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Fractured Crown

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Skulduggery Pleasant never gives much credence to the rumours coming out of Deadfall's pub, in spite of it being a known hangout for the seedier members of Roarhaven. Even so, the night has been anything but productive, and Skulduggery's last clue has led him here.

He arrives in time to see a young woman - dressed in black, long-haired and fair skinned - being harassed by a man twice her size. Skulduggery hangs back for a moment, trying to be sure something nefarious is happening before approaching. It'd be just his luck to break up a couple roleplaying their fantasies in a dirty alley. Again.

But when the man reaches out and grabs the woman's arm, yanking roughly, she lets out a little sound of annoyed protest. "Back. The fuck. Off."

Skulduggery picks up his pace, still strolling but much quicker than he'd like. He doesn't look nearly as graceful at a run, all limbs. But before he can make it across the street, the woman is writhing in shadow, the tendrils coursing from her and up his arm, tightening, causing the man to sink to his knees and keen in a most unbecoming way. The woman backs up a bit, leaning against the wall again.

She sees Skulduggery coming, and more tendrils burst forth, forming a dark halo around her. "Nothing to see," she says, the tone low and warning. The shadows still cinched around the man tighten, and he whines.

"I think you made your point," Skulduggery says finally, drawing closer, pausing on the sidewalk and putting his hands up a bit, showing her that he does not intend to cause problems. "But I suppose I can look away for another ten seconds or so in case you haven't."

The woman's lips twitch upward, and the darkness floods away, coiling slowly around her fingers, teasing, before slipping into a thick black band around her middle finger. "The Skeleton Detective all the way down here?" she asks, sounding amused while she steps over the man's form. He's still gasping for breath. "Interesting."

"I have a few questions."

"About him?" She laughs and shrugs. "Don't know anything other than what you were spying on." She tosses her long, dark hair over a shoulder and gives him a half-smile while sauntering toward the door to Deadfall's.

Skulduggery waits for her to disappear into the pub, glancing at the man on the ground. "Do I need to take you in, or will you stop bothering people?" He doesn't wait for an answer - the man is openly crying, and the woman doesn't seem interested in making a complaint. "Good. Don't let me see you again." And then he slips through the door, following the woman.

He finds her at a small, rickety table near the back. She's alone, but he's a gentleman; he approaches and loiters at her side, murmuring, "Mind if I sit?"

She doesn't even look up; her eyes scan across the face of her mobile, the glow illuminating her dark eyes. "Am I under suspicion for something, Detective?" she asks without any concern in her voice. She smiles at her phone and taps a quick response to a message that pops up; her fingernails are clean, cropped, and painted blood-red.

"Hard to be under suspicion when I have no idea who you are," he says, trying to seem sincere. He has an idea who she is, and if he's correct, then yes, she is certainly under suspicion for many, many things. "May I?"

She waves a hand absently, a little black tendril of shadow slipping from her ring to coil around her hand.

Skulduggery sits. "Possessive friend you have there," he says, meaning the shadow. It licks across her phone for a moment, as if reading the screen, and then retreats.

"You have no idea," she chuckles, finally looking up to meet his eyes. "How can I help you?"

"Do you come here often, Ms....?"

"Cain," she replies without hesitation, knowing it was coming. "Valkyrie Cain."

Skulduggery nods - he suspected as much. He's never had the pleasure of meeting Valkyrie in person, but her name is well-known. "Ms Cain."

She doesn't answer him for a moment. Her phone buzzes on the table, and she absently flicks a finger across the screen, dismissing it. "I'm here most nights," she says finally, leaning back into her chair and crossing her legs. Her dangling foot wiggles in its boot. Normally he would chalk that up to nerves, to a lie, but hers is composed. Bored. "I assume you're here about Rapture's untimely demise in front of the Sanctuary?"

"You keep up on current events, I see."

"Hard not to," Valkyrie shrugs, tilting her head to the side in the same way Skulduggery does. Valkyrie smirks at him as if she knows she's mimicking him, as if she's watched him before. "It's been all over town."

"You just heard in passing? You don't make it a business to know these things?"

Valkyrie laughs, sounding delighted and making a few patrons around her look over anxiously. Skulduggery can't tell if they're more nervous of him or her. "I make it a point to stay educated, yes. What's the point of living if we don't keep learning?"

"Very little," he admits. He hates that he's enjoying their banter, enjoying how Valkyrie verbally skirts around him, circling, waiting for a weakness to show itself.

Before he can press her to answer, Deadfall comes over and slams a bottle of whiskey and a chipped shot glass onto the table, making it wobble on its uneven legs. "Paying customers only," he says to Skulduggery, brow furrowing, eyes hateful.

"Come on, Deadfall; you won't have happy customers like me if you keep harassing our admirers," Valkyrie says, never looking away from Skulduggery's sockets. When Deadfall reluctantly slips away, she blinks slowly, lazily, looking for the life of her like a contented cat. "So, Detective-"

"Skulduggery is fine. Or Mr Pleasant, if it suits you better."

Her lips curl up, amused. "Skulduggery, then. Yes, I heard about the death. I actually went to check the scene earlier today-" Skulduggery had heard this from sources, but he let her continue, noting the honesty, "-and as far as I can tell, it was an elemental who killed him. I'm no detective, of course, but there were char patterns on the marble, and his face looked like he napped in a bonfire." The shadow tendril pokes out slightly but retreats when she twitches her middle finger.

"Do you know any elementals who had something against Argent Rapture?"

"Fuck, half the people in Roarhaven had something against Rapture. I can't blame them - he wasn't really known for keeping alliances for long."

"You sound like you knew him personally."

"Unfortunately; we dated." She pauses. "Less like dating, more like... occasionally slipping home with one another when I was lonely and drunk enough."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"Saw him? I'm not sure, Detective, I see a lot of people." When he doesn't say anything, doesn't move, she shrugs. "I don't know. Two months ago? He frequents one of my haunts when he's in good standing with the owner."

"And which haunt is this?"

Valkyrie doesn't move, but her eyes twitch toward the bar, checking to see if anyone is paying attention. Everyone is, though they're attempting not to. "You know, the name of the club slipped my mind," she says flippantly, but her eyes narrow a bit at the word 'club,' trying to exaggerate her hint. She doesn't need to, of course - it is a rather simple one to suss out, but he appreciates her attempt.

"Perhaps you remember the purveyor's name, then?"

"Sorry, Detective. I can't say that I do." She shoots her drink, pouring and swallowing a second.

"I see. For someone who likes collecting information, you certainly have a fickle memory."

"Alas, it's a curse," she breathes. Her voice is hoarse, but she doesn't cough. She leans back in her chair again, looking very calm and less disinterested. "Is there something else I can help you with, then?"

"Nothing at the moment," Skulduggery cheerily replies, getting to his feet. "I might stop by again tomorrow night, just in case I have some follow-ups. Will you be around?"

"For you, Detective? I'll wait with bated breath." He's about to leave when she holds her hand out to shake his. He hesitates for a split second, not accustomed to that reaction - even from friendlier contacts - but then takes the fingers, giving a firm grip.

She tightens her fingers before he can pull away. "You don't have many friends around here, Detective - be careful." Her tone is light, hardly threatening, but then she glances down at their hands. A little tendril has sneaked out, coiling around his arm and slithering down to his foot. She winks, detaching herself from him and pours another drink.

The little thread of darkness follows him as he leaves, stretched out nice and thin, unnoticed on the dirty floor. Skulduggery tries not to shake it off, tries to ignore how it playfully dips beneath his pant leg, teasing along his sock and poking at his ankle bone.

When he gets outside, he glances down and shakes the shadow off. It dutifully uncurls and coils — 2hrs at mine scrolls across the concrete for a few seconds before retreating to its mistress.

He blinks, surprised. He isn't sure if he's ever seen an Adept use their powers in such an odd, mundane way. But he appreciates it, glancing up at the streetlight.

Now to find out where Valkyrie Cain calls home.

 


 

It doesn't take Skulduggery long to piece it together - there's a reason he recognised her before, and it's not only because she visits the Sanctuary once a week under cover of darkness. It's not only due to him interrupting one of her midnight-meetings with Grand Mage China Sorrows.

She is Gordon Edgley's niece.

Skulduggery met her once - sort of. They inhabited the same room twice after Gordon died. That was when Valkyrie was twelve and grief-stricken, dry-eyed but looking lost at sea. He's not even sure if she noticed him, let alone anyone.

She was Stephanie then; an average student but bright as hell. He'd heard so much about little Stephanie when Gordon was alive. I know she's got it in her, Gordon had said on one of their last visits. She's not like the others in this family. When she discovers magic - Skulduggery, she will be a force to be reckoned with.

And now Gordon's words return to Skulduggery as he drives to the old estate. The man is more right than he can ever know.

Grimwood House stretches before him. "Alright then," he mumbles to himself, deftly steering to park behind a late-model hatchback. It's a horrifying orange colour, not at all what Skulduggery expects the woman to drive.

Skulduggery gets out of the car and slowly approaches the large door. He can see Valkyrie on the other side of the window, waiting with a mug in her hand. Valkyrie opens the door for him and stands aside, sipping from her cup. "Good job finding me," she says in place of a greeting, closing the door, locking it, and heading toward the kitchen. Skulduggery follows her. He notes that she's taken her ring off - Skulduggery isn't worried about her attacking him, but the absence of her power source is a nice, unspoken gesture.

She's full of nice, unspoken gestures.

Valkyrie leans across the island - she's remodelled over the years, he notes, because the cabinets are pale, the countertops black marble - and watches him while he strolls in. "I'd offer tea, but I'm not entirely sure what you've got going on under there." She motions to his form. "You can think and talk and see, but it seems extra-odd to assume you eat and drink."

"It does, and I do not."

"Huh," she says, seemingly pondering it over. "What's the point of living if you can't eat?"

"I'm not technically living."

"You're not technically dead, either."

He can't deny that, so he dips his head a little. "I assume you have something else you want to share with me? Something you couldn't at the pub?"

"Oh, that," she laughs, taking a sip from her mug. "No, I don't have anything for you. I thought you might have some news for me." When Skulduggery doesn't respond, she looks confused. "The...the book? I assumed that's what this was really about."

"And remind me - which book are we referring to?"

"Oh. Oh my," Valkyrie says, her confusion morphing to amusement. Even so, her gaze is dark, stormy with irritation. "China didn't tell you."

"Let us assume she did not. Care to elaborate?"

Valkyrie finishes her tea and throws the bag away, rinsing her mug out and leaving it on the counter near the kettle. "Why don't we have a sit." It isn't a question. Skulduggery follows her into the living room, and they sit, Valkyrie on the arm of the couch, Skulduggery on an overstuffed recliner Gordon favoured.

"So," she begins slowly, "you do still work for the Sanctuary, don't you?"

"Last I was aware, yes."

"Huh. That's...interesting." She stares at his sockets, thinking.

"What is this book?" Skulduggery asks. He's trying to keep himself collected, but the words are concerning, to say the least.

She unzips her leather jacket and lays it out on the back of the couch, her tank riding up along a scar-pocked, muscled abdomen. She pulls the shirt into place and crosses her long legs again. "I had a book in my possession - doesn't matter how I came across it - with some interesting sigils on the front of it. Before you ask, no, I couldn't open it."

"Then how do you know the book was detrimental to China?" he asks slowly.

"I didn't know at first," she says slowly, a small smile dimpling her cheek. "I didn't recognise the symbols, so I did some research. I couldn't find some of them in any books I have access to. They were old, unknowable things. And yet," she spreads her fingers, the polish catching the light, gleaming, "they were there.

"I sat on it for a month, not knowing what to do with it. I told China about it, curious to see what it was. The woman is rather good at hiding her emotions, but she looked hungry when I mentioned it. And then after Rapture stole it, she said it was of 'utmost importance' to retrieve it and to work quietly. I didn't think she meant silently, that the Sanctuary's lead detective would be out in the cold, but here we are."

Skulduggery mulls it over. "You said you couldn't define some of the sigils. What were you able to glean from the others?"

"That the book is old, that the sentence structure on the cover didn't make sense for the modern day. There were a few close enough to the current language, but just barely. It requires blood to open, but not just any blood. Familial blood."

"And what family might that be?"

"That's the question, isn't it? It's not like we carry on family names."

"Did you try to open it with yours?"

"Naturally - how could I resist?" She doesn't wait for his answer. "Anyway. It was definitely an Adept who sealed it, someone with a deeper knowledge of the abyss than me. When my blood hit the grooves, it turned to acid. It didn't burn into the book, but it certainly did a number on my study's carpet."

"Did you try China's library? To look for clues to the other sigils."

"I asked to use it, but she doesn't exactly trust me around important relics."

Before she can say anything else, he interjects, "You didn't say how you know Rapture took the book."

She hesitates and looks guilty for a split-second. Then she sighs, exasperatedly staring up at the ceiling. "I might have lied about when I saw him last."

"Ms Cain."

"I didn't think it was pertinent," she snaps, but she seems more embarrassed than upset. "I told China; I assumed she told you. And we were being eavesdropped on if you don't remember. I don't really like everyone else knowing my personal affairs, you know?"

"So you and Rapture were a couple?"

"God no," she laughs. "I told the truth about that part - we were bone buddies. Sorry," she innocently adds as if she hadn't meant the little slip. "We haven't been a thing in ages. The reason I called him that night was that I wanted to see if he could destroy the book; my magic and the fireplace weren't doing the trick, so I just figured...let's try some Elemental shit."

"Destroy it?"

"Open it. Destroy the sigils."

Skulduggery notes the hesitation in her voice but files it away for later. "And that was...?"

"Two days ago. I couldn't find him, and then China called me this morning, told me he was dead...but you know that part."

"China told you that he'd died?"

"Well...yeah? She asked me to check the body, find out who Rapture talked to, check for hideouts. You know - your job. I guess it makes sense why you were never there to help out, in retrospect."

Skulduggery ignores her, thinking. Finally, he gets to his feet. "Does anyone else know about the book?"

A look passes over Valkyrie's face, but it's gone so quickly that Skulduggery thinks he imagined it. "Not as far as I know."

"And his hideout? Did you find a location?"

"Yes, and I'm so wonderful that I even have the key to it."

Skulduggery flicks the tattoos on his collarbones, facade flowing over him. Valkyrie tries to hide her surprise, but it slips through. "Huh," she says. "I figured you'd be more handsome. Makes me wonder how gorgeous my skeleton must be."

"The skins are random."

"Ah, that's a relief. I'll keep my mental image of you and ignore...that."

"As much as I enjoy knowing you fantasise about my former glory-"

"And here is that infamous ego," she slides off of the arm and pads across the room, through it, and toward the foyer. Skulduggery follows and finds her rummaging through the drawer of a high-table. "My car or yours?" she asks.

"Pardon?"

She pulls a keyring from the drawer and closes it with her hip. "Are you driving or am I?"

"I heard you; I am just confused as to why you're coming."

She raises a brow at him, pocketing the keys and sliding her necromancy ring on. She grabs a less ostentatious jacket, this one a dark grey peacoat, and tosses her hair into a ponytail. "You can't think I'm letting you traipse around my investigation-"

"Your investigation?" he repeats, baffled.

"Well it certainly isn't yours, China made that clear," she chuckles. He hates that he loves her laugh, the way her eyes are always mischevious. She reminds him of the best parts of her uncle and the most intoxicating parts of Abyssinia.

It's a dangerous combination to be around - for anyone, but especially Skulduggery. He'd be a fool to let her come along.

"I'll drive," he says finally, turning for the door.

  


 

Chapter Text


 

Valkyrie ignores Skulduggery's requests not to touch anything in the Bentley. The Bentley, he had explained, is an exceptional car. The Bentley deserves love and respect - more than any living creature on earth, even.

And yet, as soon as Skulduggery starts the car, Valkyrie reaches for the visor, flipping it down.

"What are you doing?" he groans. He knows it's a losing battle, but the despair sweeping over him is too immense to hold back.

"Checking my eyeliner," she replies as if there is a rule about makeup being perfect at three in the morning. And then she closes the visor and pulls open the glovebox.

"Ms Cain," he warns.

"Wow," she murmurs, pulling back from the open compartment. "I suppose it's a good thing you ruled me out as a suspect, huh?" She takes his gun from the glovebox, turning it over in her hands.

"I only use it when forced." He's pretending that he isn't analysing her breathing, noting how it speeds up when she sees the gun, how it stammers when she realises that she knows it.

"This was Gordon's."

Skulduggery doesn't look away from the headlights. "It was."

"I wondered where it went," she murmurs, tracing a painted nail across the design etched on the handle. "It was gone the day after the wake; I assumed someone took it, but..." she shakes her head and forces a smile, putting the gun back and shutting the glovebox. "Sorry. I'm a snoop."

Valkyrie busies herself with her phone after that.

The rest of the drive slips by without a word. When they get close to Grafton Street, Valkyrie slips her phone into her coat pocket and points out an alleyway. "Right there, beside the patisserie." Skulduggery deftly swings the car in, and they bump across the cracked pavers. A floodlight flickers on, motion-activated by the car, and Skulduggery groans. "Of course he lives somewhere well-lit."

"Come on, Detective, surely a little spotlight doesn't give you stage fright. Pull up here," she says. She's opening the door before he finishes parking, grabbing the keys and heading for a flight of rickety wooden stairs.

Skulduggery reaches for the glovebox but hesitates. He leaves the gun, feeling guilty for a reason he can't comprehend, and follows after Valkyrie.

He regrets leaving the gun when the neighbouring flat's door opens. It's only a harried-looking woman, though, snipping, "Miss Stephanie, for God's sake, what are you doing here so late? Bloody light in my bloody window-"

"Sorry Mrs Sellers," Valkyrie says, turning on the charm and looking convincingly apologetic. "Gregor needed some of his coursework. You know how he is when he's waylaid," she laughs, faltering when Mrs Sellers' eyes rove to Skulduggery. "And this is my brother. S...Steve."

"Charmed," Skulduggery greets her when he makes it to the landing.

"Your brother?" Mrs Sellers repeats. She's giving Skulduggery a pitying look and - not for the first time tonight - he has to wonder what the hell his facade looks like.

"Adopted," she shrugs as if it's nothing. She hooks an arm around Skulduggery's, easing him back toward the door. "We really need to get that stuff over to Gregor so he can focus on something other than ordering the nurses around."

"Of course, dear," Mrs Sellers says, but her smile seems forced, and there's something about her eyes that Skulduggery doesn't like. "Nice to meet you...Steve."

They get through the door, and Valkyrie flicks on the light. Skulduggery closes the door behind him and turns, running directly into Valkyrie. She's stopped, still as a statue, in her tracks.

"What the fuck," she whispers.

The room is empty. It's pristine - new carpets, fresh paint.

"It was all here two days ago," she continues, shaking her head. "Everything. I spent all day sifting through all if his shit, and now it's..."

"Valkyrie," Skulduggery begins slowly, watching as she takes stunned steps through the room, looking like a dazed gazelle amid a lion attack. "Is there any chance that Rapture had family that took his things?"

"No," she mutters, shaking her head. The tendril flares from her ring, seeming to hum with the force of its anxious vibrating; Valkyrie's too dumbfounded to notice. "He didn't have a family, he didn't...fuck."

"What about the landlord? Was there an eviction?"

"No, no," she waves her hand, disappearing into the kitchen and reemerging on the other end of the hall. He can hear her muttering darkly, her curses shifting in severity seemingly at random. When she comes back, she's shaking her head. "It's not possible. I paid up the rent until the end of the year. It's not possible."

"Who knew he lived here?"

"No one!" she hisses; the tendril flares toward him but stops before it can make it past her middle finger. She bites her lower lip, shaking her head again. "Sorry. I just...I'm the only one. He never came here unless he was being chased, so someone was after him."

"Or after something he possessed."

Valkyrie looks up at the ceiling, setting her jaw. "That fucking book."

"Indeed. At the very least, it's a working theory. I suppose it might be possible that Rapture's face-melting on the Sanctuary steps had nothing to do with all of his possessions disappearing."

"Occam's Razor."

Skulduggery wants to spend a moment being impressed, but blinding light streams through the cracks in the blinds, making Valkyrie wince. "That goddamn floodlight," she mutters and then stills.

"Valkyrie," Skulduggery begins, deliberately stepping toward the door and flicking the lock. "How many people live in this building?"

"Just Rapture...and Mrs Sellers."

"How much do you know about Mrs Sellers?"

"Evidently not fucking enough," she mutters. They can hear car doors closing - one, two, three - in oddly regular succession. "Sounds like four. Four isn't too bad. I mean, you have a gun, we know they're here, we're on home turf-" When Skulduggery says nothing, Valkyrie turns to look at him. "You don't have the gun, do you?"

"I do not, no."

"Detective-"

"I can tell you that I do if that makes you happier."

"Alright, time to step aside, Pleasant," she snaps, hand pressing into his chest, trying to steer him toward the back room. "This is more my expertise, anyway. We get through the back window, down the lattice, and then through the back gate. There's a pair of keys to a getaway car-"

"You just happen to have a getaway car nearby?"

Valkyrie raises a brow at him. "What kind of criminal would I be if I didn't have getaways stashed outside safehouses?"

Ah. Somehow Skulduggery forgot about her dubious standing within the community. The reminder definitely puts a damper on the night. "So your plan is to run when things get interesting?"

The rickety stairs began to creak, interrupting. Valkyrie's eyes widen, and her hand grips his lapel. "Detective -- Skulduggery," she corrects. "We don't know who's on the other side of that door."

"That's quite the idea, Ms Cain." He watches her - she's very openly torn, dark eyes sweeping from him to the room over his shoulder. "Valkyrie," he softly says. Her gaze tempers. "You're not part of this. You can go."

Valkyrie goes so still that he worries for her health. But then she breaks, brows furrowing, mouth tugging into a grimace. "Fuck you," she says without heat, positioning herself beside the front door. The tendril around her finger coils, coaxing its brothers and sisters into a writhing ball of darkness.

"Cover the light for us, would you?" Skulduggery asks, and the darkness in her hand sweeps above them, twisting around the pendant light and plunging them into darkness. "Don't do anything until I give the signal," he adds.

"Signal?" she repeats. He can hear her breathing speed up through the darkness, thrumming with anxious energy. "What's the signal?"

"You'll know."

Everything is quiet. The footsteps have paused at the top of the landing. Skulduggery reaches out, reading the air on the other side of the door. Valkyrie was right - there are four of them. Skulduggery trains his gaze on the narrow strip of light under the door sweep, watching as shadows shift, the men approaching.

And then the door kicks open, and the men storm in.

Skulduggery hurls a fireball the moment that the fourth man clears the door, setting the wooden frame on fire and spinning orange light through the room. Valkyrie twists her hand, the shadows recoiling from the light, blinding the unprepared men. Two thick cords of darkness shoot out, finding their victims. One chooses to choke a man unconscious - the second wraps itself around one's gun, yanks it free, and then shoves the man into the wall. It continues a sharp barrage, knocking him into the wall, pulling him back, and then pushing again.

A kick of Skulduggery's leg disarms the third - the fourth manages to raise the gun and let off a series of rounds, two bullets scraping Skulduggery's scapula; two more embed into his suit. His ribs flare in annoyance at the bruising force, but his jacket does its job and keeps damage to a minimum.

Skulduggery slams his elbow into the third man's neck, sending him sprawling to the ground and choking for breath. Skulduggery gives a solid stomp of his heel to the man's forehead, and he goes limp. The fourth man has frozen, staring toward the flaming doorjamb. Skulduggery is about to kick the attacker's knee out from under him, but shadows spill around the man and Valkyrie is there.

Shadow engulfs her - it pours from her ring and through her eyes - which are, disconcertingly, glowing - tendrils winding out around her neck. Skulduggery is rarely surprised enough to break his concentration, but this does it.

Valkyrie glides across the room - the area isn't that large, but she's moving so slowly that it seems to take forever. The man is shaking, eyes wide. "Val," he says suddenly, and Valkyrie's lips twist into a smile.

"Hello Proffer darling," she purrs, and the voice is different. Darker.

"Valkyrie," Skulduggery tries, but she doesn't break eye contact with her prey. Her left hand shoots out and takes the man by the neck, shoving him back into the wall. Their chests press together, and the shadows seem to leak from Valkyrie into the man.

"What are you doing here, Proffer?"

