil got the impression he was thinking very fast. “Okay. Let’s not do that, then. Where’s Annunziata or Baritone?”

“Here,” said Baritone, and Phil turned his head just enough to see him at the bottom of the stairs. A few of his people were at the bottom of the stairs, in fact, staring up at the armour. Phil couldn’t quite tell if their expressions were of terror or awe.

“Can you get the rest of the Remnants quarantined without us?” asked the beautiful man.

“We can do it,” said Baritone. His eyes narrowed at Pleasant. “Is there anything we can do here?”

“Wreath ate the Remnants,” said the beautiful man. “How?”

Baritone’s eyes went from narrow to wide. “I didn’t know that was possible. No one’s done it before.”

“Wonderful.” The beautiful man turned to the armour. “You’re a ground-breaker, Wreath. Congratulations.” He turned to Phil. “Have you got a fall-back point?”

“The courtyard,” said Phil. He felt as though something was buzzing in his ears.

“Good. Fionn, I think it’s best if you go there. People will need to see you. And I think it’s best if you have a necromancer bodyguard; at least if anyone possessed comes by, they’ll be able to get you out quickly.”

“What are you going to do?” demanded the Minister of State.

“I need to make sure these two don’t kill each other,” said the beautiful man grimly. “Skulduggery, is that your phone?”

Oh. That was why the buzzing. Pleasant stirred but didn’t lower his gun or reach for his pocket. “So it is.”

“Okay.” The beautiful man paused, and then nodded, coming slowly down the steps. “I’m going to pick your pocket. Everyone else, please go … do something else.”

“Sir.” Phil saluted to the Taoiseach. “Let me escort you out, sir. Doyle?”

“Sir?”

Phil looked down the stairs, at the wreckage, at the people with black veins and the ones whose veins were fading; at the frazzled comrades running on a sense of duty and pure compartmentalism; at the black-clad … whatever they were. “You’re liaising with the … clerics,” he told her. “Keep us updated.”

“Yessir.”

She saluted but Phil was already turning away to head down the stairs, a step ahead of the Taoiseach and the Minister of State. When this was all over, he promised himself, he was going to get very, very drunk.

Chapter Text

The hospital was strangely comforting. Despite all the mayhem of the last two days, no one had really gotten hurt and nothing had exploded, and the ordinariness of the intercom announcements was unexpectedly soothing. Aria went with Valkyrie to visit Modeste and after the illusion was removed they spent some time catching her up. Valkyrie meant to slip out and leave the two squad-mates talking, but Aria followed her out the door.

“You don’t need to,” said Valkyrie.

“You’re a material witness and a potential target,” said Aria. “Yes, I do. Besides, you’re only going to see about your cousin, Stray, and Julian, aren’t you?”

Valkyrie hesitated. “Maybe.” She met Aria’s gaze. “You think I’m too young for this, don’t you?”

Most people, Valkyrie had found, tended to get embarrassed or angry when confronted like that. People like Crux and Guild. Aria looked back and said, “Yeah, I do. But you are an official apprentice and at this point I think you’re safer where we can keep an eye on you than trying to go off and solve the case on your own, like you would if we tried to shut you out.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“I remember being a teenager, Cain,” Aria said dryly, and reluctantly Valkyrie grinned.

“Okay,” she said. “Mind if we check on my cousin first, then? I still don’t know what happened to my aunt and uncle.” She hoped they were here, but there hadn’t been much time to find out between checking the house and going to report to Corrival.

“Sure.”

They were in an area of the hospital reserved for people who needed to be guarded; most people attached to the precinct came under that heading. When they reached the room assigned to Carol and Melanie, Valkyrie felt a rush of knee-quivering relief that her aunt and uncle were there.

Fergus jumped to his feet nearly as soon as Valkyrie came in, his expression torn between similar relief and worry. “We hadn’t heard from any of you,” he said. “Desmond isn’t picking up at the house.”

Valkyrie’s face froze. Fergus saw it and moved away from Carol’s bed, into the hall. “Where’s my brother?”

“The Remnant took him,” Valkyrie said.

Why?”

“I don’t know,” said Valkyrie. “It might have been after Mum, since she’s the Administrator. But we don’t know for sure. There’s some people here who might be able to tell us. How’s Carol?”

“Tired and hungry,” said Fergus stiffly. “You can’t talk to her.”

That hurt, unexpectedly, but Valkyrie squashed the feeling and said as gently as she could, “Fergus, she might have overheard some of the Remnant’s plans, and no one its possessed will remember what they did while it was in control. Carol and Melanie might be the only people who can help us find Mum and Dad.”

She wasn’t very good at ‘gentle’, but her voice was even, and Fergus’s face hardened. “I told you not to get involved with magic, didn’t I?” he asked bitterly. “Now you’re as empty as all of them.”

The blow hit, somewhere in the vagueness of Valkyrie’s tired mind, but she knew she wouldn’t feel it until later, and spoke before Aria could. “I’m trying to find my parents, Uncle Fergus,” Valkyrie said. “I can’t do that if I’m panicking. Please let me talk to Carol.”

For a moment he wavered, but then his expression firmed and he shook his head, stepping back into the room. “She’s already given a statement,” he said. “Go figure it out from that.”

He closed the door in their faces and Valkyrie stared at it until Aria put a hand on her shoulder, her voice gentler than it had sounded all day. “Come on, Valkyrie. Let’s go and talk to Julian and Stray.”

Valkyrie stirred and turned, suddenly feeling sparks of thought in her mind. “Where’s Stray?”

Just down the hall, as it turned out, and under guard – but as they rounded the corner, something about those guards rang warning bells in Valkyrie’s mind.

“Aria Ritter.” Aria showed them her badge. “We’re here to see Stray.”

They’d looked startled, Valkyrie thought. Just like now. That was why she cut in. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”

The guards exchanged looks, and Aria said sharply, “What?”

“Someone came by and signed him out,” explained one of the guards.

Who?”

“Tall fellow. Gangly. Snooty, but dressed like a bum. He had a badge.”

Valkyrie’s heart sank. “Scapegrace.”

“Getting another dkey,” said Aria grimly, “wouldn’t give him a precinct badge.”

“But Julian might have,” Valkyrie pointed out. “How long ago was he checked out?”

“Couple of hours,” said the guard. “Said he’d be back.”

“Go report in to the precinct,” Aria ordered, half turning on her heel already. “Do a sketch, have someone lock Vaurien Scapegrace’s ID and security out of every system you can find.”

Both of them hurried down the hall just short of a run. Julian was being kept in another part of the hospital to keep him separate from his conspirator. If Scapegrace got Stray a couple of hours ago, that was plenty of time to get Julian as well.

When they got to the hall, it was empty. Aria held out a hand to Valkyrie and motioned for her to hang back. They both drew their pistols and Aria took lead, and they moved down the hall with quiet practice. When they reached the door, Valkyrie opened and Aria stepped in, sweeping the room.

“Clear,” she said tersely, and it was her tone which warned Valkyrie that she wouldn’t like what she saw when she stepped in. The guards lay prone on the floor, slumped where they’d been shoved in. Aria bent to check their pulses, and shook her head. “I don’t understand. If he could take down two trained guards, why did he need the security badge to trick the others?”

“Scapegrace is spectacularly incompetent,” Valkyrie explained, leaning over the bed and taking in its state with her eyes – trying to get clues without disturbing the scene. “He won’t have taken down two armed guards. But he might’ve been able to tell Stray to do it, using his true-name.”

“But this was smart,” said Aria, “presumably. If he’s incompetent, he can’t have planned this on his own.”

“You’re right,” Valkyrie said slowly. “And Scapegrace can’t have gotten the plan from Julian. Someone else is helping him.”

“Or,” said Aria grimly as she lifted her phone to her ear, “he’s the Remnant’s next host. Either way, we need a team in here fast. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some clues as to where Scapegrace is hiding.”

Valkyrie moved away from the bed, being careful about where she stepped, and went out into the hallway. She was still tired. Things were still moving a few steps ahead, and she hated that feeling – of being left behind. So she took deep breaths and let them out slowly, counting in her head.

“The more desperately you grasp, the likelier you are to slip,” was one of Anton’s many pieces of advice.

She hated falling behind, but she’d be damned if Scapegrace got further ahead because she was too busy rushing to catch up and missed something obvious. Valkyrie took another breath. Her fatigue didn’t go away, but with every breath she felt as though the skeleton of a plan was coming into view.

Aria was still on the phone, so Valkyrie called Bev herself. “It’s Val,” she said before Bev could say anything. “Scapegrace has managed to break Stray and Julian out.” She paused to give Bev time to curse, and then went on. “You said that you can’t track magical patterns through the Tír’s cameras.”

“No,” said Bev, “and it’ll take years to write that kind of software.”

“But we’ve got Stray’s brain patterns. Scapegrace’s too. Can’t we track that?”

“The Tír’s cameras don’t reach inside a person’s head and check whether their patterns are pinging, Cain.”

“Pandora’s ball does. That’s why Julian wanted Stray’s scans to begin with, right? Pandora and Dexter –” Valkyrie’s throat closed unexpectedly. She took another deep breath and pushed on. “Pandora and Dexter are working on fine-tuning the differences between a person’s soul and a Remnant. Why can’t they use the brainscans as a base to track Stray? He’s had his true-name ripped out of him for years. If anyone’s going to light up on the orb around here, it’s him.”

There was a very long pause. Then Bev said, “Hang tight. Let me go pass it by ’em.”

She hung up and so did Valkyrie, turning to look at Aria, who’d finished her own call. Her expression was considering. “We’ve got people coming in,” said Aria. “We should go back to the precinct after they get here. If we’re going to attach a giant soul-feeling orb to the Tír’s whole security sigil network, we’ve got a couple of people to talk to. And you need some sleep.”

“But I don’t wanna go to school tomorrow,” Valkyrie mumbled, but she was smiling.

“Cain,” said Aria, “if you keep going like you do, you won’t need to finish highschool.”

Chapter Text

Ghastly moved quickly, his steps thudding on the pavement as people parted, startled, before him. Most of the time Ghastly found it draining, being out in public without his face covered. On this occasion he had barely enough wherewithal to be vaguely amused at the way the mortals fell away from him.

He wasn’t sure it was because of his face. Maybe it was because of his face. Maybe he was wearing an expression.

The area around the Government Buildings was backed up for blocks, a result of the police cordon diverting traffic. Fletcher deposited him inside it, so at least that was one hassle he didn’t have to contend with; but as Ghastly got closer, the more garda were to be found. The more roadblocks, too.

Each time someone tried to stop him, Ghastly shoved an ID at them and moved on, pushing them aside gently but inexorably. Leaving so many confused people behind him made his back itch; he wished Tanith were there. Or Saracen. Saracen would have worked too, even though Tanith was better with a sword. Also she looked better in tight leather.

At the gates to the Government Buildings the entrance was crowded with people hurrying in and out, or just trying to get in. One or two were reporters who’d been lucky enough to be inside the police cordon before it went up.

Ghastly strode right past them all to the man at the gate.

“Sir –” began the garda, and only faltered when Ghastly looked at him. He was young and white-faced, more frazzled than he seemed from a distance, and to his credit he rallied. “Identification, please.”

“He’s with us,” said an unfamiliar voice behind the young man, and he blanched, recoiling from the black-clad woman behind him. She had light skin and brown hair pulled into a loose bun, and Ghastly didn’t know her offhand, but he knew necromancers’ robes when he saw them. She bowed to him. “Master Bespoke.”

“Cleric,” said Ghastly gruffly, trying to restrain his impatience. He stepped past the young man, who was very fixedly not looking the necromancer’s way. Only once they were a distance from the gate did Ghastly ask, “What did you people do?”

“It was your skeleton friend’s idea,” said the necromancer, glancing over her shoulder with a frown. “Probably the boy was inside the Government Buildings when we went in. They’ve been rotating some of them out to guard duty, to give them a rest.”

“A rest from what?”

The necromancer shook her head. “Not here. Pandemona.”

“What?”

“My name is Pandemona.”

“Oh.” Ghastly was following her but he walked beside her, and only belatedly realised he was setting the pace. Most of the activity was in the courtyard, where there were pavilions and tents set up. “Erskine said things were going relatively well, save an –” Vile. “– emergency.”

“We’re keeping the infected inside the gates,” said Pandemona. “We’ve managed to get some healers from the Temple to detect who’s infected and who isn’t.”

“The Taoiseach?” Hopeless had explained, eventually, which Fionn he meant. The words still felt incredulous, coming from Ghastly’s own mouth.

“He’s fine. Cleric Wreath –” There was an undertone in Pandemona’s voice as she said the name, something at worst respectful and at best reverent. “– kept him safe. But he had to use magic to do it.”

Ghastly’s mouth felt dry, and his heart pounded, but he heard himself say calmly, “I thought all his magic was bound up in keeping the armour locked up.”

“Yes,” Pandemona agreed, and broke into a jog to keep up as Ghastly quickened his pace. They bypassed the pavilions; Ghastly saw more necromancers dotted among the garda and the officials. A few people broke off as if to come their way, but Ghastly swept past them all, straight through the doors into the Government Buildings’ main atrium. He barely noticed when he left Pandemona behind.

There were a few corpses still on the floor, teams casing the area and keeping the foyer secure. Ghastly barely saw them all, for the sight of Skulduggery on the stairs, keeping his pistol levelled at the hulking suit of armour standing at the height. Ghastly wasn’t prepared for the boiling hatred that rushed through him along with the adrenaline. Even knowing it was Wreath in there, not Vile, that figure was still the same as the one that had murdered his mother.

Erskine was there with them, but Ghastly barely saw him until he was halfway up the stairs and Erskine had come to meet him, relief on his face.

“I need to help Fionn,” Erskine said. “You’d do better here than me.”

“What did he do?” Ghastly demanded, and his voice was rough. He was startled to realise there were tears on his cheeks.

Skulduggery twitched violently, and didn’t look around.

“He didn’t do anything,” said Erskine. “Wreath managed to use the armour to clear the Remnants, but now neither of them can back down. We need to get Skulduggery away, and we can’t separate them forcibly.”

Ghastly exhaled in a rush and his limbs abruptly felt rubbery. “There was an officer at the gates who flinched when Cleric Pandemona came close. I thought –”

Erskine shook his head, and finally Ghastly noticed how frazzled his friend looked, how tired. He was white-lipped, his face nearly grey, his movements that fluid kind which would catch if he let himself pause. “Skulduggery gave the necromancers permission to use magic in public. Some of the garda didn’t take well to it, so we put them on shifts away from where the magic was happening. Most people in the courtyard know about us now, Ghastly.”

“Oh.”

Which would be why Erskine needed to be out there, instead of in here; because as much as Skulduggery had been a leader during the war, Erskine was a politician. Skulduggery could lead. Erskine could govern.

Ghastly nodded, a jerk of his head back down the stairs. “Go. I’ll take care of this.”

Erskine clapped a hand to his shoulder and squeezed almost painfully tight with trembling fingers, the only real indication that he was close to an edge. Then he was gone to do the job he was better at, and Ghastly stepped up the stairs, taking them more slowly now some of the urgency had left him.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Skulduggery said quietly.

“Shut up,” Ghastly growled. “This is exactly where I’m meant to be. This is the only place I should be, right now. Can you move?”

There was a pause before Skulduggery answered. “Technically, mechanically, yes. But I also can’t.”

Ghastly exhaled slowly. The situation was both better than he’d envisioned, and also unimaginably dire – even more for the fact that no one around them knew how dire it was. “Right. What’s stopping you, then?”

Again, there was a moment of quiet before Skulduggery answered. “I’m not sure I can explain it in a way you’d understand.”

“Then you’d damn well better figure out how, before I knock your skull off.”

Another moment, and then Skulduggery’s head tilted fractionally, as if he meant to nod and it fizzled before fruition. “Okay then. Do you remember when we found out Hopeless had been using?”

Not a particularly good memory, and also one they never talked about ever. It was the same one which left Hopeless’s medication in the hands of others, and that fact alone made Ghastly’s heart pound. Or maybe it was just remembering how Skulduggery how known exactly what Hopeless needed, exactly how Hopeless felt, and realising why. “Yes.”

“Do you remember how, when we were weaning him off, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from going for poppy-juice?”

“I remember he tried to pick your pocket in the middle of the night,” said Ghastly.

“It’s like that,” said Skulduggery in a tone which might have been conversational had the situation not been so deadly serious. “I know I should walk away. I know it’s even logical to walk away. I can’t. I just can’t. I think I could have, if Wreath hadn’t used magic – or at least Hopeless obviously trusted that I would, since he sent me here – but since Wreath has and the armour is out, I can’t.”

For a minute or two Ghastly stood there, apparently frozen but in reality thinking deeply. Yes, he did remember Hopeless using – remembered the magical opium den, remembered five years later the successful surprise attack Hopeless had missed because he’d been high.

He also remembered everything they’d done to wean him off. In some ways, seeing Hopeless like that had been even worse than after they rescued him from Mevolent. It had been a vulnerability of his own doing.

But something else Ghastly remembered was how they’d managed to get him to stop.

“Can you make fire?” he asked quietly.

“I can’t do anything, Ghastly,” said Skulduggery with every indication of patience.

“Festering shit of a bullock you can’t,” Ghastly shot back, and there was a scattered noise from inside the armour that Ghastly took a moment to pinpoint as laughter. He stepped closer to Skulduggery. Suited, bleached Skulduggery – the real Lord Vile – but Lord Vile had never looked like that.

“When it got too much for Hopeless, we gave him something else to think about.” Ghastly took Skulduggery’s free hand and the skeletal frame twitched. Gaze on Skulduggery’s unmoving eye-sockets, Ghastly lifted their hands and pulled off Skulduggery’s glove, and snapped his own fingers so fire sparked between Skulduggery’s bones. “Feel that?”

For a very long time, Skulduggery didn’t answer. Ghastly was reduced to counting his thundering heartbeats. Then, finally: “Yes.”

“Good.” Ghastly snuffed out the flames. “Do it yourself.”

“I can’t –”

 “You can.”

“Ghastly,” said Skulduggery, and his voice was pleading, “it’s right there.”

“And I’m right here,” said Ghastly flatly. “Make a flame, Skulduggery.”

For the first time since Ghastly walked into this God-forsaken room, Skulduggery’s frame properly moved, his shoulders rising, his ribs expanding outward in a shaky breath. He snapped his fingers, but nothing happened, so Ghastly covered Skulduggery’s hand in his and did it himself, feeding magic slowly into his palm so Skulduggery could feel it happen.

“Are you sure you’re the man who set fire to Love’s boat?” Ghastly asked in an upbeat tone which came out much less forced than it should have. “Because the man who set fire to Love’s boat was much wittier and talented than you.”

Skulduggery’s head turned, very slightly, and Ghastly smiled sunnily at the blank eye-holes and the unending grin. “No,” said Skulduggery. “No, I’m not that man anymore.”

But he snapped his fingers, and Ghastly felt the surge of magic this time, even though it petered out into nothing. “You’re definitely not the man who turned himself into a walking skeleton of fire, then,” Ghastly said, and his voice wobbled a bit. He cleared it. “Like that movie about the man with the flaming motorcycle. What’s it called?”

“Ghost Rider,” said Wreath, only it came out sounding like Vile instead. It was all Ghastly could do not to jump or react more than to freeze. He would have glared at Wreath for interrupting, but couldn’t before Wreath continued, “I’m fairly sure he was a better driver, too.”

“Excuse me,” said Skulduggery in a tone approaching affront, “he is not a better driver than me. No one who drives a motorcycle is a better driver than me.”

Anyone who drives a motorcycle is a better driver than you, Skulduggery,” said Wreath, but this time Ghastly didn’t try to glare, because Skulduggery’s fingers had snapped together again. “The fact they’re alive every time they get off it is proof of that.”

“That proves that motorcycles are a dangerous waste of ingenuity and engineering,” said Skulduggery. His finger-bones moved almost of their own volition now, like a tick or a habit; slow at first, unfamiliar, but then more evenly. Wordlessly Ghastly cupped his hands around Skulduggery’s and generated heat to guide Skulduggery toward the creation of actual flame.

“So you admit that motorcycles are ingenious, then.”

“I said nothing of the sort.”

“You did. You just said a ‘waste of ingenuity’. That implies ingenuity was used in their making.”

“You must be mistaken. I clearly said something else. Since when have you been so interested in motorcycles, anyway, Wreath? Approaching your midlife crisis at last, are you?”

“You drove me to it,” Wreath said in a hollow deadpan voice. Unexpectedly Skulduggery laughed, and flames bloomed in their hands.

They blazed merrily, wreathed around their fingers. Skulduggery took a deep breath and the flames rolled up his arm as though he’d breathed them in, filling every line of his suit with a dim transparent glow. They flickered around his collar and up into his skull. He breathed out and they rippled as though in a draft; when he breathed in again, they flared. Breathe in, breathe out; and each time the fire pulsed like a heartbeat.

Ghastly found himself smiling, and when he pulled his hands away and put his fingers up to his face to brush away the itchiness on his cheeks, he found he was crying too.

“You won’t be able to go out there looking like that, you know,” Wreath observed. He still sounded like Vile, chillingly so, but Vile had never been this articulate, and it seemed as though the voice wasn’t quite so deep anymore.

It was only after Ghastly had finished the thought that he realised what else was wrong with Wreath’s comment, and started, and by then Wreath was already continuing. “You’ll make everyone think the ghost rider is real.”

“I do have a false skin,” Skulduggery said.

“Prove it.”

