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White Flag

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This isn't exactly what Valkyrie meant when she begged for a weekend in Australia. For one, she hadn't meant that she wanted to spend the weekend sleeping through the day and hunting a damned vampire by night. And yet, she is ankle-deep in stagnant water in a dank cave that smells like death. Her head is pounding - there's some kind of tapdance going on in the back of her brain, and it is the most annoying thing she's dealt with on the trip, including tracking the sodding vampire.

"Someone's getting agitated," Darquesse murmurs, sounding amused. She always seems amused when Valkyrie is upset; she knows the pressure makes Valkyrie volatile, more likely to slip up, to let Darquesse flood into control.

Of course she knows. They're the same, after all.

Valkyrie tries to think back to Wreath's new teachings. The breathe in, breathe out exercises have shifted, morphing from a simple circle to a sophisticated design they created together - interlocking rings and spikes nailing them down, surrounded by a summoning circle, surrounded by jagged igneous.

It's become second-nature now, anytime Darquesse gets too rowdy. It's been six months since Darquesse popped out on her own; six months of Darquesse and Vile seeking one another, only to be denied. Six months of Skulduggery and Valkyrie taking their separate routes, following their missions, meeting up at headquarters and pretending things are fine.

Darquesse laughs and quiets a bit, following orders for the time being. She's seemed too content recently and, while it puts Valkyrie on edge, it's also lessening her drinking habit.

Or the fact that she has three permanent roommates now - one of which keeps pouring out her vodka - might have something to do with it.

Valkyrie freezes in her tracks, the brackish water calming around her ankles. Her socks squelch when she takes a gentle step, and she winces. The soft pants she heard stop, still, and then intensify. The thing is coming toward her, sniffing the air and letting out huffs as it approaches.

Valkyrie leans against the sharp rock and takes a deep breath. She rubs her thumb across the ring on her left middle finger. The band grows colder, sending little thrills through her hand. A shadow tendril bursts out but coils around her, listening, seeking.

The vampire rounds the bend in the cave and Valkyrie takes in a final breath of air before lashing out with the shadow, driving it through the vampire's sickly skin. It rears and screams, the sound making Valkyrie's ears buzz. She waves her left hand and the shadow retreats, strikes again, and then coils, restricting around the thing's neck.

It howls and scrabbles as dark blood seeps out of its chest. The tendril tightens once more; with a hard thrust of Valkyrie's palm, the vampire's neck snaps. The snap turns to a ripping sound until the entire head severs from the body, twitching and gushing fluid all over the wet cavern floor.

Her shadow retreats to coil around her arm. She lets it settle before pressing forward, kneeling beside the vampire. Its ashen face is slack, but its hands are twitching, coiling, almost beckoning. Valkyrie furrows her brow and leans in; she flicks her flashlight on and peers at the skin in more detail. There are sigils seared all over its body, ancient and fading, but certainly there.

Valkyrie reaches into her back pocket to grab her phone, to snap a picture for analysis, but a rock shifts behind her. She gives herself a split second to panic and then she throws herself to the ground, right on top of the still-leaking stump of the vampire's neck.

The air above her whooshes as another vampire lunges. Its claws miss her by a hair's breadth, and Valkyrie's shadow whips forward, widens into a net, and descends on the snarling monster. It howls and claws, shredding the shadows. But it doesn't help; the darkness converges, tightens, and shoves down onto the howling beast. It's crushed under the weight of the shadow leaking from Valkyrie's ring; its ragged wails stop under the violence of its crunching bones.

The vampire is more of a puddle now than a frame, but even so, Valkyrie takes the knife Wreath gave her from its sheath on her thigh, sawing the leaking head from the pool of a body.

She takes the heads further into the cave and toward the sound of scurrying. She finds a third vampire, who is wounded and dragging its back half; she uses the knife to cleave its head, not bothering with magic.

The nest is warm and dry; Valkyrie sets the heads in the middle of the ferals' bedding and takes out a packet of matches. She lights three, placing them on top of what remains of the heads. She stands back and watches the flames, ensuring each face has charred through, before turning back to the bodies. She takes pictures of the three, sends them off to her contact in the Australian Sanctuary, and heads toward her rental car.

Valkyrie has only just finished cleaning up in her hotel room when her phone chimes. Payment from the Sanctuary has slid through her account, and she raises her brows. It's three times more than the agreed-upon.

What's up with the extra? she sends to Sophie, the agent she's worked with at the Sanctuary.

We thought there was one - there were three. Just think of it as a good job, and our thanks for your help, Arbiter.

Valkyrie smiles to herself, but it doesn't feel natural. She chews on a leaf, the medicine soothing her headache, and sends another text - this time to the person who should be in the hotel room right now. Where the hell are you?

Fletcher Renn appears mere seconds later, blinking and looking sheepish. "Sorry."

"Where were you?" she asks again.

"You said you had things handled, so I went out for a drink," is his defensive response.

"What I had were three vampires to deal with."

"Three?" he repeats, looking sheepish and impressed all at once. "Damn."

"You're lucky that I took one by surprise, and another one was half dead, or else your boss would have some choice words for you."

"You threaten me with Skulduggery too much," Fletcher says as if it's nothing, coming to sit on the second bed. He smells like perfume and alcohol.

"You threaten my life with your idiocy too much."

Fletcher makes a face. "You do realise I'm the only competent teleporter you have, right?"

"Sure, but at least Never shows up when they need to."

Fletcher seems slightly hurt, which makes him look even more ridiculous. It's hard to imagine, given how stupid his hair is, and yet Valkyrie is witnessing it first-hand. It's like a car wreck that she can't look away from.

"Do you want to go home now, or stay another night?" he asks, still embarrassed.

Valkyrie thinks about the time difference. "Let's go back," she finally says when she realises that it will be early evening back home - the early evening is when everyone is finally in their respective places. Valkyrie can get in, get something to eat, and go to bed without anyone being the wiser. "I never want to see Australia again," she grumpily lies.

"I thought you liked Australia?"

"I do," Valkyrie admits when she stands, grabs her pack, and presses a hand to Fletcher's arm. "I just hate how often I almost die every time I come here."

Fletcher rolls his eyes. "Might have something to do with you only going places to kill things." Valkyrie raises a brow at him, but she can't help smirking. He's an idiot, but at least he makes her smile sometimes. "Alright, three, two, one-"

The world drops out, Valkyrie feels a whoosh of air, and then they are standing in her foyer.

 


 

Skulduggery is on his way out the door when Wreath storms in, slams the door and opens his mouth as if to bellow. He stops when he realises Skulduggery is right in front of him; he smoothes down his shirt and offers a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Good. You're here."

"I was just on my way out, actually."

"I have news about China."

Skulduggery stops trying to get around the man. "And?"

"The community's pressure is beginning to wilt her," Wreath begins, placing his hands behind his back and standing up a little straighter. It makes him look as if he's reciting a book report - he looks idiotic, which makes Skulduggery more satisfied than it should. He forces himself to re-focus on the man's words. "She is beginning to put together a short-list of potential Elders."

"Who?" Skulduggery demands.

Wreath raises a brow at him. "Settle yourself, Pleasant; I am going to tell you." Wreath takes another moment - to be insufferable, Skulduggery is sure. "Thurid Guild," Wreath says; his expression is hard. "Sierra Mettle. Eliza Scorn."