"I didn't know it was you," the man whimpers. Skulduggery stands back, watching, unsure how he should proceed. "I didn't, Val. I swear. I would have never shot at you, I swear. I swear, Val."

Valkyrie sighs, sounding bored, and releases the man's neck. Before Proffer can get too comfortable, tendrils of darkness take her fingers' place, yanking him up the wall, feet dangling. "I don't suffer begging, so why don't we get on with it, yeah?"

The man gurgles, fingers clawing at the darkness, passing through uselessly.

"Valkyrie," Skulduggery warns, flicking his hand and extinguishing the inferno that was once the front door, "we don't want them dead."

"Skulduggery, darling, be a dear and secure Mrs Sellers, will you?"

"Valkyrie, drop him." The shadows swirl, annoyed, and the man is yanked up to the high ceiling, his head banging against it. Proffer gurgles and the ceiling cracks. "Valkyrie," Skulduggery repeats. "Drop. Him."

"Such a killjoy," the voice that isn't quite Valkyrie's purrs, and then the shadows retreat into her ring and Proffer drops. Hard. The man's gagging is only interrupted by intermittent yelps, his hands shaking as they hover above the broken mess of his legs.

Valkyrie kneels to the ground and caresses a hand across Proffer's cheek. "It's been a while. Who are you working with these days?"

"I don't know," he whimpers, eyes wide, meeting Valkyrie's. "I swear, I don't know! Kimber told Ransom that she needed us to box this place up and kill anyone who came round snooping!"

"Natalia Kimber, huh?"

The man hesitates, eyes turning to Skulduggery. "Please, Detective, please. I surrender - take me in for questioning."

"We'll question you here, and then I'll take you in. How's that?" Skulduggery offers.

"She's gonna kill me," he whines.

Valkyrie slaps his cheek, and he recoils from her. "It's not very nice to try going above my head, you know. He's not going to save you from me."

"Don't kill him."

"I'm not going to...unless he provokes me."

"Valkyrie."

Valkyrie ignores him. "So, Prof. You were talking about Kimber?" 

"She...she called Ransom yesterday, said she tracked down an item that she needed. She didn't say what for, or -- oh God, I think I have a concussion."

"You're going to have a hole in your head if you don't keep talking," Valkyrie suggests. The playful tendril that pokes out of her ring straightens, shoving itself against Proffer's temple in warning.

"Jesus -- alright, alright just -- just put that away!" When it presses into his skin, he whimpers and rushes out, "Ransom said Kimber wanted us to track down some asshole named Rapture. Said he was some low-level thug who had a penchant for finding things he shouldn't. Said he had some kind of artefact on him and we needed to secure it before he figured out how to use it."

"And how is it used?" Skulduggery asks from behind Valkyrie.

The man swallows. "You have to believe me; I don't know. I'm just on-call - they tell me where to go, I go!"

"Which one is Ransom?"

The man looks between Skulduggery and Valkyrie. "His left cheek's messed up. Scar tissue."

Skulduggery finds the indicated man - he's the one who has an imprint of Skulduggery's shoe on his forehead - and binds him. He finishes with the others before warily touching Valkyrie's shoulder. "I'm going to get Mrs Sellers. Don't kill him."

"As you wish," she says simply, getting to her feet and stepping away from Proffer. She shows Skulduggery her hands, empty and tendril-free, and smiles coyly. "I'm not an untethered hell hound, you know. I can control myself."

He's not so sure about that, but he trusts her enough to leave her. He knocks down Mrs Sellers' door, knowing she's more than likely gone, and searches the apartment.

It holds no personal items. It holds barely anything at all, save a bed and a landline telephone. The landline is busted, looking like it was repeatedly beaten and then set aflame.

When he returns to the former safe house, he finds Proffer slumped over on his own chest and Valkyrie on her phone. She glances up at him; her eyes aren't glowing anymore, which is a pleasing development. "His whimpering got on my nerves, so I suggested he take a nap."

Skulduggery sighs and grabs two of the men's ankles, lifting a third with a buffet of wind, and says, "Can you manage him?"

"Sure," she shrugs as if it's nothing. She grabs one of Proffer's broken legs and proceeds to drag him out of the apartment by it. Skulduggery can't tell if it's Proffer's leg-jostling or his head smacking the steps while she guides him down, but something makes him wake up, shriek, and then pass out again when a tendril hits his shattered knee.

"You have quite the bedside manner," Skulduggery says when they pile into the Bentley, two men in the backseat and two in the boot.

"I do, actually, just not for that motherfucker."

"You and Proffer have a history."

"Certainly sounded that way, didn't it?"

Skulduggery waits for a moment, the Bentley gliding out of the alleyway and away from Grafton. "It's just a bit odd, isn't it? You show up right in the middle of an investigation; you also know most of the players involved thus far."

"I have a history with a lot of scum, Skulduggery. It doesn't mean I'm scum, too."

"One might argue that it raises red flags, however."

She puts her phone away and angles herself toward him. It's too dark in the car to see her expression, but he can feel her annoyance. "Look, you came to me, not the other way round. I'm trying to help you here, and I can't do that if you keep questioning me."

"Then start filling in the blanks for me, Valkyrie."

"What blanks?!" she snaps, finally breaking. "There are no blanks! I told you everything I know! Why would I bother telling you things only to hide others? What do I get out of it? Why would I throw myself into a fight I don't need to be in unless I'm honest-to-God trying to help?"

"Pretending to help means a lack of suspicion, for one. Inside knowledge of how I operate."

He can feel the mood in the car plummet from anger to hurt. Valkyrie settles back into her seat, staring straight ahead, jaw clenched. "Take me home."

"I still have questions."

"Then put me in a bloody cell," she mutters darkly.

Skulduggery doesn't respond, but he does take the exit toward Grimwood.

When they arrive at the estate, Valkyrie climbs out of the car and slams the door, heading toward the house. She stops in her tracks as she nears it, though, and then she sinks to her knees.

Skulduggery gets out of the car, locking it, and comes to join her at the foot of the walkway pavers.

The door to her house is open, the lights inside flooding the walkway with cheerful light. Strung across her entrance like a festive banner are the remains of what looks to be a cat.

"Valkyrie-" Skulduggery begins slowly.

Valkyrie isn't crying, but her shoulders are shaking, and black tendrils are coiling around her body, writhing and growing with each second. "You should go. Now," she says, and then she stands, striding across the pavers, under the strewn entrails, and into the house.

Skulduggery doesn't leave, but he doesn't follow her, either. He stands and watches as she passes by the windows, the bright lights illuminating her in spite of the shawl of shadows around her. She stalks like a predator, like a large cat, from brightly-lit room to brightly-lit room.

He's sure no one is in the house, but glass shatters from an upper bedroom, and a body is flung through it, landing at Skulduggery's feet. And then another. And then a third.

When Valkyrie returns, the shadows are gone. She looks drained, her eyes glassy. "I hope you have a big enough boot," she says before slumping against her car, a bloody hand cradling her forehead.

The bodies are practically unrecognisable, but they host the same semi-automatic weapons tucked into their belts that the first four did. These three, however, are very dead and very bloody, limbs half torn off, necks twisted. One is even missing fingers.

"Do you have any trash bags?" he asks, horrified at the idea of those anywhere near the Bentley. "All of the trash bags in existence, preferably?"

"Jesus tapdancing Christ," she mutters and wavers. She disappears into the house; while she's gone, tendrils of darkness gently take the cat's remains from where they are nailed above the door, laying it out under a large rose bush.

When Valkyrie returns, she has a pair of keys and a thick tarp. The shadows wrap the bodies up while she opens the hatchback of her car. When the bodies are secure in the back, she turns to look at him. She's in shock; she looks through him, past him, into nothingness. "Let's go."

"You shouldn't drive."

Valkyrie shrugs and gets behind the wheel of her car, the engine finally catching after three attempts. She idles, waiting for Skulduggery to lead the way - which he does, keeping a close eye on her through his rearview mirror during the drive into Roarhaven.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

China is not pleased.

"What are you doing here?" she asks. Skulduggery assumes she's speaking to Valkyrie, but China's eyes narrow at him.

"My job."

Her pale eyes sweep from Skulduggery to Valkyrie. "Care to explain, child?"

Valkyrie raises a brow at her but she's too drained to fight, it seems. "My job. Which, oddly, turns out to be his job, too."

China sighs and opens the door to her private chamber, stepping aside to let them in. "Well, I suppose you should both come in, then. Although I would appreciate a warning next time."

"We were ambushed tonight, so you'll forgive our lack of decorum," Skulduggery says, slipping into her room. Valkyrie follows and deposits herself into a chair in the sitting area as if she's done it a million times. She probably has, Skulduggery reminds himself; she's been at China's disposal for years, after all.

Valkyrie lets Skulduggery do the talking, resting her head in an upturned palm. Her eyes are drooping, and she's somehow paler than before. Skulduggery hadn't expected her weariness, but he also hadn't considered that she's a powerful Adept, yes, but she's still a living human. She isn't Lord Vile. She isn't a teaming mass of hate, restless and bloodthirsty.

China takes in the information about the night, fingernails absently taping on the arm of her high-backed chair, thinking. "So, Kimber is involved," she says finally with a little sigh. "She has a small army behind her; she isn't one to trifle with lightly - even for you, Skulduggery."

"But trifling is my strong suit."

"Be that as it may," China softly smiles, "she is a dangerous person to corner. If she senses that I'm aware of her involvement in my book's disappearance-"

"Your book?" Skulduggery repeats.

"The plan was to sell it to her," Valkyrie says as if it's nothing - as if it wasn't something she should have disclosed sooner.

Skulduggery pauses. China doesn't deal in money. "In exchange for?"

"The name and location of someone who can help me with a very personal matter," Valkyrie says, terse. She is still upset, and Skulduggery guesses she has a right to be.

"It is a personal matter, Skulduggery," China confirms, sensing his scepticism. "Nothing at all to do with anyone but Valkyrie herself."

Skulduggery decides to let it go for now. "What would you have us do about Kimber, then?"

"Follow her, of course. She is of the utmost-"

"We have other leads to look into first," Valkyrie says, not caring that China glares at her interruption. The girl straightens in her chair as much as her body allows. "We need to track down Mrs Sellers, we need to have a chat with a club owner I know, and we can keep questioning the guys who attacked us."

"We could use a few additional bodies," Skulduggery admits, even though he hates having more metaphorical chefs in the metaphorical kitchen. More hands rarely lead to less work in Skulduggery's experience.

China mulls it over before standing, going to a small table against the side wall. Her dressing gown dramatically sweeps out behind her, the shimmering blue catching in the light like tiny diamonds. She busies herself with something before turning to them. "I will call in some discreet professionals; look into your other leads. Quietly," she adds, narrowing her eyes at Valkyrie. "No more running around and dragging others into this. Understood?"

Valkyrie gives one twitch of her head, the barest of nods, and gets to her feet. She doesn't stumble, which Skulduggery is surprised by. The dark haired woman leaves the room without a word, and Skulduggery turns to follow.

"I assume it would be redundant to ask you to be careful when it comes to her," China says before Skulduggery can reach the door.

Skulduggery doesn't turn, but he does murmur, "She's in your employ, isn't she?"

"She's contracted, yes. That doesn't mean I don't handle her with care." When Skulduggery doesn't reply, she glides up to him, placing a gentle hand on his. "Perhaps you should see Wreath before letting her too close."

Skulduggery holds back a groan. "You know I'm not going to see him."

"He was her mentor for years," China continues softly. "She left his care before her Surge, and now her powers are...volatile." China shakes her head slightly as if shivering free from a memory. "Talk to Wreath." She pauses and then adds, "And take that facade off. You look hideous."

Skulduggery pulls himself free of her and opens the door. "Good night, Grand Mage." She merely blinks, slow and sombre, and he disappears into the corridor. He finds Valkyrie leaning against the far wall, eyes closed and face lifted to the soft lighting. "Ready?" he asks her.

Valkyrie looks at him, her gaze guarded. "Let me guess. She gave you the 'don't trust her further than you can throw her' routine?"

"She did."

Valkyrie nods. "Probably for the best; I could charm birds from their nests if I wanted to." And then she pushes off of the wall, heading for the carpark. "See you around, Detective."

Skulduggery catches up to her within three strides; she's too tired to flow through the halls with her usual speed. "Granted, I am an Elemental. I can throw you pretty far, I'd imagine."

"See, I told you - warn them all you want, but I'm irresistible."

The silence descends, thicker than Skulduggery likes. "You know I had a right to question your goals."

"You still have a right. Doesn't mean you have to be such a dick about it."

He laughs, surprised, and she can't hide a little grin. "My sincerest apologies. Let me drive you home."

She shakes her head, ponytail coiling with the motion, looking like one of her shadows. "I can't go back there right now. I'll get a hotel - one with a spa, preferably, and round-the-clock bar service."

They make it to the carpark. Their vehicles are side-by-side, looking very out of place together, and they pause near the bonnets. "You can stay with me," he says finally. "I don't have a spa, but it's safe and quiet."

Valkyrie hesitates. She turns her gaze from his facade to her car. "I'll be fine," she finally says. "Thanks, though." And then she's ducking into her car, starting it, and rolling away from him.

Skulduggery watches her go, wondering why he regrets letting her do so.

When he makes it home, he catches sight of the facade in one of the windows and grimaces. The others weren't kidding; this facade - with its bushy brows, drooping jowls, and distractingly uneven, watery eyes - should not exist.

 


 

Valkyrie doesn't go to a hotel. She goes home and buries Ginger, the yellow tabby Tanith adopted for her on their third anniversary.

Valkyrie carries the remains herself, lowering Ginger to the small grave she's constructed under the shadbush where the cat would watch birds and chase rabbits. She stares into the hole, her chest tight, but she doesn't cry.

She can't remember the last time she cried. When her sister was born, perhaps? But those were happy tears, not the distraught, exhausted ones she expects to take over.

She covers Ginger with earth and places smooth-edged rocks around it, marking it forever. She presses her bloody, dirt-caked fingers to the soil and lets out a soft breath. "I'm sorry," she says because she is. She's overwhelmingly sorry.

Valkyrie gets to her feet and crunches through broken glass and the blood-stained ground in front of her house. She passes through the door, under the crimson nails that held Ginger's body aloft.

Valkyrie closes the door and goes to the kitchen, pulling vodka from the freezer and swallowing directly from the bottle.

 


 

Skulduggery hates the Temple. He waits outside while a fledgeling necromancer finds Solomon Wreath, who finally emerges after fifteen minutes. "Apologies, Detective," he says, sounding so insincere that it's momentarily baffling. "I have a student who needs some extra training. How can I help you?"

"What happened to your face?" Skulduggery asks, completely forgetting everything else for a moment.

Wreath's expression is placid. "Shaving accident. I fear I had a sneeze and things became very bloody after that."

There's no way that the sloped slice down his features was a shaving accident. It's too perfect, too intentional. It isn't healing, either; the wound, at least three days old, is still puckered and raw. "Was that from the novice who needs extra attention?"

"If it will make you get to the point, Pleasant, you may think that, yes."

Skulduggery re-focuses. "I was hoping we could speak somewhere private."

Wreath glances around and then back at Skulduggery, looking wary. "Am I under arrest for something?"

"Not at the moment, but I wouldn't press me." When Wreath scowls, Skulduggery continues, "I have some questions about a former student of yours."

Wreath sighs and beckons Skulduggery to a shady crop of trees around the back of the Temple. It's cool and quiet, precisely the type of outdoor retreat his molelike pupils would enjoy. "Which student?" he asks, sitting on a small bench.

Skulduggery continues to stand. "Valkyrie Cain."

Wreath's face shifts for a moment before he can control it. "Strange that she's a concern to you, Detective. The last I heard, she was working with your Grand Mage."

"She's your Grand Mage, too."

Wreath spreads his hands, forcing a smile. "But of course. I simply mean that you work for her, so I am curious as to why you're investigating one of your colleagues."

"Your curiosity is noted. About Ms Cain?"

Wreath settles himself back for a moment, regarding Skulduggery's sockets. "She was a promising student. She came to me when she was thirteen. She had more power than I expected - for a moment, I even thought she might be the Death Bringer."

"And she isn't?"

"No," he laughs. "She certainly isn't. Valkyrie's powerful, but there's something else inside of her. Something that she can't control; something that feeds her power. I saw it a handful of times early on, but I thought nothing of it - another hormonal student acting out in fits of teenage angst. But it grew as she did. It got stronger. There would be moments when Valkyrie would look at me and then through me, and then it wasn't Valkyrie. It was something else entirely."

"And that thing was...?"

"I haven't the faintest idea, Detective. I don't startle easily, but she concerned me. She eventually left when she was sixteen, amid a particularly shadow-filled rage. I thought she'd come back when she had time to cool, but she never did."

"Those shadows...what is her discipline?"

"Unless she has declared one since leaving the Temple, she doesn't have one."

"How is that possible?"

"There have been instances where sorcerers choose to hone their practices at will, making their own rules as they go."

Skulduggery sighs, letting out a breath he doesn't need. "She's Neoteric?" The similarities between Valkyrie and Abyssinia are beginning to worry him.

"It would appear so. While Valkyrie was here, she managed to learn some, read some, and work on her temper, but the latter was never silenced. Her magic is very enthusiastic in her rage."

"I've noticed," Skulduggery murmurs dryly. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"

"Other than her power was - probably still is - highly unpredictable and she's shown signs of potential mental health problems? Nothing."

"Mental health problems?"

"Her bunkmate mentioned that she talked to herself sometimes — held conversations with someone who wasn't there. We had our doctors examine her, and she passed all of our testings. Even so...she isn't quite right. Wasn't - I can't speak to her current state of mind." Wreath waits for another question; when it doesn't come, he says, "If she'd like to come back-"

"I doubt she does, but I'll pass it along."

Wreath nods, but he looks less hostile, more curious. "How is she?" There's a strange affection in his voice. It's unsettling.

"I couldn't say - we just met last night."

Wreath clears his throat and stands. "Well then, Detective. If that's all?"

"I'll let you know if I have any more questions." He watches as Wreath leaves him, slipping out of sight like a spectre. And then he pulls out his phone, thumbing through his contacts. He calls Valkyrie, and she answers on the third ring.

"Good timing," she says without a greeting. "Care for another night out?"

"And where are we going tonight, Ms Cain?"

"That club I conveniently forgot the name of. Pick me up at mine around half-eleven. Oh - and wear a better facade, for Christ's sake. I can't have 1000-year-old Lurch walking around with me in a public place." And then she hangs up.

Skulduggery stares down at the phone and shakes his head. He still isn't sure if he can trust her, but he desperately wants to.

 


 

Valkyrie takes the lead, which is a role she was born for. She presses her red nails over strange sigils against a blank wall in the middle of a dank alleyway. She traces some, ignores others, and then pushes her thumbnail into a small groove in the stones.

The bricks peel back, forming a jagged, low doorframe, and she sweeps inside.

Valkyrie can feel Skulduggery at her back, but she doesn't pay him any heed. She ducks through the tunnel's low ceiling, her coifed hair barely managing to avoid snagging on the rocks.

"Why do you Adepts always cloister below ground?" Skulduggery grumbles from behind her, that velvety voice sending little thrills up her arms.

She tries to ignore it, to shake it off, but the tendril from her ring reacts to the shiver, coiling as if looking for the voice. Darquesse's influence behaves oddly around Skulduggery, and she isn't sure why; she is sure that it annoys the hell out of her, though. She flicks her finger and the shadow slides away. "This isn't an Adept hovel, Detective; it's a criminal hovel. Does that answer your question about the secrecy?"

And then they are spilling out into a dark, thrumming room. "Stay cool," Valkyrie says even though she doesn't need to; it's Skulduggery-fucking-Pleasant, after all.

She eases her way to the bar and reaches out to grab his facade's hand, pulling him close. She's tall, the same height as Skulduggery in her heels. Her lips ghost across his cheek to his ear. "Kimber has a handful of bodyguards who keep watch while she's around. They're not here, so she isn't, either."

"We're not supposed to be going after Kimber tonight," he reminds her.

"True, but whoever is might have spooked her." Valkyrie sighs, pulling back slightly to meet his gaze. "She's always around on Friday." Her eyes rake around over Skulduggery's shoulder, and she doesn't sound pleased when she murmurs, "I'd like to think that China knows how to pick her spies, Skulduggery, but the only people I really trust to manage this is you and me. Me moreso, of course, but you're on the list." Her head snaps to the side, peering over his shoulder. "Be right back."

"Valkyrie," he hisses, grabbing her arm and holding her in place. "You're not solo tonight."

She raises a brow at him and pulls her arm back. "I'm running lead, and the best way for me to do that is to hoodwink some idiots. It'll be easier if you're not ghosting me through the room." She fakes a laugh as if he said something amusing, brushing a finger over his cheek with a fondness she's too good at faking. "Be right back. Or not. Just keep an eye out."

And then she slides around him and toward the far wall where Vaurien Scapegrace is standing. Scapegrace notices her before she reaches him, so she pauses on the edge of the dancefloor, grins, and beckons him over.

Luckily Scapegrace has a soft spot for her. Granted, he admitted that he'd love to watch the life leave her eyes - more than once - so the softness might be closer to murderous than she thinks.

Scapegrace glances around, making sure no one is paying attention and comes to join her. "Finally got over the blonde, huh? Kinda figured you'd give me a call eventually, ask me to end it all for you. You'd make quite the piece of art."

Valkyrie tries to think of her course of action before acting - it's not really her modus operandi, but Scapegrace is an easily manipulated source, and she isn't ready to burn that bridge if she can help it. "Oh, my leggy date over there?" she laughs, glancing back at Skulduggery. He's chatting with a man next to him, one that Valkyrie doesn't recognise. "You know you're my starving artist of choice," she adds, wrapping her arms around his neck and drawing him into a dance. "He just pays for the drinks."

"I'm on shift all night, but I can put some carving time aside if you're ready-"

"What's the rush? We have tons of time to kill me," she interrupts. God, she wants to string him up on the ceiling and tear him apart. She swallows down the sudden bloodlust, Darquesse's purring laugh in her ear. "So, is Sanguine in tonight?"

Scapegrace's eyes narrow, but she lets her hips stammer, bumping his, and his suspicion is forgotten. "Yeah, of course. I mean, he's in back."

"Think I can pop back there and have a chat with him?" she asks innocently. "I am kind of curious about that little job he offered me a week back. If it's still on the table."

"Job?" Scapegrace repeats. "I didn't know about a -- I mean. Of course. The job. That job. Um...yeah. Yeah! I'm sure he'd prefer you to do something like...like that job that I definitely know about."

Valkyrie keeps her face sweet. "Can I go on back?" Another hip bump, this time lingering, and Scapegrace seemingly forgets how to breathe.

Valkyrie disentangles herself from him, glancing back at Skulduggery. The facade's eyes are trained on her now. She gives a little head jerk to the side and disappears into a back hallway. Past the bathrooms and around the corner. The hallway deadends, but Valkyrie presses her hand to the stone and singsongs, "Guess who?"

The rocks part and Valkyrie enters. Billy-Ray is behind his desk, looking down at his phone. He has a computer and a tablet powered on, too, and seems to be working on all of them. "If it isn't my favourite double-agent -- hey, what the hell?" he snaps, getting to his feet when Skulduggery enters. "Who the fuck're you?"

"Oh, he's just my rebound boyfriend, forget about him," Valkyrie murmurs, slipping into a chair in front of Billy-Ray Sanguine's desk. She takes a moment to smooth down her tight skirt, and then smiles at him. "So. Billy-Ray. Love. How are you?"

Sanguine can't tear his eyes from Skulduggery - rather, he can't tear his sunglass-covered, eyeless gaze from Skulduggery. "Val, as great as your dude must be-"

"Billy-Ray," Valkyrie continues, voice harder, leaving no room for Sanguine to weasel around it. "I assume you heard about Rapture?"

Sanguine sets his jaw. "Y'all should probably leave before you ask somethin' I can't let you walk away from."

Valkyrie tilts her head to the side. "That's an odd reaction to a mundane question. I'm simply curious if you heard Rapture died."

"Yeah, obviously I heard," he mutters. "Hard not to when dude's face was so burned it melted off of his skull."

"Have any birdies told you about who might have been after him?"

"As much as I love your vigilante meddlin'-" Valkyrie grins, and Sanguine hesitates. "I got nothin', babe. Sorry."