Skulduggery gave Wreath what Ghastly recognised as a Look, and then reached up with fingers still fire-twined and touched the sigils on his collarbones. The flames beneath made the fake skin look almost luminescent, and his blue eyes shone.

“Disgusting,” said Wreath. “You’re glowing. You’re positively indecent.”

He took a heavy step forward and Ghastly took one back, and so did Skulduggery. It took Ghastly a moment to notice, and then he was distracted by the relief in what the movement meant; and by then Wreath had taken another step, and another. Each footstep sounded like a bell that made the armour quiver and flake off him in wisps and smoking fragments, dissipating into nothing before the pieces hit the floor.

He moved past them down the stairs, the helmet melting away from his face. Ghastly flinched at the sight of his eyes, fully red and inhuman; but then he was past and all they could see was the way the shadows pooled in his wake.

“Show off,” said Skulduggery, loud enough for Wreath to hear, as they started to follow him. The skeleton was still, very carefully, breathing; Ghastly could feel the pulse of magic in him each time he did.

“At least I retained my sense of style,” Wreath answered without turning around, for which Ghastly was glad. He didn’t really want to know whether the necromancer’s eyes were still red.

He found out anyway, when Wreath got near the floor. One of the necromancers on duty there looked up, and gasped, and all but fell on his face in prostration.

“Don’t do that,” Wreath said irritably, sweeping past the man with that self-assurance owed to a man of wealthy upbringing. Ghastly had never learned it; his father had been too humble. Wreath would’ve done better without it, if he’d wanted to stop people reacting like that, because before he was halfway to the door all the necromancers in the room had bowed with deep respect or outright prostrated themselves.

It was creepy.

Wreath sighed deeply. “They’re all bowing at me, aren’t they?”

“You’ve a fantastic grasp of the visually obvious,” said Skulduggery. “That’s a surprise, because it isn’t something I normally expect you to grasp these days.”

“What’s different?”

“That depends,” said Skulduggery. “Can you still see?”

Wreath paused by the door, his head turning slightly, and one of the purely mortal officers on hand let out a strangled noise and backed away. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Then I’d say it’s the fact your eyes are red. It’s very creepy, you know.”

If Skulduggery had eyes, Ghastly thought, would his eyes have been red?

He managed not to put the thought to words.

“I suppose it’s a good thing you’ve already flouted every secrecy law there is, isn’t it?” Wreath said sardonically, and stepped out the door. Ghastly and Skulduggery followed; Ghastly matched Skulduggery’s pace, and Skulduggery seemed content to walk in Wreath’s wake. Which made some sense, since people in the courtyard backed away as they saw Wreath, saving the trouble of having to weave between them.

Up ahead Erskine was talking with the Taoiseach and his aides, using some very expansive gestures and pointing toward the fountain and at a map. There were a few necromancers arguing with him, Pandemona among them, but as they got close the clerics’ voices died away, and they stepped back. That drew Erskine’s attention from the conversation, and he turned, and visibly tensed.

The necromancers bowed, but before they could say anything, Wreath spoke rather irritably. “Yes, I know. I’ve currently got a bad case of eye infection. Don’t let it distract you.”

This last seemed to be more of a warning than a quip, since he looked at the other necromancers as he said it and there was a slightly awkward pause following.

“Um,” said the Taoiseach. “Eye-drops worked for me?”

There was another pause. Ghastly couldn’t be sure who broke first, but someone snorted with laughter and he was prepared to blame them for the round of hysterical laughter that broke out among the sorcerers then, and lasted for minutes on end.

Chapter Text

When Valkyrie woke up, she didn’t immediately move. There was nothing immediately poking her side, no sounds to nudge her awareness. She felt that heavy sort of weariness, like her brain was awake but her body hadn’t quite decided yet, and the consideration to move never quite reached the intent.

What, she thought, kind of a crazy idea did I have?

What if Pandora’s ball tried to take over the Tír’s security systems? What if something exploded? What if it couldn’t sense anything? What if it hurt everyone it was scanning that wasn’t the right person? What if it gave them all true-name magic? Or the opposite?

“Shut up, Cain,” she mumbled into the pillow. “Don’t go borrowing trouble.”

Corrival grunted. “Was starting to think that was all the Dead Men had taught you.”

“Shut up, Deuce,” Valkyrie mumbled into the pillow. “I’m not making deals with devils.” Something soft hit the back of her head and Valkyrie grunted; and then, with great reluctance, she pushed herself upright. Corrival’s office was dim and unchanged, and for a panicked moment Valkyrie wondered if she’d dreamed everything between now and the last time she’d woken up on this couch. “What time s’it?”

“Nearly evening,” said Corrival, heaving himself to his feet. “Some idea you had, Cain.”

Valkyrie’s stomach fluttered. “Did it work? Did they use it already? What went wrong?”

With a tap to the wall Corrival turned on some of the dimmest lights, and he glanced toward her with amusement. “Doesn’t Hopeless have anything to say about that pessimism?”

“Realism,” Valkyrie corrected. “Something always goes wrong. What was it?”

“It didn’t cast a wide enough net.”

“Bugger.” Valkyrie slumped and debated letting herself faceplant into the pillow. She didn’t, because Corrival sent a veil of cold water into her face. Valkyrie spluttered and mopped it off, glaring.

“More awake now?” Corrival asked, unmoved.

“Yeah,” Valkyrie admitted grudgingly.

“Good. Then you’ll be prepared for the other news.”

“What other news?”

“It broke the comm tower. Come on, then.” Ignoring Valkyrie’s curse, Corrival picked up her coat and belt, and waited until she rose to hand it to her; then he pulled on his own as he went out the door. Valkyrie glanced back into the room and saw the book of crosswords and the empty glass, and half-empty bottle, by his favourite armchair, and almost smiled to herself as she followed.

“What’s been happening?” she asked as she pulled on her coat and made sure the pistol was holstered properly with the safety on.

“Lot of paperwork and kerfluffle,” said Corrival as he walked, leading the way to the research level. “We got dispensation from Khutulun to let us bring up a classified research object and hooked it into the Tír’s SSN. Cleared the halls, and whatnot. Took a bit of trying, but Pandora’s research assistant was planning for this kind of connectivity from the start, so at least all the right bits and bobs were there.”

“And?” Valkyrie asked, using a tiny bolt of air to tap the elevator button as Corrival reached out to tap it with his hand. He scowled. She smiled brightly.

If she was awake enough to beat Deuce to the punch, she called it a win.

“Didn’t understand all the technical bits,” said Corrival, “but Vex was getting all excited along with the rest, so something interesting was happening.” His mouth twisted down, and Valkyrie’s grin faded as they both stepped into the elevator. Right. She remembered that part. “Turned out our population is too dense to get a good reading, or something along those lines. They’ve been able to pinpoint places where Stray and Scapegrace have been – haven’t really figured out where they are.”

“You’ve got people looking, though, right?” Valkyrie demanded.

“There’s a lot of places,” Corrival said grimly. “We’re trying to narrow them down. You know Scapegrace better than us, and something about plugging in the ball gave Vex and Pandora a lead with the Remnants.”

“If I didn’t know better,” said Valkyrie as the doors opened, “I’d think you were just trying to give me something to do.”

“Good thing you do know better, then, isn’t it?”

They followed the hall to the same open area where Piper and Bully kept their holographic view of the security sigils. It was fuller than it had been, with guards on the outside of the door as well as the inside, and on the opposite side of the room – because of Dexter, of course.

Dexter – the Remnant – was doing a good job of pretending not to notice them; or maybe he was just that involved with the discussion he and Pandora were having with R & D near the computer banks at the far wall. Rover was still watching him very, very closely.

Bully and Bev were by the hologram suite, and Piper was with Aria at a small table that hadn’t been there before, covered in maps. That was where Corrival and Valkyrie went.

“How’s it?” Corrival asked.

“Bit better,” said Aria, “thanks to your young friend there.”

She nodded toward Piper’s chair, but Valkyrie didn’t see Peep until she stepped forward. “Said if I knew much I should say it,” Peep said. “So’s when the General said they were lookin’, I thought I could help.”

Piper lifted her chin to look at both Corrival and Valkyrie with her visible eye, her faintly electronic voice humming. Valkyrie found it wasn’t as unnerving, trying to figure out how to act around her. Maybe she was just too tired to care. “We’ve narrowed down the areas based on rumours Peep’s heard.”

“How does it work, exactly?” Valkyrie asked, leaning over the map. It was a paper map, not holographic – weirdly out of place in this building. Everything on the Tír was usually made by sigils.

“Theoretically, how you said it should,” said Aria.

“The theory was sound, it was just too simplistic for the application,” Piper said with a smile which came out less twisted than Ghastly’s sometimes did. “Brainwaves can’t be measured at those kinds of distances. Not with the tech we have, if at all.”

“But Stray’s true-name –”

“We tried,” Aria said. “There’s too much interference – too many people in the city.”

“Pandora’s only called someone out to track changes right next to the orb,” Piper explained. “She’s never tried to track differences with such a broad physical scope. By the time the – threads, isn’t it? – get back to us, they’re too garbled.”

“But you managed to track places where he’s probably been,” Valkyrie objected.

“That’s where I got lost,” Corrival grumbled, “and the others got all excited.”

Aria shook her head with exasperated, reluctant amusement. “Something about quantum entanglement, or … something. I don’t know; I don’t speak metaphysicist.”

“I speak a related dialect,” Piper offered.

“That doesn’t help when I don’t speak that, either.”

Piper’s face leered, but her voice laughed, and suddenly Valkyrie understood her name. “Metaphysically speaking,” Piper said, “when any of us interact with someone else, we’re leaving bits of ourselves behind.”

“We’re losing pieces of our souls?” Valkyrie shuddered.

“No, you’re leaving behind ripples. Thread-wise, it presents as you. It’s like you stepped in paint and went walking. The soulprints are still you, influencing others, even after you’re long gone. That’s why they’re all excited; physicists work by tracing ripples back to the source. Now they’ve found a way to do the same thing on a level scientists the world over have only theorised about.”

“Oh.” Valkyrie glanced over at Pandora and Vex. If they’d stopped talking and gesturing wildly, she’d missed it. “Dexter can do it though, can’t he? It’s how he conjures things.”

“He’s the closest anyone’s gotten, but he can’t actually track it,” said Piper. “Or so I’m given to understand. My science dialect only goes so far.”

“The upshot is that we’ve pinpointed Stray and Scapegrace’s combined presences as having been in these areas.” Aria pointed at the blocked out parts of the map. “Thanks to Peep, we’ve been able to take three of those off the table.”

There were still four left, Valkyrie saw with a sinking heart, and in different areas of the city. The Remnant was a priority, of course, but the precinct didn’t have a huge force. They relied on volunteers and reserves when they needed people. That was the worst thing that could be done in this situation – the Remnant could move from person to person too easily.

… Wait a minute. Valkyrie leaned over the map, peering down at it so intently that she only vaguely heard the conversation occurring over her head.

“What’s the governor said?” Aria was asking.

“Still negotiating with Bliss. She wasn’t too happy, not that I’d’ve been in her shoes, but she’s not an idiot.”

“I know where Scapegrace is,” said Valkyrie, and then Corrival’s words registered and her head jerked up. “Bliss is here?”

“Hopeless sent him over as a liaison, because of Vex,” Corrival told her. “Guess he figured it was about time his Elders started knowing. Where’s Scapegrace?”

Valkyrie pointed to the map. “There.”

“S’a good place,” Peep said with a nod. “Slept there before.”

“A church?” Aria asked doubtfully. “Sorcerers generally stay away from churches, and faeries who weren’t born on the Tír don’t think much of them. Scapegrace hasn’t lived here in years.”

“Scapegrace is a coward,” said Valkyrie. “The first time I met him, he was hiding out in a church. Maybe there’s a reason for that.”

Corrival looked at Aria. Aria looked back, and shrugged. “It’s a lead.”

“Then let’s get moving,” said Corrival.

Chapter Text

St Thaddeus’s looked so much like one of those old cathedrals that Valkyrie thought of the photographs she’d once found on Hopeless’s bookshelf, and wondered whether that was his influence. It couldn’t be nearly as old, but it was grand and sweeping, with stained-glass windows and the whole nine yards.

It was in Éire. There were four churches in the Tír, Aria explained on the way over on the ferry, one in each of the districts. St Thaddeus was the only Christian one; Mzansi had a mosque and Australis a temple. The one in Central was non-secular.

“Not a big interest, huh?” Valkyrie asked.

Aria shook her head. “Huge interest, but land is a commodity here. The Tír was originally designed by faeries. They anticipated there might be religious interest, but they didn’t anticipate well enough. Now there’s no space to build more – and that’s without accounting for the fears that allowing for more churches will make denominations splinter.”

“Understandable,” Corrival said with a grunt. “Denominational conflicts have been the cause of most wars.”

“But doesn’t having only three actually religious churches ignore a whole bunch of other religions?” Valkyrie asked. “I mean, Jews aren’t Christians, right? Same God, different religion? I don’t even know where to start on mosques and temples.”

“There lies the trouble,” Aria admitted. “Conventionally, all four buildings can be used in whatever manner a religion asks – but they’re still biased in one direction of another.”

“You know a lot about this.”

“I attend,” Aria said with a shrug.

“Oh, yeah?” Valkyrie grinned. “Which one?”

That made Aria laugh, but Valkyrie noticed that she didn’t answer.

Corrival asked, “Who’s in charge of St Thaddeus? Catholic, unless I miss my guess – and knowing Hopeless like I do, he’d’ve been the one to push for religious buildings.”

“It’s run by Catholics,” Aria confirmed. “Currently; the Catholics are the most common, since they had the care of the church when it was built, but it’s run through a few other hands. The current caretaker’s name is Paddy Steadfast. He was schooled in Ireland, but he was recruited right out of seminary.”

Valkyrie frowned. “That doesn’t happen often, does it?”

“Not a whole lot, but there’s a few institutions here which actively strive to bring in new blood every generation or so. It keeps us connected. We can’t afford to lose sight of what’s beyond the Tír.”

“You said you’d been there before,” Valkyrie said to Peep, who for the most part had been sitting in a seat by the ferry’s rail, squinting up at the bird-shaped silhouettes up in the sky and fingering her collarbone. Valkyrie remembered when they’d first met, Peep had kept a pair of binoculars around her neck; but she must have left them behind.

“Yeah,” said Peep, slow because she was concentrating. “S’nice. I always figured religious folks to be all grim and gloom and killjoys, but he ain’t. Never tried to make me talk about my Dad, after – after.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Valkyrie admitted. “I thought religious people were like that too. Then I met Hopeless.”

“Ain’t he your therapist?”

“Yeah, but he used to be a monk. Before he knew about magic.”

“Huh.” Peep looked over at least, as Éire’s shoreline came at them fast.

The ferry docked and they disembarked before the other passengers, a dozen strong and fully armed. The precinct-supplied equipment was settling more easily on Valkyrie’s shoulders than when she’d put it on, not quite like the clothes Ghastly made for her but like something that belonged there.

The districts were laid out in circles, with the centre being a figure-eight of the Bridges and the towers. Flanking them to make a square of circles were the major urban courtyards containing shops and local public services. St Thaddeus’s was on the right-side of Éire’s, a grand building which would have been tall in comparison to the buildings around it if not for the tower looming.

Valkyrie was surprised, when they got there, to see a veritable flow of traffic in and out. The courtyard in front of it was filled with stalls, and the crowd chattered as it shifted. “Is this usual?” she asked.

Aria gave her a strange look. “It’s nearly Christmas. There’s charities and studies going on.”

“… Right.”

It took a bit for people to notice them, but once they had the crowd parted, the hubbub dimming only slightly but with heads craning to watch as the squads made their way to the church. The inside was unexpectedly quieter, and seemed larger on the inside than the out; the stained-glass windows brightened the room, and would have given the church an air of quiet fragility if it weren’t for the stalls inside as well. Valkyrie peered around Corrival’s shoulder to try and get a glimpse of the tables; it looked like they were making something, or sorting things.

The news must have run ahead because they weren’t in there long before someone came to meet them. He was average in height, average in looks, with brown hair and a slightly nervous expression that melted away when he smiled. He was wearing jeans and an apron so at first Valkyrie thought he was a helper, but then he held out his hand to Corrival and said, “Father Paddy Steadfast. How can I help you?”

Corrival shook his hand and said, “Have you taken anyone into sanctuary recently, Father?”

“No,” said Father Steadfast.

“Has anyone come by wanting help?” Valkyrie asked, and Father Steadfast smiled a little self-consciously.

“Plenty,” he said. “It’s Christmas. That’s what all these workshops are for. The Tír doesn’t have a homeless population, but there are still those seeking comfort or purpose. And a lot of people who know others outside of the Tír who do need help.”

“Here I thought Christmas was just about all the presents,” Valkyrie muttered.

“I want to know how you managed to avoid Hopeless at this time of year for three years running.” Corrival unfolded a picture of Scapegrace. “Seen him?”

Father Steadfast studied the picture and shook his head. “But I haven’t been the one signing people in. Let me get my nephew.”

“We’ll come with,” said Aria, so they trooped up the lane left by the tables, except for two of the junior squad, who stayed behind to guard the entrance.

“Sean?” Father Steadfast called about halfway down. The boy who squirmed out of the mingle was a year or two younger than Valkyrie, with a sunburned face and mussed hair. “Yeah?” he asked, and then brightened. “Hey, Peep!”

“’Lo,” Peep muttered, and Valkyrie glanced over her shoulder to see the girl sidling behind her.

“What’s up?” Sean asked, halfway between Peep and his uncle. “Who’re these people?”

“They’re looking for someone,” explained Father Steadfast, showing Sean the picture. Before Sean had even said anything, Valkyrie knew from his blank expression that it was no help.

“What about these?” Aria asked, showing him shots of Julian and Stray instead.

“Sure, I know him,” said Sean, pointing to Julian, and Valkyrie shot a look at Corrival. Only someone who knew Julian as a ‘he’ would call him that. “He’s a regular. Doesn’t come to Mass, but he’s always coming by to chat to new immigrants and stuff.”

‘He?’ Valkyrie saw Father Steadfast mouth to himself, blinking and looking at the picture again.

“He just talks?” Corrival asked. “What about?”

Sean shrugged self-consciously. Possibly he was becoming aware of the fact that a dozen armed adults were giving him a lot of attention.

“Stuff. Like, magic, and what would they do with it, if they had it. What they’d do if they could do anything they wanted. I figured it was one of those talks to make people feel better about their chances after they’ve been poor, you know?”

Was that, Valkyrie wondered, even possible? To give people magic like that? “He actually talked about giving away magic?”

“I thought that wasn’t possible,” said Father Steadfast, but Corrival and Aria exchanged grim looks, and Valkyrie thought of the threads and Pandora’s ball.

“It isn’t,” she said, but didn’t say the end of the sentence: yet.

“It sounded like that,” said Sean. “I always thought he was, y’know. Metaphoring. Take control of your destiny, and all that.”

“Has he been here recently?” Aria asked patiently. “In the last day?”

“No.”

“Is there anywhere in the church someone could hide?” Valkyrie turned to Corrival and Aria. “When Scapegrace was in the cathedral in Dublin, he wasn’t under sanctuary. He was just there.”

“There’s a loft,” Father Steadfast offered. “A bit of basement space, though I doubt he’s down there – it’s sealed to prevent water getting in. The sea air sometimes gets to the things we store in the loft.”

“We need to see it,” said Corrival, but they didn’t have the chance. In fact, Father Steadfast had barely turned around to show them the way when there was the sudden movement of a lot of people getting out of someone’s way, very fast. A few people screamed. Father Steadfast pulled Sean behind him.

Past his shoulder, Valkyrie saw Myron Stray standing in the middle of the church, his face twisted with bitter resignation and his hand holding up something that looked an awful lot like a Desolation Engine.

Corrival said some Irish curses.

“What’s that?” Aria asked in a low voice, her hands on her rifle.

“Bomb,” Valkyrie answered, equally low. “It’ll disintegrate every living thing within a certain radius. It won’t take out the whole city. Maybe the district, though.”

Father Steadfast made a choked noise.

“Get back,” said Stray, but it was emotionless, like someone had told him to say it. “Clear out of the church and the blocks around.”

Most of the crowd was already obeying. The precinct officers kept it from being a stampede, and some went out to make sure things were orderly on the street.

“This is weird,” Valkyrie muttered.

“Laudig –” Corrival began.

“If you use my name, I’m instructed to drop it,” interrupted Stray.

Corrival paused and shifted, throwing his coat open to hang his hands from his belt. Valkyrie knew the stance. It left his fingers free but kept his hands in plain sight, deceptively nonthreatening. Most Elementals needed obvious gestures.

His fingers moved, very slightly, but there was no magic in it. Just orders. Valkyrie judged the distance between herself and a couple of tables.

“Do we have a time-limit?” Corrival asked instead.

“Ten minutes.”

“And if we obey?”

Stray’s face twisted further. His gaze was on Corrival. Valkyrie risked a sidle, and saw Aria do the same in the opposite direction. “Then I’m supposed to drop it anyway.”

Corrival nodded. “So you see how we’re not inclined to give Scapegrace and Julian the chance to get away.”

“I’m supposed to tell you –” Stray hesitated. Valkyrie sidled again. “I –”

Something was happening. His face twisted again, and his loose grip on the Desolation Engine wavered, and then tightened. “It isn’t – her.”

“What isn’t her?” Corrival was unmoved, but his fingers moved again, and so did Valkyrie, this time further between the pews set against the wall. Stray didn’t seem to notice. Sweat beaded on his face, as though he was undertaking some tremendous effort.