"Eliza Scorn?" Skulduggery repeats, stunned. "That's extremely peculiar."

"I'm aware."

"They hate one another. They've tried to kill each other more times than-" Skulduggery's speechlessness surprises himself. "It makes no sense."

"While that is perplexing, I am focused on something a little more interesting," Wreath says while gliding toward the kitchen. Skulduggery follows, and Wreath continues, "Do you know about Sierra Mettle?"

"I don't believe I've had the pleasure."

"Nor I, so I did some digging." Wreath prepares the kettle while speaking, moving as if he has all the time in the world. "She's a professor at the Academy. Religious studies, in fact."

"The Academy." Skulduggery lets his mind wander for a moment before coming back to himself. "There's an Elder option from each of the agencies. The High Sanctuary, Corrival Academy, and the Dark Cathedral."

"We've been searching for agents who might be looking for the book, and it seems we have our first suspects." Wreath clicks the kettle on and prepares a mug with an infuser. "I've sent Melancholia to find out more about Mettle."

"How does she plan to do that?"

"Simple," Wreath says, finally meeting Skulduggery's sockets with his gaze. "There is a position open for a teaching assistant within the Necromancy wing."

"Is Melancholia the right person? She's not entirely stable."

"Nor is Valkyrie, and yet you trust her."

As if summoned, Valkyrie and Fletcher come into the kitchen. Fletcher goes to the fridge while Valkyrie falters in the doorway, looking as if she doesn't want to enter her own kitchen.

"Valkyrie," Wreath greets her, ignoring Fletcher. "Tea?"

"Sure," she says, dropping her pack against the wall and entering the kitchen with more purpose. "What did we miss?" She sits on one of the barstools, the one furthest from Skulduggery. He tries not to let it bother him, but Valkyrie has taken to his rules of decorum better than he expected - and hoped, if he is honest.

"How was the mission?" Skulduggery asks before Wreath can monologue.

"Fine," Valkyrie shrugs, glancing at him with a lazy smile. She looks exhausted beneath it, though. The circles under her eyes are darker than the last time he saw her. God, was that a week ago? Two? "Three vampires, all dead, burned in their nest."

"Three?" Wreath repeats, eyes wide. "I thought there was one?"

"So did I, but," Valkyrie spreads her hands. Before she can change the subject, though, she perks up. "When is Omen coming by next? There were some weird sigils on the vampires, and I was kind of hoping he could use that library of his."

"Show me," Wreath requests. The kettle clicks off, the bubbling quieting, so he steps away to fill their cups with steaming water. When he returns, sliding Valkyrie's in front of her, Valkyrie shows him the photos. She lets Skulduggery take a look, too, but doesn't offer it to Fletcher. Fletcher looks annoyed but doesn't argue - he's useless when it comes to other magics.

"I will check the Temple library, as well," Wreath offers. "I'm not familiar with them, but I am sure between our resources and the Academy's-"

"Too bad you guys pissed off the Queen of Sigils so much that you can't go near the High Sanctuary without an armed squadron," Fletcher says to irritate them.

"Not true," Skulduggery says, still scanning the sigils. "We'd need an invitation, too." Wreath sighs and Valkyrie smirks, not able to help it. "Send the photos to Melancholia and Omen."

"And myself," Wreath adds.

"And him," Skulduggery repeats, tone dismissive, and Wreath narrows his eyes.

Skulduggery's phone rings and he glances at the display. "Do we know anyone who could be with Kenspeckle right now? I'm not sure why else he would be calling me."

"Is it Tanith?" Valkyrie asks, perking up.

"Who's Tanith?" Fletcher has been asking the same question each time he hears the name, but no one has bothered to respond.

"Perhaps answering it will solve the problem," Wreath suggests.

Skulduggery does. Somewhere inside of himself, Skulduggery knows what Kenspeckle Grouse will say before he speaks. There are very few reasons the man would call him.

"Arbiter," Grouse murmurs, "Ghastly Bespoke is awake, and he's asking for you."

Skulduggery doesn't respond; he hangs up the phone and grabs Fletcher's arm. "Take me to Grouse's clinic."

"I'm not your personal-"

"Teleport. Now."

Fletcher looks alarmed, but then they're moving through space and Skulduggery finds a face he hasn't seen in years.

"It's about damn time," Skulduggery says right before Ghastly engulfs him in a crushing hug.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

China Sorrows arranges herself carefully; each detail is a tell, and Eliza Scorn is a master of tells.

China has picked a dark collared shirt, a pencil skirt, and a pair of kitten heels that shine so much they look like black diamonds. Her hair is effortless, tumbling around her shoulders. Her chair angles toward the empty one - a display of confidence, of familiarity.

"Show her in," China murmurs to her Administrator; the Administrator bows and goes to the door, opening it.

Eliza Scorn has also arranged herself carefully. She's as gorgeous as ever, her long, flame-red hair the only thing that suggests her inner self. Her dress is demure, the garb of the Cathedral Guardian. China wants to recoil at the sight of it, but she keeps her warm smile in place. "Eliza, dearest. Please, sit."

Eliza matches her smile, but the expression doesn't meet her eyes. "I assume this is about your choice of Elders, Supreme Mage? You might be seen as corrupt if you keep ruling unchecked."

"I have a short list," China acknowledges, her skin crawling with each word she is forced to say. "And you, might I add, are on it."

"I am the only one who needs to be on it," Eliza reminds her, breaking role as a chaste Guardian of the Dark Cathedral to smirk. "Put a field mouse in as the second for all I care."

"Eliza-"

"Elder Scorn."

"Eliza. You will be Elder when the time is right. And the time isn't right," she continues, interrupting Eliza's attempts, "until I say it is. There are already rumours spreading about the Cathedral and Sanctuary's involvements, and we cannot arouse more attention. You, Eliza, should know that better than anyone."

Eliza sneers, leaning back into her chair. "So you are defending yourself under the guise of people suspecting China Sorrows is acting dodgy? Come now, China - no one trusts you. No one will ever trust you."

"I have no rivals-"

"You have nothing but rivals, just as I do," Eliza interrupts. "If you have any allies now, you will have none once Skulduggery Pleasant knows about your past dalliances."

"Skulduggery knows about his wife and child," China says coolly, the smile never faltering. "He has known for decades, and yet here I sit."

"Did he forgive, though? Did he forget, I wonder?" Eliza muses. "And does he know about the other ones? About Ravel? Poor Ravel."

"Ravel was going to betray all of us." China only then realises that she's fallen so far into Eliza's web that she's broken her own control. She centres herself, realigns herself, and adds, "Skulduggery is not the same man he was, Eliza. He has more in his head than revenge."

"I'm not sure if that's possible, but continue to delude yourself as much as you need." Eliza stands, and China rises to match her. Eliza presses twin kisses to China's cheeks before the smirk fades and the Guardian facade returns. "You have few secrets from me, China. You've never been very good at keeping me out of your head."

Before she leaves, China smiles warmly. "I believe, Elder Scorn, that you will hear from us soon." Eliza leaves the room, and China smiles at the door, counting to thirty before snapping, "Bitch."

The war isn't over, China assures herself when she pours herself a glass of wine. Eliza won a few battles, but a few battles are nothing in the grand scheme of things.