"When was the last time you heard from Rapture?" Skulduggery finally asks.

Sanguine's brows furrow, disappearing behind the sunglasses. "Sorry, who are you?"

"Her rebound. Now answer."

Sanguine makes a show of leaning back in his chair, covering his face with his hands like they're bothering him. "I don't know; the little shit was always showin' up like a kicked puppy. A month ago, maybe?"

"Do you have any video cameras on the premises?"

Sanguine laughs mockingly. "Sure, Rebound. Sure. I have recording devices all through my illegal club where drug deals are the least of the crimes any given night."

Valkyrie rolls her eyes. "Drop the attitude, Sanguine. I don't want to keep reminding you who holds power here."

"Darlin', I could drop you in the middle of'a tectonic plate in the blink of an eye."

"I wouldn't suggest it," Skulduggery murmurs. "I'm just starting to like her."

Valkyrie's smile doesn't twitch, though she wants to toss an eye-roll at Skulduggery. "For old time's sake, Billy-Ray. You know Tanith would want you to help me out."

"I don't know," Sanguine repeats, but he flips through his tablet before quietly sliding it across to Valkyrie. "You can sit here an' stare at me all night, gorgeous, but it's not gonna make a damned bit'a difference."

Valkyrie scrolls through the tablet, eyes scanning across the text. Valkyrie doesn't understand what she's seeing until she realises she's looking at a ledger. She flicks between the tabs until she finds one that catches her eye. Rapture's name. His tab is empty save for four days prior. There are three entries, three fees.

She nods, takes out her phone, and snaps a picture of the screen. "Well, it's unfortunate you couldn't help us out," Valkyrie sighs, meeting Sanguine's glasses. "I might have to come back and pester you a little later. Still here nightly, yeah?"

Sanguine glowers. "I gotta sell this place, get outta Ireland. Y'all're too intense, and that's comin' from a Texan."  Valkyrie gets to her feet, and Sanguine flips a switch beside him, opening the stones for them. Before they make it through, Sanguine adds, "Still got my blade?"

"Yep, don't go anywhere without it. I even sleep with it under my pillow."

"I'd think that was hot if you hadn't stolen a piece'a my soul when ya took it."

"You'll get it back. Someday. Probably through an eye-hole, but you know...you'll still get it back." She leaves, and Skulduggery follows her out, but only after giving Sanguine a long look.

In the Bentley, Valkyrie grabs her phone from her purse and pulls up the picture. "Sanguine doesn't use his ledgers for drink tabs - he uses them for appointments. The first two charges are coded 1A. That means Rapture met with Sanguine at..." she checks the data. "Nine-thirty on April 28th, and then again at midnight."

"And?"

"You don't meet with Sanguine unless you're running a job or trying to reach someone higher up. Rapture's too much of a fuckup for anyone to trust him with a job, so that must mean..." She pinches and expands her fingers, analysing. "Yep. He met with NK, which is obviously Natalia Kimber." Valkyrie chews on the inside of her cheek, thinking. "I suppose we should try meeting with China's spy, see what Kimmie's been up to."

Skulduggery drives her home, but she hesitates before climbing out. "Would you rather I take you to the hotel?" he asks.

"What?" she looks baffled at the question, and then guilty. "Oh, no, it's fine. I'm good." And yet she hesitates in the seat, staring at the darkened house.

"Valkyrie," he begins softly, but she shakes her head and climbs out of the car.

"'Night, Detective."

"Goodnight, Ms Cain."

Valkyrie pretends that he isn't loitering in her drive, waiting to ensure she's alright. She pretends his watchful gaze doesn't make her feel better. Not exactly safe, but that she isn't alone. Sometimes that's better than being safe.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Valkyrie is late. Skulduggery doesn't know her time management skills - maybe she's late to everything - but it's beginning to worry him. He makes pleasant small-talk for as long as he can, and then finally sighs, tilting his head to the side. "Do you mind if we start without my partner, Ms Low?"

The blonde across from him smiles, looking nonplussed. "I've been staring at the principle's flat since eight-am yesterday and was on a plane three hours before that, so I'd be chuffed to get on with it."

"Right," Skulduggery sighs. "So, Ms Low. Have you noticed anything at Kimber's residence?"

"She stayed in all night. I checked with a neighbour, and the neighbour seems to think it's odd behaviour for her. Supposedly she's out on Friday nights until around five in the morning."

"Why the deviation? I hate to ask, but is there any way that she noticed you and your partner?"

"No," she says, but she doesn't take offence. "We are very, very discreet, Detective. It's the reason your Grand Mage called us."

The coffee shop door jingles and Valkyrie blows in, wind-swept and apologetic. And then she stops, eyes widening. "Tanith?"

Tanith's placid expression splits into a mischevious grin. "So, Sorrows wasn't messing, after all." The blonde is on her feet with startling speed, and her strong arms envelop Valkyrie.

All of the words spill together in one long sentence of overlapping voices. Oh my God, it's been so long -- why didn't you call me -- conversations are a two-way street -- Christ's sake, your hair is amazing -- when did you start gumshoeing --

"Ladies?" Skulduggery finally interrupts after thirty seconds of non-stop questions and zero answers.

"Sorry," Valkyrie says quickly, coming to sit beside Skulduggery.

"Sorry," Tanith echoes, finding her professionalism again. She sits, hands folded on the table in front of her, serene. "As I was saying - she doesn't know we're watching; if she did, she probably wouldn't be holding meetings all night. Edge is identifying her friends right now."

"But why would she deviate from her normal routine?" Skulduggery presses.

"I am on a need-to-know, so I can't say with certainty. But, I am assuming - and assumptions are dangerous, so please tell me if I am out of line - Kimber's trying to prepare for something big."

Valkyrie glances at Skulduggery; he can see the brightness in her eyes from his periphery. "The book."

"Perhaps."

"Occam's Razor," Valkyrie reminds him. Skulduggery dips his head, acknowledging.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he checks it. "Our scarred attacker's awake and ready for questioning."

"Finally," Valkyrie breathes, offering Tanith a sad smile when the blonde yawns, blinking blearily. "Can we catch up next time you're free? Sparring lesson, maybe?"

"That sounds brilliant. Have you been practising?"

"Nope, not really."

Skulduggery feels bad about tearing them apart so quickly, so he offers, "I have a few calls to make; meet me in the car in ten minutes?"

They both look grateful, and he leaves them to huddle together over the small bistro table, their expressions soft and wistful. Skulduggery doesn't make any calls; he sits in the Bentley and watches, amazed. Valkyrie looks like any mortal, sitting with her best friend or lover, chatting and smiling and laughing. She isn't terrifying or aloof or sarcastic. For a moment, Skulduggery wonders what she'd be like if she hadn't discovered magic. Would she be happier? Most probably.

When Valkyrie and Tanith part on the sidewalk, they embrace. Valkyrie ruffles Tanith's cropped cloud of blonde waves, and Tanith laughs, leaning in to place a kiss to the dark-haired woman's cheek.

Valkyrie gets into the car, and she still looks happy, still looks like she's glowing. "Sorry. It's been a long time since we last talked, and...it was nice."

"Of course," Skulduggery allows; it wasn't as if their prisoners could break out in the eight minutes the women shared a personal reprieve. “I'm glad to see you have some honourable friends, to be honest. Well. Honourable is probably a bit of an exaggeration, seeing as she is a hitwoman now.”

Valkyrie doesn't look over at him, but he can see the corner of her lips tilting up. “Tanith was a hunter for the British Sanctuary before, you know. Very respected.”

“I am aware; she destroyed a coven of cannibal selkies some years back."

"I was there for that, by the way," Valkyrie interrupts, shimmying out of her coat and proudly showing him a large set of scarred-over bite marks. "Believe it or not, that bite came from what looked like a three-year-old boy."

Skulduggery wishes he could make a face; the thing, even healed over, looks horrifying. "Even so," he returns to his topic, "Tanith has a shadow-boss, and shadow-bosses are quite good at rendering services to the highest bidders only. Unbiasedly speaking, she could very easily be assigned our names next.”

Valkyrie does look at him now. “Tanith wouldn't do that.”

“How long have you known her?”

“Ten years." Valkyrie doesn't say anything else. Skulduggery plans to let it go - it's obvious that there's more to them than he knows - but she eventually continues. "She was fighting this guy in the middle of Temple Bar, right next to the river. I thought she was in trouble, so I swooped in, trying to play the hero. But, of course, she wasn't in danger. She was toying with him, batting him away, letting him tire himself out, and then smacking him down to the ground until he offered to put the shackles on himself.“ She pauses. “She thought I had potential, and I was willing to do anything for her from the get-go, so...she became my tutor. And then my friend. And then.”

The drive is quiet for a long time until they reach Roarhaven, passing through the barrier and entering the gleaming city. “What happened?” he asks. And then, “You don't have to answer.”

“I know, but you're my partner, my...friend. I think?” Skulduggery gives a small nod, and she relaxes. “Thank God - if I dropped the I really like you bombshell and you didn't agree, I'd be inconsolable for years. Or two minutes. I don't know; I have trouble responding to things properly.”

Valkyrie seems to realise that she hasn't answered his question. “We took different paths. She moved back to England for the job; I stayed here with my family. It made things...complicated. We fought a lot for a while, and then we were too tired to fight and that was somehow worse. I...I made mistakes all throughout. And then things came to a head and we realised it'd been over for a while. We were just...different. In love - God, so in love. But sometimes love isn't enough; it wasn't enough for us.”

"I understand."

Valkyrie swallows and something changes in her voice. She doesn't sound so assured anymore. "It's been a while, but...I still miss it. It feels like all this shit we do is just...overwhelming. It's dangerous. And it's hard not to have someone there after a day like yesterday."

“Sometimes it's even more dangerous to have someone,” Skulduggery murmurs and she sighs a confirmation.

“True. Having someone means they can be taken away. Or used against you."

Skulduggery knows this possibly better than anyone. The rest of the ride is hushed.

 


 

Ransom, the attacker with the scar, is finally well enough for a visit. He's in an interrogation room; this one is oddly well-lit and gleaming, which is unexpected.

“Wow,” Valkyrie whistles when she follows Skulduggery into the room. “Someone likes you, Ransom.” And then she realises that the man is squinting against the harsh lights, face scrunched up in pain. "Nope, nevermind, everyone hates you."

“This is cruel and unusual punishment,” is the first thing he says when he shields his face to see them through the cracks in his fingers. “This is illegal.”

“Wait, putting you in a pretty interrogation room is illegal now?” Valkyrie asks, going to stand in the corner behind Ransom, just barely out of his line of sight.

“It's torture. I have an eye condition. I need my goggles or sunglasses or something.”

“They always think we have mortal laws for some reason,” Skulduggery murmurs pleasantly, taking a seat across from the man. “Horrible luck about your light sensitivity, though. I can imagine this lighting feels kind of like you're being… what's the word I'm looking for?”

“Tortured,” Valkyrie supplies, making a grand show of checking her nails and scraping off a stray corner of polish on her cuticle.

“Tortured, exactly,” Skulduggery chuckles. “That's why I keep her around; she's always finishing my sentences for me. Like a trained puppy.”

“Puppies don't talk, and I'm around because you keep coming to my house and dragging me into your capers.”

“Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike the word caper?”

“Is this a bloody interrogation or a tea party?” Ransom snaps.

Skulduggery moves his attention from Valkyrie's blase form to Ransom’s irritated one. “Oh, I'm so sorry. I forgot you have somewhere very important to be. How silly of me.” Skulduggery settles back into his chair. “So, Ransom-”

“I'm not talking.”

“Pretty interruptive for not wanting to talk. Are you sure you don't want to tell us something about Natalia Kimber? Maybe why she sent you to kill us, to start?”

The man glares - or squints through the light; it's tough to tell. “I don't know who that is.”

“Not what Proffer said,” Skulduggery points out. “In fact, Proffer said Kimber calls you for the jobs she's too soft- handed for.”

“Kimber isn't soft-handed,” Ransom snaps, and then blanches.

“Oh good, your temporary amnesia is lifting. You were saying about Kimber?”

He snorts and looks away, closing his eyes. “Fuck the both of you.”

“As fun as that might be,” Valkyrie murmurs, stepping toward the table. She comes right up behind him, leaning down. It almost looks like she might hug his shoulders, but her fingers go to the table on either side of him. Her nails are dark blue today. “I really think we'd be too much for you to handle.” The small tendril of darkness flicks out, coiling around the table, seeking.

“Jesus! Put that away!” he snaps. “Torture’s illegal! It's a UN thing!”

“The United Nations doesn't apply to us,” Skulduggery reminds him, still cheerful, still smiling his permanent smile. “The only law that applies to you is mine.”

“China's,” Valkyrie corrects unhelpfully. “Technically it's China’s.”

“Correcting your partner in front of a criminal isn't ideal, Valkyrie.”

“What the hell does China have to do with your laws?” Ransom asks, sounding more confused than mad.

The pair stare at him; Skulduggery cocks his head to the side before understanding. “Not the country, Ransom; the Grand Mage. Do you not know who the Grand Mage is?”

“We've had a million in the past 15 years,” he defends himself. “Who has the time?”

“Idiot,” Valkyrie mumbles and the little coil of shadows slithers, quickly coiling up Ransom’s arm and flicking his jaw. He shudders, tries to pull away, fails. The shackles jingle merrily. “Are you going to give us something useful, or do I need to cancel my pedicure and stay here all day? My little friend does enjoy its playtime, but I'd rather have a pedicure. Your choice, though, since I'm so nice.”

Ransom glowers. “I don't know anything.”

“Sure you do,” Skulduggery soothes, spreading his gloved fingers wide. “You know a lot of things. You know what Kimber called you about-”

“Fuck you.”

“-you know what she was looking for in that flat.”

“Fuck. You.”

“And, at the very least, I'm sure you know some of her crew. Not the low-level stooges you control,” he adds. “People of actual consequence.”

“Fuck you!”

“Man, someone in this room has a skeleton fetish,” Valkyrie laughs, pulling away from Ransom and taking her little slithering friend with her.

Ransom breathes easier without it teasing his ear. “Get me a solicitor.”

“Good lord, what part of mortal laws don't apply to us are you failing to grasp?”

“Ms Cain, would you mind showing those pictures to our new friend?”

Valkyrie grabs her phone and opens the file Tanith's partner, Edge, sent. She places it on the table in front of Ransom.

Ransom refuses to look for a long moment, but the glaring lights are breaking him. “Fine,” he snaps, grabbing the phone and shielding the screen and his eyes from the harsh light. “If it gets me out of this damned room.”

“Sounds doable.” Skulduggery waits, watching the man's hooded face as he flips through the pictures.

“Vaurien Scapegrace,” he said finally, begrudgingly pointing out the tattered man in the second picture. “He's a useless fucking disaster.”

“We're very aware of that, but thank you for being truthful. Continue?”

Ransom grunts something under his breath and swipes through again. “Ganigan Donnelly. He's her fixer.”

“Fixer,” Valkyrie repeats. “Surely not a handyman, Ransom. What does he fix?”

“You know what, lady-" but he cuts himself short and takes a breath. "Kimber calls me, tells me where to go, who to kill, and then I'm gone. Ganigan takes care of the other stuff. Sensitive things. Things that can't be tied to anyone. This one,” he points to the next, “is Kreeg. He's an asshole. Can dig around in minds and shit. None too gently.”

“So, where did you find the book?” Skulduggery continues.

“The book?” the man laughs. His eyes are mere slits. “There was no book. Not on Rapture, not in his goddamn house, not in that flat Sellers was supposed to keep an eye on. There is no book; it's just some fairytale someone tricked Kimber into believing."

"Unfortunately, there is a book. I had the book, and then Rapture had it. Rapture talked to your boss, and then he ended up dead. Without the book."

"If Kimber had it, then half of Roarhaven would be dead by now."

"What does she think this book does?"

"Come on, Detective, really? You can't figure this one out, just based on context?" Ransom leans back in his chair, eyes closed. "Right, then. Lemme spell it out. Power."

"Power?" Valkyrie repeats.

"Yes, Squid-Girl, power; she's just like every other bloody person in this goddamn world. She's been rotting away in that club, living off the fact that she used to be a bad bitch, wishing she could be that person again. And then suddenly she's off her ass, and there's some book she needs? A book she describes as 'glowing, bound, and covered in sigils'? And, of course, there's the tiny fact that she called in a favour at the Academy. And at the Sanctuary. And at the Cathedral. And why would she do that?"

Valkyrie closes her eyes and sighs. "She's planning a full coup."

Ransom is smiling, and the expression is somehow gruesome. "Who knows how many people she has on the payroll now. Even noble teachers and administrators and the faithful have a price; Kimber's good at finding out what that price is."

"Do you know this for certain?" Skulduggery quietly asks.

"For years she's been daydreaming about taking this city and killing all of the people who can stop her."

"All the people who can stop her?" Valkyrie muses aloud and then, seemingly without thinking, she blurts, "Are we targets?" She sounds a little excited at the prospect; Skulduggery can't decide if he admires it or not.

Ransom snorts. "I didn't even know you lot from Adam, so I doubt it. Maybe you should take a step back before that changes."

"Not likely, but thanks for your concern," Skulduggery says, getting to his feet. "I think we'll be nice and let you hang out in here until we have more questions. I'm sure it's more comfortable than a cell, after all."

They leave, and Ransom screams at their retreating backs.

When they are comfortably seated in the Bentley, the heater warming Valkyrie's cold fingers, Skulduggery asks, "Shall we look into this Mrs Sellers, or do you still have a pedicure to get to?"

"Pedicure?" she repeats and then remembers. "Oh God no. Who has the time for that?"

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Valkyrie lies on her back, staring up at the dark ceiling, watching a spider scuttle. The carpet under her bare arms tickles, but she ignores it. She tries to ignore everything, but it's hard to do when Gordon is pacing through the room, less than fog but somehow so real.

"Did I ever tell you about the time your father-"

"I'm ready," Valkyrie says before he can start into another family story. She knows what he's trying to do, and she doesn't appreciate it. He means well, but she's sick of being treated like a child.

Gordon falters and stares down at her. He turns back to an overburdened shelf of books, scanning over the spines. "It's pure torture to have all of this material here, and being unable to open it on my own. To feel the pages under my fingertips. I've decided that tactile sensation is the key to happiness."

"Gordon."

"It might not be so terrible if I had someone to keep me company, but your delightful fiancee-"

"Ex-fiancee."

"-is in London and unable to listen to me describe my amazingness. Your father and mother never visit, and God knows the last time I saw Alison. Is she still screaming when she poops?"

"Alice isn't an infant, no. She's ten."

"Ten! It's been nine years since-"

"You saw her at Christmas. That was two months ago." Valkyrie doesn't smile at his antics, and it's quickly wilting the spectre in front of her. "Gordon, I understand the risks, and I'm ready." She lets those words seep into him before adding, "I need that book."

"Stephanie-" he gapes for a moment, speechless. "There's a reason Bliss brought it to me for safekeeping."

"Safekeeping from China, not from me."

"Safekeeping from the world. From China in particular, but the same can be said about anything powerful." He goes quiet, looking torn. "You won't make it out of those caves, Stephanie."

"I'll be fine."

"You won't. You can barely control your powers under duress as it is-"

"Gordon-"

"-and the things down there, Stephanie. If they don't tear you apart, they will change you, bring that-- that thing out. And then what?"

Valkyrie sets her jaw. "That thing is already trying to break free. And if this book can separate the magic and demons from the bodies-"

"We don't even know what that means!"

"I need to try because I can't keep living like this!" Valkyrie hisses out, voice breaking, cracking. Darquesse caresses across her mind, soothing, cooing. "I can't keep living like this," she repeats.

"We don't..." Gordon trails off and looks away from her. "We don't know that this Darquesse is related to your magic. We don't know if she'll go if your powers do. We don't know if that's even what the book does, or if Bliss was telling the truth about it. If so many things, Stephanie."

Valkyrie closes her eyes and feels Darquesse coil - she's content, a languid cat rolling within. She isn't interested in coming out to play - she's interested in watching the drama unfold.

"And what if you succeed?" Gordon continues. "What if she doesn't disappear into a vapour or a cloud or whatever you think might happen? If she simply becomes her own being?"

"I have to try something," Valkyrie says, ignoring Darquesse's purr, a cool scrape through her veins like fingernails.

"It's too dangerous. For everyone."

Valkyrie doesn't want to say what she has to say. "Gordon, this torment is going to end one way or another. She's getting stronger, and I'm so tired of fighting her. If you don't tell me where to find the damned thing, then I'm going to go down there and wander until I die or find it. What would you rather happen?"

They stare at one another for a long breath before Gordon's shoulders slump. "Please don't ask me to do this."

"I'm not asking; I'm begging."

Gordon lets out a soft noise and shakes his head, turning his back to her. "I love you, Stephanie."

"I love you, too."

Gordon gives her the directions, each painstaking step, and Valkyrie steels herself. Darquesse's excitement makes spirals of darkness spark out of Valkyrie's ring, dark flumes in the bright library.

Gordon goes back into his stone, and Valkyrie descends into the caves.


 

When Skulduggery arrives at Grimwood, right on time, he isn't surprised to find the door unlocked for him. He is, however, surprised to see a sleek motorbike perched next to the overrun rose bushes.

He can hear them from the foyer. Skulduggery makes his way toward the open door that leads into Gordon's never-used gym. It's a state-of-the-art facility now. Tanith and Valkyrie are circling one another in a cleared area in front of the door.

Valkyrie looks up in time to see him, and Tanith takes the opportunity to strike, kicking her foot out and catching Valkyrie's shoulder, deadening her arm. Valkyrie curses, ducks a lazy punch, and stumbles back, balancing on the balls of her bare feet. "Not fair," she pants, but she's grinning.

"Suck it up, love, because I've been holding back."

Valkyrie shakes herself off, clenching her injured hand to get feeling back. Before either of them can attack, though, Tanith drops stance and shakes her hair back from her face. "Lucky for you, though, I should get ready for my shift. Yay, staring at a bloody building for twelve hours."

Valkyrie frowns but nods, understanding. "Raincheck on kicking my ass, then."

Tanith ducks out of the room, smiling at Skulduggery as she passes. Valkyrie sags a bit, resting her hands on her knees and letting out deep breaths. "Holding back. Jesus, I thought she broke my arm for a second."

Skulduggery chuckles and steps further into the room, talking for her while she catches her breath. "There isn't anything on Sellers yet. We haven't been able to track down her given name, so it's slow going on finding her family."

Valkyrie groans, straightens, and raises her hands in a loose, defensive position. "Well, then it sounds like we have a day off?"

"Days off don't exist, Ms Cain."

"Sure they do." She attacks with minimal warning, but Skulduggery deflects the punch easily, grabbing her wrist and twisting it. Valkyrie rolls with the motion, lightning-fast, and Skulduggery sees Tanith's influence. Valkyrie breaks his grip with a hard palm to his wrist.

She pulls back, her eyes flashing. There's a flicker of something else there, and Wreath's words flood through Skulduggery's memories. He isn't entirely sure he should encourage anything while she's manic, while the thing inside flickers in and out of view.

Skulduggery unbuttons his suit jacket, carefully laying it out on a weight bench. He rolls his sleeves to his elbows and returns to Valkyrie, tilting his head to the side. "Should I hold back, too? It does seem like you're favouring that arm. I can avoid it if you'd rather; I'm nothing if not benevolent."

Valkyrie purses her lips at him, tries to pretend she's offended, fails, and then smiles. "You're such a goon." She launches herself at him, and he sidesteps, but she turns with him, her knee coming up to strike his hip, the ilium tinging with pain. He grabs her knee and twists her to the ground, tossing her back and watching her skid.

Valkyrie lies there for a moment, looking disoriented. Her eyes are her own again, dark and wide. "Right when I think I have some kind of skill, I am reminded I suck at this," she muses. She drags herself up, her exposed stretch of back red from the flooring. Valkyrie straightens her sports bra and shakes her head, trying to get herself together.

"You're not terrible," Skulduggery says truthfully, but anything less than blatant praise is considered as a failure to Valkyrie. "You're just a little...lingering."

"Lingering?"

"Attack me."

Valkyrie raises a brow and does, sliding under a punch and lashing out at his knee. He grabs her ankle, twists, and she's on her back again. "You stay in the same place too long," he says, releasing her ankle and stepping back so she can get up. "You're strong, but you need to move more. Like water - always reacting, always flowing."