“All – this. Research.”

He spoke as though it was the hardest thing he’d done, and Valkyrie exchanged a look with Aria, across the way. Was Stray fighting off a true-name order? Everything she’d been told said that was impossible.

But Julian had him for a while. And if that’s what Julian wanted him, and the Remnant, for to begin with …

Maybe Julian had managed to get some of his experiments done.

“She seems to have been planning quite a bit,” Corrival said dryly. “Are you saying she was coerced into doing this research? I find that hard to swallow.”

Stray’s answer took a while. Valkyrie crept closer, using air to muffle her footsteps. Aria had to move slower, without magic, so Valkyrie scanned the shadows behind Stray. There were still people in the church, people giving Stray space without being able to find an exit. Valkyrie paid them a lot of attention, searching for Scapegrace’s height among them.

“Patrons,” Stray said at last. “Said –” His face contorted again, and his fingers trembled. Valkyrie kept an eye on that, her heart pounding wildly, but Corrival had indicated he had a handle on it, so she slid past a pew and kept her gaze on the people. Someone from outside had opened a side-door, and they were being escorted out in ones and twos.

Stray made a choking noise. “Old – Guard –”

Them again.

“The Old Guard made her?” Corrival asked, and Stray’s head jerked, like it was a reflex instead of a denial.

“Sponsor. Offshore. Didn’t know – all this –”

“Why did they take Carol Edgley?”

“Wasn’t her,” Stray mumbled. “Distract Cain.”

“Julian didn’t take Carol Edgeley?”

Another head-jerk, and Stray was definitely looking strained around the edges, his whole body trembling. In a way it was scarier than when Anton trembled – the gist was horrible, but Valkyrie could be assured Anton knew what he was doing with it. If Stray failed, they were all dead.

Valkyrie tried to ignore that by sliding past him. She was nearly to the end of the church, now, but she hadn’t seen anyone of Scapegrace’s height yet. Where was he? He couldn’t be planning to still be here by the time Stray dropped the Desolation Engine, could he?

She reached the door and motioned to the officer on guard there, and asked quietly: “Anyone over six and a half feet come out?”

The officer shook her head and Valkyrie stepped back to let another couple of witnesses through, and then followed the wall around to the doors at the church’s far end. He had to be through one of them.

Why would he still be through one of them? If there was an exit out the back, why bother sending Stray out the front? It didn’t make sense.

Unless Scapegrace doesn’t intend to leave, and just wants us to think he is.

It wasn’t a kind of duplicity Valkyrie would’ve expected from Scapegrace, but apparently Scapegrace had gotten some kind of brain transplant. Valkyrie paused by the wall and caught Aria’s eye, across the way, and jerked her head toward the doors. Corrival was still talking to Stray, but Valkyrie tuned them out.

“Found him?” Aria asked in a low voice.

“He didn’t try to leave with the crowd,” Valkyrie said softly.

“Unless he tried to leave out front.”

“We’d have seen him.”

“Then why’s he risking his life by staying?”

“You’re not usually this stupid, are you?” Valkyrie only realised how that sounded after it’d come out, and flushed as Aria lifted her eyebrow; but Valkyrie went on regardless. “You’re on the precinct taskforce. You know how to make conclusions. You’re letting me do it. Is this some kind of test?”

She wasn’t sure how to feel about that. A test sounded like it had been planned, even though she knew it hadn’t been; and this was her family.

“Tell you later,” said Aria, checking her rifle. “First, let’s see if you’re right.”

Valkyrie risked a glance at her watch and nodded, sliding to the door and loosening the pistol in her holster. She opened the door and Aria took point, Valkyrie behind her.

Chapter Text

The first room was empty of people, but cluttered with furniture and other odds and ends. It looked like a family garage, except everything in there was labelled and protected by dustcovers; there was an area near the door where dust had left tracks on the floor, showing where items had been removed. Guess that explained what people were selling.

The room was arranged so the furniture created a corridor into the room, but went no further. Valkyrie craned to see over them, and saw the door in the back wall. It was open a crack. Aria and Valkyrie stepped between the furniture toward it, and through the door was a spiralling stair.

Valkyrie thought, That figures. He went up to the roof on the other one too.

Aria jerked her head upward. Valkyrie nodded, letting relief flood her. She hadn’t been wrong. Stray was just a cover for another hiding place. Julian was probably more important.

The stairs led up to an attic, or what Valkyrie thought was an attic, before she realised that the walls were dusty stained-glass. Some of them had started to be washed away, like someone was trying to see what they were. Faint shafts of gold and orange light showed through the grime, highlighting the carved stone pillars lining the wall, before the room opened up to a cavernous ceiling overhead.

At the far end the room was boarded up; from a distance it just looked like a wall, but it didn’t match the beautiful care of the rest, and as they got closer Valkyrie saw the planks. In front of it there was a cluster of dusty armchairs and sofas, but the dust was disturbed and there were blankets, and a small store-bought sigil-stove in the middle of the cluster, unlit.

Footprints, Aria mouthed, angling her head down, and Valkyrie nodded. Her hand was out, feeling the air, but so far everything felt dank and stale.

The footprints – just one pair – led to the opposite side from which they entered. The attack came before they found out where they led.

Valkyrie was in front, feeling the air. It wisped against her hand and she heard Aria grunt and cough, and ducked and rolled. The blow passed over her head and Valkyrie sprang to her feet. In the darkness all she could see was a very tall figure, and only a glimpse of that, because when she blinked he was gone.

Aria lay prone on the floor, moving slowly. Alive but winded, judging by that choking sound; maybe concussed. Valkyrie ignored the slow seep of air from her movements and closed her eyes, both her hands out, breathing evenly.

Movement from the left, very fast. Valkyrie slid her foot out and twisted on the ball of it, spinning away from the attack. Her hand snapped out as she moved, motion adding power to the wall of air that slammed up behind her attacker.

He laughed and she knew she’d missed; it was an ugly laugh, twisted and on the edge of deranged.

“Missed me!”

Definitely Scapegrace.

Since when did Scapegrace grow a pair?

Valkyrie stilled again, resting on the balls of her feet, her fingers flat and palms out. She breathed, but slow and even, so she could read the air without the interruption. Aria had stilled somewhere behind her. Valkyrie hoped that was so she wasn’t in the way, and not because she was more badly injured than Valkyrie had thought.

This time the attack was from a different angle, but Valkyrie read it coming and ducked. Her hand thrust out toward his knee and the heel of her palm hit cartilage. He yelped. Her fingers snapped and she threw fire upward. He screamed and air rolled and so did Valkyrie, between his legs and to the floor behind him.

By the time she was on her feet again he wasn’t in front of her, but she stilled and made no movements, her hands out again. She dared to peek between her eyelids; the fire had already burned out. That was okay. She’d just meant to ruin his night-sight, and now her eyes were better adjusted.

“You’re so annoying,” he snarled. The air moved against her fingers, but Valkyrie didn’t move.

“How do you get the concentration to conjure anything in the heat of battle, anyway?”

“It’s mine. It’s me. It flows in me and flows out of me, how and when I want, if I’m calm enough to feel it right. The trick is to be fluid. Turn a disadvantage into an advantage. Make the ground yours. Choose the place in it where you can fight how you like, using the things around you. I make them come to me.”

Valkyrie breathed, feeling the faint tendrils of air-movement against her fingers, and didn’t move, let Scapegrace think she couldn’t track him. She kept her eyes closed because it was easier that way, and so Scapegrace couldn’t use the same trick she did; but even though everything was dark, she knew where he was creeping, knew it when he went behind a pillar because the movement cut off and then reappeared.

She wasn’t sure how to end the battle, yet. He was fast – a lot faster than he should have been. But she was better. She could outlast him; she was sure they’d have the time for it. He wasn’t in a hurry to leave, so she’d been right – Stray and the Desolation Engine was a distraction.

He was behind her now, but Valkyrie noticed how he kept gravitating to an area to her side, opposite where he’d attacked, in the direction they’d been investigating; kept trying to get between it and her, trying to keep her away. People were attracted by what they wanted to keep hidden.

Still Valkyrie didn’t move. Not until he came rushing out at her again, and Valkyrie shifted her weight, moved her feet. His fist swung past her ear and Valkyrie struck at the outside of his elbow with the heel of her palm, then toward his chest. The second one missed, because he was so fast, but she heard him yelp when she hit his elbow.

“How are you doing that?” His voice was high, angry. Angry, she could work with. People stopped thinking when they were angry. Skulduggery and Anton were rare exceptions, and even they stopped thinking when they were really angry.

There was a pulse and Valkyrie’s fingers twitched, but it wasn’t Scapegrace; it was in the floor, almost against her feet, a vibration. It took her a moment to realise it was Morse Code. Anton and Rover had made her learn it. She’d thought it was stupid.

She’d thought a lot of things were stupid.

Right now, she was relieved that Aria was still awake enough to be thinking.

When Scapegrace rushed her again Valkyrie ducked under his arm and ran, arms pumping and feet beating the floorboards. She heard a high whine and a yelp and felt the flash that dazzled her even from behind; but her eyes had been closed, anyway.

She forgot to stop and hit the end of the room, palms flat against the boards. Dust shook down and one of the boards rattled loose. Blinking rapidly, Valkyrie saw down into the church and heard voices, even though they came distantly through her ringing ears. Corrival was only a couple of feet away from Stray.

Valkyrie pushed off from the makeshift wall and spun, feeling the air instead of trying to see. There were two prone figures, one tall and groaning, and the other shorter but pushing itself upright. Valkyrie reached for the pistol at her waist and went to the tall one, and shot him in the back with that fuzzy static sound, and when she peeked under her eyelids she saw the shape of Scapegrace’s body on the floor, and felt him breathing with her hand near his face.

“I think Corrival’s nearly got Stray disarmed,” she said.

“Good,” said Aria.

“Can you walk?” Valkyrie glanced toward Aria. Even with the flash, the room seemed to stand out, all full of hanging grey shadows. Aria’s figure in the darkness was braced up against a pillar, holding her head and with her rifle aimed with her other hand.

“Probably not,” Aria admitted. “But I should be able to shoot him if he wakes up. You should go see what he was protecting.”

“Okay.” Valkyrie looked at her pistol and was surprised to find her hand trembling. She’d never shot anyone before, even with non-lethal guns.

She stepped around Scapegrace, giving him a good distance just in case, and went to the side of the room he’d been trying to stop them from investigating. There was a tiny door there, but it took her a while to find, because it was in an alcove and didn’t look like as much as even a storage cupboard. Scapegrace would never have fit if he’d been any thicker.

It was wedged. Valkyrie kicked it in so she had one hand with the pistol in it and the other ready to test the air for attack. It was even darker inside, and tiny, like a cupboard – or a crawlspace, since it went off to either side a long way.

“Looks like an aisle behind the walls,” she said back to Aria.

“Check it out. Julian might be in there.”

With a deep breath Valkyrie ducked her head and sidled in. It was dusty. Probably tons of spiders, too. Valkyrie tried not to think about that part. Erskine might like them, and most of the Children might be their allies, but there was still something indescribably gross about spiders.

It was narrow inside, but much taller than the entrance. That explained how Scapegrace had managed to fit. There wasn’t much room to turn around, though, and Valkyrie hesitated, cold fear heavy in her gut. She’d never really liked tight spaces, and if she chose wrongly she’d have to back up to the alcove again.

Don’t be stupid, Cain, think it through. You’ve got time.

Right. To her right led back toward the stairs. Her left led out over the main area of the church. The stairs seemed more promising, but if there was an exit there, Scapegrace would have used it. If, on the other hand, he was trying to hide Julian, or Julian was trying to hide himself …

Valkyrie turned left, sidling carefully down the aisle and trying not to care too much about touching the dusty sides. The corridor seemed greyer further on, half-lit through slats of wood. At first Valkyrie thought the bundle at the end was some decrepit and dusty furniture; but then it lifted its head and blinked at her, and Valkyrie saw that it was Julian.  

Valkyrie hurried toward Julian as quickly as she could and still scan her surroundings. With these shadows, there could have been any kind of openings in the wall and she wouldn’t be able to tell until she was next to it and someone was stabbing her in the back.

Nothing happened, except that Julian grunted and wriggled. Valkyrie reached him and holstered the pistol, and muttered. “Hold still a second, would you?”

It seemed like he had something really important to say, so Valkyrie took out the gag first. It took both her hands to do unwind it, and Julian had to spit stuff out before he could answer. “The bomb!”

“General Deuce is taking care of it,” Valkyrie said coldly, bending to untie Julian’s feet, and making sure she wasn’t crouching in front of him. The thought of trying to attack her didn’t seem to be on his mind at all; he extended his legs, obliging but a bit panicked.

“Is he taking it back to the Tower?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

“Stop him! The bomb’s set to go off when they reach the Tower!”

Valkyrie’s heart skipped but she managed not to stop what she was doing. The knot was tight, so she used the tiniest blade of air she could muster, trying not to cut Julian’s ankles. It would suck to have to carry him back. “He was ordered to let it go in ten minutes.”

“No, that’s what he was told to tell you.”

“Yeah, I got that part.” Valkyrie yanked at the frayed rope and Julian grunted as it yanked and snapped, and rolled onto his knees.

“The bomb’s still on,” Julian said. “The Remnant wants it to get back to the Tower before it goes off.”

Valkyrie blew out air and then took a breath. It was hard to think with four sides to the hall so close all around her. “Okay. Can you walk?”

“Maybe, if you untie my hands –”

“No way.” Valkyrie gripped his shoulder and hauled him to his feet, squeezing past so he could go in front. He staggered and limped the whole way through the corridor. The slowness made Valkyrie anxious, but she could tell he was going as fast as he could. He didn’t seem to think of trying to trip her up or get her caught in the corridor.

The light spilling through the door from Aria’s torch was a relief. They both moved a bit faster, but then Valkyrie heard movement and voices.

“Thank God,” Julian mumbled, and moved faster still, but Valkyrie grabbed his shoulder. “What?”

“Shh.” Valkyrie watched the exit, straining her ears, but she couldn’t hear any words and the acoustics of the rooms distorted the voices. There were footsteps, and something scraped against stone. Valkyrie’s heart fluttered and she lunged, but Julian was in her way and the exit was too far, and the light from outside cut off as the hidden door snicked shut.

Chapter Text

Not all of the sorcerers around the Taoiseach were necromancers, Ghastly discovered. It was both a relief and a surprise, because Ghastly didn’t really like necromancers but he hadn’t expected events to proceed far enough that the Taoiseach would accept just any old sorcerer hanging around.

His name was Moribund; Hopeless had sent him. That on its own had the Dead Men present relaxing, which had everyone else relaxing. Wreath kept giving him strange, calculating looks which Moribund returned with a blank face, but if Wreath knew him from somewhere, he wasn’t mentioning it.

The main topic of conversation was figuring out how many Remnants were left. No one was quite mentioning why there might be fewer of them than there were, but carefully skirting the issue while glancing in Wreath’s direction like his sudden onset of power was a disability they weren’t sure they should address. It would’ve been funny, if it so completely weren’t.

But Ghastly could tell without being Hopeless the prime question on the sorcerers’ minds: If he ate the Remnants, where did they go afterward?

Vile had been more powerful after using the death-bubble. Wreath didn’t seem like a raving lunatic yet.

“How long will it take to canvass people for possession?” asked the Taoiseach.

“That depends on how many of them try to escape first,” said Solomon.

“Let’s assume all of them,” said Erskine, “and move on from there. What do we have in place to stop that from happening?”

“Does it really matter?” Skulduggery asked with a characteristic tilt of his uncovered skull. His illusion had worn off. He was keeping the flames in his chest, but every so often wisps of smoking came leaking out his eye-sockets. Between that and Wreath’s red eyes, they were getting numerous fascinated and horrified looks from the people around them. As well as one or two starry-eyed hoverers. Ghastly wasn’t sure who those people were after, but it was probably Erskine.

Skulduggery went on, “If the Remnants are going to escape, they’re going to manage it, with or without witnesses – unless the necromancers managed to put warning bells on all of them.”

“That’s not what the wards do,” said Baritone shortly, “and that’s what your Grand Mage’s friend here is meant to be helping us with.”

“Isn’t he your Grand Mage too?” asked the Taoiseach, and Baritone looked at him, and didn’t answer. It wasn’t a disdainful look, like Ghastly was expecting; in fact, the necromancers as a whole had been more respectful to the mortals in the Government Buildings than Ghastly was expecting. But it wasn’t a comfortable look, either.

“There’s some political differences between the Temple and the Sanctuary,” said Erskine, and turned to Moribund. “He’s right though. Hopeless said you would be able to help us track the Remnants.”

“Not how you’re thinking,” Moribund said. “I don’t use magic like the necromancers. I just know how Remnants think, and what they want.”

“How do you know that?” Baritone demanded, but to a man the Dead Men sighed, half-laughing.

“Of course Hopeless would send us a psychologist to help capture the psychopathic ghosts,” Erskine said. “You studied them after Kerry?”

“I was at Kerry.”

“Well, then, make yourself useful,” said Erskine with that indulgent amiability he had when talking about Hopeless or Hopeless’s field of study. “What are the Remnants going to do next?”

“Probably regroup,” said Moribund. “It isn’t every day they come up against someone who can kill them.”

Everyone looked at Wreath. He tilted his head in an uncanny mimicry of Skulduggery, his gaze somewhere over Moribund’s shoulder. He wore an odd smile, not quite vindictive and not quite amused.

“I like to think of it as putting them out of their misery.”

“But you could do it again?”

“I’d really,” said Wreath, “really rather not.” Ghastly thought he was purposefully not looking in Skulduggery’s direction. “But, yes, I could do it again.”

Moribund nodded. “Then they won’t care. They’ll regroup and come after you in force. What happened to the people they were in, upstairs?”

The expression of amused but tired curiosity froze on the Taoiseach’s face. Ide Kavanagh’s went brittle.

“Most of them are alive.”

“But you had to kill them to get the Remnants out, didn’t you?”

“You know a lot about how this works,” Wreath observed. Ghastly was wondering the same thing himself. If Moribund was old enough to see Kerry … well, he could be old enough to have seen Vile too. Some sorcerers had stayed neutral through the war.

Moribund rolled right over whatever implication Wreath was making. “Would you do that again? Kill the people they’re in, to kill the Remnants? Risk leaving them dead?”

“More to the point,” said Wreath, “would any of the people here let me?”

“No,” said Ghastly before the last word was out.

“Absolutely not,” Erskine said at the same time.

“Please don’t.” Skulduggery’s voice was very, very quiet.

Wreath smiled grimly. “There you are, then. You think the Remnants will bank on collateral damage to come after me?”

“Remnants,” said Moribund, “aren’t as self-aware as they like to think. They crave connection, but they flaunt the fact they’re essentially immortal. They’d sacrifice anyone they possess if it meant getting rid of something they perceive as a threat.”

“What if they get it?” Skulduggery asked.

“Get what?”

“Connection.”

There was a brittle pause and then Minister Kavanagh snapped: “If you’re suggesting –”

“I’m not.”

“Then why ask?”

“Because,” said Skulduggery, “one of my brothers has been possessed by one, and yet he claims to be trying to help. I want to know whether or not we should believe him.”

“You’re a skeleton,” said Minister Kavanagh flatly.

“Yes.”

“But you have brothers.”

“Quite.”

“He could be telling the truth,” said Moribund. “But only to the limits of his ability to understand the concept, now that he’s possessed.”

“What does that mean?” Ghastly demanded, and a shiver went down his spine when Moribund looked at him. The man was … very calm. Too calm. Chillingly calm.

“He’s a Remnant. Remnants tend to think their state of being is the better kind. He’s on your side, but he’s going to want you to be on his, too. He’ll want you to be improved, the way he thinks he’s been.”

“The way he thinks he’s been?” Wreath murmured. “That’s interesting.”

Moribund shrugged with a vague sort of irritation, as if they were being ridiculously slow, and some of the eeriness eased. “People who lack emotion find it hard to make decisions. That’s why the Remnants only ever make the same ones. It’s too hard to try to make others. It’s too hard to consider whether or not they can. They’re blinded by what they consider the superior state of being.”

“Now they’re people, I see,” Wreath said.

“Psychopaths do exist, Mr Wreath.” For some reason the lack of a title made Wreath smile, despite the deliberate insult in the lack of it. “They have a lot in common with Remnants.”

“What’s your recommendation, then?” asked the Taoiseach. “Ordinary psychopaths – and I realise as I say those words that they indicate I may watch too many American crime shows – ordinary psychopaths can’t move from possessing one person to another. They are, essentially, holding hostages.”

“What’s your policy on dealing with people who take hostages?”

“We’re diverting from the point,” said Skulduggery.

“Really?” said Minister Kavanagh with asperity. Ghastly was fairly sure she hadn’t taken her gaze off him once. That was one very minor thing which made him appreciate being friends with a living skeleton. When the scarf came off, Skulduggery got more stares than he did. “It seems to me that figuring out how to save the hosts is an important step in not killing everyone.”

“No, Skulduggery’s right,” said Wreath, as it he hadn’t been the cause of the tangent in the first place. “The hosts will be saved as soon as the Remnants are pulled into the soul-catcher. To have a soul-catcher, the wards need to be finished both here and at the Midnight Hotel. The question we should be asking is: how much time do we have before the Remnants come after me en mass, and how much time do we have until the soul-catcher is ready, and how much do they overlap?”