 


 

"Can you go to your room or something?" Valkyrie grumbles from where she's flipping through one of Gordon's paperbacks. "Watch TV or, I don't know...masturbate?"

Fletcher looks up from where he's sprawled on the carpet, forgetting that he just tossed a stress-ball into the air. It thunks against the ceiling, and then it thuds against Fletcher's face. "Fuck," he grunts, holding his forehead while the globe-coloured ball rolls under the couch. "What was that about masturbating?"

"You should go do that - in another room - so I don't continue wanting to strangle you to death, revive you, and then do it all over again. For the rest of eternity."

"Can you resurrect people?" he asks, eyes wide.

"Don't know; let's not find out right this second."

Fletcher frowns at her and sits up. "You need to get out of the house."

"I get out of the house all the time," she mumbles, eyes scanning across the words she knows by heart. Raising Cain. It was her favourite of her uncle Gordon's older books. She even used it to pick half of her taken name.

"You get out of the house to kill things."

"I arrest people, too," she says absently. Fletcher's voice is making it hard for her to focus on the words in front of her.

"When was the last time you went to a club?"

Valkyrie finally looks up. "Sorry, what?"

"A club. To like...meet people? A bar? Pub? Anything remotely social?"

Valkyrie snorts and looks at the book again. "I'm considerably closer to thirty than twenty, Renn - why would I bother going to a club?"

"There's an age limit on not being a shut-in?"

Valkyrie closes the book and glares at him. "You're so annoying. I have no idea how you can be so annoying. I have a ten-year-old sister, and I work with 17-year-olds from time to time. And yet you, Fletcher Renn, are the most annoying person in my life."

Fletcher looks oddly pleased. "So, you'll come?" Valkyrie sighs and looks at the ceiling. "Only for an hour," Fletcher continues. "Give me an hour out, meet some of my friends - people our age, by the way, who don't spend their lives talking about death and destruction - and if you wanna go after that, I'll teleport you right back."

"Fine," Valkyrie snaps, getting to her feet. "But I'm not washing my hair or putting on makeup."

Fletcher shrugs. "Who cares? Just be you."

The reaction makes his irritating presence better. "You're so annoying," Valkyrie repeats as she passes, but she's smiling anyway.

 


 

The location isn't what Valkyrie was expecting. Honestly, she wasn't expecting ever to set foot inside Sanguine's club again. It's different now - the lights aren't as dim, the walls aren't as dark, and the dancefloor is so polished that very few people even attempt to use it.

"Wow, what happened here?" she asks aloud.

"Scapegrace happened," the bartender responds. The music is so low that he heard her question from three metres away. "He's a fucking idiot."

Valkyrie snorts. "Is he in the back?" At the bartender's nod, Valkyrie turns her attention to Fletcher; she can't help but tease him. "This place is lame. I expected better from you."

"It used to be better!" he tries to defend himself, but she's already laughing and leaving him for the back room. She reaches the dead-end and places her hand to the stones. "Scapegrace? It's Valkyrie Cain." She waits for a moment but gets no response. "Hey, Scapegrace? Can you let me in?" She thinks she hears something on the other side of the stone. "If you're trying to talk to me, you need to press the little blue button next to the computer."

She can hear more shouts, but nothing over the comm. Valkyrie sighs and presses her head against the wall. "Vaurien, seriously? Come on - it's a blue button. Are you colourblind or something?" When nothing happens, she finally snaps, "Flip the damn switch and let me in there or I swear to God I will blow this fucking rock apart and stab you with the shrapnel."

The door parts and Valkyrie strides through. She opens her mouth to shout at him, but stops before her annoyance can come through. "Holy hell, what happened to you?"

Scapegrace grins up at her, but part of his upper lip is missing. Along with an ear. "Hey, Val."

"Are you...Scapegrace, what did you do?" She collapses into the chair in front of his desk.

"I might have, um. Died."

"I'd hope so - if a living thing could smell this bad..."

"And then I got brought back," he continues; he's moaning as if it's a very dramatic story, but Valkyrie doesn't know much about zombies. Maybe they always sound moany. "And when I got brought back, I felt like I had a new purpose. To run this club."

"Your purpose is to run a club...? This club?"

"Well, yeah. It's a great club. Everyone loves it."

"Everyone out there looks like they want to kill themselves," she corrects. Scapegrace's features shift - she isn't sure if he's upset or if his skin lost five-per cent of its elasticity at once. "Come on, Scapegrace. Turn the music up, dim the lights, and maybe people will be willing to buy your overpriced liquor."

Scapegrace sighs and nods. Before she can leave, he groans, "Were you coming to ask me to kill you?"

"Nope, not yet. We're young; we've got loads of time."

"Sure," he says when she waves. She thinks a tooth might have rolled off of his drooping bottom lip, but she ducks through the door before she can confirm.

When Valkyrie gets into the club, the lights are dimming, and the music is rising. She catches sight of Fletcher standing at a small table with a group of sorcerers. He waves her over and, just as she arrives, a bubbly redhead brightens and calls over the music, "I thought Fletcher was kidding when he said you were coming!"

Valkyrie looks between the woman and Fletcher, confused. Fletcher opens his mouth, but the redhead continues. "I'm so sorry; I'm just excited to meet you! My aunt told me all about you - you've helped the Scottish Sanctuary so much, and I'm just...in awe."

Valkyrie ducks her head a little, letting out a surprised laugh. "Thanks, um...?"

Fletcher clears his throat and asks one of the other sorcerers to dance. The third follows them to the floor, slipping in his haste to get away. Valkyrie narrows her eyes and turns her attention to the redhead. "Sorry, I'm a little confused. What's happening right now?"

The woman blinks at her, seeming doubtful. "I...oh, Fletcher said you wanted to come out and talk to some 'normal people' as he called us. He knows I'm kind of obsessed with you -- oh, no, nono, that sounds terrible. I don't stalk you or anything."

Valkyrie forces a smile. "I didn't get your name?"

Her cheeks are reddening. "Oh, hell. I'm Militsa Gnosis - I work at the Academy teaching Magical Theory. I actually decided to become a Necromancer because of you. My aunt had tons of stories about all the things you and Tanith Low did, how much you helped save people."

"From monsters mostly. It wasn't that big of a deal."

"The fact that you call that 'not a big deal' is precisely why I wanted to meet you!" Militsa insists, leaning over the table a little so she can lower her voice. "You're an inspiration - to me and tons of us Adepts. You're the youngest, most powerful Arbiter ever to walk."

"I'm hardly the most powerful," Valkyrie says even though Darquesse laughs at the criticism. Valkyrie isn't sure what she can't do with Darquesse's powers. But Darquesse's skills are a drug that Valkyrie is trying to resist. Each time she gives over, Darquesse takes longer to leave and takes more energy to fight.

Militsa is smiling at her. "You're modest. And you look like you'd be a great dancer."

"Two left feet," she lies.

"Nonsense," Militsa insists, taking Valkyrie's hand. "Dance with me!"

Valkyrie almost pulls away, but something about Militsa's smile is intoxicating. God, she smells amazing. "Sure," Valkyrie says, and Darquesse chuckles.

"Careful with this one," Darquesse murmurs in her ear while Militsa steps in close. "She's a little too eager. Not to mention Scottish - you can't be trusted around that accent."

Shut up, Valkyrie almost says out loud. It's just a bloody dance.