Valkyrie readies herself. "Show me."

Skulduggery comes at her, changes course at the last moment, and Valkyrie's fists fly past him. She's tripped up, losing her balance, and he's able to skate behind her, kicking the back of her knee and sending her sprawling.

Valkyrie rolls onto her back, staring up at him with a disbelieving grin on her face. "Have you ever mentored someone?"

"Once, a very long time ago."

"And?"

"He learned, he did well, and then he became a Sanctuary detective - he died on his first day."

Valkyrie blinks. "Well then, I suppose my next request goes on the backburner." She takes his offered hand, her fingers curling around his gloves. Skulduggery moves back, but only a little. Valkyrie remains, her eyes on his sockets. "Unless you're looking to prove you can keep someone alive for more than 24 hours."

"You are still alive."

"Sure," she shrugs, a fist shooting out, her body coiling, turning, ghosting past him. An elbow barely misses his neck when he whirls to match her, but he moves in time. "But I'm not your mentee or partner."

"Are you not?" he ponders aloud, attempting to sweep her legs from beneath her.

Valkyrie hops up and lashes out, a quick jab of her foot to his tibia, misses, and then stumbles away, misjudging her footing. "A smart girl doesn't assume when it comes to things, Skulduggery. Especially not relationships." Sweat glistens on her brow; she absently wipes it on her forearm and falls back into a slight crouch, watching.

Skulduggery grabs her arm when she launches herself at him, hand sliding under her reaching arm, vicing at her oxter and slamming her to the ground. She grunts and goes very still, wincing. "Are you alright?" he asks, still holding her to down but slightly loosening his fingers.

The thing that isn't Valkyrie grins at him. One of her hands grabs his wrist, holding it in place. The other becomes a palm, and the heel of her hand smashes into his elbow. Pain blooms through him, and he falls back, watching her while she gets to her feet, shaking her ponytail over her shoulder. Valkyrie's back in control and she looks embarrassed. "Ah, shit, I'm sorry. Are you alright?"

"Fine," Skulduggery slowly replies, getting to his feet, peering at her. Curious. "I talked to Wreath. He said there's something else inside of you."

"We all have our darknesses, Skulduggery," she says, but she looks concerned at his line of inquiry. "Some shouldn't be talked about."

"The ones that rise up and lash out should be, I'd think."

Valkyrie smiles. "Isn't the mystery hot, though?" And then she's slipping out of the room and toward the foyer. "I have something for you," she calls over her shoulder. When Skulduggery joins her, she's procuring a house key from the table near the door. "I figured you could have this, so you don't get any ideas about busting through my door or window. I'm sweet like that."

Skulduggery takes the key, surprised. "Why, Valkyrie, I didn't get you anything."

Her expression becomes playful, content; it's the look he's grown to love. "That's alright, it's not like I even know where you live," she shrugs and bites her lower lip. "Where do you live? Do you have, like...a house? A crypt?"

"All of the high-end tombs were full, unfortunately, so it's just a regular house."

"Cool," she says, leaning her hip against the small table. "You'll have to show me around sometime. I doubt it's as cool as a crypt, but."

There's an odd moment where they stare at one another, Valkyrie unblinking. And then Tanith calls down the steps, "Val, do you have a hairdryer in this mess?"

Valkyrie laughs softly, the moment broken, and ducks her head. "Try under the sink."

"I did! There are a million towels and some gum wrappers, for some reason? How do you not have ants?"

"Jesus Christ," Valkyrie snorts, covering her face; abashed amusement adds to her heat-flush. "Coming!" And then she offers Skulduggery a soft smile. "Come round whenever." she disappears up the steps, and Tanith is crying out, Dear God, Val, why are there three saltines in your makeup bag?

Skulduggery chuckles and ducks out of the house, getting into the Bentley and heading to the Sanctuary.

 


 

Tanith can't handle being boxed up - she's been very clear about this fact, and so her shadowy bosses paired her with Edge. Edge is a scanty lad, full of trickiness instead of brawn. Edge is also very, very content to sit in a chair and stare out a window for hours on end.

"Going on a perimeter run," Tanith says finally, her restless legs unable to take the cramped flat anymore.

"Good time for it," he murmurs, not bothering to look up from his vigil. "Looks like a quiet night."

"I'll be safe," she says even though she isn't sure if he cares. Edge is an odd one. She wonders if he cares about anything other than the job. His wife, probably. Is he married? Tanith can't remember. "Tap the radio if you see something and I'll be back in a flash." He doesn't respond, but he knows the drill by now.

Tanith pushes her curls back from her face with a headband and laces her shoes tight. She leaves her sword tucked in the umbrella rack by the door, hides it all behind a potted plant, and slips out.

The run is crisp in the spring night air. She loves the feel of it - it vaguely reminds her of her jobs on the moors, hunting bog witches and kelpies. Tanith lifts her face when she runs, unable to keep from losing herself for a moment. She takes in lungful after lungful, relishing the way Ireland's air sits in her lungs. London is special, will always be special, but this...this is paradise.

Tanith stays out for a couple of hours, taking advantage of the stillness, the quiet. It's a gorgeous goddamn night and, even with everything happening, with all of the things facing them, she feels good.

She gets back to the flat and pauses outside the door. It's unlocked. Tanith steadies her breath, listening. She can't hear a thing, but there's a sick feeling in the air, something cloying and heavy.

Tanith pushes the door open and grabs her sword, turning to Edge. He's still sitting in the window, watching. She lets out a little breath and relaxes. "The door's unlocked. Did something happen?"

Edge doesn't answer, but Edge rarely answers. Even so, Tanith removes her sword from its sheath, centimetre by centimetre, and slowly turns.

Directly into a fist.

Tanith flies back into the wall, her elbow catching the window ledge and making her cry out. Edge slips to the floor, upended by her fall, and his face is nothing but blood and bits, smashed in and scattered around.

Tanith tears her eyes away, blinking. She allows herself a millisecond to breathe, to panic, and then she's cold as ice. She dodges another punch, the massive man in front of her blocking the light.

"Damn you're a big boy," she grumbles as she scurries to her feet, sword finally free and scabbard in the other hand. "Sorry if I don't play fair, but I don't think I could do much damage against you with my fist."

The man doesn't answer; he moves in closer, jabs a feint and then catches Tanith on her ribs with his other fist. She swipes with her sword at the boxer as she goes down, choking on vomit, her entire existence wracked with pain in a single second. She isn't sure if she manages a blow, but she does succeed in smacking the man with her scabbard, a quick upward thrust against his face, and hears his nose crunch.

The man doesn't react. He grabs her hair, yanking, and she shouts, dropping her sword when his massive right fist slams into her jaw. She feels it crack. Tanith can't see for a long series of moments, long enough that the man gets a few free hits against her ribs.

And then she's flying through the air, crumpling against the wall. She gasps - there're too many broken ribs to focus on. She may have a pierced lung, she thinks absently. When she coughs, there's blood.

The man advances; Tanith drags herself to the door, wheezing. She's barely able to grab her sword before the man reaches her. His booted foot crunches against her knee, and she sobs, a long, keening noise she's never heard before. And might never again.

When he comes for her, she swings her sword against the back of his ankle, tearing into his tendons, viciously sawing until he hits the ground. Tanith stumbles, falls, and then tries to get up again. She gets out the door, gasping and broken; she presses a hand to it, muttering "withstand" through the possibly-broken jaw. It takes three attempts, the words muddled and rattling with loose teeth, but finally a clear, glossy sheen coats the door.

Tanith pitches out onto the street, into their undercover car. She gets halfway to the Sanctuary before her vision blurs too much and her foot stalls on the accelerator. The last thing she sees is a building, and the last thing she hears is the crunch of the car, the windshield, her bones.

 


 

Skulduggery is leaving the Sanctuary when China finds him. Seeing her in the main halls is startling, and so is the look in her eyes. The woman hides her feelings so well, but not now.

"What happened?" Skulduggery asks.

"Kimber found out about the assassins. We don't know about the man, Edge, but Tanith is...."

"What happened?" he repeats, losing his patience.

"Blunt-force trauma everywhere, broken bones, fractured jaw-" China breaks off, shaking her head. "This isn't important. Valkyrie is on her way to Kimber's."

"You told her?" Skulduggery can't believe the woman. China explicitly warned him about how unstable Valkyrie's powers are under pressure, and yet she told the woman?

Skulduggery isn't perfect; he's had more than one moment of such fury that he's wanted to strike China. This is one of those times. "You're going to make this right, China, or you will die trying."

 


 

 

Chapter Text


 

"It's unfortunate," Darquesse muses, watching Kimber's dark eyes glisten in tears. "I don't like when pretty things cry. It might seem odd; usually, I adore the drama of waterworks, but pretty things always look so exquisitely weak, and weak is boring."

Kimber, in spite of her tears, spits at Darquesse. A hot drip of bloody mucous hits her cheek and Darquesse tilts her head, considering. "No one has ever spit on me before. I have to admit, I don't think I like it - it's a bit degrading."

The shadows writhe and lift Kimber, flipping her onto her back midair. Her arms and legs are cinched apart, a modern Vitruvian Man, a little tendril flowing along Kimber's neck.

"Where's the book?" Darquesse asks. She can feel Valkyrie stir at the mention of the book, but the woman simply listens from the metaphorical backseat of their mind. Darquesse wishes she can thank Tanith's broken body for this gift - Valkyrie too angry to fight, too exhausted to interfere while Darquesse tests her fledgeling powers.

"I don't have it," Kimber wheezes; the tendril tightens around her throat.

"Come now," Darquesse chuckles, stepping over the bodies of Kimber's flayed, battered men - the thick-fisted boxer included - and presses a cropped nail to Kimber's cheek. "It'll only take longer if you make me wait. I hate waiting." She slices a shallow cut across Kimber's cheek, and the woman flinches as if she was stabbed in the gut.

"I don't fucking have it," Kimber snaps. The tendril tightens, and she gurgles. When it lets up, she continues in a rush, "I'm telling the truth! If I had it, what good would it do me to hide it? You're going to kill me either way."

"True, but you could always be doing it out of spite. Granted, I think you're a little too uninspired for that." Darquesse grabs Kimber's head and squeezes. "This won't be pleasant."

Kimber howls when Darquesse tears into her mind, sorting through memories and fragments of time like a tantruming child tossing stuffed animals. Eventually, Kimber's shouts quiet, her mind ravaged.

When Darquesse departs, she is smiling. "You were telling the truth. I feel like that should be rewarded, don't you? Would you prefer your death to be quick or artful?"

"Fuck you," Kimber barely manages to say, her voice coming out stammered, wavering as if she can't quite remember how to form them.

Darquesse sighs and steps back, regarding her. She analyses the way the veins poke up against Kimber's mocha skin. Kimber's goddamn beautiful, and that makes things somehow better and worse. "Art it is," Darquesse hums.

A shadow rips Kimber's left leg free, the appendage hitting the wall with a thick thump. Kimber howls and Darquesse smiles. "Don't scream all at once; we still have three more to go."

The right leg joints the left, and then both arms, and finally Kimber isn't screaming - she's wetting herself and babbling softly and incoherently, face pale and eyes glassy.

"Goodnight, Natalia," Darquesse breathes, pressing a soft kiss to the woman's forehead. She turns to leave, but not before the shadows rend Kimber's head from her neck, shredding the remaining torso into strips and mist.

 


 

Valkyrie wishes she'd given in to the desire to smoke before seeing China. It's always easier to handle the woman with a bit of a buzz.

"Where did you find this?" China asks, glancing up from the photos Valkyrie brought her.

"Doesn't matter. What does the book do?"

"I'm not sure," China says, but Valkyrie has known the woman for long enough to notice when she's hiding something. "Some of the sigils are unknown to me at this moment. It's probably nothing, probably a paperweight, but it would be a wonderful addition to my collection."

"China, it glows. In my experience, books don't glow unless there's something interesting going on."

"You have much experience with books, do you?" China asks. Valkyrie narrows her eyes but doesn't feed into it. "I'm not sure, darling, I'd need to see it up close-"

"Not going to happen; not until I know what it is."

"-or, at the very least, consult with some scholars. May I keep these photos?"

"Can we check your library? Surely there's some record of a glowing, blood-bound book."

China's eyes narrow. "You're still banned from my library after your water bottle fiasco."

"That was years ago."

China stands but hesitates, regarding Valkyrie. "What do you wish in return for the book?" When Valkyrie feigns innocence, China sighs, sounding disappointed. "Come now, Valkyrie. You would never bring something like this to me unless you wanted something that no one else can offer."

"Does the book separate parts of you?" she asks. When China doesn't react, she continues. "Can it separate a person from their magic? Does it...does it remove the spirit?"

China looks uncomfortable - Valkyrie isn't sure if she's seen that expression before. "Darling, are you trying to say that you have something inside of you that needs removing?"

"Hypothetically speaking."

China takes a moment to respond. "There are rumours of artefacts that can separate sorcerers from their power, strip them of their essence. Sometimes even their soul, their driving motivations. Whether this book is that or not...I cannot say at this moment."

Valkyrie waits, but China offers nothing else. "Is there, hypothetically, someone who can separate sorcerers from those things? Inner darkness? Magic? Demons?"

"Shall I call an exorcist for you?" China tries to joke, but the laughter doesn't meet her eyes. "I don't think the Catholics still perform them, but I'm sure we can find someone down on their luck and willing to anger their God."

Valkyrie stays very still, a statue, and says nothing.

China shakes her head as if Valkyrie repeated her question. "Valkyrie, you don't understand what you're asking."

"I'm a big girl, China; I can make my own decisions."

China looks away and toward the fire in the hearth. "There is something that can perhaps do it. Its experiments are gruesome and often do not end well from what I hear."

"But it's been successful before?"

"So is the rumour, yes. But so is the rumour that it has a nasty habit of keeping its test subjects well past their operations."

Valkyrie mulls it over and hates herself when she says, "The book in exchange for the name and location of this...thing."

China bows her head slightly. "I accept." Before Valkyrie can leave the room, China adds, "This book, no matter what it does, could be world-ending in the wrong hands."

"Your hands aren't so clean, China."

"True," she smiles, "but at least I am the devil you know."

 


 

Valkyrie goes home and takes the book from Gordon's hidden room. She tries to leave with it, but something holds her back — fear, perhaps. Going to the fridge, she downs a beer to ease the jitters. It doesn't help. One turns to three, and three turns to a shot of vodka.

And then she does leave the house, getting into a sleek black car and refusing to meet the driver's eyes.

"It's good to see you again, Valkyrie."

"Just drive."

Solomon Wreath does as asked. They don't speak until they are inside the cool, damp corridors of the Temple. Wreath opens his room's door to her, but she shakes her head. "I'll stay right here, thanks."

Wreath looks hurt. She isn't sure how she's managed to sting him so often, and how he keeps accepting her back. She thought he might have loved her once, back when he thought she was his Death Bringer. Standing here, looking at him, she wonders if it is only the Death Bringer he pines for.

Wreath goes to his desk, flips on a light, and analyses the book.

Valkyrie wanders the immediate halls, startling fledgelings and those who remember her from her time in the Temple. One Necromancer, though, does not recoil at the sight of her.

"Look who it is." The taunt comes right as Valkyrie's grimace twitches into place. "I thought you figured out you weren't one of us."

"Oh, I did," Valkyrie replies, keeping her shoulders relaxed and fingers unclenched. The last thing she wants is Melancholia St. Clair seeing weakness. Melancholia St. Clair is very good at seeing weakness and ripping it apart from the inside. "Just paying a call, reminding myself what mindless ants must feel like."

Melancholia smiles, but it isn't pleased. She sidles in front of Valkyrie, much too close, and murmurs, "I thought I told you I'd tear you apart next time I saw you."

"You did, yet here I stand - very intact and super good looking, at that. Oh, how's your hand, by the way?" The blonde regards her before glancing into Wreath's office. Valkyrie grins, dropping her voice low. "Making sure Daddy isn't watching?"

Melancholia lashes out with a spike of shadow, but Valkyrie flicks it aside effortlessly. "Guess your Surge wasn't as powerful as everyone thought it'd be," Valkyrie softly adds, leaning forward a bit, conspiratorially. "I kind of figured. There's a lot of bark, but the bite needs some work."

Valkyrie grabs Melancholia's wrist before she can try a physical attack and Melancholia stiffens under the touch. "Someday, Cain," she whispers, yanking away when Wreath comes into the hall. Melancholia departs silently, disappearing into shadow.

"Well?" Valkyrie asks Wreath. She's immediately on edge when his eyes meet hers. They're already apologetic, and that terrifies her. "What?"

"I'm locking the book in the Vault," he says simply. "It cannot be in the world, and it cannot be destroyed, so it needs to be protected."

Valkyrie bristles, looking around the hall, and then pushes Wreath into his room. She slams the door behind them with a flick of shadow. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"This...this thing inside of you," he rushes out. "That's why you want this book opened, yes?"

"What is the book?"

"From the meager bit I can tell, the book devours souls," he replies, eyes pleading with her. "Valkyrie, I can train you."

"No."

"This tome - it can never be opened. Anyone who can separate souls, pull magic from a person, imbibe it into a husk...no one can have this power. No one."

Valkyrie moves toward the table, toward the book, but Wreath shoves her away, sweeping darkness between them. "Valkyrie, you need to listen to reason. This once, please, listen."

"Do you not remember what happened last time you tried to keep me from leaving?" she asks, trying to calm the crackling shadow curling in her own hand. She can kill him so easily if she gives into Darquesse's passionate whispers.

Wreath says nothing.

Valkyrie lashes out and his shadows swirl, engulfing hers, roiling like waves and demolishing them. Valkyrie uses Wreath's moment of victory to surge the darkness behind him, submerging him. She grabs the book and kicks through the door.

Valkyrie reaches the steps outside of the Temple when Wreath reaches her, wrenching her to the ground and trying to slap a binding bracelet on her. She knees his stomach, and he grunts, hands fumbling with her, with the book. He tosses something into her eyes and she yelps, the sharp cinnamon scent burning her and making Darquesse coil in anger.

Valkyrie remembers the knife and releases the book. Her hand darts into her pocket and pulls out Sanguine's razor, flicks it open, and murmurs, "Sorry, Solomon."

The blade slices through his face, and he drops the book, falling back, blood everywhere. His shadows flare and reach for her, but she grabs the book and runs.

 


 

"She needs to be locked up."

Skulduggery refuses to look at China, eyes trained on the barricaded roads outside of the Sanctuary steps. "You will do no such thing."

"The Cleavers said it's a blood-bath over there, Skulduggery. They can't even tell whose remains are whose. She can't be trusted, not when she can do that."

"This is entirely your fault."

"Careful, Detective. I know you attach yourself to women for better or worse, but she is unmoored."

Skulduggery bites down all of the words he wants to hurl at the Grand Mage. A piece of him delights in the prospect of letting Valkyrie kill her - hell, it delights in the idea of him killing her. But he tamps the darkness down; this is no time to be torn between actions. "You aren't throwing her in gaol, China."

One moment Valkyrie isn't there, and then she is, standing in the middle of the road, smiling. The shadows are slithering from her blood-drenched body and toward them; they're playful, unthreatening. "China," she singsongs and China manages to hide a small shudder. "China, I think you've been keeping secrets again."

"I think we all keep our own little secrets, Valkyrie," China murmurs, her soft voice carrying. She sounds gentle, soothing, like a mother comforting a child. "You have some, certainly."

Valkyrie laughs and glides toward them. "So, funny story - Kimber never had the book. Ever. It was already out of Rapture's hands by the time she got to him. So, dear, beautiful China Sorrows...who has it?"

The closer she gets, though, the more she falters. She looks perplexed and then laughs, sounding delighted. "Here's another funny story. Valkyrie's been a very good girl, very compliant; she barely reacted when I decided to come here. To come here for you, China. But now she's restless. I wonder why that is?" Her eyes land on Skulduggery. Her lips spread unnaturally wide as if the corners might split.

"Valkyrie-" Skulduggery tries. The thing wearing Valkyrie's face giggles, actually giggles, but the sound is sharp and unkind.

"Valkyrie can't come to the phone right now-" but then she pauses, blinks, and shakes her head. "Down, girl," she chides herself, chides Valkyrie, and begins to approach again. "You know, I've been toying with the idea of molecularization. Do you think I can manage it? I haven't tried yet - I'd like the first time to be special. Someone special." She makes a face. "Not you, China; no offence. But maybe you, Detective. Do you think you'd turn to molecules? Will the magic holding you together amount to anything, or will you disappear, poof, like dust?"

Skulduggery feels a tightness in his ribcage, something tugging at pieces of him that don't exist, vicing on organs long-since gone. He stumbles to his knees, gasping for a breath he doesn't need but desperately wants. He feels like he's drowning. Suffocating. Burning alive. So many sensations, and yet there is nothing there.

The thing advances and so does China, coming to meet her. China snaps a finger, turns her hand in a semi-circle, and then pushes out; China's other hand caresses a sigil on her belly.

The thing laughs but then stops, eyes widening. "Oh," it says, surprised, placing a hand to Valkyrie's chest. "My, my, China. What in the world have you created?"

China flicks two more sigils on her bicep, one right after another, and the thing is on its knees. Skulduggery is free from whatever the thing did to him, getting to his feet and drawing a gun. "Don't make me do this, Valkyrie," he murmurs.

The thing looks up, the darkness swirling, eyes glowing. "Save me, Skulduggery," it mocks with a cackle, but then it arches and gasps. China slides a hand down her right leg, hitting two sigils. Valkyrie's darkness rears and hisses, and then it cries out.

That cry. Skulduggery knows that voice. It's Valkyrie again. He tries to run for her, but China directs an attack at him, blowing him off of his course. "She's not stable yet," China snaps between gritted teeth. Her brow is dotting with sweat, her body beginning to tremble with overexertion.

One more sigil swipe and hand rotation pins Valkyrie to the cement, her voice coming out in ragged sobs. Skulduggery watches her, and her eyes meet his. Valkyrie's eyes. She lets out one last wail before going limp.

 


 

Valkyrie is quiet on the drive to Skulduggery's house.

When she came-to in Grouse's infirmary, she held very still and watched the ceiling while Grouse prodded, China paced, and Skulduggery stood vigil. She answered all of their questions as if talking about the weather or a movie she streamed last night. Blase. Unaffected.

Kimber and her men are dead - that damned Sensitive wasn't there, naturally, but everyone else... The entire house should probably be burnt down because no amount of bleach is saving those floorboards. Oh, and - if you didn't notice - there's something inside of me, and she's getting stronger. She discovers she can do something new every time she breaks out, so that's fun.

The questioning went on for an hour, and Valkyrie - exhausted, still grime-splattered - answered them all. Save for one. What did you mean when you said China was keeping secrets, Valkyrie?

But Valkyrie's brows furrowed and she shook her head, not understanding. Isn't she always keeping secrets? China left in a huff, annoyed at the lack of a real answer. Grouse gave Valkyrie some herbs to chew and a fond talking-to. His words for Skulduggery were much less affectionate, but Grouse reluctantly released Valkyrie into Skulduggery's care.

So, Skulduggery made an executive decision and brought Valkyrie to his house.

Skulduggery helps Valkyrie inside; she's tired enough that she doesn't complain when he takes her elbow, guiding her. He helps her undress from her blood-dried tee and jeans, turning politely while she strips the rest of the way and gets into the shower. She says nothing while she stands under the hot water other than attempts at humour. "What skeleton owns a shower?"

"This one, for the sheer fact that I can't buy a house without one."

"So who owns a shower and no soap?"

"A skeleton, Valkyrie."

"Well then. Hopefully water is enough to get brains out of hair because I'm reasonably sure I have tons." The words peter out toward the end, and Valkyrie can't stifle the tremor in her sigh.

They remain silent after, Skulduggery's back turned to the shower and Valkyrie scrubbing at her skin and hair. When she finally turns the shower off and steps out, she murmurs, "Do you have a towel? Or...something I can wear?"

Skulduggery, without turning, manipulates the water on her skin, returning it to the shower. "There's a shirt on the back of the door. I'll give you some privacy."

"I'm sure you've seen it all before," she laughs softly, but he still leaves and closes the door behind him.