“That’s three questions, Wreath,” Erskine told him as he got out his phone. “I’d have thought a four-hundred-year-old cleric of the Temple would know how to count. Hello, Saracen is in full form.” His phone started vibrating before he pressed a speed-dial. The jingle of ‘I will survive’ was incongruously appropriate, and a few people let out a startled (hysterical) laugh as Erskine answered the call. “You’re on speaker.”

“You have half an hour before the Remnants decide to leave us and go after you,” said Saracen. Erskine paused. Everyone paused.

“Thank you, Rue,” said Erskine. “That’s very helpful. Show off.”

“It’s my lot in life, Ravel. You’ve got about an hour before they get there.”

“That’s still the second question unanswered,” Wreath murmured.

Erskine ignored him to ask, “How long until the Hotel is ready?”

There was a slight, and rather intimidating, pause. “Actually, we don’t know.”

“You don’t know?!” Erskine demanded incredulously, his voice rising a tad at the end. Ghastly remembered the frazzled expression he’d carried in his eyes before Ghastly took over managing the standoff, and squeezed his shoulder. Still, it was a disturbing thought. Saracen and Hopeless always knew.

The squeeze reminded Erskine where he was, and he managed to pull in the frazzle with a shake of his head, rubbing his face. “Why don’t you know?”

“We’ve lost contact with the Tír,” said Saracen simply. “Whatever’s happening over there has taken out the comms tower. We’re dark.”

“Then we’re wasting time,” said Skulduggery. “We need to be able to hold under siege for however long we have to. And we need someone trustworthy to go to the Tír to get intel.” He paused. “That would be me.”

“Skulduggery –” Ghastly began.

“I’m the only one the Remnant on the Tír won’t be able to possess, Ghastly.”

“That seems like a pretty important trait to have here,” pointed out Minister Kavanagh.

“Luckily, you have Wreath. He currently seems to be rather difficult to possess too.”

That wasn’t why Skulduggery was volunteering to leave, Ghastly knew. He was volunteering to leave because, with him gone, Wreath would be able to use his magic without causing another potentially cataclysmic draw between the two. With him gone, Wreath would be able to kill the possessed, and might even be able to save them after.

It wasn’t a good solution. But it was an emergency one, and they’d just hit emergency.

Minister Kavanagh was still arguing, but Erskine looked at Ghastly, the frazzle replaced by tired resignation, and said nothing. Nor did Wreath, or the necromancers. They’d never objected to collateral dead.

The argument ended when Fletcher appeared in the middle of them with that wide-eyed look of someone who was still trying to catch up with events their body was involved in without their understanding. He didn’t even glance around to see who was nearby, who’d seen him teleport, who swore and jumped back.

“Roarhaven?” he asked, and in contrast to his eyes, his tone was even.

“Yes, please,” said Skulduggery, painfully polite, as if reminding himself of the value of basics like courtesy.

“If the bridge is still down you’re going to get stuck under the hill,” said Fletcher.

“That’s okay. I’ve been stuck under hills before. But I don’t think it is.” Without explaining this assertion, Skulduggery put his skeletal hand on Fletcher’s shoulder and nodded toward the rest of them in a friendly manner, flames turning the inside of his eye-sockets into dancing shadows. “Tally-ho.”

Chapter Text

The Tír really was a lovely work of art. In ordinary circumstances, China would be more inclined to appreciate lovely works of art, but she was beginning to suspect the Tír would never be more than a sore in her pride. She hadn’t known it existed, and now she was being forced to adhere to its rules.

Still, she managed some degree of appreciation as she strode through the Green and up to the main tower, and she appreciated knowing she could still make heads turn simply by walking past.

She was less appreciative of the guards trailing her, but it was better than being murdered by Dead Men, she supposed – and far better than being guarded by Shudder. Fortunately, Shudder was still a rational man and understood there was no point in them both abandoning the wards while the other reported, and too overprotective of his Hotel to leave her there alone.

It was worth the unexpected stab of irritation at his lack of trust for an hour’s freedom from his watchful eye. Precisely as things should be, too. Only a fool trusted China Sorrows.

Yet she still felt irritated, and it took some degree of effort to keep that from her stride as she moved out of the sigil-circle toward the tower door. She paused, turning a sweet smile on one of the guards behind her. “Do get the door, won’t you, dear?”

Luckily for her, in the chaos of the situation no one had thought to assign guards who had already met her and had some degree of resistance to her charms; an oversight she intended to reap for all it was worth, and possibly fling in Shudder’s face, later.

One of the guards turned beet-red and hurried forward to open the door. The other was more suspicious, but that didn’t matter. China swept forward through the door as soon as it was open, and her helper tried to follow as quickly as the guard did.

They tangled at the door and China walked faster, ignoring the shout for her to stop. People looked around; she ignored them too, and didn’t run as she headed directly toward the elevators. She slipped into one just as the doors closed, and smiled dazzlingly at the woman at the buttons who was craning her head to see the running guards outside.

“Level three, please, dear.”

The woman’s eyes glazed. “Uh – sure.”

The lift took them up three floors and China stepped out, walking without hesitation down the hall and around the corner. She passed offices with glass walls and doors with security locks on them, and kept walking – with intent, naturally, as if she belonged there – until she found the stairs.

China took them up instead of down. They would expect her to go down, and keep going down, until she reached the bottom. It was far too obvious an escape. No, when one wanted to affect an escape, one went straight to the person who could make the escape permanent: the leader. As much authority as Deuce carried, he didn’t govern the Tír.

The route upstairs had not changed since she visited during the attack by rogue Children of the Spider. Given what sorts of things Ravel apparently liked in his city, and the ways he refused to let policies perform to a logical order, China wouldn’t have been surprised had the walls shifted.

When she reached the top floor, as before, China strode toward the entrance to the governor’s office as if she was meant to be there. Since she did, in fact, have a reason for being there, the effect was entirely convincing. No one knew why she was there, but that was a detail she wasn’t going to quibble over.

She smiled prettily at the receptionist, who blinked at her for a few seconds and only rose when China made to walk straight past, completely missing that China had taken a pen off the desk. “Hey! You need an appointment for the governor!”

“Oh, I’m sure she’ll see me,” said China with a dazzling smile at the guards stepping forward. It was enough to delay them, at least – never more than enough to delay them, on this cursed city – so that China could slip through the door. She trusted enough in Ravel’s paranoia not to turn immediately after closing them, but used the pilfered pen to sketch a blocking sigil on the handle, moments before it rattled.

“There. Now we’ll have some time to ourselves.”

China turned already in the middle of another dazzling smile, and saw her brother standing, eyebrow raised, by the window. It was inconceivable, but for just a moment China’s guard lapsed and she sighed. “I may have to convert to Catholicism.”

At this rate, only the presence of a higher power could not only make sure she was still alive after the run of mistakes she had been making, but laugh at her by sending her brother to witness the last of them. (And it would be the last of them. China would make sure of that.)

“Sister,” said Bliss. “How nice of you to join us uninvited.”

“I tend to believe my presence would be appreciated anywhere, Bliss.” Still uninvited, China stepped away from the door, pocketing the pen, and took a seat in one of the armchairs around the governor’s desk. She inclined her head regally at the dark-skinned woman sitting opposite, turned more toward Bliss at the window than China herself. “Governor Chiabuoto.”

“Ms Sorrows,” Adaeze Chiabuoto said, as though she was observing the fact instead of greeting the person. China let it pass. “Are the wards progressing so badly that you needed to barge into my office?”

China let that pass too. The situation wasn’t optimal with Bliss there, but at least Bliss she knew how to manipulate. He hadn’t known about the Tír a week ago – she was sure of it. That meant his presence was a matter of desperation on Hopeless’s part, and that meant Bliss would still be acclimatising to the situation.

China knew Bliss. He wasn’t going to see the city as the opportunity China did. Outliers, in his opinion, were to be squashed.

“I have a proposition for you,” she said pleasantly.

“I see. You must be desperate, then.”

Curse her for – well, having basic observational skills. China shrugged. “When I’m being pushed, I try not to waste too much time.”

“And who is pushing you?”

Curse her again. “There’s a list,” China said dryly. “You’re on it, by proxy, which makes this whole situation rather amusing, because I’m here to ask for sanctuary.”

Chiabuoto’s eyebrows lifted. Bliss turned away from the window to offer the same look with only one. China didn’t glance his way, but watched Chiabuoto patiently until the governor asked: “May I ask why?”

“If you like.”

If China wasn’t mistaken, Chiabuoto’s mouth twitched. “Why?”

“Because,” said China, “the Dead Men are at the top of the list, and while they’re fairly willing to work with me for the moment, I can’t imagine that won’t change at the slightest provocation.”

“You mean if you do something immoral or illegal,” said Chiabuoto. China shrugged gracefully and smiled without answering, and Chiabuoto didn’t press. For a few moments she looked out the window, past Bliss, who said nothing. Then Chiabuoto looked back at China. “No.”

China frowned delicately. She had to admit, she hadn’t quite expected that. It had been a possibility, of course, but not quite an expectation. With Bliss in the room she couldn’t unleash the full extent of her magic, but she released a tendril of it, not enough to notice. “May I ask why?”

“If you like,” said Chiabuoto, and China carefully squashed the urge to smile long before it reached her lips.

“Why? It has been my understanding that refuges are practically obliged to take in those seeking asylum. Especially at this time of year.”

“With all due respect, Ms Sorrows,” said Chiabuoto, “Tír Tairngire isn’t a soup kitchen; it’s a city. We have population limits. It is true we have an intake of immigrants whose lives would be prolonged or enhanced by coming here, but it isn’t an unequal exchange. They are expected to obey our laws and enter into our workforce, and become citizens.” She folded her hands across her lap and held China’s gaze calmly, as if China wasn’t working subtle magic on her, as if she, a mortal woman, had more power than China did in this moment. China hated the fact that she was right. “I do not believe that you are actively seeking to become a citizen of the city, Ms Sorrows. We’re just a convenience – or a deterrence – to you.”

It was China’s turn to be silent, thoughtful, looking out the window; but this time Bliss broke the quiet.

“This hasn’t been a good day for you, has it, Sister?”

“No,” said China, “it hasn’t.”

But she had thrown herself at the mercy of others before. Meritorious had been at a disadvantage at the time; she’d been able to talk him down to letting her go, allowing her neutrality. Chiabuoto, China suspected, would be a tougher sell. Why wouldn’t she be? She was a woman, and she was a mortal who had ruled over sorcerers for nearly a decade.

But she was only mortal. Her term of service was going to end soon. And papers got lost, things changed … China was patient. As much as had happened to the city of late, China suspected its laws and political system hadn’t truly been tested since its inception.

She looked at Chiabuoto. “I want to become a citizen,” she said, “with everything that means. I shall, of course, accept whatever restrictions you choose to impose for any probation period.” The less she resisted, the laxer they would be. She smiled. “After all, the Dead Men are as bound by the laws here as I would be, are they not?”

“As you are,” Chiabuoto corrected. China remembered the fine and let it pass. Chiabuoto looked thoughtful, which was a step in the right direction. “This will be moot if we aren’t able to stop the Remnants,” said Chiabuoto. “Let us deal with that situation first. Then we’ll speak in more detail.”

Good enough. China inclined her head. “Of course. Thank you, Governor.” She rose and bowed, and held out her hands to Bliss with a sweet smile. “Brother, if your business here is concluded, would you care to escort me downstairs?”

Bliss gave her an inscrutable look and then turned to Chiabuoto. “Are we content, Governor?”

“We are,” said Chiabuoto. “As soon as we’ve compiled a cost of the damages incurred by the Remnant, we’ll give them to you to be presented to the Irish Grand Mage. In the meantime, we would appreciate it if you could escort Ms Sorrows to the precinct and then back to the Midnight Hotel.”

So that was what Bliss was there for – political maintenance. China wondered which Remnant they were talking about; the one loose in the city, or the one in Vex.

“While you’re there,” Chiabuoto added, “she might be asked to review another project – but it shouldn’t take precedence over the Hotel.”

“Project?” China asked.

“The communications system has been damaged,” said Chiabuoto. “Under the circumstances, if you’ve any suggestions for temporary shortcuts, they won’t be ignored.”

“I see.” China smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Bliss bowed to Chiabuoto and silently offered his arm to China. She took it, ignored the twinge of nostalgia, and said nothing until they were out of the office and in the hall.

“What do you think of Ravel’s little secret, then?” she asked cheerfully. Bliss didn’t immediately answer, which was practically an answer in itself. He gazed around at the walls and windows they passed, his expression opaque. China continued, “It’s practically a marvel of engineering and subterfuge, don’t you think? One wonders how many people he’s had to con and manipulate over the years. They seem happy enough, I suppose, though I wonder how long the mortals will last, knowing they’re inferior –”

“Enough,” said Bliss, but China laughed; a clear fluting sound that made heads turn even in rooms adjacent. “It’s – an achievement.”

“If that’s the most you can say,” said China, “you must really disapprove.”

He didn’t answer, but he didn’t deny it, and China hummed an idle melody as they approached the elevators. Bliss didn’t take the first, even though there was space; nor did he take the next. Instead he waited until an empty one became available, and waited until they were inside before speaking.

“It’s an exercise in futility. Such a venture will never last.”

“It’s been a century already.”

“It’s still young,” Bliss countered. “The laws are still new. The leaders still abide by them. In another century, or two, they will be forgotten.”

“Sorcerers’ memories are long,” China pointed out. “One might think having the benefit of longevity would be enough of a reminder. Or is there something else to which you object?”

Bliss looked at her then, with those peaceful eyes which hadn’t given her chills even back then, but still made her want to quail. She never did, of course.

“No,” he said.

“You’re lying,” China said, and smiled. “How delightful, brother, dear. Tell me – who told you about it before you arrived?”

He didn’t even deny that, either. “Elder Kerias.”

China took note of that name. A small-minded woman with big enough dreams to make it into a leading political position; but, like many American sorcerers, rather blinded by hubris. China was aware that coming from her that might almost be hypocrisy, but only to someone who didn’t realise that China wasn’t blinded by anything related to her capabilities.

“How interesting,” she murmured, and meant the original definition of the word. “What did she want?”

“She wished to ensure I would consider the threat to Ireland,” said Bliss.

“Thereby putting it in your head that there is a threat, of course.” He didn’t answer, and China laughed again. “Honestly, Bliss. You’d think a kitten was threatening.”

“Their claws hurt,” said Bliss, which was, of course, ridiculous given that he couldn’t feel them; so China kept laughing and Bliss added over the sound of it: “I presume this is where the Edgleys were brought?”

“Missing your golfing partners?” China asked with a brilliant smile. “Yes, and as I understand it, they’ve been involved in events thus far. Something about a kidnapping.”

The elevator rumbled to a halt, but China reached out and held the doors-closing sigil, looking up at Bliss. “Do you honestly think the Tír is such a threat?”

“Don’t you?” Bliss asked, his giant fingers taking her delicate wrist and shifting her hand so the doors dinged open. He strode out and waited for her, clearing a space in the crowd waiting to enter. After a moment China followed, thoughtful, and took his arm again.

“That begs the question,” she murmured beneath the hubbub. “What do you intend to do about it?”

Bliss didn’t answer before they arrived at the precinct, but China didn’t need one. If she wasn’t mistaken, Kerias may just have delivered into her hands the means to save herself.

Chapter Text

It was dark. Dark enough that Valkyrie couldn’t see the close walls, but that didn’t matter. She knew they were there, and had to take deep breaths to try and keep herself from thinking of anything but, let alone on ways to get them out.

What’s happening out there? was one of those thoughts, but it wasn’t very helpful. In fact, it was spectacularly unhelpful, because it made her want to panic about things she couldn’t change.

Fact one: she was stuck in a narrow, lightless hall with a quivering unethical scientist. What could she do about that?

For one thing, you can summon a ball of fire.

“I’m stupid,” she said aloud to break the near-silence, and snapped her fingers. The light that flared showed the back of the stone statue plugging the exit, and Julian hunched on the floor beside it, his arms wrapped around his legs. He lifted his head, his face ashen, and Valkyrie felt a pang of sympathy. If she’d been tied up in a dark narrow hall with no one to hear, she wouldn’t like being closed in either.

You don’t like being closed in.

Shut up, Cain.

Next things next. Now she had light, she ought to investigate the exit. Which Valkyrie moved to do, stepping past Julian and peering closely at the seam. Experimentally she pushed it with a hand, but it didn’t move – not that she expected it to.

“Can you do magic?” she asked Julian, but he shook his head quickly. That mean she couldn’t ask him to make a light; damn. Valkyrie exhaled slowly and stepped back. “I’m turning out the light.”

“Don’t –” Julian started, his voice edged with panic, but Valkyrie had already closed her fist and put them back into darkness. She heard Julian whimper, but ignored him. Deep breaths; in, out. Then Valkyrie put out her hands, moving her fingers slowly. The air moved against the stone, feeling it out, finding little cracks and crannies.

“Please turn the light back on.”

“Shush.”

The stone wasn’t flush – not quite. Most of the Tír was built of stone because it didn’t go rotten, didn’t require constant upkeep; but here, this wall, was timber. The boards had buckled, gotten loose. She didn’t need to get through the stone – just the wall. There wasn’t a whole lot of space in the hall to generate a good blow, even with magic, but the wall would still be easier to buckle.

“I really, really need the light back on.”

“Wouldn’t you rather get out?” Valkyrie asked, trying to keep her voice reasonable.

“I don’t care,” Julian babbled, and this time Valkyrie heard the hysteria. “I don’t care, I just – I really need the light back on.”

For a moment she hesitated. She couldn’t get them out with the flame on; she couldn’t use two magics at once. But Julian didn’t seem to know how panic worked, either. Valkyrie dropped her hands and found him in the movement of air, and could hear the rasp of his quick breaths.

“You need to breathe,” she said quietly.

“I’m – trying –”

“Not like that. Like this.” Valkyrie found his hands, still bound, and put them on her chest. She took a deep breath and tapped one-two on his arm, and breathed out again, with another one-two. She’d seen Anton do it on Rover before. After a couple of breaths she heard Julian try to follow, pulling in air and letting it shakily out every time Valkyrie did. After a little while, he didn’t need her help.

“I can get us out,” Valkyrie said, “but I need to use the air, and I can’t do that while I’ve got a fire lit. Just – keep doing that, and you’ll be okay until we’re out, okay?”

Valkyrie felt Julian nod and gave him back his hands, and got up to go to the walls. Now all she had to do was find the best place to break through.

“You know what would be really useful right now?” Valkyrie said aloud to no one in particular, not expecting Julian to answer. Her hands drifted across the boards, feeling out the tension in them. “A pokémon. They’re cute, they’re cuddly, they fit in your pocket, and just one of them could break down this wall like kindling.”

There. Some of the boards moved. She used her fingernails to pry at them, testing how loose they were. Two of them came away from their beam. Valkyrie exhaled and stepped back, her hand resting on the wall.

“Personally,” she said, and stepped again. Her hand left the wall, still pointed directly at the weak point; her other arm came back, aligned with her hip as she sank back on her heel. “I would choose totodile.”

With a grunt she shifted her weight forward, thrusting her rear hand at the wall. The fragile boards splintered under the pulse of air with a crack, and Valkyrie’s face stung from flying chips. She shifted her weight again, taking one step, and her other hand thrust forward with another pulse. The wall cracked, and dust rose up as the boards clattered to the floor.

Valkyrie coughed and waved the dust away. Dim light came through the hole, that grey kind which was still dark and only looked like light because it was even darker where she was. But she could see enough to see the jagged edges, and levered them away, breaking away pieces to make a bigger hole.

“You know,” she heard Julian’s shaky voice waft up behind her, “there’s a couple of researchers who think they might be onto something there, with the creatures in the Tír’s home dimension.”

“Sure,” said Valkyrie without turning, tossing a length of wood down the corridor. “Sign me up for uncertain death and diplomatic discussions with dragons. Can you walk?”

“I think so.”

She heard shuffling and glanced over her shoulder long enough to see Julian approaching unsteadily, and then turned her attention to the hole. Neither of them were big; they’d fit.

“Stay here until I’ve cleared the area,” Valkyrie said, and ducked her head to squeeze through. Some sharp timber edges scraped her back, but she was wearing her Bespoke coat and they broke away instead. She stepped out into the larger room with one hand extended, breathing evenly and feeling the air. Scapegrace’s equipment sat as dusty silhouettes at the far end, but she couldn’t feel any movement; not around the pillars, and not at the door.

“Clear,” Valkyrie called over her shoulder, but she was still cautious as she went to the slats at the far end, and peered through them. The church below was empty.

“We need to warn them about the bomb,” said Julian, the first part muffled and the second part clear as he squeezed into the room, stumbling before he caught himself on a pillar.

“Right.” Valkyrie reached for her phone and started to find Corrival’s number, and then stopped. No signal. Her gut clenched. “Outside,” she said, turning. “I’ll have signal outside.”

She hoped. If they’d got the comms service working again. If not, she couldn’t see any way they would get to the Tower in time to warn the precinct not to let Stray anywhere near it.

Warn. Fast.

Things clicked together in Valkyrie’s head and she spun again, this time toward Julian. “Where’s Xun?”

“Who?” Julian asked blankly.

“The officer the Remnant was in before Scapegrace, and after you. Where is he?”

Scapegrace was the one who liked churches, so it was possible Xun was hidden somewhere else after the Remnant switched; but Remnants liked being in control, too, and this was a place Julian had known about beforehand. Maybe Xun was somewhere here. Somewhere close. Valkyrie’s heart skipped a beat.