 


 

Valkyrie snaps to when the car draws to a stop. She pulls away from Militsa's lips, heart stammering. "Where...where are we?"

"My place..." Militsa says, sounding disoriented. "What's wrong?"

"I don't-" Valkyrie gapes at her wordlessly, bemused. "I don't remember coming here."

"Oh." Militsa looks confused, and then her eyes widen; she pulls away, her hands sliding out from under Valkyrie's shirt. "Oh, God, I am so sorry. I thought -- I mean, you said you wanted to -- oh hell, I'm so sorry!"

"No, no," Valkyrie murmurs, shaking her head. She's very aware of the cab driver in the front seat openly watching them. "Sorry, um. It's just kind of fast, and I think someone might have spiked my drink?"

"No, of course," Militsa says, backing away even further. "I'm so, so sorry. Do you want a cup of coffee? Or...or should I call you a cab? Oh hell, we're in a cab."

"Yeah," Valkyrie laughs softly. The girl is gorgeous, and her flush is, admittedly, absolutely adorable. "I'm sorry, tonight was...weird. But maybe we could get coffee sometime?"

Militsa's face lights up. "Yes! Yes, of course -- ehm. I'll, ah. I'll get your number from Fletcher if that's alright?" Her eyes flicker to the man still watching them.

"Yes, definitely. And...thanks. Tonight was fun." I think.

Militsa beams and gets out of the car, waving before ascending the steps to her flat.

Valkyrie glances up at the driver. "Take me back to the club. I'll drive myself home."

The man shrugs and pulls away from the kerb. As they drive, Valkyrie tries to recall the night. It's a vast blur of colour and laughter, of Fletcher stealing her away for a few dances, of Militsa never leaving her side, of the others buying round after round -

What happened? she asks Darquesse, looking out the window and trying to breathe through the cloying scent of sweat and spilt soda.

"You had a nice time," Darquesse replies, but she, too, sounds slightly perplexed. "You drank too much. You got handsy. Ordinary pre-Skulduggery things."

Each breath clears her mind a little more, but the memories remain hazy. I didn't mean for any of that to happen.

"It was a surprise," she admits. "A little too big of one, frankly. Maybe someone did spike your drink. Shall we go back to the bar and lay waste to everyone?"

Maybe tomorrow, Valkyrie thinks, resting her head against the cold window, closing her eyes.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Ghastly looks just as he did eight years ago; he seems completely unphased to hear he was gone for such a long time. He seems unphased by most everything Skulduggery tells him, and it somehow makes certain things harder to talk about. Ghastly can accept that China is the Supreme Mage, and yet will he accept that Skulduggery has dragged a new partner into his shenanigans?

"So," Ghastly begins when the chitchat fades. "What's happened?"

"I've told you most of the pressing details that come to mind."

"I mean with you. You specifically."

Skulduggery tips his head. "Things are...very different." Ghastly waits. "There might be a book that can split souls."

Ghastly shrugs and sips his tea. "Par for the course with you; stupid things that can do impossible things always fall into your lap."

"The world we live in," Skulduggery agrees.

Ghastly is quiet for a while before he glances up. His scarred brow furrows. "So, are you going to tell me about this partner of yours, Arbiter?"

Skulduggery sits back in his chair. "Grouse told you."

"Of course he did. The only thing the old man seems to do is complain about you."

Skulduggery tilts his head. "Grouse sounds slightly obsessive, wouldn't you say?"

"He seems upset," Ghastly corrects. "Perhaps something to do with a Valkyrie Cain?"

"She's my partner."

"I'm aware. I'm merely surprised you didn't offer the information up sooner."

"There is a lot to offer up," Skulduggery reminds him. "It's been eight years out here, Ghastly. There will be things that slip my mind."

"Your partner slipped your mind?"

"She doesn't know about you," Skulduggery finally says. "I was hoping I could speak to Valkyrie ahead of time."

Ghastly's brow lowers again. "What aren't you telling me?"

"Many, many things."

Ghastly stands, leaving his tea half-drunk. "I should get back to the shop. It's still standing, I hope?"

"Ah, well...sort of."

Ghastly's velocity quickens. Skulduggery goes after him. "What happened?" Ghastly demands.

"There was a bit of an explosion seven years ago; it took out the entire block. But things have been rebuilt!" he adds before Ghastly can punch through a wall. "You have a new, nice shop and we've replaced all of your materials. Well, we think we have. Honestly, we don't know much about tailoring magics; it might be lacking."

"Take me," Ghastly sighs, and Skulduggery leads him to the Bentley.

The drive is tense, but Ghastly exhales in relief when he sees the shop. "They kept the original design."

"Of course - this is a historic district. It might have taken some heavy-handed work with the city, but here it is."

"A bit clean, though, isn't it?"

"You have a problem with a clean storefront?"

"Well, yes. What if it brings customers? I'm not fond of customers."

Skulduggery laughs and hands over Ghastly's keys. "Would you like some time alone?"

"Please. I need to take stock of what you put together." He pauses before he gets out. "When you're both ready, bring Ms Cain by for a fitting. If she's working with you, she needs decent clothes."

 


 

Valkyrie knows it's a dream, so she keeps herself calm. She watches the sky, and, for some reason, she feels terrible; her heart hurts. She hurts. Her eyes are wet, and she can't stop looking at the sunrise.

There's a figure emerging. A second. They're too far off - they're so far away. But their hair glints like quicksilver, sending a shiver through Valkyrie. She feels it in her soul. Terror. She falls to her knees and blinks past the blinding sunlight.

"Hello, Stephanie," a voice whispers in her ear - right beside her, sweet-scented breath on her cheek - and she screams.

She awakes with a yelp, struggling against the sheets catching around her legs. Her bedroom door is thrown open, and the light momentarily blinds her. Valkyrie struggles to cover herself with her bedding, fumbling it away from her legs and dragging it up over her bare chest. "What the hell?" she gasps.

It's Wreath, wide-eyed and seemingly panicked, his cane raised as if he might hit her with it. When he looks around the room and realises they are alone, he has the decency to turn his back to her, mumbling his apologies.

"What the hell?" she repeats. "What do you want?"

"You were screaming," Wreath tells her; she's surprised to find the words reassuring. Night terrors are nothing - Melancholia has them all the time, and usually it's Valkyrie on the saviour-end of those interactions.

"Sorry, just a dream," she says, catching her breath and lowering her voice. "It's nothing."

"Would you like some tea? I have limeflower and lavender."

"It's fine," she says, a little firmer this time. "I'll see you in the morning for our lesson."

"Of course," he says, though he still sounds concerned. He doesn't turn to look at Valkyrie before he leaves, flipping the light off and shutting the door behind him with a soft click.

Valkyrie lays back in bed, but her belly is still fluttering, anxious, and Darquesse is unusually still. "Everything okay?" she asks the air.

Darquesse is quiet, a hazy ghost in the back of Valkyrie's mind.

 


 

Valkyrie is finishing her preparations for the Germany trip when Skulduggery comes through the front door. No one else is home, so Valkyrie feels an odd jolt in her stomach when she sees him. It's the first mission they've gone on together in five months, so Valkyrie is intent on making things as carefree as possible.

"Hey!" she greets, but she sounds too pitchy. She clears her throat and tries again. "Sorry, had too much coffee. I'm almost done packing - is Fletcher still on for being the pack mule?"