Valkyrie emerges from the bathroom a few moments later. She's clean and red from scrubbing, and his button-down is draped over her, ill-fitted around her muscled arms. She looks like a child for a moment, glancing around the small hallway. "So, does this skeleton have a house with a bed, by chance? And, if so, does that bed have sheets?"

"Believe it or not, yes," he says and guides her to the back room. He had it set up years ago when Ghastly made a habit of staying over. Skulduggery tries not to think about how Ghastly had been three rooms down in Grouse's infirmary, and yet Skulduggery hadn't gone to see the statue. It's been so many years that sometimes Skulduggery forgets him. The realisation hurts, and so he turns his attention back to the dark-haired woman crawling under the duvet.

When she's settled, Skulduggery murmurs, "I'll be in the main room if you need something."

Before he can go, she croaks, "I think we should...talk."

Skulduggery doesn't know why he hesitates at the door, why the prospect of hearing the details of her inner darkness scares him. He supposes because he cares for her. He supposes because she's somehow become someone who matters, someone who can be taken away, who others can use against him.

Skulduggery sits in the chair beside the bed, waiting.

Valkyrie clears her throat and turns to look at him. She's curled in on herself, the covers hiding all but her head and one shoulder. "Magic's from my dad's side. He knew about the possibility of passing the traits onto me, but my mum didn't. Dad figured, 'hey, it doesn't always pop up. Maybe she won't have it. Maybe she will, but she'll never figure it out.'

"But then, one day, I was playing football with a friend near the pier across the way from our houses. She wasn't too great at kicking, mind you, so I wanted to play because I could win. And win I did. I might have gloated a bit, which, as you can imagine, didn't sit well with her."

"Your gloating is quite insufferable," he agrees, and Valkyrie snorts, her posture loosening.

"Anyway. She got mad, threw the ball out into the waves, and then told me she hated me."

"How old was this child?"

"She was my grade, so...twelve? Thirteen?"

"Good lord, I thought five the way you tell it."

Valkyrie shrugs. "I got mad - not so much because Abby Daye hated me, but because she threw away my favourite ball. And then things went...dark. It was like a flash of light and then nothingness. I woke up in the middle of the road, bleeding from my nose, my eyes, my ears. Abby Daye was unconscious." She pauses before adding, "For three months."

Skulduggery doesn't know what to say, so he waits.

"Everyone thought we got attacked somehow. 'Unknown chemical agent' was the popular theory. Makes sense, though - who would believe Abby's story? That her friend became a demon in front of her? Glowing eyes, slithering shadows..." Valkyrie nods to herself. "So my dad found out he made a huge mistake hiding things from us. And that's when he took me to Solomon Wreath."

"So your family knows about the -- Darquesse?"

"Of course," she laughs wryly. "Kind of hard not to after that fiasco. We didn't tell my little sister until last year; I didn't want to tell her at all, but...she needs to know there are very real, very sinister downsides to being one of us. Maybe knowing about my inner-psychopath can save her from this life."

Skulduggery wants to tell her that she isn't a psychopath, that there's something else at work, but she doesn't need those words. "I'll help you stop it. However you want to, be it that damned book or something else."

Valkyrie looks away; there is a wetness in her eyes, something that befuddles him. "Valkyrie," he tries, faltering.

She shakes her head, cutting him off with a watery laugh. "I'm still terrifying, damnit, so don't start treating me otherwise." Skulduggery reaches out to her, and she takes his hand, holding the gloved fingers as if he'll disappear if she lets go.

When she's finally settled, her exhaustion overtaking her, she adds, "Thank you, Skulduggery. For everything."

Skulduggery stays where he is, holding her hand until she falls asleep.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Valkyrie awakes screaming. The noise doesn't travel past her throat; shadows clog her mouth, and warm, slender fingers are on her neck.

"Valkyrie," Melancholia whispers against her ear. "Are you awake yet? Yelp once for yes." Her hands tighten and Valkyrie gags, convulses, arches her back. The ball of shadow in her mouth is lengthening, slithering.

Melancholia lets up, and Valkyrie rolls out of her bed, vomiting on the floor, gasping for air and choking on her own sick. Shadows slash across her back, and she falls into the mess she made, shirt splitting open under the barrage of razor-sharp tendrils. When they finally let up, Valkyrie can see Melancholia's feet. When Valkyrie can finally focus, can finally raise her gaze, Melancholia looks hungry.

"And they call me fucked in the head," Valkyrie tries to say, but it comes out as a raking wheeze that sends her into dry-heaves.

"What was that, Cain?" she laughs, reaching out and grabbing Valkyrie's hair, twisting it and dragging Valkyrie through her vomit. "I couldn't quite hear you. But I guess I should try - have any final words? Anything I can pass onto your parents when I see them later? And that baby sister of yours...I bet I could crush her with one hand."

Valkyrie's hand shoots up, wrenching against Melancholia's wrist. She feels the delicate bones in Melancholia's wrist and hand crunch, fracture, shards cutting through the skin and into Valkyrie's hand. And yet she squeezes and twists and relishes in Melancholia's shrieks.

It's beautiful; Melancholia's always had such a beautiful voice. Valkyrie kind of envies it in some small part of herself, the part that savours such things.

When she releases Melancholia, the girl stumbles to the door. Valkyrie whips a shadow up, grabbing her ankle and wrenching her to the floor. "What was that about my sister, Melancholia?" she breathes.

"I will kill you," Melancholia sobs, anguished and pained and suddenly frightened. Very frightened. "I'm the Death Bringer!"

"Not yet, you're not." Valkyrie's shadows tendril out, snaking around each finger. One-by-one, the shadows yank, and the fingers pop. Melancholia's shouts drown out the last three bones dislocating, which Valkyrie finds kind of unfortunate.

Wreath is through the door before Valkyrie can move onto Melancholia's second hand. Wreath shoots a shadow, but Wreath is predictable; Valkyrie blocks with her own and sweeps his to the side, tendrils leaving Melancholia and stringing Wreath against the wall. "I'm walking out of here, and neither of you will follow me."

"You can't leave," Wreath croaks. "You are a danger to yourself, Valkyrie. Your family."

"I have a new tutor," she says with a little smile, and then glances down at Melancholia. The girl is pale and trembling, in shock. "Bye, Mel. I'll miss our midnight chats."

"I will tear you apart," Melancholia promises from the floor, voice shaking. "I will destroy you and your entire bloody world."

Valkyrie nods. "Fair enough." Her shadows toss the pair of them against the opposite wall before sliding out the door, through the teaming, confused halls, and out into the night.

She walks for a few blocks, finds a park bench to collapse on, and gulps air. With shaking fingers, she thumbs Tanith's number. "Hey," she murmurs when Tanith answers. "I kind of did something dumb, and I think I need you to rescue me."

 


 

Valkyrie awakes with tears in her eyes. She blinks around the unfamiliar room, confused, and then sees Skulduggery sitting on the chair by the bed. She relaxes, and murmurs, "Hey."

Skulduggery doesn't answer. It's eerie seeing him unresponsive, sitting there like some fancy Halloween decoration. The thought is kind of amusing, but she doesn't laugh. She simply watches.

Valkyrie isn't sure how much time she's spent staring at him, examining the nicks and pocks of his exposed forearms through the half-dark, when he stirs. She jumps and then laughs at herself. "Sorry," she apologises, but she doesn't know what for. Maybe for staring.

"Ah, you're awake." He checks the clock on the side table and sighs. "You've only been asleep for three hours, so I suppose I should let you continue that. You fleshy things are horrifyingly inefficient."

"I'm not tired," she lies, watching him while he stands. "Come back," she says before he can move away. She wiggles aside on the bed and pats the place she was just laying. "I warmed it up for you."

"I don't notice a distinction between warm and cold. Bones," he reminds her.

"Oh," she says, blinking. And then, curiously, "So what do you feel? Pain, obviously."

"Obviously."

"But what else? Can you feel the bed?"

"The...the physical bed? Of course, I can feel the physical bed."

Valkyrie spends a while feeling perplexed. "I really need to understand the physics behind a living-skeleton. What are the rules?"

"I think many people would also like to understand it, but unfortunately I cannot help there."

Valkyrie pats the bed again, and Skulduggery, seemingly against his better judgment, sits. She leans against the headboard beside him, the duvet pulled up just under her chest, and stares at the wall in front of them. "Have you ever been in love?"

"Yes."

"Before or after..." she waves her hand in his general direction.

"I see Gordon's eloquence has passed along to you." Valkyrie grins, biting her lip to keep it limited. "Before. I was married; she was killed."

Skulduggery can see Valkyrie's face fall and her head lower, looking at her fingers curled on her lap. He doesn't expect her next words, but they make sense. "Did Gordon write a short story about it?"

Skulduggery turns to glance at her. "Yes." He watches her eyes close, look away.

Skulduggery knows the piece well - Gordon asked his permission to print it, after all. It was well written; the emotion in it was astounding. And yet it wasn't right; it could never be right. Even Skulduggery wouldn't be able to pen the way it felt, watching his life tear apart at the seams, seeing everything he ever loved stripped from him. Seeing it every time he meditates, remembering the broad strokes but forgetting their faces.

Did she have green eyes or blue?

Did their child have her smile?

Valkyrie's hand falls to his, startling him. His gloved fingers curl with hers. They sit in silence for a time before Valkyrie murmurs, "It never helps when people apologise, but for what it's worth...I don't know how you survived it."

"Technically, I didn't."

"Skulduggery." She's inexplicably serious. "I'm so sorry."

He nods. He doesn't know what else there is to say.

"What about...since?" Valkyrie murmurs.

It takes Skulduggery a moment to remember her previous question, so many emotions flickering through his memories, phantom things he can't exactly feel, but his bones can remember. "Once. It...did not end well."

"Do you...oh God, this is probably pushing boundaries, but...do you want to talk about it?"

"No," he replies, trying not to be curt. He can't think about Abyssinia. Not right now. "It was a different lifetime."

She goes quiet, but Skulduggery doesn't have to wait long for her to continue her line of questioning. "Hypothetically speaking," she continues slowly, sounding anxious and surprised and awkward all at once, "do you think it's possible to love someone again? Have a real, true relationship? Feelings and all of those disgusting things?"

"I do have feelings, yes. I am oddly offended you thought otherwise."

Valkyrie hesitates again. "What if the person was a mortal? No magic, just...a person."

This question is more difficult, and Skulduggery is confused about why it's a concern. "In the hypothetical that I ever met an exceptional mortal who would consider doing anything with a talking skeleton, then it's possible."

Valkyrie is moving, suddenly rocking to her knees and turning to him. Her hands go to his cheekbones, eyes wide and almost panicked. "Can I kiss you?"

Skulduggery knows it's a terrible idea for so many reasons. There are too many variables, too many ways for their worlds to tear apart, but he replies, "Yes."

Valkyrie hesitates, torn, before leaning down, falteringly placing her lips against his cheekbone, against his jaw, and then, tentatively, his teeth. He holds very still, his hands aching to take her waist, to pull her in. But he isn't sure what will happen after this, and he wants to limit fallout as much as he possibly can.

Because the thought of losing her entirely is somehow suffocating.

When Valkyrie pulls back, her brow furrows. "Was that...terrible? I mean, did you...can you feel it?"

"I can," he murmurs. "And it was not."

Valkyrie debates; Skulduggery can almost see the wheels turning. "I don't -- I have no idea what I'm doing, but can I do it again?"

Skulduggery's hands rise to her waist, hovering, and she presses herself into them. Encouraged, Skulduggery takes her middle and brings her to straddle his lap. She wavers above his thighs, but he settles her, skull going to her neck, pressing into her hair.

Valkyrie moves in short, careful stretches, unbuttoning his shirt and smoothing it from his shoulders, fingers tracing from clavicle to ulna. He nips her neck, and she arches into him, letting out a surprised gasp, and he uses the opportunity to unbutton the shirt she's wearing — clean white with little blue pinstripes. Skulduggery has never liked the way it looks on him but on her...

He finishes with the buttons but leaves the shirt in place, an option. An option that seems to annoy Valkyrie. "You just found out I share a body with a deranged psychopath, Detective - if I want you to stop, I will make it very known."

The ominous words send a thrill through his bones. He can feel Vile, the little piece of him still embedded, and Vile reaches for her.

Darquesse reaches back.

Skulduggery bites her neck, holding the skin between his teeth. Valkyrie thrusts against him, fingers vicing on his ribs, gripping hard enough to hurt. Her nails scrape; he bucks into her, making her keen. The sound purrs through the room, stretching.

Skulduggery shoves a hand between their bodies, gloves tearing at her panties, ripping them aside, two fingers sliding into her without tenderness. Valkyrie hisses, but the hiss turns into a moan. She begins to ride his fingers, slow at first, testing the feeling. Soon she's moving, thighs bouncing, pelvis rocking, faster and faster. Her moans hum from her throat, vibrating against Skulduggery's teeth.

He adds a third finger, and her pace stutters, becoming uncoordinated. Her ring is off, but dark tendrils are snaking from the fingers cinched around his ribs, slithering through Skulduggery's ridges and caressing.

Darquesse reaches for him.

Vile reaches back.

Valkyrie, with Darquesse's bright eyes, let's out a gasping laugh that descends into a groan. Her slender fingers reach into him, into the swirling darkness inside his ribcage, and he feels it.

Skulduggery thinks he might be dying. His essence feels as if it is ripping apart, and Valkyrie's body is stuttering, her walls clenching around his fingers, eyes glistening. She thrusts herself at him, her lips meeting his teeth, and Skulduggery dies.

Thinks he does.

Everything is a blessed blank for so long, and Skulduggery swears he feels warmth. But it fades, and he comes back to his bones, Valkyrie draped across his chest, lips pressing against the cervical spine. She's breathing steadily, her flushed skin cooling.

"Wow," she says finally.

Skulduggery can't hold back a laugh. "Eloquent."

 


 

Rapture clasps his hands together, wrestles them for a moment, and then unfolds them. He runs his clammy palms over his jeans, taking a deep breath, preparing.

Even so, he startles when the side door opens, and the most beautiful woman in the world enters.

She's flawless in a dark blue pantsuit, a baby-pink, club-collared buttondown completing the ensemble. She smiles at Rapture, and his heart lightens. He forgets that she might kill him, might string him up in the Sanctuary's gaol, might do any number of things to him. When she smiles, everything is better.

"Thank you for your patience, Mr Rapture," China Sorrows says, gracious, folding herself onto the chair across from him. She pours herself some of the tea he's pretending to drink, adding a lump of sugar. She stirs, taking her time, before raising her pale eyes to his. "I'm so glad you brought this to me, but I must admit that I'm a little confused. I was under the impression that Valkyrie Cain had the book."

"She, ah. She sent me instead," Rapture tries. The lies he practised in his bathroom mirror are stammering out, tangled under her gentle gaze. "She said I could use the favour more."

"Gracious girl, given I've never heard of your relationship with her before."

Rapture looks aside. "I don't mean to be rude, Ms Sorrows-"

"Of course," she interrupts. Her smile is gone, and Rapture goes cold. He sees her distaste, and it makes his knees quiver. "The Administrator will be up any moment with your itinerary. A flight to Prague, as requested, and a new identity."

Rapture doesn't meet her gaze and spends the next three minutes staring at the carpet while China stirs her tea and sips. Rapture doesn't look over at China's desk, at the book softly glowing there. He can't look at it without seeing Valkyrie in his mind's eye - wild-eyed, drunk, begging him to destroy it, set fire to it, tear it to pieces, anything to get rid of the damned thing.

It's Valkyrie's fault that he's here now, he tries to tell himself. If she hadn't called him, hadn't asked him to use every spell he knew to destroy the thing, she'd be here and not him. But she hesitated, and to hesitate is to show weakness. Rapture wasn't about to show weakness again.

The Administrator arrives, silent and stony-faced, and China walks Rapture out. "Enjoy your new life, Mr Rapture," China says, closing the door in his face before he can thank her.

Rapture takes the itinerary from the Administrator, followed by the keys to a rental car. The car, he is told, has his new passport and money. The vehicle has details on the fastest routes to the airport - as if he needs it - and the safest places to lie low in the Czech Republic. Everything has been prepared and planned for, the Administrator says, seeming to not really care either way.

But not everything is planned for. When Rapture steps out of the Sanctuary, when he lifts his face to the fresh air and breathes it in, a new man on a new mission, he doesn't pay attention to how quiet the street is, how hushed, how the Cathedral is tall and impassive, the bells silent.

A hand closes around his neck only ten meters from the rental car. Rapture tries to scream, but there's no air left. There's only fire.

 


 

Chapter Text



China is startled when she enters her boudoir to find Valkyrie on the bed, lighting a cigarette. "Valkyrie," China begins, folding her hands in front of her. "I thought we cancelled our meetings until you and Skulduggery resolved this book debacle to the best of your abilities."

Valkyrie looks up, taking a hit from the cigarette, wincing, and then exhaling. "I used to smoke every night before we met up," she says as if China asked. "It's absolutely disgusting, but damn if it doesn't calm the nerves. Of every anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, or anti-psychotic I've tried, nothing calms the system quite like nicotine."

"Valkyrie dear," China begins, smoothing her skirt down and collecting herself, gently smiling. "While I adore you and would never admonish your personal choices, I would prefer you put the cigarette out."

Valkyrie doesn't take another puff, but she doesn't tamp it out, either. "Give me the name."

"Do you have the book?" she asks.

Valkyrie snorts and flops back onto the bed, staring at the drapes crisscrossing over the fourposter. "That book won't turn up until it's being used to decimate the world."

"Then I suppose you can receive the name when that happens."

Valkyrie's left hand, the one holding the cigarette, flutters above the goose-down comforter. Ash mars the crisp whiteness. "See, here's the thing. I don't know where the book is, when it will turn up, or if I should even give it to you if it does. But I do know I need to get this shit inside of me under control. So, really, it's in all of our best interests if you stop fucking around and give me the name. You know - friend to friend. You're still my friend, right, China?"

China regards her, a thick coil of anger thrashing inside her belly. She holds it back because that is what China does; instead, she takes that hatred and catalogues it in her mind, filing it away for later. "You're spilling ash on my duvet."

"Oh, am I?" Valkyrie goes up onto her elbows, glancing around her. "Look at that; I am. Oops." And then she smashes the cigarette out on the comforter, the scent of singed goose feathers sending a quick, acrid smell through the air. "China, I don't want to fight you."

"I should hope not, child. You would lose."

"Probably," Valkyrie says, and then grins. "Definitely. But I don't think you want to kill me. And I don't think Skulduggery would be very happy if you did, either."

"Skulduggery Pleasant is going to be displeased no matter how this night ends," China replies, folding her arms over her chest, frowning. "You're asking for something worse than death. Beyond death. Think what you will of me, Valkyrie, but I do not send my employees out on suicide missions unless I have to."

"Employee," Valkyrie repeats, nodding. "Well, be that as it may - I'm willing to pay that price."

China waits for Valkyrie to offer up more, to plead her case, but Valkyrie is quiet, calm and collected, sure of herself. Something has changed over the seven hours they've been apart.

China finally gives in. "I'll draw up directions to the banshee, then." Before she does, though, she adds, "I assume you would prefer I not call Skulduggery the second you leave?"

"That'd be preferable, yes."

China inclines her head and turns to her desk.

 


 

Skulduggery gets the call that Mrs Sellers' family name is O'Connor and she was spotted in a town in western County Clare two days prior. He can't reach Valkyrie, but it's still early in the morning. Perhaps she's sleeping. Or showering. Or eating. It's been so long since Skulduggery has needed those things that they seem frivolous. How does the living get anything done?

Skulduggery doesn't want to think about other possibilities; not after he came-to from meditation and found his bed cold and Valkyrie long gone. Skulduggery hasn't been in a relationship for a very long time, though he is relatively sure leaving in the middle of the night is still frowned upon.

And now she isn't answering her bloody phone.

He drives to Grimwood, but Valkyrie's car is gone. Tanith's bike is still by the rose bushes, so Skulduggery goes to the door, knocks, and then unlocks it.

Tanith emerges from one of the spare bedrooms, already calling out to Valkyrie, but pauses when she sees Skulduggery. "Oh, hey," she says, sounding confused. "Is Val with you? She was supposed to pick me up from Synechdoce's clinic this morning but never showed."

"She hasn't been home?"

"Not since I got in a couple of hours ago... Is something the matter?"

"No," he says quickly, glad his voice is cheery. "Not at all. She had a long day yesterday; maybe she's off at a spa."

"Sure," Tanith mumbles, not believing it. Skulduggery keeps forgetting that the women lived together for five years; his haphazard lies won't go far with Tanith. "Well...is there something I can help with? I'm in town until next week-"

"I got the information on that human Kimber employed, Mrs Sellers. Karen O'Connor, to be accurate."

"Kimber's dead, isn't she? What is Sellers going to say that helps with anything?"

Skulduggery tilts his head. "We're still missing the book, and Sellers is the only person still alive who we can track."

"Kimber's Sensitive is still in the wind, I assume?"

"You assume correctly."

"Well hell, let's go see Karen-whatever." Tanith pops into her bedroom and emerges with leathers and her boots.

"You're supposed to be resting."

"Nothing like a ride through the country and fresh air for healing bones," she quips and grabs her riding helmet; she tosses Valkyrie's to Skulduggery. "Come on then."

"We are not taking your bike."

"We are, though."

"Tanith-"

"You'll love Perdita," she says and then grins. "Valkyrie does."

Skulduggery ignores the knowing smirk. "Valkyrie loves cheese puffs, too, and those are possibly more deadly than your bike." Tanith laughs, and Skulduggery flicks his facade into place and follows her out of the house.

 


 

Valkyrie can't quite remember what she's supposed to do. Things are so blessedly quiet; finally, finally quiet. She can't hear Darquesse. She can't hear anything.

She can see Doctor Nye's lips moving, the black strings flapping from its mouth while it works. While it roots around in her chest cavity, poking, searching, cutting.

Valkyrie doesn't know why it's bothering to say anything - she assumes it talks for itself, not for her and the dead-but-living bodies strewn around them.

She stares at the scab where its nose used to be, disinterestedly turning her attention to its rheumy eyes. It looks older and greyer now, fuzzed over and mouldy, but she assumes that's just because she's sinking further and further into herself, losing herself.

Valkyrie - that's her name, isn't it? It feels sharp in her mind, a jagged piece of glass - closes her eyes, but she still sees the dark splotches of her innards, the white of her cracked ribcage jutting up and out of her opened chest. She thinks about the noise blood must make when it flows through the human body. Does it sound like when you press your ear against a shell, hearing the seaside? Does it sound like the ocean's breath?

It's an odd sensation, not needing to breathe. She never really paid attention to her breaths before, but the absence of them is somehow noteworthy. She wonders why she cares. And then she realises she doesn't and lets it go.

When the thing, Nye, finally slips away and leaves her, she regards the slender strips of liver, her liver, on the table beside her. She stares at the ceiling and then glances down at her chest again. She counts all of the bones she can see, and then something wiggles in the back of her mind.

Bones. Ribs. Skulduggery.

She blinks, and then she rubs her thumb across the ring on her middle finger, drunk with exhaustion and death. The tendril is lazy and reluctant; she's surprised it's even there at all. Who the hell can control magic while dead? While sitting a meter from their ripped-out internal organs?

She tries to open her mouth, to talk, but her jaw won't move. The tendril snakes away from her, wavering and then darkening, growing stronger, bringing her closer to alertness.

It finds her left kidney first, coiling, caressing, bringing it back and tucking it gingerly. The sections of liver join her cavity, and then her heart, her split sternum, and a piece of tongue.

When Nye's footsteps return, the tendril shoots through the air, stabbing it in one of the legs, sending it to the ground with a shrill cry.

"That's impossible!" it hisses and then whimpers when the shadow coils around the wound, vicing, dragging Nye across the floor and toward Valkyrie.

"Fix me," she tries to say, but a piece of her tongue is lolling loosely in her mouth, and her jaw won't move correctly. The tendril helps her, clenching Nye's arm and dragging it up, pushing it toward the table and its tools. "Fix me," Valkyrie repeats, but it doesn't sound any clearer.

Nye understands, though, and the terror in its eyes is enough for Valkyrie to relax a little. The doctor does its work, and the tendril does its.

 


 

Valkyrie makes it to the road. Valkyrie calls Skulduggery.

"I made a mistake," she whispers, her insides raw and the new scar decorating her shoulders and torso throbbing. "And I desperately need a ride."