Maybe my parents are too.

She took a breath. Not now. Wherever they were, they were – probably – safe. Stray could destroy the tower at any minute, and Xun would get there fastest.

Julian was hesitating. That was good. It meant there was something he wanted to hide.

“Xun’s magic is speed,” Valkyrie said as calmly as she could manage. “Stray’s about to blow up the tower. If Xun’s here, he can get there before we can. If he’s here and you don’t tell me where, I’ll make damn sure everyone knows that you didn’t tell me something that could stop the governor from being killed.”

Even with the paleness of fear, Valkyrie was sure Julian had gone whiter. He licked his lips. “Downstairs. In the basement.”

Are my parents there too?

“Thanks.” Valkyrie shot him with her stun-gun and caught him as he fell, her hands trembling. Quickly she made sure that his feet were tied and then ran toward the stairs, her boots pounding on creaky steps. She nearly tumbled, but held her hand out like the air running under it were a counter, keeping her stable.

The door at the bottom of the stairs was closed. Valkyrie didn’t slow down, but as she took a step she thrust her hand out from her hip, and air blew the door off its hinges. Debris rained down over the sheet-covered furniture, and into Valkyrie’s hair as she ran through it.

This door was on one side of the church. Buildings had patterns. If the attic stairwell was on the right, then the basement would be –

Valkyrie tore into the church and the officers on guard shouted in surprise; but Valkyrie bolted past them toward the door further along the same wall. Her breath rasped in her lungs; she breathed from her gut instead. Through the door was another half-filled room with stacks against the far wall – recent ones, judging by the dust.

“Ma’am!”

“Senior Officer Xun is behind that door,” Valkyrie snapped, and raised her hands, taking deep breaths. She’d never done this before. Not with both hands at once. But she could see how the objects were stacked, the seams between them. Valkyrie took a battle stance and breathed out, pushed her hands out from her hips, feeling the thrust of air between all the cracks. The furniture jolted and Valkyrie stepped forward, pushing her hands apart, and the furniture shot in opposite directions, crashing into other stacks and thudding to the floor.

But it bared the door. Valkyrie brought up a hand like it was sliding over a surface, felt the door tremble from the air skating over it, felt the hinges rattle. She stepped again and her other hand thrust forward, palm open. The hinges burst. The door sagged with a resigned groan.

Valkyrie found herself panting and buzzing with adrenaline, and her knees were shaky as she came to the door. She felt movement behind her and glanced over her shoulder; one of the Guard was still by the door, watching the church’s main room, but the other flanked Valkyrie by the door and gave her a nod.

Exhale. Inhale. That was all Valkyrie gave herself. Then she raised her hands again to feel the air. There was nothing she could sense in the stairwell. It was dark, though, and smelled musty and metallic, like sealed rooms did. Cautiously Valkyrie squeezed through the opening and down the stairs, taking them as fast as she could without being stupid about it. The nameless guard turned on her light, sending it over Valkyrie’s shoulder so they could see their way.

Before she’d made the final step, Valkyrie could feel the movement of air from breathing – multiple people breathing. It made her heart thud, but still Valkyrie didn’t move any faster. Not until she was sure the room was clear, there were no traps.

The guard’s light shone over pipes and metal, and boxes, and formless shapes which could have been anything until one lifted their head. Valkyrie’s father blinked at her, and then his eyes widened and he grunted through the gag wrapped around his mouth. The thing Valkyrie wanted most in the world was to run over, to untie him and hug him and tell him how sorry she was that she let this happen.

Not yet. Not yet.

The Guard went one way and Valkyrie went the other, stepping cautiously through the dank room until:

“Clear.”

“Clear.”

The Guard turned toward the stairs, stun-rifle on the entrance and turning to speak into the radio at her shoulder. Valkyrie made a bee-line for Xun, who sat very still as she fumbled for the gag. Her hands were shaking too much to trust that she wouldn’t cut him if she used air magic, but the knot was too tight and she hissed. Xun grunted and indicated her with his head.

“What?”

“There should be a knife in your vest,” the Guard called. “Standard issue. Front pocket, waist.”

“Oh, thank God.” Valkyrie found the pocket and wrenched the zip open, and flicked open the knife. Xun held still as she slid it behind his ear and the gag parted easily beneath the blade. “Myron Stray has a bomb,” she said, leaning down to free his feet. “If he lets it go, it’ll kill everyone within a mile radius. He’s been ordered with his true-name to let it go once he’s reached the precinct. Corrival’s taking him there.”

The moment Xun’s feet were free, before Valkyrie cut the rope binding his arms behind his back, Xun shot away, leaving a gust of air behind him.

That was it. That was all Valkyrie could do. She exhaled and inhaled again, and looked down at her hands. There was no way she was cutting her parents free like this. She wasn’t completely sure she’d avoided cutting Xun.

Valkyrie turned and went to the guard, holding out the knife. “I’ll watch the door,” she said. “Can you please –” A lump grew suddenly in her throat, and her voice came out raw. “They’re my parents.”

The guard looked at her hands and nodded. “I’ll do it. Emergency team should be here soon, and we’ll get everyone sorted.”

She took the knife and Valkyrie took another deep breath, and fell into a resting stance which kept her palm toward the door, feeling for any movement. She’d barely glanced at her parents. She hadn’t even given them a smile. She didn’t think she could manage without breaking down, and she wasn’t finished with the job yet.

But God damn it, no one was going to get to them again while she was standing there.

Chapter Text

The guards on the dock waved the go-ahead, and Corrival turned, taking point down the gangplank. The ferry was the long way to get anywhere, but there was no telling what would happen if the Engine went through one of the circles. Corrival stopped on the edge of the dock and waited while Stray followed, surrounded by watchful guards without trigger fingers. If Stray’s grip loosened, they were dead. Even now Corrival figured the man’s hand must be cramping, held in place only because of the true-name order. If they were unlucky, they’d have to bank on that to give them a few extra split seconds.

If they were lucky, it wouldn’t come to that.

“Clear the street ahead,” Corrival ordered, and the escort went on, clearing their portable roadblocks and carrying them on toward the Tower. It would take them a few minutes to stop traffic. That was fine. Stray was moving slowly, his face still twisted and beaded with sweat. In the past, when Corrival had occasion to think of the man, he’d felt sorry for him; Stray was a sleaze of an informant, but no one deserved to have their being ripped apart for no good reason besides spite.

Now Corrival looked at the man and wondered whether this was what Hopeless felt: a spark of heroism in men rubbed raw.

He waited where he was until Stray came abreast of him, then fell into step, frowning. Stray really was moving slow. It was like every step took something out of him. Corrival didn’t remember him having this much trouble moving earlier, in the church. He could’ve been fighting his orders, like he’d been fighting them before – and wasn’t that the damndest thing Corrival had ever seen – but something still felt off.

If Stray had been ordered to get to the Tower, wouldn’t he have already been trying?

How explicit could true-name orders get, anyway, before they got too complicated?

Stray’s gaze flickered nervously to the side. His eyes were still wide, the expression of a man clinging desperately to some kind of hope, trying to send some kind of message.

“Think you can move faster?” Corrival suggested, and Stray’s head shook violently, but his gaze never moved. Pointedly. Corrival’s gut lurched.

How intelligent were true-name orders? If they, say, stopped, would that trigger a failsafe the Remnant had put into them?

Damn it.

Corrival whistled to catch the attention of one of the scouts. “Slow it down a bit,” he said. “Energy conservation, and all that.”

Let’s keep it conserved in the Engine for as long as possible.

Progress slowed to a crawl. The precinct was going to get a load of complaints from commuters about this, but in the moment, Corrival didn’t particularly care. It wasn’t like they were wasting petrol hereabouts.

He checked his phone. Still no bars. How long did it take to fix a system made only of sigils, anyway?

“How fast is your fastest?” Corrival asked the team lead, one of the emergency responders. Vet, his name was. Corrival was pretty sure it was short for something taken from some book series or another. Vetinarti, or something.

“Xun’s the only speedster in special response,” Vet answered, as quietly as Corrival had asked. “I’m a Sensitive, though. What are we worried about?”

‘We’, without even knowing what the trouble might be. Corrival appreciated that. He appreciated men who threw in their lot with those in the same boat.

“If we stop,” said Corrival, “what’s the likelihood of us blowing up?”

Vet said nothing for a moment, but his eyes flickered. “Pretty much certain.”

“Right. Well, we’re not going to stop. We’re just going to walk very, very slowly.”

“Not too slowly, I hope,” Vet murmured.

“You set the pace, then,” said Corrival. “Take lead, and send your fastest ahead.”

Vet paused. “I’ll take lead, but I think we should all stick together.”

Corrival said a very old and very rude Irish word. “Let’s do that, then. And if you happen to notice anything which might change our odds, for God’s sake, don’t hold it in.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Vet, straight-faced. “I don’t believe in gods.”

Corrival let out a bark of a laugh, thinking of sorcerers, and faithful, and Faceless Ones trying to rip holes in their dimension. “Not even if they believe in you?”

Especially not if they believe in me.” Vet strode ahead before Corrival could figure out an answer to that, or stop chuckling long enough to do so. If he was getting the mirthfuls, that was bad. It meant there was a limit lurking not far ahead.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Corrival muttered, which was effectively souring enough that the urge to laugh passed. True-name orders couldn’t get so complicated, surely. Too much risk of contradicting itself by accident. But Julian had known about Pandora’s orb, and the orb was supposed to do things with names …

Corrival wasn’t terribly fond of that thought, but there it was.

They almost made it to the Green when there was a yelp behind him, and by the time Corrival turned around Officer Xun had appeared in front of him. He was breathing hard and his hands were tied behind his back, and he was leaving a scattered blood trail behind him from an unseen wound on his ankle. “Sir –”

“Hello, Senior Officer Xun,” said Corrival, and turned back to continue walking. His chest loosened a touch, accompanied with a wash of fierce pride. Cain had damn well better have a story to tell after this. “Nice to see you alive and free.” Up ahead, Vet glanced over his shoulder and made the FUBAR sign.

“Sir –”

“We’re just taking a walk,” Corrival said agreeably. “Taking Stray to the precinct. A nice, long, leisurely walk. Maybe not the most scenic route, but we’d like to enjoy the trip, even if we can’t stop and smell the roses.”

Subtext finally smashed through adrenaline and Xun inhaled sharply.

“Of course,” Corrival continued, “if you’re going to get bored and want to slip off ahead when our guest won’t notice, and let someone know we’re coming, I’m not going to object. Just, uh – don’t take too long.”

Up ahead, Vet turned sharply and held up two fingers. Two minutes. Two minutes after Xun left until Stray would notice him gone.

Two minutes was a long time on a battlefield.

“Be even better if you brought someone back,” Corrival added, “to join us on our nice, long, walk. Someone special, maybe. I’m an old man. I’ve got to make my opportunities with the time I’ve got left.”

“Sir.” Xun’s face was terse. Probably the rope around his hands had something to do with that. Corrival reached behind him and flicked his finger at the rope, and it cut under a tiny blade of air. Xun shook out his hands and stretched his shoulders, and glanced behind him.

It took another fifty feet before Xun vanished from beside Corrival. They had passed down an alley in the inner circle and came out on the main road around the Fiddler’s Green, and before they’d finished crossing the empty street Xun was gone.

They weren’t far from the tower. Common sense dictated that Stray was ordered to wait until they were inside, but logic dictated that he’d detonate as soon as they were within a range to take the whole Tower. It wasn’t a mile tall. All Stray had to do was get close enough.

The trees cleared unexpectedly and Corrival’s heart leapt, for a moment thinking he’d misjudged the distance; but instead what rose in front of them was the Midnight Hotel, planted squarely on the foundation Ravel had ordered built for it. Corrival’s heart dropped, this time because all the tension in his gut diffused very suddenly into relief.

Midnight Hotel.

Midnight Hotel can move locations.

The door was open but Corrival could see no movement in it; and as they got closer he had to wonder how close to the tower the Hotel was. If Stray was ordered to go ahead and detonate as soon as they were in range … Corrival wished he’d examined the Green’s scale a little better.

Vet and the scout were a few feet from the door when Shudder stepped through, brushing his braid over his shoulder. His sleeves were rolled up, his fingers tipped with chalk-dust, and he didn’t look surprised to see them. Corrival noticed that he stepped away from the door before giving them a nod. “Deuce.”

“Shudder,” said Corrival in much the same tone, voice slightly raised, pace still ambling. “How’s the work going? Quick rundown, mind. We can’t stay for long.”

“Sorrows is off reporting to the precinct,” said Anton, and it was very strange, the way he stood just to the side of the door instead of in front of it – not even like someone trying to give them access. “There may be a slight hiccough.”

“What kind of hiccough?” Corrival demanded before remembering that he didn’t have time to find out, that this wasn’t his problem, that Sorrows was probably off figuring out a solution – unless she got blown up by Stray because he hadn’t figured out the current, far more pressing problem. “Never mi –”

He was turning as he said it, and that was why he could see Stray jerk in the same moment he heard Skulduggery call out from inside the Hotel. “Hello? Anton?”

There was a breeze and Anton leapt toward the door, but it had already slammed shut and the building sank into the ground faster than Corrival had ever seen it happen.

Corrival closed his eyes. His heart was pounding, but frankly, he didn’t want to look at that empty foundation. “Shudder? Did I just imagine Skulduggery being teleported into the Hotel?”

“No,” said Anton, his voice shaking. Corrival opened his eyes and turned a little more toward him, hands at the ready, but Anton took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, and when he spoke again his voice was even. “No. You didn’t.”

“And was that Xun stealing the Desolation Engine and using the Midnight Hotel to escape the Tír with it?”

“Yes,” said Anton.

“You recall what we were going to use the Midnight Hotel for?”

“I do.”

“And you remember that the Desolation Engine destroys everything within a specific radius?”

Anton closed his eyes. “Yes.”

“Good. Okay.” Corrival nodded. “Glad we could clear that up, then.”

He turned abruptly away from Shudder’s masonry team coming cautiously out of the trees across the other side of the foundation, using action to alleviate that burn in his eyes. His gut was tight but he felt wrung out and tired, because while they were still alive and would be for the foreseeable future, the cost was very nearly too high. He was too old for this sort of emotional whiplash.

“How’s Stray?” he asked instead, his voice gruff. No one could predict what would happen when a true-name order was abruptly no longer possible, but it usually wasn’t pretty.

“Alive, sir,” said one of Stray’s guards.

“Maybe,” muttered another.

So far Stray wasn’t attacking anyone, but he was gripping his head and shaking violently, a lot like Anton did when the gist was about to come out – but bent inward. His guards stood warily around him, one with her hand on his elbow. Corrival was fairly sure that was the only thing keeping him remotely upright.

If they were lucky, he’d only turn out to be a vegetable. Wouldn’t be any good for him, but it would save the rest of them from potential injury, death or having to kill Stray before he tried either of the first two.

“Right,” said Corrival with a sigh. “Let’s go, then.”

Corrival turned and the ground rumbled, and the Midnight Hotel started sprouting. Immediately the whole group backed up and lifted their weapons, or hands as the case may be; except for Stray, who collapsed, and Shudder, who strode forward.

The door opened before Anton reached it, and Skulduggery looked out, his skull angled in such a way as to suggest being somewhat miffed. “You tried to blow us up.”

“I did no such thing,” said Shudder.

“Yes, you did. There was a bomb in the Hotel.” Skulduggery shook his head. “Really, Anton. After all we’ve been through together. Have you been leading me on all this time?”

“Shut up.” Anton clapped a hand to Skulduggery’s shoulder and squeezed, looking past him into the Hotel. Corrival saw the tension go out of his back, and before Anton turned to nod at them, Corrival signalled the others to stand down.

“Xun?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s here,” said Skulduggery. “Half drowned, but he’s here. Fletcher’s getting very quick on the uptake these days. Though I suppose that’s natural, having spent all day dodging Remnants. Either way, the Desolation Engine is gone, and all that suffered for it was quite a lot of fish, or so I hear.”

“Pleasant –” Corrival shook his head helplessly, and only realised he was laughing when he opened his mouth to finish the sentence. “You have some sense of timing.”

“My sense of timing is perfect,” Skulduggery said with great dignity, adjusting his hat. “Where’s yours? For that matter, why is the Irish Bridge open again?”

“God if I know,” said Corrival, taking a breath. And then another. “Repeat that.”

“The Irish Bridge has been reopened,” Skulduggery repeated obligingly. “That wasn’t planned?” Corrival answered him with a long and lurid cursing, while Skulduggery waited patiently. “I’ll take that as a no.”

“What do you need?” It came out more strained than Corrival meant, but he left it out there. If the Bridge was reopened, there were Dire Implications; but they were Dire Implications that had to wait until the Dire Immediate Threat had been handled. There was only so much ‘Dire’ that could go on at once.

“I came to find out how long until the Hotel is ready,” Skulduggery told him, and the way his skull was angled indicated he was looking at Stray over Corrival’s shoulder. “From the looks of things, it might be a while yet. Communications troubles?”

“Tower went down,” said Corrival succinctly, because half the squad was in ear-distance and he did not want to bandy about the knowledge of a device which could manipulate names or sense souls.

“Ah.” Skulduggery paused. “I take it the cause is a need-to-know basis, because that’s taciturn even for you. Anton, how long until the Hotel is ready?”

“Perhaps another hour,” said Anton, “provided Sorrows gets back soon.”

“I’m sure she’d be flattered you need her help so much, Anton.”

Anton grunted and pushed Skulduggery back into the Hotel so he wasn’t blocking the doorway. Skulduggery stepped out a moment later, adjusting his hat and making space for the rest of the masonry team. That was the second time in less than a minute that he’d adjusted his hat, Corrival noticed, joining him a few feet away from the entrance. Skulduggery wasn’t in the habit of needing to adjust his hat unless he was compensating for something. “So,” said Skulduggery, “how can I help?”

“You can have Fletcher take Stray and Xun to the hospital,” said Corrival, “if the lad’s got the energy.”

Skulduggery hesitated. “Might be best to hold him back for more urgent situations.”

“Stray dying could count,” Corrival said grimly. From everything he’d heard, getting Stray’s help could well mean learning how to manipulate true-names, and if that was true, it was an edge they could use against Mevolent in so many ways. “If Renn’s taking Stray, he may as well take Xun.”

“I’m getting the distinct impression there’s something going on here which I don’t know,” Skulduggery said. “Okay. What else?”

He was being unusually helpful and willing to accept someone else’s orders. Corrival narrowed his eyes. “Why do I get the distinct impression you’re here for more than just the comm tower or to check whether the bridge was reopened?”

Skulduggery’s hands lifted toward his hat, stopped, fell. He said, “Wreath had to use the armour.”

… Oh. Corrival asked carefully, “So you’re here for the foreseeable future, then?”

“Well, unless you need me to run messages to safe locations,” said Skulduggery. “Otherwise, I may hang about and make sure China gets her work done like she’s supposed to. Any idea why Anton would like to kill her, by the way?”

“Shudder wants to kill everybody,” Corrival pointed out. “Status of the battlefield?”

“They’re going to be overrun in an hour, according to Saracen,” said Skulduggery, “but that was before he warned us about it. I don’t suppose there’s anything here which might help?”

“I’ll ask next time I’m downstairs,” Corrival said.

“When’s that going to be?”

Corrival checked his phone. Still no bars. “That depends on whether you’d like to go to a church over on Éire to check on Cain. Xun was supposed to have been kidnapped by a Remnant, so either she found him or something else is going down. Since he’s helping us, I’m assuming it’s the former, but her parents were kidnapped too, so there might still be work to do.”

Skulduggery didn’t answer right away, and it was only when Corrival looked up and saw the skeleton’s stillness that he remembered Skulduggery wouldn’t have known that.

“Des and Melissa were kidnapped?” Skulduggery asked, very quietly, and Corrival decided not to send him anywhere alone for a while.

“I’ll send someone along with you,” Corrival said, turning and motioning to a couple of the uniforms to catch their attention. “Give him a moment, then show him to St Thaddeus’s,” he told them.

Skulduggery’s chuckle came a beat too late, like he had to remind himself to laugh. “Hopeless had that one built, didn’t he?”

“Who else?” Corrival managed a smile. “Go tell Renn it’s time to start work again. I need to report in. When you’re done at St Thaddeus’s, you can look into the Bridge’s opening.”

Without waiting for a response Corrival moved back toward Vet to give out their orders before moving on to the Central Tower. They weren’t done yet, not by a long shot, but hopefully now they weren’t going to blow up in the near future.

Chapter Text

Waiting for the paramedics to arrive seemed interminably long. Valkyrie kept her focus on the entrance, even after she heard shuffling and quiet, tired, frightened voices. She was the only person on guard, and that meant she had to stay on guard, and that meant she couldn’t turn around and hug her parents ’til the cows came home no matter how much she wanted it.

Someone called down the stairs and she called up for them to enter. They came down with Officer Roosevelt’s partner, so Valkyrie stepped back to let them in, and just like that the room felt a lot smaller with the bustle and the people.

Finally, finally, Valkyrie let herself look at her parents.

Dad was rubbing Mum’s wrists and ankles, but stopped when the paramedics got close. He didn’t move away, though. He was pale and looked tired, and his eyes had that wideness Valkyrie remembered from the golf club. It wasn’t as bad as it had been, then. This time it was covered by worry, especially when he looked at Mum, which was always.