"There's been a slight change of plans," Skulduggery begins. The hesitation in his voice makes Valkyrie's eyes narrow. "China says America needs our help with information gathering; it's all hushed - the Americans won't tell us until we're in person. Well, until you're in person; I'm going to Germany."

"Wait-" Valkyrie breaks off, swallowing the words and forcing a smile. "America. Yay. When do I leave?"

"In two days. Meet Fletcher at the Academy around five."

"Who's going on the mission to Germany, then? You can't guard a dignitary alone."

"Of course not. I thought it'd be a good way to get Omen in the field and give Never some practice with their teleportation."

Valkyrie nods and grabs her bag. "Well, I guess I'm off to repack my things since no one wants to tell us what the damn mission is even about."

Before Valkyrie can make it to the stairs, Skulduggery takes her arm. It's gentle, but Valkyrie still flinches without meaning to. He releases her immediately and takes a step back, reading too much into her wince. "I wanted to see how you're doing. We didn't get a chance to talk about the vampires."

Valkyrie smiles faintly and shrugs. "They were vampires. I got to crush one under a blanket of shadow, though, so that was pretty cool."

"I do miss your creative flair."

"Well, you wouldn't have to miss it if you'd take me along now and again," she says without meaning to. This is not at all the conversation she wants to have.

Skulduggery tilts his head. "Do you think I'm purposely sending you out on solo missions?" When she doesn't answer, he adds, "I am, by the way, but entirely because you're the only one I can trust in the field without me."

Valkyrie didn't realise how much she needs those words. She mimics his head tilt. "You know how to butter a girl up, don't you?"

"I have been called charming on more than one occasion, yes. But, at the moment, I am merely honest. As much as I hate to say it, Wreath is helping you more than I ever could-"

"That's not true, and you know it."

"With Darquesse? It is true, and you know it."

Valkyrie frowns at him and crosses her arms. "Well, he's piss at hand-to-hand, so maybe you could drop in now and again to help me with that."

"What are you doing right now?" he asks and she rolls her eyes, drops her bag, and heads toward the gym. She can hear Skulduggery following her, humming something. It's something soothing, velvety - most things end up that way when coming from Skulduggery Pleasant, though.

Valkyrie doesn't wait for him to prepare, to remove his jacket, to roll up his sleeves. She doesn't bother to remove her sweatshirt or tie her hair back. Valkyrie whirls, a foot striking Skulduggery's elbow, followed by a downward strike to his knee. Skulduggery grunts and reaches for her leg, but she dances away, falls back, and circles.

"Valkyrie, this suit is very expensive-"

She charges him but changes direction, ducking under his reach and snagging his sleeve as she does. Valkyrie yanks it with the aide of her shadows and it tears at the seam; he stumbles to his knees, caught off guard. Valkyrie kicks out, landing a blow to his pelvis. His free hand palms and slams into her knee; blinding pain shoots through Valkyrie's nerve endings, everything feeling electric for one moment.

She doesn't notice right away when he flips her over, reclaiming his sleeve, and pins her there. But when she finally comes to her sense enough, he's still holding her shoulderblade down, gloved fingers firm. "What is going on?" he asks. He sounds concerned, and that infuriates her.

Valkyrie spins herself onto her back, upending Skulduggery's grip on her, and butts his head with her own. It sends stars shooting behind her eyes. She stumbles a bit but manages to crawl from beneath the skeleton, scooting backwards until she can lean against the weight bench.

Skulduggery is on his feet faster than she is. She's fairly sure she has a concussion - have the lights always been so bright? When she finally stumbles up, blinking past spots, Skulduggery is tossing his torn jacket onto the floor. He rolls up his sleeves, eyeless gaze boring holes into her.

"Valkyrie."

Valkyrie shakes herself off, loosening her limbs. "Trash-talk or shut up." It's Tanith's rule in the gym, and it has served Valkyrie well in many training sessions.

Skulduggery sighs out a breath he doesn't need and lashes at her. It's lazy, unmotivated, so Valkyrie kicks out to the left and then grabs his right wrist as it passes by her feint. She wrenches it until Skulduggery grunts in pain; she takes a blow to her cheek from his elbow, falls back, and releases him. Her head is ringing - if she didn't have a concussion before, she certainly does now. She blinks until she begins to see things besides imaginary lights.

Skulduggery is at her side - she tries to jab him in the ribs but misses, still disoriented. He takes her elbow and helps her sit on the weight bench. "What is going on?" he asks again.

"I don't know," she mumbles finally, covering her eyes with a hand. The darkness behind her fingers is a blessing. "I haven't been sleeping. And when I do, I get these weird dreams. Sunrises and wastelands. None of it makes sense, and I don't know why I'm trying to make it make sense."

He sits beside her. "I haven't been as present as I should be."

"This isn't about you."

"Of course it is; most everything is." Valkyrie groans but lets a small smile slip out. "Either way, we are...us. We have to be here for one another, and I have been absent."

Valkyrie laughs because it's hilarious to think that the only way to define their relationship is the word us. She'd be upset by it if she could think of something better. "I haven't been too bearable recently, so I guess I should apologise for that."

Skulduggery is silent for a moment. "Did you want to apologise, then?"

"I did apologise."

"That was not an apology."

"Sure it was. I admitted fault, so I apologised."

"Your mother would be horrified to hear this."

"How do you plan on telling her, then? If I remember correctly, someone got banned from Sunday dinner."

"I still think you are making that up."

"Dad's furious at you."

"Desmond? Desmond loves me."

"And Alice says you're creepy."

"Now I know you are lying to me."

Valkyrie can't help the grin on her face. "I am." They watch one another for a moment before she continues, "I guess I've sort of missed you a bit. It's been a while since we were just...us."

"It has. I only wish that we didn't have to end the lighthearted banter so I can get you to Grouse. You're bleeding from your ear."

"I'm what?" she asks, trying to touch her hand to her ear. She misses, fingers grazing through her hair instead. "Oh, yep, that's a concussion."

Skulduggery helps her to her feet. "You're trying to have Kenspeckle kill me, aren't you?"

"It's all part of my lifelong goal to make you suffer, Mr Pleasant."

"You'll have to try harder, Ms Cain."

 


 

Chapter Text


 

After Valkyrie comes out of Grouse's lab - and after having lied to the old man, assuring him that she merely slipped in the shower and Skulduggery was there to drive her in - Skulduggery turns the car around in the wrong direction.

"Where are we going?" Valkyrie asks, sliding a pair of sunglasses on in spite of it being overcast.

"Head still hurting?"

"A bit. Where are we going?"

"I have a friend who recently came back into town. He makes clothing - customised armoured clothing."

Valkyrie sits up straighter, eyes widening. "Ghastly Bespoke's back?"

Skulduggery actually turns away from the road to look at her. "You know about Ghastly?"

"Of course," she laughs, shaking her head. "Gordon told me all about him and his band of misfits; one of my favourite books is based on Ghastly's capers during the war." Skulduggery chuckles and Valkyrie sits quietly, trying to puzzle out why. And then it hits her, and Valkyrie's eyes widen. "Oh God, you're one of the Dead Men. Oh God, how did I not..."

"Raising Cain?" Skulduggery guesses. Valkyrie's glad for her bug-like, too-large sunglasses. "Interesting that your last name happens to be Cain, isn't it?"