 


 

"Fuck's sake," Tanith breathes, waving a hand in front of her face. At first, Skulduggery thinks it's due to a stench he can't smell, but then he realises there's a stringy, dried piece of entrail hanging from a light fixture above her, almost touching her shoulder.

"I suppose this is why no one has seen Karen's daughter in town," Skulduggery murmurs, kneeling beside the first of the bodies. Its head is gone, pummelled into a dried pulp in the carpet. Another's ribcage is open, splaying organs. This is the one whose entrails hang from the ceiling, it seems.

The third is Karen herself. Her body is pristine other than a sliced throat and missing tongue.

"Kimber's fixer-"

Skulduggery interrupts, thinking he's being helpful. "Ganigan Donnelly."

"The boxer who nearly killed me," Tanith adds, choosing not to acknowledge his name. "That body looks just like Edge did. This one," she motions to the one with the split ribcage, "kind of looks like what he tried on me."

"They got to Sellers before we even knew they were onto us."

"Makes sense," Tanith murmurs. She turns and leaves the house, retreating into the cloudy mist outside. Skulduggery checks the house for the book even though it's a moot point. If Ganigan Donnelly was here, the book certainly is not.

When he returns to Tanith's side, she's on the bike and staring out toward the town. "I called in a Cleaver team," she says. "They'll be by to take care of things inside." And then she forces a little smile. "Mind if we stop for ice cream?"

Skulduggery doesn't question it. "It'd be a pleasure to watch you eat ice cream, Ms Low." But before Skulduggery can sit on the bike, his phone rings.

"Valkyrie?" he asks, relieved to hear her voice. "Valkyrie, what-" his facade's eyes go to Tanith's curious face. "Where are you right now?"

Tanith revs the bike to life, and Skulduggery nods to no one. "We'll be right there."

 


 

Valkyrie spends three days holed away in her room. Tanith tries to keep her company, but Valkyrie gets easily annoyed and shuts down, refusing to talk. The conversations always ended up the same damned way, anyway. Have you called Skulduggery back?

She hasn't. Of course, she hasn't. Skulduggery and Tanith came to her rescue, finding her on the side of the road, draped across the bonnet of her car. They made a big deal about the state of her body - rightly so; she refused to let Nye heal the cosmetic aspects of her surgery, wanting to get the hell away as soon as possible.

Tanith and Skulduggery also made a big deal about demanding Nye's location. She pretended not to know, which only made Skulduggery descend into silence and Tanith stomp off in search of the workshop.

Skulduggery drove her car on the way to Grimwood, and she sat in the passenger, trying to make light and apologise in equal measures. Skulduggery said nothing on the drive, or after he got her into her bed, or when he brushed his teeth across her forehead, an attempt at a kiss, on his way out the door.

What he must think of her now.

She works on her breathing first. In and out, expanding and contracting a little circle in her mind. Darquesse coils around it, curious. "You're meditating now?" she asks, sounding amused. "I remember you thinking it was - and I quote - horseshit of the highest order for the easily hoodwinked."

"Shut up," she thinks back, but Darquesse lingers. She isn't explosive now; her presence is almost tolerable. Sisterly. Comforting.

"You know," Darquesse murmurs, settling gently against Valkyrie's consciousness, a yin to her yang. "I've been thinking about our dilemma-"

"You're not part of this."

"-and I've realised that you and I are working toward the same goal. We want the same thing. Separate. So, we shouldn't be fighting one another over this vessel, right? Hell, put me in your Reflection for all I care. We can borrow the book. China can bind it all over again, and then we can put it back in the caves."

"China isn't getting anywhere close to that book." Valkyrie's breathing is quickening so she returns her focus to the circle.

In.

Out.

"China already has it."

The circle disappears and then it's only Darquesse in the space. "What?"

"Maybe I should be the detective." Darquesse mulls. "No, it'd be terribly tedious. Your skeleton detective, though...there's something about him that's kind of electrifying."

Valkyrie opens her eyes and sighs. "If you have a proposal, get to it."

Darquesse is getting bolder - or Valkyrie merely is too tired; she was dead earlier this week, after all. Darquesse swirls though Valkyrie's mind, her darkness prickling out, tapping along Valkyrie's arms and fingers. A tendril coils around her thumb, and Valkyrie shakes it, tries to dislodge it, and fails.

"We, my dear, will see China at our scheduled time. While there, we will create a distraction in China's bedroom. Perhaps Tanith? She'll move the world for you, after all."

"Even if China has the book, we have no idea where it would be."

"Close, under lock and key. Somewhere she has enough wards to keep it safe; somewhere she can admire it in secret."

"Her library?"

"Her library."

"You don't -- we have no idea if-"

"You'd suggest business as usual, Val? You'd really prefer to fight me, to try to quell me when you lose control? It's getting so hard, love, isn't it? So tiring. You can do this, this one little thing, and we can be free. You can be with your skeleton, and I can leave you both in peace."

"You forget that we have no idea whose blood opens that book."

Darquesse laughs. "I can open it no problem as long as you let me out. Fully let me out, Valkyrie. Give me the reins, disappear for a little bit - an hour, two at most - and then this is all a bad dream."

Valkyrie's fingers tremble, curl in on themselves. "Why should I trust you?"

"You shouldn't, but you don't have much of a choice, do you?"

 She's so tired. She's ready for it to be over. "What would you do with your freedom?"

"You know the answer to that."

Valkyrie looks at the floor, at the wall, everywhere but inside. She doesn't want to remember the vague, hazy image of Kimber's body. She doesn't want to remember how Darquesse delighted in each spurt of blood, of each severed limb, broken body --

Valkyrie grabs her phone and thumbs Skulduggery's name. He answers on the first ring.

"I know you're mad," she says before her throat can seal up. How the hell can he still put up with her? How can he handle this nonsense? "But in the spirit of transparency, I am actually considering something Darquesse wants. Also, I really, really miss you."

"I'll be there in ten minutes," Skulduggery replies, but Valkyrie can barely hear him over Darquesse's fury within her blood.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Skulduggery says nothing when he arrives, but he does pull Valkyrie into his arms. She lingers there, inhaling the strange, waxy scent of his facade's neck. Valkyrie closes her eyes and tries to breathe through his skin, fails, and lets out an odd whine from her throat.

When he pulls back, his false eyes are concerned and full of something she recognises but isn't ready to address yet.

"Tanith's at the market," Valkyrie murmurs, turning and walking toward the kitchen for the sheer fact that she needs to move, she needs to do something, she can't keep looking at those green eyes. "Do you want anything to dr -- nope, you're still dead."

"You, luckily, are not," Skulduggery says, breaking the silence and jumping right into the heart of matters.

Valkyrie shrugs out of her hoodie, letting the fresh scars along her torso meet his gaze. Her tank top is a pale, pale purple, almost the same colour as the puckered skin. Tanith offered to take Valkyrie to Grouse, but Valkyrie refused. She wants these scars - she wants the reminder of her stupidity, the risk she takes when she tries to solve things on her own.

Valkyrie waits for him to recoil, for some expression or disgust or anger, but he takes it with stride, not even giving the scars more than a cursory glance.

"I needed to try."

"And did it work?"

She looks at her fingernails, short and ragged from digging her way across the dirt from Nye's workshop to her car. It patched her, but poorly; once it sealed her chest and assured her she was able to leave without falling apart in the mortal world, she fled. Not before banging the doctor around the room a little, though.

"Valkyrie?" he asks softly, even though he knows the answer.

"No. Nye couldn't find her soul."

"Your soul."

Valkyrie shrugs as if it doesn't matter. She's pretty sure it doesn't. "It was going to keep me there, you know. Tearing about, removing and replacing. And I walked right in; I laid my life out in front of it."

"You were foolish and reckless."

"That's a tad rude," she mumbles.

"Apologies. It was stupid and the most feeble-minded way to seek martyrdom."

That one pulls a snort from Valkyrie, and she leans against the countertop. "I'm sorry."

"I am, too."

"What are you sorry for?"

"For making you think I wouldn't support your decision. I don't, mind you," he adds quickly. "Nye is the worst thing you could have chosen to do outside of cutting yourself open. But."

Valkyrie waits.

"But I'm sorry you didn't think you could come to me. I would have found a way if you just-" he breaks off and Valkyrie can hear the effort it takes him to stop. "Please don't do that again."

"Pretty sure I've learned my lesson about soul-seeking surgeons."

They watch one another for a while before Valkyrie slides around the counter and joins him, standing close but not touching. "Should we...talk about the other night?"

"That might be a good idea, yes." But Skulduggery doesn't continue, waiting for her to begin.

"I shouldn't have run off, we both acknowledge that," she begins slowly. "Although, we also both acknowledge I made an understandable mistake in a fit of passion."

"I do not acknowledge that it was understandable at all."

"Good, we agree it was understandable. I'm just worried you think -- Jesus, can you take the facade off? I feel like I'm breaking up with a stranger."

"We're breaking up?" he asks, finally amused, and flicks his collarbones. The false skin flows away, and Valkyrie can breathe again.

"No, it's not -- I just wanted to assure you that I wasn't trying to use you or trick you or anything."

Skulduggery tilts his head to the side. "Well, I didn't think that before..."

Valkyrie bites her lower lip, dips her head, and mutters, "This isn't going as well as it did in my mirror-practising."

"It's probably the voice," Skulduggery provides. "This voice gives everyone the vapours."

"The vapours," she repeats but blinks away the sidetrack. "I wanted to do what I did, and I liked it, and I think we should do it again. Maybe now, even."

Skulduggery laughs and Valkyrie grins, finally relaxing. He touches a hand to her chin and lifts her face a bit so he can press his forehead against hers. "Tanith will be home soon, correct?"

"We can be quick," Valkyrie insists, mouth pressing against his teeth. "Super quick. Rabbit quick."

She hasn't anticipated the return purr of, "The things I plan to do to you, Ms Cain...I need time."

Valkyrie's eyelids flutter in a very embarrassing way. "Damnit, your voice should be illegal."

 


 

Skulduggery's meditations turn dark before he can take a metaphorical breath. Vile is there, and Vile is furious. Vile doesn't speak; he rages. He tantrums. He breathes darkness.

Vile reminds Skulduggery of things he doesn't want to remember. Tonight, it's Abyssinia. Her silver hair gleaming in the candlelight, her dark lips tracing along his spine. The feel of her fingers coiling in his essence, tearing and ripping, making him beg for more. Him. Beg.

But Abyssinia becomes Darquesse. Darquesse is shadow and smoke, something untouchable, but touch she does. Her hands are everywhere at once, her voice purring like Valkyrie, but darkly. So darkly. She's intangible, but he can feel her inside of him, coiling around his bones and threatening to grind them into dust with a single thought.

Vile makes him think awful things about Valkyrie next - her wide eyes clenched tight while Vile's fingers curl around the long column of her throat. Vile's gauntlets squeeze, thumbs tearing into her trachea, twisting in opposite directions, rending it in half.

Vile thinks of all the things he could do to her - the methods he could kill her, the ways she would die screaming. Skulduggery can feel the need inside of him, and it's terrifying.

Skulduggery shakes himself out of the thoughts and comes round, finding Valkyrie's face pressed against his humerus, soft snores slipping from her. He watches her breathe, watches her eyes move behind the lids, lost in dreams. Everything's fine.

But then Valkyrie stirs, her eyes slowly opening, blearily blinking, and she lets out a soft moan that has nothing to do with sex but flares Vile into action.

He's on her in an instant, tearing his gloves off and running his fingers down her spine as he curls to face her. Valkyrie looks startled for the briefest of moments before her mouth goes to his teeth.

Vile doesn't want the kiss, so he bites her lower lip, drawing blood, and she pulls away with a startled yelp. "Skulduggery, what the hell?"

He doesn't speak - Vile never does. The phalanges roving down her spine twist to cup her ass, dragging her in closer. His free arm slides beneath her neck, tangling in her long hair, before vicing on her nape.

Valkyrie's eyes are becoming cloudy with lust, which surprises him a bit. He supposes it shouldn't, though, when she whispers in a voice layered with something else, "My goodness, where have you been all my life?"

The hand on the back of her neck drags her in, teeth gnashing along her lip, her jaw, and then her chin. That one causes her to buck against him, trying to pull away and push further into him all at the same time. She breaks free, and Skulduggery knows his bones have left red welts. Instead of retreating, recoiling, Valkyrie tosses her tank-top off, wiggles out of her panties, and is crawling on top of him.

But it isn't Valkyrie anymore. The smile is wrong. The eyes are too bright, too intense. "You called?" she asks, and her voice is volcanic ash, soft but dark.

Skulduggery feels something in his ribcage tighten, just as it had when she tried to attack him days ago. It's like an anvil, but within him, everywhere, compressing his bones.

Vile lashes out, grabbing Darquesse's neck and making her laugh, wrenching his wrist with one hand, twisting. It's just enough to make a point, not to break, but Vile pushes her onto her back with a palm of shadow to her chest.

She sprawls there, smirking, her scars shining in the glow from her television - still on in spite of the movie ending hours ago, casting a blue haze to everything. "Why on earth would Skulduggery hide you away?" she asks. She loves to talk - Vile wonders how to best shut her up. "You seem absolutely delightful."

Vile reaches for her throat again, and this time she rises into it, lifting herself off of her back. But she doesn't sit up - she grabs his ribs and drags him down with her, fingers vicing. "Not much of a talker, huh?" she breathes, fingers wrenching at a rib, twisting, ragged nails doing their best to scrape. "That's alright - I like the tall, dark, and mysterious types. They take the longest to break, and they wail like a hymn."

Vile grabs her hip and flips her onto her belly; her arm yanks with the motion and dislocates at the shoulder, a loud pop through the room. She flinches and tosses an annoyed frown over her shoulder. "Not very sporting, are you?"

Her hand releases and the arm coils back into place; shadows leak from her ring like a faucet, pouring up her arm, mending it in seconds. And then they strike him.

The shadows fill him, every part of him, and Vile snarls, a hand sliding between her legs and slapping her thighs apart. His hand finds her ready, positively dripping, and shoves inside. She gives a little yelp and a giggle, slamming back into his fingers.

One of her heels kicks up and strikes his ischium, the shadows in his pelvis descending to meet her foot. The darkness coils and she kicks again; this one breaks the bone, sending Vile into a rage. His fist shoves into Darquesse and her spine arches against the scarred flesh of her back. She tries to get away from him, but his second hand grips her ankle and yanks her back, crunching into the bone and wrenching it.

Darquesse heals herself, but that doesn't stop Vile from delighting in the scream that rips from her lips.

Vile hears a clamour in the hallway outside but doesn't stop his hand's assault inside Darquesse. Darquesse, for her part, does pause her movement. "Oh, I suppose Tanith is in for a sight she doesn't expect."

Sure enough, the door bangs open and Tanith is there, warrior hardened and ready with her sword, only to falter. "Oh hell," she says, covering her face with her free hand and turning away. "Jesus hell, Valkyrie."

"Come on in," Darquesse coos and Tanith's hand drops, her eyes wide.

"V-Valkyrie."

"Try again, sweetheart."

Tanith swallows and backs up; she doesn't look at Vile, shadow-shrouded and trying to tear Darquesse's pelvis apart from the inside. Her eyes stay fixed on Darquesse's. "Val, if you're in there-"

"She is, and she wants you to join us," Darquesse tries temptingly.

Tanith shakes her head. "Valkyrie. Bunny."

"Aww, I never thought I'd hear that again," Darquesse murmurs with a faint grin in her tone. "I miss you, Tan...even though you put a damper on my play-time. You kept us in line, didn't you? Until you ran off to London just to get away from us."

Tanith lets out a slow breath, but she doesn't put her sword away. "Bunny, come on. Don't let her-"

Vile grows tired of the distraction and flicks a shadow at Tanith. Tanith dodges back and, before she can come at them, he slams the door and coils it in pulsing darkness.

"Jealous much?" Darquesse simpers, coiling the shadows inside of him, pulling them, twisting. "Skulduggery, you really need to tell your pet to-"

Vile pulls out of her only to shape the shadow she's manipulating. She angles, puzzled, to watch his weaving. And then her eyes widen in obvious delight. "I'm surprised this is the first time I thought about a shadow-dick being a thing."

Vile grabs the back of her neck and forces her head down - she lets him, playing along for the moment. When he pushes inside of her, not bothering for niceties, her back bows and she lets out an appreciative moan. She doesn't speak, which surprises Vile. She does take over the pace, though, slowing him, taking him deeper and gasping at each painful hit to her cervix.

Before Vile can get too comfortable, Darquesse twists the shadows inside of him, yanking and pulling a part of Vile along with it. She stares down at the shadows coiling around her arm, examining; Vile attempts to pull himself back, to retake control, but he can't reach it, that little fraction of himself she effortlessly plucked away.

Vile reaches for the shadow, for her arm, ready to tear it off of her if she keeps pushing him. Her head thrusts back suddenly, striking Vile's chin and sending him into the headboard, his jaw disjointed from the hit.

The shadows are back, but the piece of him is still gone, still circling her arm, separate. Separate is terrifying, but Vile refuses to acknowledge it. She is a torment, but so is he.

Darquesse is on top of him again, fingers gripping his shoulders. She calls up the phallic shadows between his legs and seats herself with little need for adjustment, rocking her hips against him. Vile strikes her across the face, hearing her cheekbone shatter; she laughs as the damage knits itself together, her eyes flashing. "You should probably accept the fact that you can't kill me, lover."

Vile grips her hips, phalanges digging in. He wishes he had his armour - Vile wishes he could show her pure terror. She's cocky, untested and unbroken, and he plans to change that.

Just as soon as he finds the damned armour.

Assuming he doesn't find a way to kill her before then.

His fingers, rippling in razor-sharp tendrils, dig through the flesh and down through her hips, burrowing, seeking bone. He finds it, coils his fingers, scraping her sacrum; he watches her arch, howl, laugh.

She's fascinating and infuriating.

And then Darquesse begins to stutter, the borrowed cheeks flushing hotly, eyelids fluttering. She looks so human while she comes undone, while she shoves herself down onto him, pressing her hands through his chest and into the swirling shadow. She screams when she comes, and she screams again when he tightens his grip on her bone.

It's Valkyrie. Valkyrie's staring at him, and she looks alarmed.

Vile grabs her neck and pulls her closer, her hands still inside of him, forearms caught between ribs. She yelps and struggles when his fingers cinch, and there are tears in her eyes when he finally feels his essence depleting. Darquesse has worked her magic, has bewitched him, unravelled the first layer. It's enough for Skulduggery to push through, to fight him back.

Vile slips into the background, quiet and in need of rest and planning.

Skulduggery stares at Valkyrie, the shadows drained between them, and Valkyrie whispers, "Skulduggery?"

"Yes," he sighs through his broken jaw and rests his head on her shoulder. The little agonies are beginning to coil around him - broken bones, shadow-cut ribs, cracked pelvis. "I'm sorry."

"Why didn't you tell me there was..." she trails off, searching for the words. She doesn't retreat from him, but she does pull her hands out of his chest cavity, moving them to his cervical spine. Valkyrie cradles his head to her, and Skulduggery doesn't understand why.

"It's something I have control over. Had control over."

"He and Darquesse...they're reaching out for each other." She pauses for a moment before laughing humorlessly. "I suppose we know Darquesse is related to my magic now." One of her hands slides down his arm, stopping at his wrist. "I don't want to be that person, but your fingers are still knuckle-deep inside my flesh, so...?"

Skulduggery curses and carefully pulls his fingers free. Valkyrie hisses and squirms, letting out deep breaths to control herself. "Also don't want to be that person, but I'm pretty sure we terrified Tanith, who is probably calling Cleavers, and I think we both need medical attention."

Skulduggery swipes the shadows from the door, and Tanith is blowing through again, cursing. "Val-"

"It's us," Valkyrie mumbles, still straddling Skulduggery but glancing over her shoulder to offer Tanith an awkward smile. "Darquesse got a little frisky."

"I saw," Tanith grumbles. "I called a team of Cleavers-"

"Cancel it," Skulduggery requests, voice muffled by Valkyrie's shoulder.

"And then can you drive us to Kenspeckle's?" Valkyrie adds. "I think I broke half of Skulduggery's bones."

"Only four," he amends.

"Oh, okay, only four," Valkyrie rolls her eyes.

Tanith glances down at the ground. "Val-" but she breaks off. "I'll call the team. Get dressed, and I'll drive." She leaves the room, and Valkyrie winces at her tone.

"She's not very happy with us."

"I can't say I blame her."

"Me either," Valkyrie sighs.

 


 

 

Chapter Text


 

Skulduggery isn't expecting the call from Valkyrie - they only parted at Kenspeckle's clinic two hours ago, after all. When he answers, he prepares for a cataclysmic development, or Darquesse calling to Vile.

"Hey," she begins slowly. She sounds like she might be grimacing. "So, I have a question, and please don't say yes just because you think it will make me happy."

"Colour me intrigued."

She continues as if she doesn't hear him. "Because, honestly, I feel like even asking you this is stupid, and I don't know why you'd want to, I just thought...ah, hell. Do you want to come to dinner?"

Skulduggery is surprised all over again. "With your parents?"

"...Yeah. That's not weird, right?"

"Not when you consider the fact that I am an absolute delight at dinner parties."

"They don't know -- I mean, they know we've been working together. I haven't said anything about anything else, though."

"I see. So I shouldn't mention that," Skulduggery pauses for dramatic effect, "I am a skeleton?"

Valkyrie groans and he can practically see her rolling her eyes at the ceiling and trying not to smile. "They know that. But Alice is ten, and my dad is practically a toddler, so if you don't mind entering the house with the facade -- oh God, that's so offensive."

"Do you think I am offended?"

"I don't know, are you?"

"I am now, but only because you think I'd be offended. Why would I think your ten-year-old sister is ready to see a talking arrangement of exemplary bones? Or your toddler-father." When Valkyrie snorts over the phone, he adds, "I will wear a facade for as long as needed."

"Thank you. Oh, and make sure it's a good-looking one."

"And here I am, offended all over again. Why would I wear an unattractive one?"

"Umm, seriously?" Valkyrie laughs, and she sounds fine, like the playful woman he first met. "The first night we worked together, you somehow looked more undead than you do for real."

"I didn't try to impress parents that night," he replies easily, delighting in her laugh. "I'll pick you up at seven?"

"Half-seven. I still haven't showered. Or shaved. Oh God, I look like a troll. I have to go, love you, bye!" she says, hanging up before he can process. When he begins to make the connections, a text comes through from Valkyrie.

So, in case you ever hear me say something weird at the end of a call, just remember: I only call my parents and sister. Habit's a bitch.

If he had lips, he'd smile.

 


 

"Stephanie, I'm not sure if you noticed, but you have a very tall man with you."

"Yes, Dad, I told you Skulduggery was coming," Valkyrie grumbles as she pushes into the house, steering her father further in and placing a bottle in his hands. "We brought wine."

"Good wine?" her mum calls as she saunters by. She stops in her tracks when she sees Skulduggery, though. "Oh. Hello."

"I thought he was a skeleton?" Desmond muses aloud.

"Wow," Valkyrie murmurs to herself, gives Skulduggery an apologetic smile, and says, "Mum, Dad, this is Skulduggery - who has amazing hearing, by the way. Skulduggery, Melissa and Desmond."

"Pleased to meet you both," he offers, and Desmond blinks, confused.

"Aren't you supposed to be a skeleton? I thought for sure that's what Stephanie said. I know it is because I remember laughing a good deal because your name is Skulduggery and, you know."

"Dad, please."

"You're a skeleton," Desmond finishes as if it is necessary.

"Desmond, go open the wine and take ten very, very deep breaths," Melissa bids her husband. He does as he's asked, but he turns to curiously glance behind him twice. "I am so sorry, Mr Pleasant."

"He is taking it very well, considering. And please, just Skulduggery."

A young girl ambles down the stairs and gives them a curious look. "Where's the skeleton?"

"Oh my God," Valkyrie groans, placing a hand to her forehead. "Alice, this is Skulduggery. The skeleton. He's wearing skin so he doesn't scare everyone in the neighbourhood."

"Cool," Alice accepts the answer as if it's not unusual in the slightest. She slides around the railing, coming to stand in the small foyer with them. Her arms cross in front of her, hands tucked under; Skulduggery doesn't understand why her posture is entirely different from the playfulness in her eyes. "Stephanie said you're her partner."