Mum was just as pale and tired, but she didn’t try to move around. She was sitting up, at least, which was something, but she kept pressing her hands to her belly in a way that made Valkyrie’s blood rush with adrenaline, before Valkyrie realised that the paramedics would be reacting a lot more grimly if Mum or the baby were hurt.

There was no room to go to them. Not with getting Mum on the leg-less gurney an Elemental lifted using air-magic, or the paramedics getting Dad to his feet. Maybe that was just as well; Valkyrie didn’t think she’d let go of them if she’d been able to get close.

She still felt disconnected as she turned to lead the way up. Her mind felt fogged, but her body went through the motions without needing any input from her brain. It went up the stairs and checked the area around, even though there were other guards holding the church. It made sure the guards were okay without input. It followed the paramedics outside. Saw Paddy Steadfast and his nephew, almost a blur in the people rushing in and out, keeping pedestrians back, making sure the church was kept a crime scene.

Hopeless’d hate a church being out of order so close to Christmas, Valkyrie thought inanely, but her body was still following the paramedics, quietly joining the group in the Circle as they were transported to the Deck. Roosevelt was still there. So was her partner. Her parents were still under guard.

Maybe so are you.

Valkyrie was pretty sure no one had asked her a question, though, so maybe she was at least presenting a good front of not falling apart.

Gods, she was tired.

And she was forgetting something. What was she forgetting?

The paramedics took her parents toward one of the red-lit ferries sitting in its harness on the side of the Deck, its sail lashing as a second came in and swung about to nestle in the harness fifty feet behind it. Valkyrie ignored it, because it was probably just more guards, but then a very thin figure jumped off before the ferry had even been moored, his hat perched just so and outstretched hands parting the buffeting air.

“Valkyrie?”

All of Valkyrie’s emotions came back in a rush and her eyes burned, her throat constricting. “Yeah.”

Skulduggery came to her and put a hand on her shoulder, and looked toward the group with her parents, being loaded onto the ferry waiting. “Your parents?”

“Dad’s moving,” said Valkyrie. “I think – I think Mum would be too, it’s just … the baby …”

Oh, gods, what if the baby wasn’t okay? What if just being kidnapped and tied up in a basement killed him or her just because it happened? Mum hadn’t gone into labour, but that didn’t mean the baby couldn’t still come out hurt or dying or –

“Valkyrie.” Skulduggery put his other hand on her shoulder and turned her toward him, leaning down so they were looking at each other eye-to-eye-socket. It broke her line of sight toward her parents. Very gently he asked, “Are you okay?”

She wished he hadn’t asked that. It wasn’t Skulduggery to ask that. That wasn’t fair; he was meant to come back from being tortured as himself, not as someone who walked softly and thought he had to worry about her. She must have looked really terrible, if Skulduggery was asking that.

That made Valkyrie angry, that did; it made rage bubble up under the tears and the fear and she snapped, “No. My parents were bloody well kidnapped and Dex is possessed and there is a bloody Remnant hanging around and we still haven’t caught the son of a boar who did it.

“No,” said Skulduggery in his slowest, most infuriating tone. “You haven’t. So what are you going to do about it?”

Valkyrie wiped the tears out of her eyes so violently she almost slapped herself. “I’m going to bloody well catch him, that’s what.”

Then, then, she would sit down with her family, and she would hug them, and tell them she was sorry for not hugging them earlier, and probably cry a bit. But only then.

“Good idea,” Skulduggery agreed. Valkyrie didn’t even ask why he was there, she was so annoyed at him, so relieved to see him. “Where are you going to start?”

Finally Valkyrie remembered what she was forgetting and groaned. “I left Julian tied up and unconscious in the attic of the church.”

She hadn’t told anyone, either. Damn it; hopefully he hadn’t gotten out.

“Julian.” Skulduggery nodded. “Someone important, I take it.”

“Yeah,” said Valkyrie, walking away from the ferry even now lifting from the harness. Her eyes were gritty and her throat hurt from the lump that had been in it, and she felt mildly sick, but at least her mind was clear. For a little while. “He’s the one who got Stray to break out the Remnants. He wanted to study them, or something, but he became one of their victims instead. We came out here looking for Scapegrace …”

“Ah,” said Skulduggery, matching her pace. “That explains the call.”

Valkyrie’s head jerked toward him. “Call?”

“Yes, Scapegrace called me. He may have been trying to bargain, but I didn’t take him too seriously.”

What did he say?”

Her words came out so explosively they surprised her, and Skulduggery paused as well. Valkyrie couldn’t tell if he was surprised too, or just taking the opportunity not to say anything while they took the circle back down to sea-level.

“To be honest,” he said carefully as they made their way toward the church, “I didn’t really let him talk. It’s Scapegrace. If it makes you feel better, I do wish I’d let him talk more. I suspect he’s responsible for reopening the Irish Bridge.”

Valkyrie blew out a breath and ran her hands through her hair. The Bridge was news to her, but what the hell; why not that? It would explain why the run-around with the bombs and staying in the church. The Bridge was only a couple of blocks over. “He’s gotten a magic and brain transplant from somewhere, and he’s the Remnant’s host. The Bridge was probably meant to be his escape route.”

She frowned. Or he had been the Remnant’s host, hadn’t he? But where was he now? She hadn’t had time to think about it, between breaking out of the attic and getting Xun free, and then just trying to hold it together. But he’d been with Aria, and Aria was on their side.

Except that Aria and Scapegrace had been the only people in the attic when she and Julian got shut in.

Which meant that either Aria was a traitor – doubtful; she’d had plenty of opportunities to sabotage things and hadn’t until this point – or Aria had somehow become the Remnant’s host. After Valkyrie had left, maybe? No, that didn’t make sense. Aria wasn’t stupid enough to let the Remnant wake up long enough to get out of Scapegrace, let alone take her over.

But then when?

“How do Remnants possess people?” she asked Skulduggery. “None of Hopeless’s books said. They were all about the psychological and sociological impact.”

“Of course they were,” said Skulduggery with something close to his usual amusement, but not quite. “They look like slips of darkness, but they do have … limbs, I suppose you can call them. You don’t see them until they’re about to enter a host. They land on your face and pry open your mouth with those tiny little arms, and force themselves down your throat –”

“Okay, I got it,” Valkyrie interrupted, shuddering. “God, that’s horrifying. Don’t people suffocate?”

“Not really,” said Skulduggery. “Just gag a lot. It does take half a minute or so, though, so there’s usually time to run away by the time the Remnant gets down and takes over.”

Half a minute or – Valkyrie cursed.

“You know, I’m surprised at your language, young lady,” Skulduggery said, shaking his skull. “What will your parents think?”

“They’d blame you.”

I certainly didn’t teach you that language.”

“Then they’d blame Rover,” said Valkyrie, raising her voice a little to be heard over the noise as they got closer to the church. “The Remnant’s got Aria Ritter. She went down – she was gagging, I thought she was winded from the hit. She tried to trap me and Julian inside the attic. She’s got Scapegrace, or he’s with her; I don’t know anymore.”

“But this Julian fellow is still in the church?” Skulduggery asked.

“Yeah, if he hasn’t got out of the ropes and through the guards and escaped.”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” said Skulduggery, and Valkyrie stepped over the line of sigils delineating the crime-scene area. “Ah …” Valkyrie turned. Skulduggery was still behind the sigils and looking down at them, his gloved hand spread over an area of thin air he quite obviously couldn’t penetrate. “Any chance you can let me through?”

“A chance,” said Valkyrie, but she was smiling now. “Just a small one.”

She reached back through the barrier and held out her hand, and he took it, and stepped across the line.

Luckily, none of the guards stopped them. Valkyrie wasn’t sure she’d be able to find a proper response to any questions, even if they knew who Skulduggery was. Some of them glanced Valkyrie’s way, but no one even made a move to intercept, and they made the door leading up to the attic without being interrupted.

“Interesting,” said Skulduggery.

“The church?”

“The fact that the Tír’s guards doesn’t think a walking skeleton is worth stopping.” He looked down at her. “Or maybe it’s just you.”

“I’m very magnetic,” said Valkyrie. The stairs were lit at the top. They hadn’t been before. Valkyrie frowned and moved closer to the wall, her hand out to find the air’s movement. She felt Skulduggery behind her, following her lead like a … well, a looming skeleton.

There was movement in the attic, and voices, and she saw silhouettes as the stairwell curved to reveal the length of grimy windows along the outside wall. Valkyrie crept up from the hidden side, sliding toward the entrance until she recognised the voices inside.

“– anything?”

“Nothing in there that I could see, but it’s hard to tell. The place is so narrow …”

Garda, she signed at Skulduggery, and then stepped out. The two officers turned to her, one with hand raised and the other with a stun-rifle lifted; but they both relaxed when they saw her. Enough to lower their weapons, anyway, if not completely.

“Detective Cain,” said the one without the gun, the sorcerer, as she saluted. Valkyrie didn’t answer at first because she was surprised by the title, and by then the officer had gone on. “We’ve cleared the passage and the room. Some of the boys from forensics will be up soon.”

“There was someone being held here,” said Valkyrie. “Where is he?”

“He’s already been taken to the precinct,” said the officer, and before she had finished Valkyrie was whirling and hurrying back down the stairs. Skulduggery stepped out of her way and then followed.

“You know,” he said, “I can think of better ways to get exercise than running up and down staircases.”

“Shut up, Skulduggery.”

They made it to the floor and Valkyrie ran for the entrance nearest the circles, and toward the tape.

“Ms Cain!”

Valkyrie turned without stopping, scanning the crowd, and after a moment saw Paddy Steadfast waving from the edge of the police-tape. For a split second it was tempting to pretend she hadn’t seen him, but his face was lined with anxiety. Valkyrie changed her course and he hurried along the police-tape, and they met halfway.

“Ms Cain –” Paddy stopped very suddenly, his eyes widening as he looked behind her.

“Hello,” said Skulduggery.

“Ignore him,” said Valkyrie. “Paddy – I mean, Father – sorry. I’m in a hurry. What is it?”

“It’s the woman who was with you,” said Paddy.

“She’s been taken by the Remnant, I know.”

“No, I mean –” Paddy shook his head with bemused frustration. “The other one. The one my nephew called a man. They were escorting her out of the church.”

“To the precinct,” said Valkyrie impatiently, “I know, we have to get over there so we can interrogate him.”

“They didn’t go toward the circles,” said Paddy. “They went toward the Bridge. She – he – was trying to convince them their ‘plans’ weren’t a failure, that their master didn’t need to ‘do this’. He sounded scared.”

“Did their master have a name?” Skulduggery asked sharply.

“I don’t know,” said Paddy. “The officers didn’t answer.” He hesitated. “I’m – I’m not sure they could.”

“Right,” said Skulduggery, stepped up to Valkyrie and wrapping his bony arms around her. She nearly hit him, he startled her so much, but he’d done this before, right before taking her flying; so instead she turned and gripped him around the neck.

Even more of a surprise was when he paused and said to Paddy, “Thank you.”

Then he swept his hands down and they lifted off the ground at a much faster speed than Skulduggery had used previously while showing off. Valkyrie yelped and tucked her head in against his shoulder, and they went rocketing over the buildings.

“You know,” she shouted into the side of his skull, “the Bridge isn’t that far away!”

By air, at this speed, it was barely a handful of seconds; but to Valkyrie’s horror he didn’t slow down as he dipped toward the entrance to the dome.

“Skulduggery!” she screamed as they levelled out, wrapping her legs around one of his, clinging on for dear life. He lifted his arms like Superman and the doors blew open ahead of them, and the dome opened up around them. Skulduggery lowered his arms to his sides but he still didn’t slow down, so Valkyrie didn’t stop screaming. The airlock leading to the Bridge was open, and they shot into the atrium, past a couple of prone forms on the ground, and into the narrow carved tunnel that led to Roarhaven.

At the first turn Skulduggery twitched his hand and they banked around the corner, and at the second they spun gently as they took the turn. Not once did they slow as they turned and rushed through stone arches and then uncarved stone. Valkyrie’s scream took on a higher pitch, and she didn’t even care, and somewhere along the way it turned into a maniacal sort of laughter.

“This is awesome!” she screamed in what passed for Skulduggery’s ear, and she liked to think he was grinning back, and not only because of the skull.

Valkyrie craned her head upward and saw the daylight of Roarhaven approaching, but it was barely a glimpse before they blew out of the tunnel and across abandoned Irish scrub. They arced lazily toward the sky, but Valkyrie was busy looking down.

“Nine o’clock!” she shouted, and Skulduggery spun them slowly so she was facing away from the figures she’d seen.

“I see them,” said Skulduggery, and then they were diving. This time Valkyrie held in the scream.

They weren’t aiming for the figures, though. Skulduggery slowed them and they landed almost delicately behind a jumble of rocks a few hundred feet away. At once Valkyrie put out her hands to read the air, straining her ears for sound. She heard Julian babbling, but not the words.

‘Closer,’ she signed to Skulduggery.

‘They’re moving north,’ Skulduggery signed back, and Valkyrie nodded. They parted around the stone, sneaking closer one rock at a time, one after another. Soon Valkyrie could see their target, if she was careful about peering around the rocks she was using to hide.

The pair of guards were wearing precinct uniforms, but their faces were alarmingly blank and they paid no attention to Julian’s twisting as he tried to get out of their grip. They marched on, like robots. It was creepy.

Julian’s words were snatched away by the wind, but now Valkyrie was close enough to hear them.

Please, aren’t you listening?! Can’t you hear me? Oh, God, you can’t even hear me, can you? You’re just – pawns – please listen to me.”

Valkyrie turned her head to glance toward Skulduggery, signing a question. Skulduggery shook his head, and Valkyrie frowned, signing more forcefully. ‘Rescue?’

‘I want to see where they’re going,’ Skulduggery responded, and Valkyrie surveyed the flat scrub of land into which Julian and his guards were walking. Now that he mentioned, it was pretty strange they seemed like they were going to try and walk all the way into Dublin.

Unless …

‘There’s a road that way,’ Valkyrie signed. Skulduggery just nodded, because of course he’d already remembered that it was there. ‘You want to see who picks them up? Their master?’

‘I want to see who their master sends to pick them up.’

That sounded like a conspiracy to Valkyrie, and her heart pounded as they followed quietly. This had something to do with what the Dead Men weren’t telling her, didn’t it? Of course it did. Skulduggery hadn’t explained who he thought was behind this yet.

They ran out of rocks, but it didn’t seem to matter. Julian was too busy pleading for his life to see what was going on around them, and his guards didn’t react to anything at all. Skulduggery lifted quietly off the ground, rising high in the air to cross to the other side of the road, while Valkyrie followed the group from behind, crouched against the hard ground and keeping low. It wasn’t so flat that she would draw attention.

Or so she hoped, when the sun flashed off an approaching car. The group stopped by the side of the road. Julian tried to pull away a few times and then slumped, panting and trembling. Valkyrie crouched by a bush and waited silently. She couldn’t see Skulduggery, and didn’t dare read the air in case whoever was in the car could sense it.

It was a white limo, looking like a wealthy business owner dropped in the middle of the Temple Bar area after midnight. The limo pulled up next to Julian and his captors, and Dusk stepped out. Valkyrie hunkered down behind her bush, her heart pounding. Could vampires sense heartbeats from this distance?

Probably. It would be just her luck, too.

Dusk stood away from the door, scanning the moor. Valkyrie heard someone inside the limo snap at him, but not the words. Without looking, Dusk seized Julian’s arm and pushed him into the car. The two guards were left standing where they were, like robots.

The person inside the car said something else.

“I’ll catch up,” said Dusk without looking around, and closed the door. Mentally Valkyrie cursed in as many languages as she knew as the limo pulled away. Dusk’s gaze wasn’t exactly on her, but it was a hell of a lot closer than Valkyrie liked.

She just hoped Skulduggery decided to go after the limo. This might be their only chance to find out who was pulling all the strings.

Then she thought, I’m insane. I just hoped Skulduggery left me alone with a vampire.

A vampire who reached out to snap the necks of the two guards who’d been brainwashed or magicked into bringing Julian out here. Then he took a step toward the brush. Valkyrie breathed through her mouth, slow to be silent, and shifted her crouch just enough that it could be called a proper stance. Well, a semi-proper stance. A stance which left her hands free and in which she might, maybe, possibly, be able to defend herself against a vampire.

The last time she’d been with this vampire alone, she’d been able to call for backup. Backup was a lot further away, this time around.

And Valkyrie was a lot better at defending herself, which was good, because there was no way in hell she was outrunning Dusk.

Dusk vanished. Valkyrie swept up her hands, moulding air around her in a motion which included the whole of her body; a shift from a crouch up to a stand, and a twister around her. She caught a black blur out of the corner of her eye, and the satisfying sight of Dusk tumbling through the air; then he twisted and came down on his feet, like a cat, and vanished.

Valkyrie twisted the air again, like a mini-tornado around her, and Dusk was flung wide, landing just as surely, and disappearing again just as surely. Over and over Valkyrie using the spinning air to fling him away, conscious that this wasn’t exactly helping her escape, and that he was playing with her. There was a casual laziness in the way he made his attempts, one after another, that was just too easy.

Maybe he didn’t realise that she could do this for a really long time – maybe it didn’t matter. Sooner or later, she was going to get tired before Dusk did.

Finally Dusk landed, and didn’t rush her again. Instead he straightened. “The Dead Men have taught their pet some tricks.”

He sounded amused. Valkyrie wasn’t offended. It was stupid to get offended by an enemy’s taunts. Instead she looked around as best as she could from the corners of her eyes, while still keeping her gaze on him and her hands up.

Dusk saw her looking. “Stupid girl. You don’t think I’d have killed you, if I wanted to?”

“I think you’d say that even if you couldn’t,” Valkyrie pointed out. “But since you’re bringing it up, why aren’t you?”

Dusk shrugged. “I’m here to make an offer.”

“And offer to what?”

“To help,” said Dusk, and that was pretty much when the bomb went off.

Valkyrie’s ears rang and her head hurt and she was lying on something hard and prickly. She moved and her whole body ached; the air caught in her chest and she coughed, but nothing came out. When she got her hands under her and pushed herself up, her whole body wanted to magnetise itself to the ground. She didn’t let it.

What the hell?

Bomb. Dusk. Limo. Dusk.

The surge of adrenaline helped Valkyrie get to her feet, swaying but with her hands at the ready. There was a missing divot over by the road, where the corpses of the two guards had been. Dusk had been closer to them than she was, so where –?

A figure stirred in the brush and Dusk sat up and looked down at the stump where his arm used to be as if he was looking down at a distastefully playful puppy. Well, at least she wasn’t the most injured. She hoped. Her ears were still ringing, and her head was still throbbing, and she felt like she was wading through molasses underwater.

Dusk got to his feet. Valkyrie watched him with fascination. He looked unsteady. He swayed. A vampire injured enough to have trouble getting up was like a unicorn, and Valkyrie was going to savour it for the rest of her life, even though he didn’t look any more than irritated at the fact he was missing an arm.

“I’d ask if you’re okay, but I really don’t care,” she said, and she didn’t heard herself speak. Dusk shook his head at her impatiently, and … and then he vanished. Again.

Valkyrie swept her hands around but the hip movement it took made her vision tilt and dizziness rise up over her in all its nauseating glory. She felt the air whip the bush but it went everywhere, and didn’t matter anyway, because she was falling and Dusk was going to rip out her throat –

Someone caught her and she blinked up at Dusk’s coldly handsome face.

“You’re not meant to do that,” she said, unheard. “You’re the bad guy.”

Oooh, she had a concussion, didn’t she? That was really, really bad.

He spoke. She didn’t hear a word of it.

“I can’t hear you.”

He looked annoyed and her world swayed as he picked her up, one-armed, to sling her over his shoulder.

“This is bloody demeaning,” she mumbled queasily as he started walking back toward Roarhaven. At the very least, she could make sure to throw up all over his back.

Chapter Text

Wreath and Moribund were staring at each other again. It was, Ghastly found, oddly mesmerising, even though neither of them were doing anything. Except staring. There was tension there which was almost visible, and neither of them were doing anything to explain what it was, despite Erskine’s pointed glances.

Not, Ghastly had to admit, that the glances meant anything to Wreath. The redness had faded from his eyes slowly, and now his gaze was as blank as it had been before everything went to pot.

“How long do we have?” Ghastly asked the air, expecting someone to answer, so he didn’t have to take his gaze off the two of them. They were unnerving him. He didn’t like it. And that wasn’t even taking the armour inside of Wreath into consideration.

“Any minute now.” Erskine was the one who answered, sounding overly jocular in that way which meant he was, in fact, exceedingly tense.

“Are we ready?”

“Are you ever ready to be besieged by thousands of warmongering devil-ghosts who can possess you and turn you psychotic?”

“Not so much, no.”

“Ghastly?”

“Mm?”

“Your phone’s ringing.”

So it was, to the tune of ‘The Skeleton Dance’. Ghastly lifted it to his ear without shifting his gaze. “Did you get the blackout solved?”

“Not so much, no,” said Skulduggery, with a background of whooshing air.

“Are you flying?”

“As a matter of fact, I am.”

“And you didn’t get the blackout problem fixed.” Ghastly felt, more than saw, Erskine slump a little next to him, their shoulders were that close. Wreath’s head turned a fraction.

“Something came up,” said Skulduggery, “and it’s rather complicated, but suffice to say I’m currently following a white limousine which I suspect contains Eliza Scorn.”

Erskine stiffened, and Ghastly found himself having to wrestle for possession of his own phone before releasing it into Erskine’s hands, tilting his head a bit so he could still hear Skulduggery. “You’re tracking Eliza Scorn?”