"Stop," Valkyrie moans, sinking in her seat and glaring out the window. The echo-stone-Gordon admitted to keeping Skulduggery a secret from her on purpose, and it has led to more than one embarrassing conversation with the skeleton. 

"It's almost as if I was with you from the beginning."

"Stop, please? Oh God, you're making this so weird."

"And why would that be?"

Valkyrie refuses to say anything, grabbing her phone from her pocket and busying herself on it.

 


 

When they pull up outside of Ghastly's, Valkyrie gets out of the car and goes into the shop without waiting for Skulduggery. He's slightly concerned that he upset her, but the worry fades when he comes into the brightly-lit, colour-festooned storefront. Valkyrie is waiting for him, holding up a strip of dark, nearly black, purple lace, the colour of which almost matches Skulduggery's suit. "Think he can make a protective scarf out of this? I think it'd look amazing on you."

"A scarf?"

"Mm-hmm. Dapper men wear scarves now."

"Ah, but I'm not the one whose neck needs protecting. I can have him add it to my tab if you'd like it for yourself."

Valkyrie smirks and wraps it around her neckline. It looks terrible, but somehow she pulls it off. "It looks terrible," he says anyway. She scrunches his nose at him. "You are lovely, Valkyrie - but that? That is a monstrosity."

"Alright, alright."

"I am glad you cannot see it because you might rethink every choice that led to this one."

Valkyrie laughs; Skulduggery helps her unwind the cloth. When he looks up, Ghastly is watching them, brow furrowed. "You look as disapproving today as you did yesterday," Skulduggery informs him. "Perhaps eight years of sleep was too much." Skulduggery replaces the cloth and follows Valkyrie as she walks up to the shop counter. "Ghastly Bespoke, this is Valkyrie Cain, my partner. Valkyrie Cain-"

"I am so happy to meet you," Valkyrie says before Skulduggery can finish. Ghastly looks surprised. "It's a long and weird story, but basically Gordon Edgley's book about you-"

"And me," Skulduggery interrupts.

Valkyrie doesn't even stop talking to glare at him. "-has always been one of my favourites. Oh God, not to mention all of the stories about your mother."

Ghastly looks perplexed. "You know about my mother?"

"Of course!" Valkyrie says. "Her plaque in Larrikin Park -- what a badass."

Ghastly laughs and nods, his gaze gentle. "She was." Skulduggery watches Ghastly melt under Valkyrie's enthusiasm, under her unchecked smile. Valkyrie can charm birds from the nest, for better or worse.

"Well then," Ghastly says, coming around the counter, "stay still for just a moment." He nods to himself, eyes scanning her up and down. "Good. I'll have the clothes done on Saturday. Black seems suited for you, but I can do something else if-"

"Black is perfect, but don't you need to measure me first?"

"I do not," he smiles. To Skulduggery he asks, "Three suits, right? Any particular colours?"

"Dark blues," Valkyrie suggests. "You look best in the dark blues."

Skulduggery nods a bit. "Two dark blues, then. And one black - Valkyrie managed to mangle my last black jacket this morning."

"Your fault for stepping into the gym with it on," she mumbles in return, wandering away and into the field of shelves.

When Skulduggery returns his gaze to Ghastly, the scarred man is frowning again. "Something wrong?" Skulduggery asks.

"I don't think-" Ghastly glances toward the shelf Valkyrie disappeared behind. He opens his mouth and closes it, trying to choose his words. He decides to let it go, smiling faintly. "At least you chose a charming partner this time."

"Don't let her hear you say that."

"I'm a metre away, Skulduggery - and I agree with Ghastly," Valkyrie says from behind a shelving unit. "I am so charming that I've tricked a skeleton into paying for my undoubtedly expensive clothes. I'm going out for a coffee - call me when you're ready."

And then she's gone, readjusting her sunglasses and wiggling further into her leather jacket.

"Your work together, then?" Ghastly asks when she's out of sight.

"We're both Arbiters, yes."

"I'm glad you two get along so well."

"You'd be surprised how contentious it can get. She can be very, very terrifying. Also, our working theory is that she's possibly possessed."

Ghastly's eyes widen. "She's...possessed?"

"We have no proof of it, other than she has something inside of her that connects to her magic; it amplifies it, and uses it to attempt escape." He lets Ghastly process this before continuing. "The thing, Darquesse, has broken out a few times. It never ends very well."

"What's she doing in the general public?" Ghastly asks. He's attempting to follow, but his eyes seem to be glazing with information.

"She has it under control now. As much as I hate it, I've passed her training to Solomon Wreath."

Ghastly sighs and begins pulling bolts down from shelves. "This is more dramatic than usual, Skulduggery. You haven't slept with her, have you?" When Skulduggery doesn't answer, Ghastly groans. "Can't turn to stone for eight years without worrying you'll lose whatever mind you have."

"That seems to be the sum of the parts, yes."

 


 

Valkyrie and Skulduggery make it to the estate, but they are stopped immediately in the entrance.

"How does everyone ambush everyone in the foyer?" Valkyrie asks, finally taking her sunglasses off. "It's like living with a pack of needy puppies - the second they hear the door, they divebomb."

Omen Darkly - Corrival Academy student, a studier of sigils, and the sweetest boy Valkyrie has ever met - smiles awkwardly from where he's sitting on the stairs, a book open in his lap. "Sorry, hey, um. Skulduggery wanted us to check in before our trip to...?"

Never, Omen's best friend and tormenter, tosses her hair over her shoulder and blinks toward the ceiling as if asking for patience. "Germany, Omen. How do you forget Germany?"

"I'm still trying to make it through this geography homework, don't shame me!" he tries to defend himself.

"Well maybe try studying for the first time in your life. And do that by turning your book around; it's upside down." Idiot, she adds under her breath, but there's an affectionate tilt to her lips.

"Why are you two out here?" Valkyrie asks, brushing past them and heading toward the kitchen, the usual meeting place. Valkyrie has always loved kitchens - they are like the heart of a household, the logical place to gather, the beating centre.

But the beating centre is cold and dead; Melancholia St Clair is there, sitting at the bar, drinking a beer and flipping through a tome.

"Oh, of course," Valkyrie nods. "Perfect."

"I missed you too, Valkyrie," Melancholia murmurs with a smile. "Did your little friend tell you he broke a mirror on the second storey? Walked right into it when he saw me."

"Why would I care, Melancholia? It's just a stupid mirror. Maybe instead of being a busybody, you can help Arbiters Darkly and Never prepare for their trip." She grabs the beer bottle from the blonde and turns, heading into the anteroom. "Alright, someone needs to find a side-project for Melancholia; preferably something not in my house."

"Doesn't she live here now?" Omen asks, confused.

"I can drive her to the Temple," Skulduggery offers.

Melancholia breezes into the foyer, smile wicked. She wiggles her hand and shadow slides across the closest wall - the wall with four prominent photographs. The frames shudder under the darknesses, and Valkyrie snaps, "Don't you dare."

With a flick of her wrist, Melancholia sends the frames crashing to the ground, glass shattering.

"Valkyrie, no," Skulduggery begins, grabbing her shoulders and holding her. She's shaking under his gloves, radiating with hatred. "Melancholia, get into the Bentley," Skulduggery warns.