"I didn't say that," Valkyrie interrupts, and Alice's smile widens a little.

"You did, though; you said you like having a competent partner." Alice pauses, and her lips turn up at the corners. "Or did you mean you're dating?"

"Alice, good grief," Melissa groans, swatting the girl. "Stop torturing everyone."

"Remember when she was sweet?" Valkyrie reflects and then wraps Alice in a tight hug, pinning her in place. The girl pretends to struggle even though her hands don't come out from her sides. She laughs and wiggles in Valkyrie's grip, bright and cheerful while huddling in on herself.

Odd, Skulduggery muses to himself.

Skulduggery is fascinated by the family's dynamic all through dinner. Valkyrie is a part of the group, yet she sits apart. She knows the stories, but they filter through a haze in her eyes. She laughs at the jokes and rolls her eyes, but there is a part of her that looks very, very alone. Skulduggery sees it all through dinner, watching her force smiles and look pensive, distant, removed.

When Desmond and Melissa clear the patio table and Alice goes inside to pick a movie for the evening, Skulduggery places a hand on Valkyrie's leg under the table. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," she says, but it sounds hesitant. "I just... My Reflection knew most of those stories they're telling. My Reflection who kept up the appearance of going to school while Wreath trained me. Tried to train me. While Tanith spirited me around the UK helping with her monster-slaying. They don't know me; not really. Someone else wearing my face lived here under this roof with them for five years."

"Something else."

Valkyrie shrugs. "The Reflection is more than a thing now. I've been terrified to use her since she graduated. It graduated," she corrects when Skulduggery lifts a sculpted brow at her. "And now the Stephanie that Alice grew up with isn't her sister, and isn't around, and now she has me. A fucking mess. So how do I connect with them now? Now that I'm this thing with something else inside of me, and they had five blissful years with a normal daughter?"

"They love you, this much is clear. But, if this weighs on you, speaking with them is the easiest, quickest way to solve it. Nothing will change until you talk."

"Wow, that was almost mentor-y. You almost sounded respectable," she gently teases and stands. The radio coos and Valkyrie rocks on her feet, thinking. And then, "You know how to dance, right?"

"Indeed. All proper scoundrels know how to dance."

Valkyrie holds her hand out, and he takes it. He leads her from the table and into the centre of the patio clearing, surrounded with the smell of mowed grass and the fresh flowers her mum planted this week. He draws her in, and they move in tight, slow loops, a stunted waltz. Skulduggery spins her out now and then before pulling her back. Valkyrie relishes those spins back into his arms, how her free hand slides across the starched shirt and tailored jacket. She slips her fingers over the sigils on his collarbones, and the facade fades away. Valkyrie relaxes into him, and he slows their pace to a gentle sway.

"Your parents are quite openly staring through the kitchen window."

"I'm sure they've been doing it for ages, so what's the point in letting it ruin a nice night?" she asks and places her mouth to his jaw, a quick press of skin against bone.

"None at all," he admits and dips her.

 


 

Tanith knocks on the door but doesn't hesitate before pushing it open and striding across the plush carpets. "Grand Mage Sorrows, I wanted to personally-"

Tanith stops mid-sentence, surprising herself. She stops because China is sitting at her desk - calm as can be one moment, and then shoving something away into a drawer. Something large and glowing.

No bloody way, Tanith almost blurts, but she makes her face calm, folds her hands behind her, and straightens. "Apologies. I simply wished to pass along Edge's wife's regards, and her thanks for the assistance you've sent their family."

"It is the least I could do," China says, cool and all smiles, her long lashes dusting her high cheekbones. Her eyes are like the endless sky - welcoming, all for Tanith. "I cannot imagine how hard this ordeal has been on you, too, Tanith. It breaks my heart to see you caught up in another scrape with death, another partner lost."

Tanith doesn't react. She simultaneously wants to kill and kiss the woman, and those warring emotions somehow help her keep calm. "I lived to fight another day. Edge's family appreciates the kindness you've shown in response to the tragedy." She gives the barest of bows, more like a shoulder-deep bob, and turns, retreating.

Her fingertips are tingling. She runs through her contact list, finger stalling in the S's.

 

What are you doing right now?

Hopefully you

No time for foreplay, Billy-Ray
I need help with a job

I'm expensive babe

So am I, but I'm doing it pro bono, and so are you
For old time's sake?

Your wifey tried that one on me already sweetheart

Did it work?

It did

Is it working now?

Anything works when it's comin from Tanith fuckin Low
Come by the club
If you think you're hard enough

Get your own thing xx

 


 

"Why does your club smell like popcorn?" Is the first thing Tanith Low says to Billy-Ray Sanguine in four years.

"You know, I always wonder what I see in you when we're apart, and then you walk in lookin' like this," Sanguine says appreciatively, leaning back in his chair and regarding her through dark lenses. "Love the haircut. Very fierce."

"I'm flattered, Billy-Ray, but I'm still distracted by the fact that your club - which only deals in alcohol and fifteen versions of ecstasy - smells like popcorn. Like a bloody cinema."

"I mean, those thighs," Billy-Ray continues as if he hasn't heard her. "You could break my neck inna second, couldn't ya?"

"Of all the foods, Sanguine. Do people drag their bare feet all over the walls in here? Is this a factory for the odd smell dogs have around their paws? Do you have a mouldy-butter fetish?"

That breaks him - Sanguine snorts, embarrassingly loud, and reaches out to her. "Damn if I haven't missed you, Low."

She slaps his hand with hers and settles back into the chair, grinning. "And the answer is yes; I could snap your neck with my thighs in a second."

"I hate how hot that is," he admits with a shrug that says he doesn't hate it at all. "Alright, what's the job?"

"Breaking and entering. You know, your forte."

"Sounds good so far, sweetheart. What's the catch?"

"We aren't tunnelling in."

"Come again?"

Tanith forces a big smile even though she knows it isn't convincing. "It'll be fun, I promise. We're going to get into the Grand Mage's rooms by entering the Sanctuary the same way every other employee does."

Sanguine's sunglasses don't give anything away, but his sudden stillness tells Tanith that she's losing him. "We can tunnel once we get far enough away from the inner sanctum, just not right away. Oh come on," she whispers, leaning over the desk. "Remember all of those jobs you helped Val and me with?"

"You paid me, I showed up, I watched your backsides - happily - and pretended not to listen when y'all got frisky. We ain't friends, babe."

"That's not what you said in Glasgow."

"I was tryna get an orgy going, of course I said some cheesy shit like that."

Tanith purses her lips and says, "Fine; I'll pay you - but half the usual."

"You want me to help you break into the Grand Mage's office for less money than helping ya kill a rampagin' ogre?"

"Yes," she says, hating herself. "Because I'll let you take me out to one dinner. Once."

Sanguine takes his glasses off, dark holes boring into Tanith. "Are you fuckin' with me right now, Low?"

"I am not. And I'm not going to fuck with you after that dinner, so you can toss that assumption right out the window."

"Fine - but only if ya wear somethin' tight. I mean...real tight."

"I always do, but thanks for reminding me I need to bleach my brain beforehand."

Sanguine reaches his hand out to her, and she takes it, grips firmly, and shakes. "We have a deal, gorgeous. When's the job?"

Tanith smiles faintly. "In the middle of the Requiem Ball."

"That is comin' up, ain't it?"

"This weekend. I'll pop in, do my rounds, get an alibi, and then meet you at the Sanctuary around midnight. Yeah?"

Sanguine's brow furrows. "Wait, that's the entire plan? Sweetheart, that's not even a plan. That's a series of loosely-considered words."

"Val never complains when I don't have a plan."

"Well, Val also has my knife, so I guess she's got two things to hold over my head."

Tanith settles back with a huff. "Fine. Let's...plan?"

Sanguine stares at her, and she stares at him. Finally, he asks, "Ever made a plan?"

"Not really, no. You?"

"Don't think so. That's usually the person-hiring-me's job."

"Well. This is a tad awkward."

Sanguine nods, taps his fingers on his desk, and then sighs. "Alright, so, here's the plan-"

Tanith waits, but he doesn't continue. "Did you...are you done?"

"I was hopin' you might jump in."

Tanith widens her eyes mockingly and exclaims, "Oh! I have a plan!" and then frowns at him. "Like that?"

"Shut up."

"Aww, did that not work out the way you hoped, sweetness?"

"I forgot how mean you are."

"You love it." Before he can start their usual game of 'who can out-disgust the other,' she perks up. "I got it." Sanguine looks intrigued, but the expression falls when she says, "We wing it."

"I shoulda expected this," he shrugs. "Alright, darlin'. Just remember that dinner."

 


 

Tanith fixes a stray curl and turns when Valkyrie enters the room. Her dress is gorgeous, a slinky, backless thing that drapes over her like water. The hem sweeps her knees in the front and the floor in the back, the neckline high and covering her y-incision.

"Look at you," Tanith praises, taking Valkyrie's hand and guiding her into a showy twirl. Valkyrie's black dress ripples around her. "When did you get a sense of style?"

"Have you not seen the dapper skeleton I solve crimes with?" But then she pauses. "Oh, hell. We haven't actually solved a crime together."

"Not true. You figured out who killed Rapture, which was the original question mark."

"That was Skulduggery's original question mark - mine was that bloody book." She changes the subject when Tanith's expression morphs to concern, reaching out to straighten the slender laces on Tanith's crimson bodice. "Remember the last time you dressed up in red? You broke some poor boy's leg."

Tanith snorts. "That boy shouldn't have been staring at me so hard that he missed the flight of steps in front of him."

"He might say you shouldn't have been looking so damn ravishing."

Tanith shrugs, pretending to be modest. "What can I say? I love to make an impression."

Skulduggery calls up the stairs to them from the foyer - we're forty minutes late, ladies - and Valkyrie smiles faintly. "Well. We should-"

But Tanith grabs her hand, pulling her into a hug. "I love you, Bunny."

"I...I love you, too."

"No matter what, I'm always here for you," Tanith says and pulls back. "No matter what. Come hell or high water, Darquesse or whatever weird sex thing I stumbled into the other night."

Valkyrie laughs and looks genuinely touched. "I know, you idiot. Same."

"I know," Tanith smiles, wrapping an arm around the girl. Tanith descends the stairs, moored to her feet, stray adrenaline spiking too soon. Valkyrie doesn't notice, untethered to her feet, too distracted by the waiting skeleton.

 


 

"Has Tanith been acting weird?" Valkyrie asks, obscuring her lips from view with a champagne glass.

"I need more to go on than that, Valkyrie."

Valkyrie frows up at Skulduggery. "She's been...boisterous. Moreso than usual. And does she normally peacock this much?"

"Not quite this much, no."

"It's just odd, isn't it?" Valkyrie asks, more to herself than anyone else. "And she's been weird with me, too. Acting like she's about to leave or something."

Skulduggery turns fully to her, blocking her view down the hallway. "She is leaving on Monday, is she not?"

"Sure, but this is...different. I can't quite place my finger on it, but something's odd."

"It's the Requiem Ball, Valkyrie; this entire castle is filled with odd somethings. Have you tried talking to Tanith about it?"

"It's probably nothing," Valkyrie starts to say, and then switches to, "yeah, I think I should find her; just to make sure. Maybe she broke a vase or something, and she's worried I'll be mad. That's probably it. Little does she know, I have no attachment to any vase in existence, so. Crisis averted."

Skulduggery places a discreet hand on her elbow, stopping the spiral. "Breathe."

Valkyrie scowls at him. "I'm not a child." But she does take a deep breath and lets it out, her excitement more contained. The tendril that slid across her arm retreats.

"Okay," she murmurs, finishing her champagne and handing the glass to Skulduggery. "I'm off to track down my ex, but not before asking my partner-in-crime if I can kiss him in the middle of a gossip-mill."

"Are you going to ask at some point, or simply stare?"

"Can I?"

"Stare or ask?" She scowls again, and he chuckles. "You may."

She laughs and presses her lips to his teeth, his jaw, and then she's slipping away through the hall and into the ballroom. Skulduggery chooses to walk the immediate grounds for the third time. In his experience, Requiem Balls are perfect for getting drunk and throwing coups. The latter doesn't seem to be happening, which is a bit of a letdown, so he goes back inside.

Valkyrie has found Tanith, and the dark-haired woman is sweeping the blonde around the room, fast and reckless, and more than one sorcerer is glaring at the pair as they spin. Skulduggery watches, endlessly amused when Valkyrie clips a woman with a precariously balanced updo. On their second trip around, Tanith smashed into the woman's back and set her coif falling to the side like a drooping topiary.

"Serves the woman right, standing around and blocking up the dancefloor," China murmurs from Skulduggery's elbow, her eyes following the girls. "Care to dance, Detective?"

"I'd love to," he says graciously, taking her hand and leading her to the floor. They wait until Tanith and Valkyrie's whirling dervish passes, and then enter the flow.

"Gorgeous pair."

"We are, aren't we?"

China's laugh is a tinkling bell, chiming just for him. Skulduggery tries to steel himself against her charms, but it is harder when she's so close. "I meant your protegee and her ex-fiancee."

Fiancee. Skulduggery is glad he can't show his reaction. "They are fetching together, yes. I think you and I can hold our own, though."

China's smile doesn't twitch. "I've worked with Valkyrie for a very long time, Skulduggery. She's charming, I will give her that, but she has something more than charm. She seems to have some power over people; the power to make them do insane things, go along with her recklessness."

"That's an interesting observation, coming from the woman who deals in excess charm and power."

China laughs again but continues. "Tanith used to be very professional. She'd never risk the safety of the world for a person - of course she wouldn't, because that's pure insanity, don't you think? And you, Detective - you've always been so calculating, always working for the many and not the few. And yet."

"Being in a castle ballroom doesn't mean you have to speak like a Medieval villain."

"And yet," China continues as if she hasn't heard him, "Tanith has made sure to show herself off, and is now pretending as if she isn't escaping to do something very reckless."

Skulduggery sees Valkyrie and Tanith part, fingers laced. On their next spin, Tanith is leaning close, whispering something to Valkyrie. Spin - Valkyrie looks perplexed, brow furrowed, mouth drawn into a deep frown. Spin - Tanith is kissing Valkyrie's cheek. Spin - Tanith is gone, and Valkyrie is grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, downing it.

"What are you getting at, China?"

"Tanith, dear, sweet Tanith, is possibly under the impression that I have the book," she finally says, eyes boring into his sockets. "I did, in fact, but now it's elsewhere - it's safe. I suggest you pass that on to your friend before she tries something she can't come back from." China pulls free from him abruptly and winds her way toward a group of visiting mages.

Skulduggery goes to Valkyrie who smiles at him brightly, gaze playful. "Hey, I accidentally stumbled across this broom closet inside a broom closet, and it's the perfect size for some weird sex position I don't have a name for yet, but -- ow!"

Skulduggery grabs her upper arm and swings her into the corner, pulling her close. "Where's Tanith?"

Valkyrie blinks, confused and buzzed. "I...she said she had a headache, called a ride, and was going home. Why?"

Skulduggery's hand takes hers, leading her through the throngs of people and into the fresh night air. He waves for the valet; Valkyrie waits beside him, quiet but impatient. When they're finally in the car, Valkyrie angles toward him. "What's going on?"

"Does China have the book?"

Valkyrie is quiet for a moment. "I'm not sure. Darquesse thinks so, but Darquesse is getting...tricky."

"And Tanith? Does she think China has the book?"

"I mean, I told her Darquesse thought so -- Skulduggery, what's going on?"

"China is under the impression that one of our merry crew plans on stealing the book, and if you and I aren't the ones doing it..."

Valkyrie grabs her phone and calls Tanith, her foot shaking anxiously. The ringing keeps going, and then the blank voicemail beeps. "Tanith, don't do something stupid," Valkyrie says, her voice soft. "Please, whatever you think you're doing, don't." She pauses and adds, "Don't you dare get yourself killed over me."

When Valkyrie hangs up, she pulls Sanguine's razor from the thigh-sheath beneath her dress. She flips it open and closes it, distractedly staring out the window.

"She'll be fine," Skulduggery assures her. "She might be at home with a headache."

"Sure," Valkyrie murmurs, but her tone betrays her.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Tanith knows it is wrong the moment they showed up at the Sanctuary. No Cleavers meet them, and the halls are silent, but Sanguine is nothing if not persuasive, so Tanith pushes on. No resistance at the doors. No resistance in the corridors.

Tanith doesn't immediately feel the difference in the hallway leading to the Grand Mage's chambers, but when she does, she comes to a standstill. "The sigils."

"They're deactivated," Sanguine finishes for her, perking up when he realises it. "Well damn, girl, we can get in an' get out." He reaches for her waist, but she shies away from him, pressing herself against the wall and looking left and right.

"Where are the Cleavers?" she whispers.

"At the Requiem Ball, obviously. Ain't that the whole reason we're out here right now?"

"The halls shouldn't be empty," she murmurs. She can feel her sword, which Sanguine luckily didn't sell in his two days with the thing, on her back, a reassuring weight.

"Jesus, you're jumpier than you used to be. C'mon, where's the Grand Pain-in-the-Ass' room?"

Tanith pushes off of the wall and begins a quiet gait, feet passing silently over the flooring. Sanguine, not nearly as light-footed or quiet, bangs along behind her, harshly whispering for her to slow down. *Goddamn I'm outta shape,* she hears him huff a few corridors down.

Tanith hesitates at the Grand Mage's library, pressing her ear to the door. It's quiet inside, and the lock on the door is laughable; she could break through it with half of a thought. "This isn't right," she repeats, pulling back. "This isn't the same door or lock or -- we're walking into a setup. Tunnel. Now."

Sanguine lets out a groan, grabs her waist, and then grins. "How's about I tunnel us into that room, then? Bypass that door you're so hung up on."

"No-"

"In an' out, fast as a blink." And then they're sinking, burrowing, and Tanith is holding very still, not breathing, eyes closed. Rock and foundation tug at her short locks, and she lets out a whimper. "Sanguine, we have to leave!" Stone shavings enter her mouth, and she coughs.

They break the ground - it feels like forever, but it can't have been more than five seconds. Tanith sprawls to the plush carpet, fibres in her nose, and shakes her hair free from debris. Sanguine, unaffected, is moving toward a pedestal against the far wall, a glowing book sitting atop it.

The sigils are wrong. The colour is wrong.

"Sanguine, don't," Tanith warns, but he isn't paying attention.

"Sorry, doll. I figured this might be worth a little somethin', so I made some calls."

"Billy-Ray, that's not the book!" she tries, but he only laughs.

When he reaches out for the pedestal, the symbols brighten, coiling between green and red. Sanguine tries to retreat, but he activates a sigil on the ground. A spike erupts and strikes him in the foot, buckling him; a second one pins his hand to the carpet. The nails hook at the top, spearing him in place.

Tanith doesn't have time to decide if she should run or help Sanguine. The door behind her opens, and she spins round, reaches for her sword, and then freezes.

"Oh man," Sanguine mumbles between pain-gritted teeth, staring toward the wall of Cleavers on the other side of the door. "Who coulda seen this one comin'?"

 


 

Valkyrie is finally home, finally done with shopping, and in desperate need of hot cocoa. She breezes into the foyer of Gordon's house - her house, she has to keep reminding herself; Gordon hates when she calls it his - and drops her bags near the stairs, letting out a little sigh of relief.

Valkyrie settles on tea when she realises that Tanith got sugar-free cocoa. Sugar-free anything, in Valkyrie's mind, is needlessly torturous. Valkyrie sips her tea and stares at her phone, thumbing through social media and staring longingly at her mum's Instagram. She misses them so much, but things are strained recently. Not so much on their end, but Valkyrie has trouble sitting beside her mortal family now. Things are too...separate. Their lives are too different. Part of her wishes she could leave it all behind, sink back into the life Darquesse forced her to leave. But there are amazing things in her world now; she isn't sure if she could give it up. Not for long - a few years, maybe. But something would suck her back in — someone, more likely.

One of Tanith's pictures scrolls across her phone. It's one from that morning, taken two feet from where Valkyrie is standing; in it, Valkyrie is making a very unattractive face while shovelling pancakes into her mouth. Valkyrie's mum has already commented about her 'gorgeous daughter,' and Valkyrie barely resists the urge to say something cheesy in response.

She doesn't hear Tanith wander in - of course she doesn't; the woman moves with less than a whisper. But she glances up and starts, nearly spilling the tea on herself when she sees her. "Hey," she greets, feeling the telltale heat rising on her cheeks. Goddamnit, she still doesn't know how Tanith does it. "Tea? Kettle's still hot."

"Nah, was just checking in on you." Tanith is sleep-touseled and gorgeous, hands behind her back. "Finish your shopping?"

"Finally. You?"

"Been done for weeks; granted, I don't put everything off until the last second, so." Tanith pulls her hands from behind her back and offers up a ribbon-wrapped present. It's a stuffed animal, a fuzzy lop bunny, all black, with pale blue eyes. Its fur is long, wiry, and sticking in every direction.

"It reminded me of you."

Valkyrie snorts, takes it, and wrinkles her nose while analysing. "Its hair is horrifying."

"Exactly! It has your scrunchy, annoyed nose, too. It's a perfect representation of morning-Valkyrie if I do say so myself."

Valkyrie can't help but laugh, pulling the bunny to her chest. "I love it. Even though you just called me ugly in the mornings."

"I certainly did not," Tanith replies, leaning against the counter. "I love your hair and your nose at any time of day."

Valkyrie's heart does a little flip. Their pussyfooting has been going on for ages - almost entirely on Valkyrie's side, of course. But after Valkyrie's recent birthday, she has noticed that Tanith hasn't resisted the game as much. "I got you something, but now I think it might not be that great."

Tanith's smile cannot be contained. "Well?"

"I'm serious; I might need to go out right now to find something better."

"Oh come on," Tanith groans. "I spent twenty euro on a stuffed bunny; I'm not expecting a diamond or anything."

Valkyrie laughs, unable to help it, and holds her hand up. She slips into the foyer, produces a small box, and brings it back.

Tanith's face pales. "Valkyrie. No."

"Merry Christmas."

"No," Tanith repeats, but she still takes the box and flips it open with no hesitation. She stares for a good five seconds and then turns her gaze to Valkyrie. "You are absolutely right; this is a unacceptable gift."

Valkyrie bites down her grin and tightens her grip on the rabbit. "What? You don't love it?"

Tanith finally breaks into giggles and pulls the keyring, an annoying thing in the shape of a diamond ring, from the box. "I don't even use keys!"

"I know, that's why it's funny!" Valkyrie insists.

"You are a terrible gift-giver," Tanith moans while pulling Valkyrie into a hug. "Thank you for the absolutely useless diamond ring anyway."

"It might fit on two of your fingers like a sparkly pair of knuckles. You could hit people with it."

"You're ruining this hug," Tanith announces, but she doesn't move.

Valkyrie's heart is speeding up. "Or we could attach it to the hilt of your sword. A little bling, show off how fashion-forward you are. Blind some bad guys. You could throw it at someone in a pinch, too."

"You talk a lot when you're nervous," Tanith begins, slowly pulling back. "What's wrong?"

Valkyrie swallows. "You know."

Tanith shrugs a little. "A girl likes to hear out loud anyway, yeah?"

"I'm in love with you," Valkyrie blurts. Now that it's in the air, Valkyrie can't stop. "You're the only one I feel safe with. You don't make me feel like a freak; you make you feel like I can control all of this -- this bullshit going on inside of me. I know I'm young, and I get it, I just-"

She breaks off when Tanith's smile widens. The blonde leans in a bit, lips ghosting above Valkyrie's. "I'm going to kiss you now. Stop trying to talk me out of it."

Valkyrie leans into her, muscles finally unclenching for the first time since she met Tanith. Two long years, and now -

When Tanith pulls back, Valkyrie makes an embarrassing groan. Tanith simpers, bites her lower lip, and murmurs, "That was a much better present than the bloody keyring, by the way. Next year stick with the kiss."

Next year. Valkyrie wants to make a sassy quip, something about how the keyring took an effort to think of, whereas the kiss was pure instinct, uncomplicated. But all Valkyrie can focus on is Tanith's smile and her bright eyes. Her long, unruly waves brush Valkyrie's shoulder when she leans in for another kiss. And then another.