“Ah. Hello, Erskine. Yes, I am. Why?”

“Because she’s definitely working with – the subject of your investigation,” said Erskine. “I spoke to her –” He stopped. Had to think. “Yesterday. She was with China.”

“Eliza Scorn, visiting China Sorrows? Gracious.” Skulduggery’s tone was light-hearted, but all of them knew perfectly well that the only reason Scorn would visit Sorrows was either to kill her or to talk to her about something Mevolent-related. “And this wouldn’t happen to be the reason why half the Dead Men now want to kill China?”

“No, what Scorn told me when she left is. On the plus side, China refused Eliza’s request, whatever it was.”

“Of course she did. China’s far too strong-willed to go back to Mevolent.”

Wreath’s shoulders stiffened and Ghastly, belatedly, realised that blind people tended to have much better hearing than people with all their faculties. Oh, damn. If it had to be anyone, at least it was Wreath, but still; Ghastly didn’t like any information from slipping out of their hands. They were fumbling.

“Yeah, well, you’re the only one who has any faith in her at all, even if it’s just her sense of self-preservation.” Erskine sounded bitter. Ghastly had to wonder at what Scorn had told him; Anton knew, and Rover knew, and that meant Dexter probably knew too. “Do we at least have a timeframe for the Hotel?”

“Shouldn’t be more than an hour,” Skulduggery said, “and I spoke to Anton an hour ago. So, about as much time as you have before the Remnants attack.”

“Yippee,” Erskine muttered, and released the phone back into Ghastly’s hands.

“Do me a favour and call Hopeless for an update, would you?” Skulduggery said as Ghastly took it back.

“Why can’t you?” Ghastly asked, and there was a pause.

“Frankly, you were the first person I thought of, and it’s very difficult to hold a phone conversation while flying and trying to keep track of a limo at the same time.”

“Oh, all right,” Ghastly said, trying and failing to sound irritable. He glanced around at the lobby of the Government Buildings, dim because of the lack of natural light and the fact that all the windows were covered, and tense due to the numerous very frightened people in it. This was a terrible spot for a siege, even accounting for the wall around the Government Buildings. The Remnants could fly; there wasn’t much of a deterrent to that, except actual physical shields, and they didn’t have anyone who could cast one. Most of the Sanctuary had been taken, and they were the besiegers.

Instead Ghastly and Erskine were compensating by getting everyone inside the buildings themselves and putting it under lockdown. The courtyard had been left empty, like it wasn’t important; it was the best they could do. The Remnants would have trouble holding it too. They wouldn’t be able to stop the Hotel from growing there, and the Hotel was a much more difficult place to take from the outside.

Skulduggery was still talking. Ghastly paid attention long enough to take down his location. Then Skulduggery said, “Oh, dear. It looks like they’re stopping. They may be transferring Julian to another car. I should go.”

“Julian?”

“Very important figure on the Tír, also a criminal, also a scientist into some ground-breaking research relating to names, or somesuch. Hopeless would probably ask me to rescue him.”

“So it’s a good thing you didn’t call Hopeless first?”

“Precisel –” The word was cut off by a curse barely audible over the sound of whipping air, and then Ghastly nothing but a whoosh. There was a crunch and the line went dead.

“That doesn’t bode well,” said Wreath. Ghastly dialled Saracen, who picked up before the first ring ended.

“Got it,” said Saracen.

“Got it?”

“Yep. Got it. And you don’t want to know yet, but maybe later.”

“It’s going to make me want to kill her too, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” said Saracen. “I have to go. We’re getting ready to go back to the Sanctuary, just as soon as the Remnants are secured, and we’ve left Gordon’s house a bit of a mess.”

He hung up first, leaving Ghastly feeling a touch miffed.

“I didn’t even mention Skulduggery,” he muttered.

“Worry about ourselves,” said Wreath. “Here they come.” More ominous words, Ghastly had never heard spoken. He turned automatically toward the video feed set up by Phil Marmot’s people. Everyone turned automatically toward the video feed, except Wreath and Moribund.

Outside the gates, there was a swarm of people approaching, and black slips of darkness shot over the wall.

“And now we wait,” murmured Erskine. He didn’t add the part everyone else was thinking.

And hope that our wards hold.

Chapter Text

Tanith watched Saracen hang up and turn toward her with a bright smile. “All good?”

“What was that about?” she asked.

“What about?” Tanith looked at him some more without saying anything. It was a trick she’d learned from the Dead Men. She wasn’t sure which one, but it was one of them. After a moment Saracen deflated. “Long story. Suffice to say that Skulduggery is following someone related to the investigation we were having trouble with before all this happened, and now Ghastly’s lost contact very suddenly.”

“Uh huh,” said Tanith. Somehow she figured that wasn’t even half of the conversation Saracen hadn’t had. She tapped the hilt of her sword, glancing around. The tension had eased into a sort of weary intent caused by the clean-up. Guild had gone back to the Sanctuary with a good portion of their unpossessed officials. Gordon’s mansion had lasted better against the Remnants than the Sanctuary, but a good part of that had been because the Remnants kept veering off before they got close. The worst part had been the possessed trying to break down doors and get through windows.

Hopeless had given orders to avoid killing anyone. It meant that Tanith still felt keyed up, on edge.

“I hate this,” she muttered, glaring around at the remaining Sanctuary officials performing clean-up. Echo-Gordon wandered around incorporeally, giving directions and, occasionally, his voice rising with indignation when someone handled something wrong. “I hate being somewhere other than where the action is.”

“On the other hand,” said Saracen, “being the personal bodyguard to the Irish Grand Mage is one hell of a thing to put on your resume.”

Tanith laughed, and glass exploded inward, and someone hit the wall with a Hollow Man’s fist crushing their skull, ribs, and other squishy bits.

People started screaming as Hollow Men shoved through doors and barricades to get into the room. Tanith whirled and sprinted toward the kitchen, where she’d last seen Hopeless calmly exhibiting Grand Mage dignity while making everyone a cup of tea.

He was still in there now, holding his head with creased eyes, weaving as he ducked a Hollow Man’s heavy fist and ran toward Tanith. She leapt, sprang off the wall, somersaulted over the Hollow Man with her sword slicing through its paper. It deflated with a farting noise and a clunk of iron striking floor.

“Behind you!” Saracen shouted. Tanith landed on the table and spun, sword swinging low. A second Hollow Man burst, fists falling backward from the middle of an interrupted swing.

“Oh dear,” said Hopeless in his new staticky voice from where he was leaning on the wall, looking toward the back door and the hole that had replaced it.

“Building damage later,” said Saracen. “Escape now. This is Tanith’s fault, by the way. She wanted action.”

“Shut up, Rue,” Tanith growled, but she couldn’t deny the elation as she leapt up to the ceiling and hurried across to the hole, glancing outside. She backed away immediately, shaking her head. “Nope.” It was practically an ocean of Hollow Men out there. She went to the table instead, sheathing her sword to flip the table on its side and heave it over to block the exit. “Where are they getting all those things?”

“There is still a Hollow Man manufacturing plant around,” Hopeless pointed out.

“Are you okay?”

He was pale, almost green, and when he tried to smile, it didn’t reach his eyes. “In enduring agony, thank you. Need some help?”

“I’m good.” Tanith shoved the table into place and wedged its legs behind a cabinet so it would hold. When she turned around, Saracen had already closed the door leading into the main hall, wedging chairs in front of it. It looked good. It wasn’t going to hold.

“Hollow Men,” she muttered. “Why is it always Hollow Men?”

“Not just Hollow Men,” said Hopeless. His pupils had widened. Tanith was fast recognising the sign, especially when it came accompanied by deepening lines around his eyes.

“Who?”

Echo-Gordon phased through the wall, gasping entirely unnecessarily. “Eliza Scorn!”

“Thank you, Gordon,” said Hopeless.

“Grand Mage,” sang out Eliza Scorn, muffled through the door and yet still audible enough for satisfaction to be clear. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Tanith muttered. “She’s got magic like China’s, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, and most of the people who surrendered aren’t exactly in their right minds,” said Echo-Gordon.

Something crunched past the door. Hopeless winced, pressing a hand to his mouth. “Grand Mage,” said Scorn. “Come out, or that’s going to happen again.”

Hopeless exhaled, and pushed himself off the wall. Tanith caught his arm with a hiss.

“She’s killing people,” said Hopeless simply. “If you want to protect me, you’d better come with.”

He shook her off and strode to the chairs, and Tanith didn’t think she was imagining the fact that he was weaving faintly. She exchanged a frustrated look with Saracen, who shrugged and sidled behind the counter, where he wouldn’t be seen at a casual glance through the kitchen entrance. He signed to Tanith, very quickly, while Hopeless pulled apart the barricade. Tanith gave him an understanding nod.

The chairs tumbled down and Hopeless pushed open the door, striding out. Tanith followed, her hand on her sword, scowling at Hopeless’s back. The main hall was in even more of a mess than it had been before, with most of the remaining officials gathered at one end, surrounded by Hollow Men. Tanith caught a glimpse of glazed eyes past heavy paper.

Eliza Scorn stood in the middle of it all, in heels and a gorgeous blue dress. She turned when she heard them and smiled dazzlingly, one of the most beautiful smiles Tanith had ever seen. “Ah, there you are.”

Tanith shook her head, gripping her sword tight enough for the hilt’s hardest edges to dig into her palm. The allure snapped, and Scorn became not much more than a beautiful woman trying to hide the paleness of her face and the bags under her eyes.

“My, my, Grand Mage Hopeless,” said Scorn, moving toward them with the loud tap of her shoes, ignoring Tanith as though she wasn’t a threat. “You don’t look terribly well at all. Of course, given how you looked the last time we met in this house, this is a step up.”

“Thank you,” said Hopeless in his mildest tone. “You look awful, yourself.”

Irritation flickered across Scorn’s face, and she brushed off the comment with a wave of her hand. “Whatever. This is a kidnapping; please come with me quietly and no one else will die.” She paused. “Where you can hear them.”

If Tanith had any doubts about Scorn knowing Hopeless’s magic, they died right there.

“No,” said Hopeless. “I don’t believe I will.”

Scorn smiled. “You’re as stubborn and masochistic as I remember. Of course, I didn’t understand back then quite how masochistic you are. And yet, in an odd way, I envy you.”

“I know,” said Hopeless simply, and he moved, faster than almost anyone Tanith knew. Tanith moved too, whirling with a ringing draw of her sword to slash at the Hollow Men nearest her. They swung their fists and she ducked and wove, slicing through paper. Gas filled the air; she breathed as shallowly as she could manage. Past the Hollow Men coming at her, she saw Saracen slapping people out of their hypnosis and sending them running up the stairs. Thank God Scorn wasn’t nearly as good as China Sorrows.

Tanith didn’t have much room to do anything but slash and dodge, but she caught sight of Hopeless with his machete in a fight with Scorn, sigils glowing through Scorn’s dress. Even that addition to her speed didn’t give her the edge over a mind-reader.

“There’s more coming inside,” Echo-Gordon cried, sounding terrified and elated at once. He was in the thick of things, impervious to anything the Hollow Men might attempt, distracting foes and cajoling Sanctuary officials. There came a series of muffled booms from outside and the lines of Hollow Men lumbering through the gaping front doors erupted into pillars of fire, almost instantly snuffed out. Through the residual smoke strode a tall, thin figure.

Skulduggery snapped his hands and fire sprang to his hands. “Mind if I join in?”

Scorn shrieked with rage and pain. Tanith caught a glimpse of a slice across her dress, and bloodstains. Hopeless lunged; Scorn darted away and, with a furious look, slipped through one of the broken windows.

Tanith impaled one more Hollow Man and then backed away, coughing. Skulduggery snuffed out the fireballs and moved his fingers instead, and a gentle gust of air wafted around the hall, pulling gas out of the room and through the doors.

“We’re all okay?” Saracen asked, sounding more surprised than Tanith felt was fair. He compensated quickly. “I mean, of course we’re all okay. I knew we could do it.”

Hopeless shook his head and then pressed a hand to it, his face going grey. He swayed on his feet; Tanith sheathed her sword and took him by the arm to steady him.

“Easy. We’re really all okay? I mean, except for –” She glanced at the body of the woman Scorn had killed.

“Well,” said Echo-Gordon, popping downstairs in that unnervingly fluid way due to his feet going through the steps. He sounded unnecessarily breathless. “Everyone upstairs is terrified, but mostly okay, I think.”

Hopeless’s thoughtspeaker crackled, and his eyes creased. “– ordon. Gordon. Check your private library.”

“My –” Gordon’s face went blank. “Oh. Oh, no.” He turned and ran, or flowed, back up the stairs. Tanith handed Hopeless over to Saracen and followed. She pushed through a few of the braver Sanctuary staff coming to see if the worst was over, following the flashes of Echo-Gordon’s incorporeal back.

More people came out into the hall. Tanith shouted, “Move!”

They moved, but not fast enough. Tanith put on some extra speed, but by the time she reached Gordon’s office, he was already there, standing white-faced in front of the hole where the secret door leading to Gordon’s most secret library had been. Echo-Gordon looked up at her, his face miserable. “It’s gone.”

Tanith’s gut turned over. “What’s gone?”

“The Book of Names,” he said. “They got the Book of Names.”

Chapter Text

Valkyrie was only passingly aware of the time between being flung over Dusk’s shoulder and arriving at the Tower. It felt like a half-there dream, during which she mostly felt sick and was vaguely aware of being embarrassed that she was going to be carried into the city like this.

She also remembered trying to figure out something she meant to tell them. Something really important.

Then there was a hullaballoo, being pulled off Dusk’s shoulder, and Corrival’s face rotating above.

“Hey,” she said groggily, and this time heard her own voice. “Please tell me no one got pictures of me being carried in by a vampire.”

Corrival smiled, she was pretty sure. “No promises, Cain.”

“I know something important,” she informed him.

“That’s nice, Cain. Where’s Skulduggery?”

“Went after the limo.”

“What limo?”

“The limo Dusk came in. Ow.” Something pricked her arm. She glared at the medic beside them, or tried, but it was difficult when he kept moving in and out of her vision. Corrival tapped her face.

“Cain. Focus. How did Dusk get a limo in here?”

“Not here,” Valkyrie mumbled. “Roarhaven. Someone came and took Julian out to Roarhaven. Got in the limo. Skulduggery followed.”

“You were at the church,” Corrival said patiently. He was starting to steady above her, enough that she could tell how deeply cragged his face had become. He was worried. “And someone came and took Julian away, so you followed?”

“Yeah.” Something. Something they were going to do before then. “Skulduggery was there. He said he talked to Scapegrace …” And Scapegrace had been taken by – Oh. Shit. Valkyrie tried to push herself up and her stomach threatened to come up, her vision whitening. She swallowed it. “The Remnant’s in Aria Ritter.”

Corrival jerked away, spinning and with fire in his hands. A bolt from a stun-rifle caught him in the side and he slumped. Someone was shouting. Dizzily Valkyrie saw Dusk lunging and Aria drop the rifle and shoot Dusk with a pistol, and instead of a near-silent pew it was gunshots that made Valkyrie’s head throb so hard she nearly threw up. Dusk went down and didn’t get up, and that was more frightening than anything.

“Everyone sit down and shut up,” said Aria, and when Valkyrie clawed her way back to being able to see, she saw the gun was pointed at her.

Everyone around them had frozen. They were in the Hotel, Valkyrie realised hazily. She recognised the line of that ceiling, except for how it was cracked. The people half-frozen in various stages of rising were all sigil-masons. Valkyrie saw movement up on the hall overlooking the lobby, and spotted Anton, sidling toward the stairs, eyes on Aria. He was too far, she thought. Too far to do anything before Aria shot her.

“You know, I kind of like you,” Aria said to Valkyrie.

“That’s nice,” Valkyrie managed to say, swallowing down bile again.

“You’re very mature. A good officer. Too good. A veritable pain in the ass. I was assigned to keep an eye on you, you know. See if you were fit for an early training program.”

Valkyrie’s heart fluttered, and she cursed it. She didn’t want to be happy about anything a Remnant had to say. Except the Remnant knew what Aria knew, didn’t it? Damn. “You weren’t assigned,” Valkyrie said. “Aria was.”

Aria shrugged. “Potato, potahto.”

“No one actually says potahto, y’know.”

Anton’s fingers were moving. Valkyrie tried not to squint too hard while reading them without letting on to Aria that there was something behind her to watch. She only caught one thing, but it was an important thing, so she was pretty pleased about that.

Dexter.

The door opened. Aria’s rifle swung up to point at Dexter stepping into the Hotel, and Dusk went from motionless-potential-corpse to movement. Valkyrie saw fangs bared and red eyes, and then red everywhere, and Aria slumped with her throat torn out, and now every weapon in the place was focussed on the swaying vampire instead.

Dexter looked at Aria’s body. He was the only one without a weapon in hand; even Rover was half in front of him, fire in his fists.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Dex said, sounding reproachful, “and didn’t do you any good, besides.”

Something black forced itself out of the shreds of Aria’s throat. Dusk snarled and claws flashed and blood flew; and so did fire, so did weapons, a half-dozen different magics slamming into him. Dusk shuddered and collapsed bonelessly, and Valkyrie saw Aria’s pulverised head, flesh still moving and  blackness still seeping, the Remnant still finding its way out.

Valkyrie swallowed, and rolled so she threw up over the side of the bed and not on herself. The medic held her up, held her hair away, and by the time Valkyrie could lift her head again her eyesight was wavering too hard to see much. Corrival was crawling toward her, and Dex was holding one of the basement soul-catchers in his gloved hand – a glowing soul-catcher – and he looked extremely smug.

“Easy-peasy.” Dexter’s smile broadened.

“Aria’s dead,” someone spat at him, voice thick, and Dexter shrugged.

“I could have told Dusk he wouldn’t get anywhere, but that’s on him.”

Rover shook his head, his face half-crumpled, and shoved Dexter aside to let more of the emergency response guys come in, along with another medic. Most of them look very pale.

“Over here,” said Corrival, waving. His hand shook, Valkyrie noticed. Just how old was he, again?

“Dex,” said Rover sharply, and that’s not a tone Rover uses, even in a watery voice. The sound of it draws Valkyrie’s gaze from watching Corrival’s hands shake to watching Rover hold out his hand for the soul-catcher. “The soul-catcher?”

“What, I don’t even get a kiss for helping?” Dexter grinned. Rover flushed, and looked away, biting his lip. Dexter just laughed, and handed over the soul-catcher, and there was something wrong there but Valkyrie’s vision was flip-flopping again.

“Are we ready?” Corrival asked Anton.

“We’re ready,” said Anton, coming down the stairs and skirting the responders binding Dusk as much as an unconscious one-armed vampire could be bound. One or two kneeled by Aria’s body, and Valkyrie was thankful for that because it meant she couldn’t accidentally see anything that would make her throw up again. She blinked, gaze weaving, and it seemed like Anton’was by their side almost by magic. “Anyone who doesn’t need to be present, please vacate the premises. That should include you, Corrival.”

“I’m not that far gone yet,” Corrival muttered.

“Your hands were shaking,” Valkyrie pointed out, and instead of strong her voice came out small, and she couldn’t care. He vanished from her sight, mostly because the medics picked her up and laid her down on a stretcher. She blinked up at the ceiling, and swallowed down some more nausea.

“Shut it, Cain.”

She heard Corrival heave himself to his feet, amid the sounds of people ‘vacating the premises’, and Anton saying, “Vex. In the main bedroom.”

“Alright, alright …”

Wait a minute, Valkyrie tried to say, struggling to get her elbows under her. She wasn’t going to get taken out of this right at the very end. That was uncalled-for. That was just embarrassing. And there was something about that soul-catcher

Corrival laid a hand on her shoulder and pressed her down against the stretcher as they came out into the late afternoon sunlight of the Green. “Put it down, Cain. You’re done.”

“I hate you,” she mumbled, but unconsciousness was rising up fast. The last thing she heard was the rumble of the Hotel sucking itself into the ground.

Chapter Text

The lights were flickering. That wasn’t a good sign. Nor was the boom of magic striking the walls and the closed gates. Ghastly tried not to think of how many entirely mortal, completely civilian people had been stuck out by there when the Remnants approached. The police cordon had been widened and the garda warned not to try too hard to stop people who really wanted to get through from getting through – but the Remnants did love their violence.

More flickering. Fionn looked nervously upward. “You know, it’s going to cost an awful lot for repairs if they manage to break our connection to the electrical grid.”

“I’m sure Hopeless will be willing to help foot the bill,” said Erskine from where he leaned over the shoulder of one of the technicians handling the video feed.

“What happens if the lights go out?” asked Ide.

“Then we’re all in the dark.”

“Speak for yourself,” said Wreath. He sat, not exactly quietly, in a chair brought out specifically for him, just about in front of the main doors. Ghastly still wasn’t entirely sure whether he was bait or their first line of defence, but he was making sure not to mention that to anyone just in case it caused a panic, because he was fairly sure they all thought that he and Erskine knew what they were doing.

“They’ve gotten in through another window, sir,” said one of the technicians. The screens show the Remnants taking over a line of defenders, while the rest fell back to another barricaded door in the hall. With the necromancers, the losses were minimal. They were still losses.

“You know, I’ve already done this once today,” said Ghastly to Erskine. “I sat in the Sanctuary with Hopeless while we pretended to put up a good fight.”

“That just means you’ve got the benefit of experience,” Erskine shot back. “You got the preview. You already know how this is going to end.”