Melancholia smirks. "Valkyrie said it herself. It was just a mirror - these are just pictures."

Skulduggery knows it's wrong, but he purposely lets up his grip. Valkyrie lunges, taking Melancholia to the ground; the beer bottle smashes across Melancholia's forehead, and then an elbow connects with her nose. Valkyrie is too quick for the blonde; three hard, fast snaps swing into Melancholia's face before Skulduggery and Never can pull Valkyrie away.

Melancholia is coughing blood and teeth, holding her broken nose. Skulduggery turns Valkyrie around, wiping her hair away from her face. Her eyes are her own; there is no Darquesse.

And yet, Valkyrie is smiling at her destruction.

"Omen," Skulduggery begins, not taking his gaze from Valkyrie's face. "Can you take Valkyrie upstairs so she can wash up?"

"Ah, s-sure? I guess?" He steps toward Valkyrie, hesitating. She stops smiling and seems to realise what happened. But she doesn't seem upset; she looks bemused.

Valkyrie and Omen climb the stairs, and Omen waits outside the open bathroom door while Valkyrie cleans the blood from her body and plucks glass shards from her fingers. Skulduggery helps Melancholia to the Bentley, repeatedly asking her to stop bleeding before she makes a mess of the leather.

By the time he comes back, someone has cleaned up the glass and carefully placed the frames on the dining room table. Skulduggery takes a moment to analyse them again, trying to see them through Valkyrie's eyes.

The most prominent frame is of Valkyrie and Alice; they sprawl in the grass on a football field, the round ball between them, their faces red with exertion and smiles wide. The second mounting is an older picture - one of Valkyrie as a child, her parents, and Gordon. The third frame features a younger Valkyrie and Tanith; a yellow tabby cat - the one Tanith adopted for their third anniversary - sprawls across Valkyrie's lap, and Tanith is placing a kiss to her cheek.

The fourth is of Valkyrie and himself. Valkyrie's mother had captured the moment after their first Sunday dinner with the family. Valkyrie looks exhausted, but her smile is happy and lazy as she leans into Skulduggery's facade. He reaches out to touch the smile but stops himself, realising the fool he is.

He makes a mental note to buy new glass for the frames before leaving the house.

 


 

Abyssinia enters the club and makes a face. The place reeks of something processed; the odour of it makes her skin crawl. The bartender glances her way, does a double-take, and seems unable to decide if he should be terrified or turned on.

Abyssinia gets that a lot, and it never stops being amusing. "Is the owner in?" she asks, and the man nearly whimpers.

"He's in the back. Round the corner until you reach the stone wall."

She smiles at him and blows him a kiss just for good measure. Abyssinia turns away, but not before committing his face to memory. He looks like a decently powerful snack if she's peckish by the time she leaves Billy-Ray Sanguine.

The rock wall is already open, and there is something behind the main desk. The something looks like a sack of withering flesh, and Abyssinia is taken aback for the first time since she regained her body weeks ago. "Sanguine?"

The thing looks up, and its remaining functional eye finds her. It's pale and cloudy, though, so she isn't sure if he's seeing her. "No, no, Sanguine's gone. Just me. Vaurien Scapegrace. Killer Supreme."

"Certainly," she allows, not caring enough to put effort into it. "Well then, Mr Scapegrace. I was told Sanguine was the person who might have the information I need. Do you know where he tunnelled off to?"

"No, he was gone one night and then nothing. Someone had to take the club, so I did. Are you a cop? Or a lawyer? You have to tell me if I ask. And I asked."

"You are quickly becoming a vexation," Abyssinia informs him, continuing before she has to hear his grating moans anymore. "I need to find an arcane collector."

"Oh, ah. I mean, there's China Sorrows -- b-but she's the Supreme Mage now, so I don't think you can just...walk in?"

"I don't want China Sorrows. Not yet." Abyssinia allows herself some time to sulk. Then she comes back to attention. "If there was something worth knowing about - a sacred artefact, for example - who else might know about it?"

Scapegrace watches her - she thinks; she still isn't sure what that eye can see. "I guess that Dark Cathedral lady? The tall redhead."

Abyssinia raises a brow at him, her smile widening. "Eliza Scorn?" At Scapegrace's enthusiastic nod, his one decently-placed eye bulges out a little further. "Thank you, Mr Scapegrace. I owe you." Abyssinia places a small card to his hand, careful not to touch the ooze coating the fingers. She doubts the dead thing will be able to see her local associate's phone number, let alone live long enough to call it.

It doesn't matter to her, though.

Before she leaves, however, she adds, "Tell me - do you happen to know a Skulduggery Pleasant?"

"The Skeleton Detective? Not really."

"What about a girl who follows him around like a street cat. Valkyrie Cain?"

"Oh," Scapegrace murmurs; his loose skin tries to pull into a deeper frown. "I mean, yeah. She comes around here sometimes, has some drinks." For some reason, Scapegrace offers up the addition of, "I'm going to kill her someday. I'm going to make her into art - she said I can when she's ready."

"We are never guaranteed tomorrow, are we?" she asks, trying not to gag when something thick seeps from a hole where his liver should be. "If you want to kill her, you should act quickly."

On her way out of the club, she snags the bartender and takes him through the back door. She places a hand to his chest, right over his heart, and presses her mouth to his.

His lifeforce is small - he was very sick, as it turns out - and barely more than a mouthful, but Abyssinia can still feel it enter her, her fingers softening just a bit more, her eyesight sharpening minutely.

Abyssinia drops his lifeless body to the ground, steps over it, and walks toward the parking lot.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Tanith looks out over the city, eyes scanning across St Olaf's Church and the surrounding buildings. Everything is quiet and cold, the brisk cutting through Tanith's jacket and into her bones.

She closes the window when she sees Billy-Ray Sanguine's blond head coming down the street. He's alone, which is upsetting; Tanith was hoping to finally get a picture of the silver-haired woman he's been meeting with.

Tanith quickly closes the shutters, takes her jacket off, and sits at the table as if she has been reading all day.

When Sanguine comes in, he's carrying an overflowing bag of food. "It's a goddamn nightmare out there," he mumbles, setting the bag on the counter. "Saw a hunter, but I don't think he's here for us."

"Who else is hiding out in Estonia?" Tanith asks dryly, getting up to rifle through the bag. She grabs a tin of imported mixed nuts and opens it, dancing out of Sanguine's way when he attempts to reach for it.

"Come on, I went out an' got 'em," he whines, and she barely manages to keep her balance when he comes at her again. She snorts and spills some of the nuts, making Sanguine groan in frustration. "Why are you so damned ornery?"

"You love it," she reminds him, putting the lid on the nuts, deciding she doesn't feel like eating anymore. The look Sanguine gives her, a perfect mix between amusement and irritation, makes Tanith grin. She flops onto the bed and covers her eyes with her arms, ignoring when he climbs up beside her. "So, didn't see anyone exciting other than a hunter?"

Sanguine doesn't answer, but his hand ghosts over her arm, making goosebumps rise. "Stop," she says, the words firm. Sanguine's hand departs, but he continues to sit there. "Don't read into things, Billy-Ray, or you start sleeping on the floor."

Sanguine lays down beside her, crossing his arms under his head. "Alright then, sweetheart. I got nothin' but time."

 


 

Valkyrie is staring at her phone, oblivious to everything, when Militsa finds her. "Valkyrie!" she says brightly, startling Valkyrie out of the mindless puzzle game she's been playing.