When they finally part, Valkyrie seated on the counter and Tanith standing between her legs, Valkyrie can barely think. Darquesse is even quiet, enjoying. Darquesse loves Tanith, too - Tanith soothes her. Soothes them both. Valkyrie puts her hands on Tanith's shoulders, catching her breath, kiss-drunk, lips tingling. "Tomorrow, at my parents'..."

Tanith's eyes widen. At first, Valkyrie thinks Tanith forgot about their visit to her folks'. They've gone together for the past two Christmases, but the look in the blonde's eyes is close to panic. But then she opens her mouth, and it's even worse than Valkyrie expects. "Oh God, no, you don't have to say anything about us."

Valkyrie's heart sinks. Darquesse becomes agitated, her presence swirling in the background. "Oh."

"No, it's not that," she laughs, pressing a chaste kiss to Valkyrie's chin. "I just mean, this - whatever this is - is on your terms. They can go on thinking we're a platonic pair of eligible hotties sharing a house and running around the countryside killing beasties."

Valkyrie opens her mouth and then closes it. "I want them to know. They don't know so much of what I do, but this -- I want them to know this."

Tanith pulls back a little, hands to either side of Valkyrie's thighs; she looks pleased and overwhelmingly amused. "Well, this will be a Christmas to remember." When Valkyrie groans and leans down, resting her forehead on Tanith's shoulder, Tanith continues. "The Christmas where your family finds out you're not as straight as they think, and you're hot for teacher."

Valkyrie grumbles again, and Tanith slides her off of the counter, hands on her waist. "Oh, I forgot something." Valkyrie quirks a brow and Tanith murmurs, "I love you, too, Bunny."

 


 

Skulduggery and Valkyrie arrive at the Sanctuary. From the outside, everything looks fine, but the parking garage is cordoned-off, and a very surly guard meets them with a bark. Skulduggery sighs and rolls the window down.

"You're not allowed on the premises, Detective. The parking garage is shut down for the night."

"We can park on the street, you know," Valkyrie leans over to say, meeting the piggy eyes with a glare. "We're just here to drop off a report to China -- nope, that's not going to work, China's at the Ball and everyone knows that." Valkyrie unbuckles her seatbelt with a little sigh. "Damnit."

"Turn this car around-"

Valkyrie opens the car door and slams it behind her. When the door hits, a shadow strikes the man. He flies through the air, the twisting darkness lowering his unconscious body safely to the grassy area outside. She takes Sanguine's razor and slices through the sigils barring their access, and steps aside to let Skulduggery drive through.

While Skulduggery parks, Valkyrie dispatches with three more guards rushing to meet them. The first is pinned to the wall while Valkyrie lifts the second two high into the beams, draping them over arches adorning the decorative pillars. Her shadows roll the first aside when he finally loses consciousness to a tendril around his neck.

"You're showing uncharacteristic restraint tonight," Skulduggery murmurs as he comes to join her.

"She's making it hard to," Valkyrie replies, letting out slow breaths to stabilise herself. "I just figure, the fewer people we kill, the more likely we are not to spend the rest of our lives in a cell. And the more likely I get to keep my job - I'm kind of growing fond of it."

"You do have the best partner you could ask for," he agrees. "Ah - and remind me to tell you about our new job if we don't end up in gaol or killed."

Valkyrie is too distracted to pay much attention, her fists clenching and unclenching. "What are the chances we're walking in and finding her dead body?"

"Higher each second we stand here. Ready?"

Valkyrie nods, lets out another breath, and Skulduggery kicks open the door.

They are met with resistance immediately. The hallways are teaming with the Cleavers left behind - there are more of them than Valkyrie planned on. Her shadows writhe, ready, and she tries to focus on the Cleavers, not Darquesse's delight.

"We're just here to grab something," Valkyrie tries.

"We think one of our friends got confused and tried to break into China Sorrows' library," Skulduggery adds as if it's an honest mistake.

"Honest mistake," Valkyrie agrees.

The two Cleavers at the door have their scythes out, crossed in front of them and at the ready. Neither says a word. "Pretty girl, blonde, wearing red? Yeah, we need to find her."

The scythes snap forward when Valkyrie steps forward, crossing at her neck and making her arch backwards. "Jesus! I'm not trying to start anything, I just want-"

And then her shadows flare, grasping both Cleavers by the wrists, bangs them together, and pulls them to the floor. Skulduggery grabs Valkyrie's waist, buffeting the air around them to glide over the stunned men and down the hall where the next four wait, blocking off the corridors. Skulduggery meets them first, coming off of the air current with no hesitation; Valkyrie, unused to it, stumbles and trips in her heels, cursing her dress, and then kicking out to the nearest Cleaver. Her heel stabs into the woman's ankle, bouncing off of her protected clothing without issue.

Skulduggery keeps his focus as best as he can - Valkyrie can handle herself. He dodges a scythe swing and stamps onto the handle, using the air to force it down and wrench the Cleaver's wrists with it. A kick to the helmet sends the Cleaver stumbling but otherwise unhurt.

The next is more cautious, swirling the scythe to the side, trying to flank the pair of them by side-stepping into the intersecting corridor. The fourth uses Skulduggery's distraction to send a blow to the back of his head, knocking his hat off, and a scythe comes down on his arm.

The bones cut with little fanfare, blinding pain shooting through Skulduggery. He falls back, circles, and click his remaining hand, cultivating a spark.

"Skulduggery, don't," Valkyrie pants, finally breaking free of her attacker and lunging at the first, hopping over a low leg-sweep and kicking with her left. Skulduggery would have admired how she lands the hit, twists off of the Cleaver's shoulder with the momentum, and lands on her right foot, heel somehow intact. But Skulduggery is wrenched back by the fourth, pulled off of his feet, and slammed into a wall. He feels his good hand lose the fire, but he replaces it with a swipe of wind, knocking the closest two Cleavers to their feet.

Skulduggery calls the flame again, and Valkyrie lets out a pained noise from his left; the female Cleaver has dragged her further down the hall, and now Valkyrie is skidding on her bare feet, wobbling while ducking the woman's vicious attacks. She's fast, but Valkyrie swipes a shadow up to curl around the scythe, wrenching it aside and breaking the woman's arms in the process. A kick to the head makes the woman stumble, but Valkyrie shouts in pain. She's favouring the foot she caught the Cleaver's helmet with, tears springing to her eyes.

Skulduggery glances around, trying to find some other way to get the Cleavers off of them; something that doesn't involve fireballs between the slat in their helmets. But more Cleavers are coming to join the fray.

Valkyrie lets out an anguished cry, falling to her knees and gasping, "Goddamnit!"

Skulduggery knows that tone; Darquesse is fighting her. When Valkyrie's arms rise above her head, palms out, Skulduggery freezes. A thick tide of shadows crashes through the corridor, dropping all of the Cleavers.

Skulduggery stares, horrified, but relaxes when he sees one of the Cleavers moving, grasping uselessly for a scythe that isn't there, that flowed down the hallway on a wave of darkness.

Skulduggery reaches for Valkyrie, and she stumbles toward him on her functioning foot, her face pulled up in pain. "Darquesse-"

"I know," he says and grabs her waist, buffeting them over the bodies and sweeping her toward China's chambers. "Just hold on."

"I am," she replies, voice hoarse, eyes wet with tears of pain. "But bloody hell, she's an annoying bitch when she's excited."

Skulduggery touches them down a hallway away, and Valkyrie barks a sharp, unamused sound. More Cleavers meet them, three at China's library door, three in the adjacent hallway, and four in front of them.

"Hey," she murmurs, using the wall to keep her balance. "Since we're about to die and all-"

"Valkyrie-"

"-I figured I should probably tell you that I've had a lot of fun the past...holy shit, has it only been two weeks?"

"Valkyrie, focus."

"Sorry, I think I'm delirious," she laughs, but pushes off of the wall and stumbles toward the library door. The scythes come out of the sheathes and Skulduggery sweeps her aside. The motion sends her sprawling to the ground and crying out. "What the fuck!" she shouts at him, struggling to get up.

"Stay back," Skulduggery requests even though he knows she won't. He cracks his cervical spine, the vertebrae crunching pleasantly, and then tosses a ball of fire into the middle of the Cleavers in front of them. "Tanith!" he shouts over the din, but if she answers, he can't hear it.

He does, however, hear Valkyrie getting to her functioning foot and lunging in with Sanguine's blade flashing in her hand. She nicks a Cleaver's exposed wrist, and another, shallower, cut to the slender line of the neck between the suit and helmet. Valkyrie's shadows kick the Cleaver back, and she ducks under the next attack, stumbling on her one foot. Valkyrie manages to catch herself with a helpful tendril before shooting it out to the Cleaver's neck, squeezing until she falls to the ground, unconscious.

Skulduggery is at a loss without an arm, but he strikes the air and sends a few spiralling, giving him a momentary respite for the next attack.

"Enough."

Everyone pauses and Valkyrie lets out a mangled breath, leaning against the wall closest to her.

China watches them, impassive. "Valkyrie?"

"It's me," she assures her between pants. "Just me."

"I assumed," she mutters as she graces through the hall, her ethereal dress sweeping the stones, "since the Cleavers I've passed are all still breathing."

"Is Tanith here?" Skulduggery asks.

China glances behind Skulduggery, raising a brow at one of the Cleavers. "Where is she?" He seems to give some indication without words because she glides through and into her library.

Skulduggery helps Valkyrie to her good foot and uses the air to support the broken one while they follow China. The Cleavers don't move, not even the one whose wrist is bleeding profusely.

Inside the library, Tanith is on the ground, shackled, and covered in bruises and cuts. She looks subdued, her red dress in tatters around her exhausted, bleeding form.

Sanguine on the other hand.

"About fuckin' time, Princess. Thought you'd come runnin' the second we got in trouble, but I guess we care for you more than the other way around."

"Shut up," Tanith snaps. "Bloody backstabber."

China stands beside a pedestal; Sanguine is at her feet, one hand and one foot pinned to the rug with thick spikes. His blood pools on the pale carpet, little roses of colour; his face is ashen, and he looks a little shaky.

"It is time," China begins softly, but her voice echoes, the anger overwhelming enough that Valkyrie feels as if the oxygen has gone from the room, "to grow up."

 

 


 

Chapter Text


 

China slips from Sanguine to stand over Tanith, looking down at her with barely-masked ferocity. "I will not stand by and continue to let the three of you risk all of our lives with your blind fumbling." She kneels, taking Tanith's chin in hand and wrenching her face up. "You are an idiot."

"China-" Skulduggery tries.

"You are no better," she interrupts but keeps looking at Tanith, pinning the blonde's head so that their gazes are locked. "What did you think you were going to do with the book, Ms Low? Hide it away until you find out how to open it? Where would you hide it, dear? In your room? In London? In the ground?" Tanith doesn't answer, her eyes narrowed, and China nods, releasing her chin. "I thought so."

She stands and brushes her dress down as if trying to collect herself. "You're all children, and you're forcing my hand. I should throw you all in gaol. I should have you," she says to Tanith, "executed. Along with your friend who is bleeding all over my new carpet."

"Kinda your problem, seeing's how you put spikes in the damned thing," Sanguine mutters.

China glances at the Cleaver beside her, and he raps the bottom of his scythe against Sanguine's head, making the man yelp and sputter.

"As I told you before, Skulduggery - the book is safe. There is no reason for all of this foolishness. And yet, here we are." She tosses her hair back over her shoulder and raises a brow at Valkyrie. "Anything to say?"

"Let Tanith go," Valkyrie murmurs. Now that they aren't fighting for their lives, Valkyrie can feel every bruised bone, each broken one, and the cut on her hand that she accidentally gave herself with Sanguine's blade. "China, she didn't know."

"Ignorance is the least of her problems, Ms Cain. It's the least of yours, as well."

Valkyrie hates that the words make her recoil. It feels like the first burn from touching a hot stove, the disapproval in China's voice.

"You have no jurisdiction over us," Skulduggery says, and Valkyrie turns confused eyes to him. "Or did you forget about our promotion?"

China's lips tug downward a little; Valkyrie can't help but sputter, "Wait, what?"

"While you were recovering from your foolishness-" Skulduggery begins, but China interrupts with a soft one of your many foolishnesses, "-China decided we would be better serving the global community."

"What?" Valkyrie repeats.

"We received a promotion - we're Arbiters now."

Valkyrie doesn't understand any more than she did a moment ago, but she blurts, "Well then Tanith should be a thing, too. An...Arbiter."

Tanith furrows her brows at Valkyrie but says nothing.

"And me," Sanguine breaks in. "I'm definitely Arbiter material."

"He's not with us," Skulduggery tells the Cleaver who knocked Sanguine's head. "Maybe knock him a few more times until he stops talking."

"Hey..." Sanguine begins, suddenly distracted. "I know that voice... Aw, hell, you're the rebound guy from the club. Where'd your skin go?"

No one chooses to answer him; the Cleaver, at China's nod, raps Sanguine's head again and he recoils.

"You realise that your position in our community is tumultuous at best, I assume," China begins slowly, eyes on Skulduggery's sockets.

"We are quite aware," Skulduggery replies, the only one in the room level-headed and concussion-free enough to answer.

"Will this be the last time you do something stupid, Arbiter?" China asks, but the look in her eyes tells them all that she won't believe their assurances. "Will this sate your appetite for meddling in things you don't understand? Will this ensure-" she breaks off and sighs, realising how moot the questions are. "The book isn't here, but I can assure you that it is very well hidden and protected; you won't find it, and neither will anyone else."

"Except you," Valkyrie mumbles. Her hand is losing its grip on Sanguine's blade, but her fingers are tremoring too much to close it or put it away.

"Naturally," she smiles, and the room floods with warmth under her gentle gaze. "I am Supreme Mage, after all."

"We weren't the only ones who got promotions," Skulduggery says before Valkyrie can sputter.

Sanguine lets out an anguished noise and yanks his hand up and through the sharp spears holding him down. He slams one hand against the Cleaver's blade, the force sending the Cleaver stumbling. Sanguine's trapped foot yanks free, too, taking chunks of skin with it.

He lunges at Valkyrie. She tosses a shadow at him, but not before he grabs her hand, squeezing. Valkyrie feels her fingers crunch under pressure, and then his blade is on the floor, and then in his hand.

Valkyrie shouts and reaches to grab him; Sanguine lashes out, the blade slicing in her direction. Before the Cleaver can reach him, he grabs Tanith, and they disappear through the flooring; carpet, stone, gypsum, and dust fly as they do.

Valkyrie slips to the floor, staring at the hole. And then she looks down at her hand. It was already sliced from the blade - her own stupid mistake in the hallway - but now three of her fingertips are on the ground, as well.

"Oh," she says, head swimming. There's so much blood. There's blood everywhere. She isn't sure if it's her exhaustion, her battered body, or the sight of the maimed fingers, but she loses consciousness before anyone can act.

 


 

"You need to find another hobby, Ms Cain."

Valkyrie offers Kenspeckle Grouse a faint smile, chewing on the leaves and relishing in the pain relief sweeping through her body. "It's my job."

"Then find a new job."

"I'm one of the good guys, though. I can't just take off, leave the world in danger."

"The world is in danger now, is it?" Grouse chuckles wryly, gently poking at Valkyrie's ankle. He seems pleased when she doesn't flinch and cleans off the gunk caked on her foot. "I never saw you this often when you were running with criminals, by the way. Only since you've been working with the Sanctuary."

"Sure, but the scars are way cooler now." When Grouse gives her his patented disapproving face, Valkyrie grins. "Clean bill of health?"

"If you can call missing parts of your hand a clean bill of health, I suppose so."

Valkyrie glances down at her left hand. Now that the blood is gone and Grouse patched the damage, it doesn't look too strange. A little odd, she supposes, but most of her wounds have been unusual. She has a bite mark on her arm from a three-year-old shapeshifting selkie boy, for Christ's sake.

The ring and middle finger are missing at the top knuckle. Her index finger, though, is merely a centimetre shorter than it was. "It's not so bad. It gives me character," she nods even though a small, childish part of her will miss an evenly manicured set of nails.

Skulduggery comes to the door and Grouse bristles. "No," he snaps, "not a chance. You get yourself out of here-"

"Professor, it's fine," Valkyrie tries, but Grouse is red-faced and ready for battle.

"You are an absolute menace, and you're bringing this sweet girl into it?"

"I'm not that sweet," Valkyrie winces.

Skulduggery, though, doesn't come to his defence. "Valkyrie, I'll be in the car."

Valkyrie offers him a faint smile. "I'll be out as soon as...yeah. Soon." When Skulduggery retreats, Valkyrie raises a brow at Grouse. "You know he isn't twisting my arm to get me out there, right?"

"You have too much of a head on your shoulders to traipse around with that walking deathwish."

"I do?" she teases and slides off the table. "I think you have me confused with some other dark-haired badass." She gives Grouse a hug which he returns but continues to grumble about her life choices. "He cares about me, and we're doing good work," she says before she pulls away. "I'm happier with him than I was running odd jobs and spying for China."

Grouse snorts. "Well, he'd better not kill my favourite patient or else I'm not giving him any replacement bones."

Valkyrie offers him a sincere smile. "Go easy on him. He's an ass, but I like him anyhow." She leaves, her dress flaking dried blood as she does. The walk to the car is short enough, but it feels like a century. When she finally breaks through the cinema and into the blinding light of a late afternoon, she finds Skulduggery waiting for her.

His facade, by accident or design, is hideous. It makes her laugh when she slides up to him, standing close. "Well then?"

"Well then," he agrees, but he sounds distracted, and he doesn't touch her hand or her cheek as she expects. "Where to?"

"My place," she murmurs, and her belly flutters with a strange sensation. "Maybe Tanith's there."

 


 

But Tanith isn't there. Her bags are gone, her bed made. It's almost as if she was never here other than the speckles of blood she left behind while making the bed.

Valkyrie lets out a soft sigh and goes to the bathroom, taking a long, hot shower. When she gets out, blinking away water and tears, she finds a message on her fogged mirror.

Valkyrie's tears fall in earnest.

love you bunny
see you around

Valkyrie stares at the message as it slowly fades away, and then all she can see is her own reflection. The bruises on her face are gone; the cut to her collarbone - gone. The only things left to show for the night are her maimed fingers.

Valkyrie leaves the bathroom feeling drained; Darquesse is oddly silent, possibly sulking from their lack of kills. The trip downstairs feels longer than ever, each step reminding Valkyrie of each blow she took the previous night, each strike she delt.

It wasn't supposed to go this way. Everything went topsy-turvey once Valkyrie met Skulduggery Pleasant.

She finds the Skeleton Detective in the living room, sitting in a chair - the one Gordon used to favour, the one Skulduggery sat on during their first night on the job. Assuming he's meditating, she flips the television on and sinks onto the couch.

Skulduggery's skull turns toward her, and she yelps.

"Apologies," he says, unalarmed at her alarm.

"No, it's fine," she shrugs it off even though her heart feels as if it might explode. What she wouldn't give for a few days where the most startling thing is her text tone. "Just...a little preoccupied." She turns the television off, sensing his stillness and not liking it. "Is something wrong?"

"Aside from the fact that Tanith was spirited away by a psychopath-"

"He's harmless. Mostly."

"-and we need to find a way to track down this book, going around the Supreme Mage's back, while also doing our job. Which is global now."

"Can we go to Australia?" she asks immediately.

"What is in Australia?"

"Us, hopefully."

Skulduggery stands and moves to the couch, sitting beside her and angling. "I put us on leave for a week-" before she can demand why or shout for joy, she's not sure, he continues, "-because we need to make some friends and quickly."

Valkyrie wrinkles her nose. "Friends?"

"I thought making friends would be your speciality," he says as if he doesn't know her in the slightest. "We still don't know who Kimber was contacting in the Cathedral, the Academy, and the Sanctuary. Kimber's dead, but there are still people inside who were willing to help her."

"Or who she was working alongside of. Or for," Valkyrie murmurs slowly. "Maybe she wasn't the mastermind at all."

"Well of course not. She was an absolute imbecile."

Valkyrie frowns, but he has a point. Kimber never really showed much tenacity before her foray into hunting the book. Her strength and usefulness had been in her menagerie of accomplices, not herself. "Alright, so we need to track people down who can poke around in these areas, keep an eye out for us."

"Quietly."

"Right."

"Discreet is the key here, Valkyrie. We need people here in Ireland who can snoop around in the shadows. People who have a decent standing in the community, are loyal, and can keep their mouths shut. Possibly even lie to China, which is not an easy thing to do."

Valkyrie bites her lower lip and tries not to smile. "I know someone we can ask. He, for some reason, likes me, and he's good at staying in the shadows. It's kind of his thing."

Skulduggery flicks his facade on to narrow his eyes at her, making it very clear how he feels. "It better not be who I think it is."

Valkyrie shrugs nonchalantly. "I'm sure you and Solomon Wreath will get along swimmingly." Skulduggery glowers; Valkyrie grins. "No need to get sullen. Necromancers are good to have in the wings."

"Underground in their hovels where they don't bother people, more like," he grumbles.

"You're being a little childish, don't you think?"

"Hardly; I am realistic." He pauses, though, and his facade turns very serious. "There's something else we should discuss."

Valkyrie's seen the look that Skulduggery's facade is giving her, and the familiarity makes his next words easier for her to bear - but only slightly. Things are always a little better when you have an idea what's about to happen before it does, after all.

"Our relationship needs to be strictly professional."

Valkyrie nods as if she understands, but the words float through her, stabbing at her, settling in around the shit she's already trying to deal with. "Okay."

"Darquesse and Vile-"

"They're too fond of each other for our wellbeing and the world's; got it," she answers and forces a flippant smile.

Skulduggery continues to watch her, quiet, and his facade looks on edge; maybe he supposes Darquesse is mad. She is - she's howling and thrashing, but Valkyrie is under control, focusing on her breathing. Open the circle, breath in. Close the ring, breathe out.

"Can you take the facade off?" she asks, but she makes sure that her voice is playful. It's mostly successful. "It's like a stranger is breaking up with me or something." Skulduggery doesn't join Valkyrie's laugh. "You know...last time I said I felt like I was breaking up with a stranger, and now...you get it."

"I do."

"You weren't laughing, so I thought it might have gone over your head."

"Not at all; it was quite clear."

He removes the facade, and Valkyrie lets out a little breath. "Alright, so. We need to make friends. Where do we start?"

"I know a professor at the Academy; he's agreed to see us this afternoon at three."

Valkyrie nods. "Alright. Just for the record, though, I'm not too great with academic-types."

"Oh, don't worry about that." At Valkyrie's eyebrow raise, he continues, "He is hardly an academic - he teaches teleportation for the sheer reason that he's the only skilled one left alive."

Valkyrie narrows her eyes. "A teleporter?"

"Yes." Skulduggery gets to his feet and brushes down his jacket. It's missing the sleeve where his arm was cut off, covered in Valkyrie's blood; she isn't sure who he's trying to demonstrate that it's just a light layer of dust. "I am going to change. Are you ready to go, or would you like to meet me there?"

Valkyrie raises an eyebrow - her hair is still wet, and she's currently sporting a ripped pyjama shirt and shorts. "I need some time."

"Right. Meet me outside Corrival Academy by three, then." He turns to go but hesitates, turning to glance her way. "Valkyrie, is everything -- is there anything we need to discuss before I go?"

"No," she lies with a believable smile. "Unless you want to talk about how cool my fingers look now." She wiggles them in the air, and he chuckles. He doesn't sound entirely convinced, but she's done a good enough job that he bids a farewell and leaves.

Valkyrie makes it to the bathroom, scrounging for her hair dryer, and tries to ignore Darquesse.

"He's scared of us," Darquesse murmurs. Her voice is hard, angry.

"I think it's more you than me, but sure."

"He thinks you bring out the worst in him."

Valkyrie hesitates and stares at her reflection in the mirror. She wonders if Skulduggery sees her as Darquesse now - is reminded of the darkness inside of her when they're together. It's a possibility. It's more than a possibility.

She clears her throat and Darquesse shifts, anxious and in need of stimulation. Valkyrie abandons the hair dryer; she jogs down the steps, around the corner, across the hall, and down to the cellar.

Darquesse quivers in anticipation.

Valkyrie opens the tunnel, the damp air hitting her. She's barely wearing anything, but she hardly cares. "Half an hour," she says aloud. Darquesse is too excited at the prospect of ripping apart monsters to care about the time limit. "And then we act like rational adults, yes?"

Darquesse merely laughs.