Ghastly nodded. “With us punching a lot of people and probably falling on top of each other at the end.”

“Precisely.”

“And Anton exercising his fantastic sense of timing.”

“Exactly.”

“He’s never once let us down.”

“Not once.”

“Good Lord in Heaven,” Wreath muttered, “it’s like the last three hundred years never happened.”

“Miss the war, did you, Wreath?”

“Sirs –”

Ghastly was watching the screens when it happened, but that wasn’t particularly helpful with regard to stopping it. He saw the device sail up through a window. He saw the wall cave in under a bloom of fire and sound. He felt the ground beneath him shaking, and heard the head-ringing explosion rip through the Government Buildings, and the screams of people.

“I do so love it,” said Erskine, pushing himself up off the bank of snow-filled screens, “when evil people get their hands on technology.”

“The building’s on fire,” Ghastly said with detach, looking up the stairs and watching the flicker of firelight and shadows visible through a half-broken wall.

“Not too badly yet,” said Erskine, moving over to pull Fionn to his feet, and check on Ide. “It was a bomb, not a flamethrower.”

He looked at Ghastly. Ghastly looked back, and nodded, and flexed his hands while Erskine pushed Fionn toward the doors.

“What –” Fionn said, startled, but Erskine gripped his arm and kept them moving.

“What are you doing?” Ide demanded, following. Ghastly let her pass.

“Try not to keep them dead, Wreath,” Erskine said grimly as he yanked open the door. The people in the lobby were noticing the flames; they were a seething mass, on the edge of panic. Ghastly raised his hands with a wall of air against them, and backed toward the open door.

“Hey!” someone shouted, seeing that the barricade had been dismantled. Wreath got to his feet, brushing down his suit delicately, and that was the last thing Ghastly saw before he slammed the door shut behind them and whirled to face the courtyard. His heart pounded; he tried not to imagine black hulking armour, tried not to imagine a bubble the size of the building, and everyone inside falling down dead.

Erskine pulled Fionn toward one of the other buildings, with Ide jogging after. The sky was blocked by seething Remnants. Wreath may have killed some, but there were more than enough to make it dark. For now, they were too focussed on the buildings to notice them. Ghastly followed the others, and felt a familiar tremor through his feet, and shouted. “Erskine!”

The Midnight Hotel grew very suddenly by the fountain, and Erskine changed course, breaking into a run. Fionn moved on his own merit, without needing to be pulled. Ghastly caught up to Ide, whose face was pale as she stared upward.

“I think they heard you,” she said, and Ghastly took her arm and they broke into a sprint toward the Hotel’s open door. Erskine and Fionn hurtled inside. Anton beckoned from the doorway, a sharp gesture which made Ghastly lunge, catching Ide and sending them flying through the door a heartbeat before Anton slammed it closed and the wards activated.

Ghastly twisted so Ide landed on him and not the other way around, and then lay there for a few moments, breathing hard.

“Tanith’s going to be jealous,” said Erskine overhead.

“Shut it, Ravel.”

“I’m just saying, Bespoke. There’s more than one woman who likes scars.”

Face flaming, Ide scrambled off him, wobbling away and leaning against an intact sofa. Ghastly pushed himself upright, and then onto his feet, and was impressed by her ability to walk. His knees were jelly; it was all he could do to set his feet and stand. “Please,” he said, “please tell me you’re ready.”

“We’re ready,” said Anton, leaving the door. It thudded with Remnants bouncing off it. He strode to the desk. Ghastly glanced around, nodding to the handful of masons and precinct officers present, and wincing at the obvious damage to the Hotel. Ide was staring pale at a still-wet patch of blood on the wall, and Ghastly did not want to know what had caused that, but he hoped it wasn’t someone they knew.

“We’ll, uh. Help you clean up, afterward.”

“That would be nice,” said Anton, and activated the main wards. The Hotel trembled. Sigils flared on the walls, patterning themselves with increasing layers. There was a hollow boom and a deeper rattle in the Hotel’s foundation. Ghastly clapped his hands over his ears and glanced up, and saw Remnants streaking through the open windows on the second floor, pulled wailing up the stairs in a thick torrent of darkness.

It seemed to go on forever, the wail and the shaking and the shifting of light and shadows as Remnants were yanked into Room Twenty-Four. Then it stopped, and the wards faded, and the silence was almost a burden. Ghastly straightened, one hand still pressed to an ear. The sigil-masons moved around, checking wards. Fionn and Ide looked at Erskine; Erskine looked at Anton.

“Is that all of them?” he asked.

“Not quite,” said Dexter, stepping out from the master bedroom and pulling the door closed behind him with a sizzle of wards activating. He lifted a soul-catcher, black with the Remnant inside. Erskine cursed and lunged, too late; the Remnant darted out of the soul-catcher and dove for the Anton.

Erskine punched Dexter. Dexter went spinning and fell to his hands and knees, laughing. Ghastly twisted, seized the rifle in the nearest officer’s hands and fired at Anton, gagging on the floor. The stun field crackled over him and he shuddered. Ghastly’s chest went cold, and he fired again. It did nothing.

Anton bowed into the floor, claws splitting his fingernails, curses interspersing the heaves; he rocked back, hands scrabbling at his chest, claws digging past skin into flesh. Black veins bulged in his face, then shrank, then bulged again. “Get out get out get out he’s mine mine mine mine mine –

“What did you do?!” Erskine screamed, yanking Dexter to his feet. Dexter wasn’t laughing now. Now, he looked surprised and worried.

“This wasn’t meant to happen,” he said, and Erskine cursed and punched him again. Anton shuddered, the spitting curses dissolving into shrieking growls.

“Get out,” Ghastly snapped to Fionn and the residents of the Tír, yanking open the door. “Get out, go –”

Anton shrieked and lunged, and as one Ghastly and Erskine snapped up their hands, air throwing him back. Perfectly ordinary veins bulged in his neck as he skidded and set his feet, fighting against the wall of air with a howl of rage and gisted black eyes.

The wall next to Dexter melted in on itself. Rover’s hands showed themselves, then his chest, stone flaking off him and clothes tearing in half-formed rock as he pushed through, spitting curses in a dialect of Irish from a thousand years ago. Condensation was forming before Rover was all the way out, and when he pulled away he left a layer of skin inside the wall; but he thrust with one hand and a bolt of ice slammed Anton into the ground.

Anton – or the gist – or whatever was in control – pushed himself up, ice cracking over his back. Ghastly pulled water from the air and so did Erskine, and the ice frosted over some more, over and over while Rover pulled heat away. The lump that was Anton trembled, cracked … settled. Slumped. Ghastly exhaled, and lowered his shaking hands.

“Rover –” Dexter began, pushing himself upright, looking genuinely concerned as he reached for Rover’s elbow. With one final curse Rover punched him, and Dexter fell back against the wall. Rover stood there trembling violently with rage, with tears on his cheeks and hair standing up, with ice flakes still on his bare skin and a wild look in his eyes that made him look as fey as anything could.

“Why not me?” he managed. “You had me – you had me –”

“I couldn’t put one of us in you,” Dexter muttered, holding his chin. Ghastly hoped they’d broken a tooth or two. “You wouldn’t be Rover if you were one of us. But the others – they’d have been better.”

Rover’s chest heaved, his finger pointing to Anton. “Is this better?!

“That wasn’t meant to happen,” said Dexter defensively. Erskine wordlessly moved away from him, to Anton, breaking through ice to feel for a pulse. Ghastly didn’t move, keeping the rifle on Dexter.

“He’s alive,” said Erskine after a moment. “But he’s got some bad chest-wounds.”

Rover lifted another soul-catcher, and this one was as black as the other. Dexter shook his head with a sigh and shrug. “It’s not going to work. I spent all day with Pandora on the orb, remember. You think I helped her figure out how to turn the Hotel into a soul-catcher, and didn’t make sure I’d be immune? Besides, that’s just a construct I made to trick you into thinking I was giving over the other Remnant.”

“I spent all day with Pandora on the orb too,” said Rover, his voice thick with tears and trembling with anger. “And you’re right. This is a construct. And the matter of constructs are imbued with Dex.” He twisted the orb, and put it on the desk. For a moment nothing happened. Dexter shrugged again.

A puzzled expression crossed his face, and he put a hand to his chest, like he was feeling his heart. Then he choked, looking surprised. Black veins erupted and he bent over, coughing. They watched in silence as his knees buckled, as he hit the floor on all fours, gasping. “Rover –”

This time when he coughed, blood flecked the floor. Rover’s face contorted and he took a step; but Ghastly had already crossed the floor to catch him by the arm.

It wasn’t fast. It seemed as though the Remnant was being torn apart in the process of being dragged up through Dexter’s throat; he coughed out blood and flakes of darkness which dissolved into nothing. Black veins faded. He took a quivering breath, and his eyes rolled up, and he collapsed. Ghastly let Rover rush to him and turned to the residents of the Tír. Before he needed to ask, a medic hurried toward them.

“Is it –” Fionn swallowed hard and took a deep breath, looking as sick as Ghastly felt. “Is it over?”

“Yes,” said Ghastly, and was surprised by how weary he sounded even to himself. “Yes, it’s over.”

Chapter Text

It was Christmas Eve. Valkyrie was in the hospital. It was a terrible place to be, on Christmas Eve, but it could be worse. It could be Christmas Day. On the upside, she was in a bed next to her mum, with her dad hovering between them. Her head didn’t hurt. Her stomach didn’t want to come up. She’d slept at least a day, according to the calendar.

She was whining.

“Are you sure I can’t get up?”

“Definitely not,” said Dad, shaking his finger at her. “You might fall over. You might hurt your ankle. You might throw up on my shoes. You’re staying right there until the healer says you can get up.”

“She can get up,” said the healer, coming briskly through the door. Valkyrie stuck her tongue out at Dad. Dad stuck his out back. The healer glanced around at them all, smiling. “I’m not sure whether I should be making jokes about forming a family collection, or tell you all off for being put in the hospital at once. Regardless, as long as you take it easy for the next week, you can leave.”

Valkyrie put up her hand. “Does a rousing lunch at the Midnight Hotel tomorrow count as taking it easy?”

“That depends. Is there booze?”

“There’s no booze at the Midnight Hotel,” said Erskine from the doorway, smiling slightly. Even with tired eyes and ruffled hair, he was as beautiful as ever, and his suit was neatly creased, so he’d definitely had a chance to change. The healer certainly did a double-take when he saw him.

“Then it should be fine, so long as you spend most of the party sitting,” said the healer. He barely took his eyes off Erskine. Valkyrie grinned.

“Frankly, Doc,” Erskine said easily, “it’s entirely possible we’ll all spend half the party sleeping on each other. How d’you feel, Melissa?”

“Tired, and sore,” said Melissa, putting her hands on her belly. “But the second part is the baby’s fault. How’s things with you?”

Erskine stepped into the room, nodding as the healer exited. He sprawled in a nearby chair, and if Valkyrie didn’t know him so well it was look easy and not just exhausted. “Well. We’re not sure where Scapegrace is, which is fun. Everyone who hosted the Remnant has memory patches.”

“Maybe he’s dead,” Valkyrie said hopefully. Erskine pointed at her accusingly.

“You’ve seen movies, Cain. If there’s no body, they’re not dead.”

“True. What about Dusk?”

Erskine made a disgusted noise. “Unfortunately not as dead as I’d like. Isara called him. As it turns out, the prospect of getting a permanent handle on vampire changes is enough to secure a vampire’s tenuous loyalty – something, let me tell you, I can do without.”

“So he’s staying?” Valkyrie slumped. “Damn.”

“He’s been tossed in a cell for a while. He’s still one-armed and also smells of vomit, if that makes you feel any better. They had to drag him out through the mess you left.”

“Good.”

Erskine glanced toward the door. “Hopeless and Skulduggery will be here soon. We were hoping we could have a talk. About Valkyrie’s future.”

Valkyrie’s heart skipped a beat, and she definitely didn’t miss the glances her parents exchanged. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” Mum said quietly, taking Dad’s hand. He reached over and put an arm around Valkyrie’s shoulders. “We’re too late with protecting her childhood, aren’t we?”

“I’m sorry,” said Erskine gently. “But yes. You are. The best thing you can do now is to help us help her protect her adulthood.”

“Right.” Mum hesitated, and then nodded, squeezing Dad’s hand. “Then, yes. You can have that talk.”

“Okay.” Erskine turned to Valkyrie. “We were going to meet in Dexter’s room. Do you want to go on ahead and meet us there? Before you start clawing up the bedsheets.”

“Do I ever.” Valkyrie hopped off the bed and swayed with dizziness. She blinked it away and took an experimental step, and was relieved when it was steady. “Ignore that. What about you?”

“I want to talk to your parents still,” said Erskine, and held up his hands. “Nothing bad. I just think we need to talk about having some extra help for you and your mum, especially since we’re putting double guards on Hopeless until Tesseract’s been dealt with.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you there.” Valkyrie didn’t jog. She moved at a pointedly safe pace out of the room and down the hallway. She wanted to check on Dexter anyway; she’d heard what happened, with his Remnant. They’d all figured it would try something, but there’d been so much going on they couldn’t stop it.

But he was alive, at least. Him and Anton. That was where Hopeless was now – talking to Anton.

Dexter’s room wasn’t too far from theirs, which was good because by the time Valkyrie got there her knees were trembling. She paused by the door to catch her breath so she could be appropriately energetic and cheerful, and then continued pausing when she heard Rover’s voice inside, sounding on the edge of tears.

“You idiot. Why would you do that? Why would you – it was my own stupid fault, walking through the door like that. I should’ve noticed something wrong.”

“Like what?” asked Dexter. His voice was soft. Valkyrie could barely hear it. She risked a peek and saw Dexter sitting on his bed, in sweatpants and a T-shirt, stubbled and tired. Rover hovered in front of him, his cheeks wet, his hand out as if torn between hugging Dexter or keeping his distance. “It’s not a sin to walk through a door you’ve walked through a thousand times and expect it to be safe on the other side, Rover. That’s generally how walking through doors works.”

Rover shook his head. “I don’t care. I didn’t – I couldn’t – Dex.” Rover’s voice went very soft on the last word, and his fingers brushed Dexter’s cheek. “With you – like that – I could hardly breathe. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t imagine what kind of future there might be if you’d stayed like that forever.”

Dexter caught Rover’s fingers, held them there. He said simply, “That’s how I felt when you were stone.”

Rover looked like he’d been poleaxed. Then his face split with the most radiant smile Valkyrie had ever seen, and his head ducked, and Valkyrie very quickly looked up at the ceiling, her cheeks hot. If they said anything else, she made an emphatic point not to listen. But she was pretty sure neither of them said anything else, and she didn’t dare look around the door again.

Instead she just waited until Hopeless came down the hall, smiling crookedly at her while leaning on Erskine’s shoulder. Skulduggery trailed behind them, and Ghastly was behind him, eyes narrowed at Skulduggery’s back like a suspicious guard dog.

‘Alright?’ Hopeless signed. Valkyrie’s cheeks warmed again, damn it.

“Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Hopeless laughed silently, and knocked on the door-frame. Erskine gave it a second before poking his head in. “Hello? Oh, good. You’re awake. And sitting up. Come on, Descry. Chair.”

Valkyrie fell into step beside Skulduggery, nudging his bony ribs. He turned his skull and then gave a little jerk, like he was surprised to see her. “Why, Valkyrie. Fancy meeting you here.”

“Idiot,” she said, but she was smiling as she followed him in and flopped on the sofa under the window. Skulduggery stood beside her, arms folded. Ghastly stood beside him. Valkyrie looked around at them all. Hopeless was in the chair opposite her. Dexter was on the bed. Rover was beside him, arm loose around his shoulder and face flushed, with a sillier grin than usual lurking around his mouth.

“Saracen and Anton?” she asked. Hopeless’s head moved fractionally to the side.

“Saracen’s keeping an eye on Anton,” Erskine said, closing the door and drawing a quick privacy sigil on it, and then moving to sit on the arm of Hopeless’s chair. “He’s out of the restraints now, but his temper’s still at boiling levels. It’s like the gist unleashed all the fury back into him while it battled the Remnant.”

“We’ve known something had to come to a head there,” said Skulduggery. “His gist hasn’t been functioning properly since the Faceless Ones.”

“Is he going to be okay for tomorrow?” Valkyrie asked anxiously. It was a stupid thing, maybe, but after the last few years, and especially the last few days, she could really use having her whole family together on Christmas Day.

Hopeless smiled at her. ‘He should be settled by then. He’s going to be easily angered, but he’s also had five hundred years’ worth of neurological conditioning toward restraint. That doesn’t go away in an instant. We should keep his surroundings as close to normal as we can manage while accounting for the difference. He shouldn’t be alone, for instance.’

More than one set of shoulders relaxed. Skulduggery asked, “Wreath?”

“Gone back to the Temple with the rest of his lot,” said Erskine. “We’re pretty sure he managed to put back everyone he took the second go around, but it’s hard to tell from the corpses the Remnants left on their own merit. Fionn isn’t going to try charging him. In fact, some of the necromancers might be out and about; seems like Fionn and the others have taking a bit of a liking to them. Something about having risked life and limb side-by-side. Hopefully they’ll be able to send us some people to help with the clean-up.”

“And the Taoiseach?” Valkyrie asked. She was still not completely sure she hadn’t dreamed having Erskine slump beside her bed and explain where all of them had been, and why.

“I think the word I’d use is ‘invigorated’,” said Erskine, “and then I’d blame Hopeless for corrupting me. Fionn’s talking about a whole bunch of new departments, and for the time being we’re letting him get ahead of himself. He’ll have to come back to earth sooner or later, and if things keep going the way they have, it might not be long before the whole of Ireland finds out about magic through a press conference. It’d be just as well if we had some preparations beforehand.”

Ghastly cleared his throat. “Is there anything else?”

“Julian and Stray,” said Valkyrie, and her voice cracked a little. She cleared it and took a deep breath. Later. She’ll think about Aria later.

“Right,” said Erskine. “Stray’s still catatonic. Pandora and the others are going to have a look at him. He’s like that because of his true-name, so maybe their research can fix it. It’s not how they wanted to get things done, but it’s all we can manage right now.”

“And Julian?”

“He was transferred to a van near Gordon’s mansion,” said Skulduggery glumly. “Unfortunately, I had to choose. Things look very different from the air.”

“And you didn’t know where you were,” said Ghastly.

“Even I have a learning curve, Bespoke. It’s just a very steep one. In any case, now we know who opened the Bridge, or facilitated it.”

“And I think we know who that ‘sponsor’ Corrival mentioned was meant to be,” Erskine murmured darkly, and rubbed his head with a sigh. “Damn. The Children aren’t going to be happy about any investigations into the Old Guard, but if they’ve gone and – done what we think they did –”

“They’ll live,” said Skulduggery, and then added: “Probably. Unless they try to kill us, or someone else. Anything else?”

Valkyrie thought for a bit, then shook her head. “No, I’m good.”

The Dead Men looked around at each other. Rover sat up a bit. So did Dexter. Valkyrie’s heart beat a bit faster. “You’re about to tell me about the case you weren’t telling me about, right?”

“Right.” Ghastly cleared his throat again, and blew out air. “Where to begin.”

“The very beginning,” Skulduggery murmured, not quite in the cadence of Do Ray Me.

Ghastly nodded. “Right. The beginning.” He paused. “Valkyrie, you know that my mother was a Sensitive?”

“Yeah, I knew that.” Valkyrie pushed herself up properly, setting her feet on the floor, so she could turn toward him. “She had a lot of visions, right?”

“Right,” said Ghastly. “The thing is, she had a vision about you.”

Valkyrie blinked. Of all the things, she didn’t imagine their modern case would have anything to do with a vision which had happened centuries ago. “Oh.”

“She had a vision about a partner Skulduggery would get,” Ghastly said, “who would face a great evil that could destroy the world as we know it.”

Valkyrie’s heart beat faster, her fingers tingling with adrenaline. So this was why her parents refused to let the Dead Men tell her anything. She figured it was something like this. “Okay.”

“Valkyrie,” said Skulduggery. “The person we’ve been investigating for the last few months is Mevolent.”

Valkyrie’s mind detached. She blinked at Skulduggery and said slowly, “Mevolent’s dead.”

“No,” said Erskine, looking pale and grim. “Maybe he used to be, or maybe he just never was. Regardless, Mevolent’s alive right now. And we think he’s going to be this great evil that you’re going to have to face.”

“… Oh.” There really wasn’t all that much Valkyrie could say to that, and she wasn’t sure how she was meant to say anything at all when it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Skulduggery’s hand landed on her shoulder and she jumped, and looked up at him.

“Valkyrie,” he said, and then stopped, his head tilting in that eerie Skulduggery way. He gazed down at her, or as near as she could tell, given his empty eye-holes. Finally he stirred, as though he’d forgotten he was speaking, and said, “You aren’t alone.”

“Right,” said Erskine. “You’re our pet. And visions are really easy to misinterpret, anyway.”

“But I thought Mistress Aoife’s always came true,” Valkyrie said, and everyone paused.

“They do,” Ghastly said after a moment. “But them coming true and understanding the way in which they’ll come true are two different things. We’re going to train you. We’re going to prepare you as best as we possibly can. When the time comes, if we can, we’ll stand with you. And if we can’t –”

“Then we expect you to nail the big raggedy scarecrow right in his shrivelled balls,” said Rover, and Valkyrie’s numb terror dissolved into hysterical laughter.

She took solace in the fact that she wasn’t the only one. Because, after all, she wasn’t alone.