“This is war we’re talking about, boys.” Guild sneers at them. “You know what war entails, don’t you?”
Pleasant looks at him steadily. None of the Dead Men say anything, most of them staring devotedly at the floor or each other, and that makes Guild a little uneasy, although he’s doing his best not to show it. Pleasant has angry eyes - a gaze that blazes like a fire never to go out, torching everything in its path. And Shudder, at the opposite end of the spectrum, is far too calm, the sea rolling gently into shore with reason and logic against his blind fury, soft, gentle.
Beside him, Bespoke clears his throat. “We don’t do those kinds of things, Grand Mage.” He says: steadfast. Determined. Stubborn? “And we won’t. Even with all your wheedling.”
“Your skills sets-”
“No.” Pleasant cuts in, eyes narrowing. “Sabotage, assassinations? Don’t even think about it. We aren’t going to deal in the dirty work, no matter how much you’re paying.”
They move away as one, past Guild, Pleasant in the lead and Bespoke last. He doesn’t try to stop them.
“You think you’re better than us, boys.” He calls as a last resort, without turning around, although Shudder does, and he can feel him staring, those cold eyes burning into the back of his head, freezing him on the spot. It makes the hair on his arms stand on end, reminding him just how violent the sea can be in a storm.
“That’s just because the Dead Men are exactly what Mevolent is building too. A straightforward, soldier-only programme. You think you don’t need sink low enough to deal with the nasty jobs.”
“Well, you’re wrong.” Dexter says, and Hopeless nods along.
“The Exigency Programme is exactly the same. You just can’t see it yet.”
And yet, Ravel finds himself striding through the streets of Dublin not a month later, his hands caked in blood that isn’t his; not literally, of course - he’s far too good a killer to be messy like that; but he has the feeling everybody can see it on him anyway. He’s marked. An exquisite Bentley pulls up next to him and someone gets out.
“Get in.” Skulduggery says. Erskine stops walking and doesn't move, and he rounds the car and looks down at him. “Ravel. Get in the car.” He looks up at Skulduggery, and Pleasant looks sad, and Ravel feels powerful. “You aren’t going to walk home like this. Get. In. The car.”
“What do you want me to say? I’m sorry?” Erskine retaliates suddenly. “He’s dead now.” Skulduggery recoils like he’s shot him.
“You don’t get to be sorry.” He hisses. “Not now. How could you, Erskine? Why would you?”
“He came to me, outside of the exigency programme. And he paid me.” He answers flippantly. “He paid me well.”
“You did this for money?”
“We need it.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Yes, we do. Have you even thought about life after all this? About what we’re going to do? We have nothing. Nobody has a plan yet. Nobody has anything.” Erskine almost spits, just about containing his fury. At who? At himself, for giving in? At Pleasant, for not understanding?
“We have each other. You don’t have to run around killing people because someone asked you to!”
“That’s what war is, Skulduggery.”
“Not like that.” He shoots back.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
“Well, I don’t, so you’re going to have to explain. To me or to all of them, and I doubt you want Hopeless to know.” Ravel hesitates, and Skulduggery clenches his fists by his side. “I’m not ready to discuss that with you.”
“I’m not arguing about this.” He says, fire flaring up involuntarily in his hands.
“Then don’t.” Erskine says, calmly dousing his inferno, and walks away. Skulduggery watches him go. Ravel counts to three in his head.
“Wait.” Pleasant says eventually, but his voice hasn’t lost that bitter edge yet. Erskine stops, turns to look at him. Even from a few paces away, he still has to look up to see his face. The fire burns bright in his hands. “I want to know who it was.”
“A man called Aristotle.”
“If philosophers make magic-cancelling bombs, then yes.”
“Nobody else.” He says softly. “Not yet, anyway. Guild sends me the contracts if and when he needs them done. That’s our deal. You don’t have to be involved at all.”
“That’s not my point.” Ravel waits for him to explain what his point is. “You went against us deliberately. You know how adamant we all were about not becoming assassins.”
“I told you, I’m not part of the fucking exigency programme!” He spits, then hesitates. “We can’t win the war without killing these people. Can you imagine Dexter without his energy beams? Hopeless without his illusions? He’d be devastated. He’d never be able to go out in public again. And there was no way of telling if Aristotle’s inventions were permanent. Or what else he was working on. And eventually…” He trails off.
“Eventually?” Erskine doesn't answer, nodding to an open window. “Get in the car.” Ravel looks at him, and after a moment, opens the door and slides into the passenger seat. Skulduggery follows suit, gets in without looking over at him, guns the engine, starts driving.
“Eventually I’m going to get evidence that proves Guild is working for Mevolent.”
“And what if he asks you to kill one of us, ah? What if he turns around and shows you a file full of evidence that, I don’t know, Ghastly is secretly making rockets to fly the War to the moon, or Anton is hiding an entire camp of Mevolent’s soldiers right next door to the Sanctuary, or Dexter is wandering around with a folder full of all our tactics and secrets? What then?”
“Guild wouldn’t try to recruit all of us if he wasn’t expecting us to say no. He had a plan.”
“Did he blackmail you?”
“I’m still angry at you.”
“I know. And I know how difficult it’s going to be for me to get you to understand that this is necessary.”
“I understand that perfectly. It’s going to be difficult for me to understand why you lied to us, and why you’re going to ignore me and do it again.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You know it.”
“Well, do you really want me to stop?”
Skulduggery hesitates. “No.” His hands go slack on the wheel.
“Pull over, Skulduggery.” Erskine says softly, and he does. They share a look.
“I know that what you're doing is going to help us. Fuck, you might even assassinate Mevolent one day. But that doesn’t mean I agree with the morality of it. You can’t be a good person if you’ve killed that many people.”
“I know.” Ravel whispers. “I know I can’t.”
There's a pause, and then Pleasant asks, “What’s your evidence so far?”
“Nothing concrete. Telegrams, informants. That sort of stuff.”
“Hmm.” He says. There’s another quiet.
“Do the others know?” Erskine asks softly. Skulduggery shakes his head.
“I’m not going to tell them.”
“Why?” He’s surprised.
“Despite it all, Erskine… You are one of us, and I trust you.” Years in the future, he will regret these words. They are scorched into his soul. “Even though I don’t. I don’t know. I’m confused, and I’m so angry at you. I’m angry at myself for not appreciating that you don’t have a choice, not really. Not if you don't want Guild to come after us.” It is his fault. He let Ravel kill. He let it continue. He gave him a taste for blood.
“And that’s alright. You can be angry. What you shouldn’t be is downright unreasonable.”
“Yeah.” He hesitates. “They noticed you were missing, though. I think we can pull off a drunk act, don't you?”
“Absolutely.” Erskine clears his throat. “Now get out of the car.” They’re at the camp, and he clears his throat again and sways in his seat. Skulduggery wanders round and pulls him out, holds him by the collar.
“Found him.” He nods to the others as they approach.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Ghastly sighs and sits heavily on a log. “Where was he?”
“As I was a goin’ over the far famed Kerry mountains!” Ravel shouts, breaking free and stumbling towards Larrikin. He grabs for the bottle in his hand and drinks heavily, and Larrikin bursts out laughing, continuing the song.
“I met with captain Farrell and his money he was counting!”
“Dublin.” Pleasant sighs.
“I first produced my pistol and I then produced my rapier…”
“Saying ‘Stand and deliver’ for he were a bold deceiver.”
“Hello! I think that’s enough!” Anton snatches the bottle away, giving him a scathing glare. Ravel wonders if the Gist can see the blood on his hands.
“Okay, bed.” Bespoke stands and catches his arm as he sways dramatically.
“Gladly.” Erskine mumbles, closing his eyes and going limp against him suddenly.
“I’m not fooled.” Ghastly whispers as he lays him in the tent. “I know exactly how much alcohol is in your blood and it’s a good job the others are far too drunk to notice.” Fucking elementals. “I don’t agree with what you’re doing. But it’s necessary.”
“I wish Skulduggery thought so too.” Erskine murmurs back, and years in the future, wonders what was true in his own mind.