"Oh, Militsa. Hi."

Militsa is as gorgeous as Valkyrie remembered, and that makes Valkyrie's chest lurch uncomfortably. Valkyrie has always been the type to fall hard and fast, but there is something about Militsa that feels different. It feels out of her control entirely.

"How are you feeling?" she asks Valkyrie, her tone so concerned and supportive. She keeps a pleasant distance between them and doesn't reach out to touch Valkyrie, which Valkyrie appreciates.

"Not too bad," she says, shifting a little and sliding her phone into her back pocket. "Just waiting for Fletcher to finish up his private lesson."

"Ooh, are we going out again?" she asks, eyes mischevious. "There's a pub I know that's infinitely better than the one we were at last week."

"While that sounds great," Valkyrie begins slowly, "we have a business thing we're doing." She's surprised that she lets it slip out - no one is supposed to know they're working together. "I need his expertise on teleporting for a case I'm working on. Contract work, you know," she covers.

"Oh, of course!" Militsa is sunlight personified. "Well, if you ever need Necromancy help, don't hesitate to call. I kind of wanted to be a detective when I was a girl, but-" she shrugs. "It's quite legal, isn't it? All red tape. I guess that's why it's good to be an Arbiter."

"Yeah," Valkyrie murmurs, surprised.

"I know this is probably a terrible time to ask-"

Valkyrie interrupts. "Do you want to get coffee with me sometime? Maybe on a planning period next week?"

"Oh! Oh my God, yes! That's -- yes," she laughs and tries to contain herself, a pleased flush rising to her cheeks. Valkyrie hadn't noticed her freckles before - they're absolutely perfect, little speckles of stardust.

When Militsa leaves, Valkyrie can breathe again. She gulps at the air, thankful that the beautiful scent following the redhead is dissipating. Valkyrie stands in the hall, focusing on her breaths, and waits until Fletcher joins her, holding his overnight bag. "You alright?" he immediately asks.

"I don't -- does Militsa work with sigils or use charms?"

"Like China?" Fletcher asks and then chuckles. "Ah...not that I know of... Why?"

"I don't know; I just feel like whenever she's around, I can't remember things."

Fletcher smirks at her. "You're into her."

"No, it's not that." Valkyrie huffs when Fletcher's smile widens. "You're intolerable. I mean I literally cannot remember things when she's around. Time doesn't even register."

"Kinda sounds like you're into her."

Valkyrie rolls her eyes and grabs his arm - harder than necessary - and snaps, "Let's go for Christ's sake."

 


 

Valkyrie leaves Fletcher at the hotel pool and meets the American agent in the hotel lobby. The woman looks similar to Valkyrie herself, which makes both of them chuckle slightly. "Valkyrie Cain, I'm Aurora Jane. Pleased to meet you."

"And you," Valkyrie says, barely able to keep her smile at bay. "Tanith told me everything about you, of course. I'm glad we're finally meeting."

"If only it were under better circumstances," Aurora murmurs, leaning in a little. "The truth of the matter is, I'm not running this through the Sanctuary."

"What?"

"I'm hiring you personally because I can't trust anyone here. There have been too many murders going on, too much rampant turnover. It's getting to the point where no one knows who's in the field, who's on the payroll - us agents are isolated from the brass tacks and each other."

"I had no idea," Valkyrie mumbles. "China said that I need to do some information gathering - who am I gathering it from?"

Aurora's eyes flicker around the room, scanning. Finally, she murmurs, "I think there's a doppelganger on the council."

Valkyrie blinks. "A real doppelganger?"

"It's showing all of the signs. Bodies are piling up every few days as if it's host hopping. And, oddly enough, the body-hopping seems to be heading up the Sanctuary's hierarchy."

"Who is the next person on the list?"

"Giddy Foster. He was just appointed an Elder, and then he didn't come into work for a day. And then he did, but he didn't remember common things, things he does every day. It's like he was learning as he went, putting things together, pulling information in to keep just ahead enough to fool us."

Valkyrie nods and gets to her feet. "If it's host-hopping, then that means there have to be dead hosts. Who was the last one?"

"We still haven't recovered the body of Talon Bruiser. I worked with him a few times - he's not exactly the type to up and disappear, but his apartment's clean."

"Well, I suppose our next course of action is breaking into Foster's home tonight?"

Aurora lets out a small sigh of relief. "Thank you."

Valkyrie smiles at the woman who can pass as her cousin. "I've never seen a doppelganger before. This'll be fun!"

"My thoughts exactly," Aurora says, returning her grin.

 


 

The trip to Germany - which should have been a breeze - is immediately mired by the fact that Never, still not nearly as trained as Fletcher, delves them directly into the Spree River. And then they discover that Omen Darkly is a terrible swimmer; he might have drowned if Skulduggery didn't use the water to slide him across the surface tension to the slipway.

Never is apologetic, trying to wring out water from his tied-up hair. Skulduggery helpfully lifts the water from the teens, and then his suit, before sighing. "Alright," he says, "I always ration for at least three mistakes per a mission. That was number one."

Omen groans. "Are the mistakes per-person? Do we each get three?"

"No."

Never makes a face, his tone subdued. "Sorry."

"Quite alright - no harm, no foul. Now, Never, would you mind getting us to the Sanctuary?"

"Sure," Never mumbles, seeming less blase. The world shifts - a little more chaotically than when Fletcher teleports - and they are in the Sanctuary lobby, with Cleavers' scythes swinging in to block them in place.

"Mistake number two," Skulduggery murmurs but sounds amused. "So sorry, we're the Arbiters - Skulduggery Pleasant, Omen Darkly, and Never. Might you please call the Administrator?"

 


 

The rest of the day goes without issue. They watch the dignitary, escort him through the sprawling Sanctuary inner sanctums, and then stand guard outside of his room in the evening.

After three hours outside of the bedroom door, Skulduggery is joined by Never, and then Omen. The pair look tired, but they silently tap away at their phones and drink sodas to stay alert. Everything is going smoothly; Omen and Never occasionally stop what they're doing to listen at the door. Skulduggery checks the interior every hour, and each hour finds the dignitary very alive and very asleep.

"I'm going to take twenty minutes to meditate," he says finally, settling against the wall on the other side of the hall.

"You can use the bedroom," Never reminds him.

"Here is as good as anywhere. Except for a good chair. Good chairs are, by far, the best."

"I mean, there are chairs in the room, but...sure," Omen says as if he agrees, but he looks perplexed.

Skulduggery lets his mind wander and, unfortunately, it travels to Valkyrie. It's not uncommon, but it had lessened while they kept safe distances from one another. In retrospect, Skulduggery should have anticipated her return to his meditations.

He tears himself from the thoughts, and Omen starts. "It's only been five minutes," Omen tells him. Never checks his phone before nodding.

"I need to make a call. I'll be down the hall - keep silent and keep your ears to the door." Skulduggery pulls his phone from his pocket, calling Valkyrie as he strides down the corridor and around a corner, loitering in a stairwell.

"Is everything okay?" Valkyrie asks when she answers. There's loud music in the background, and Valkyrie sounds as if she's going hoarse.

"Merely checking in. Is everything alright?"

"Checking in? Jesus, what time is it there?"

"Four in the morning, the perfect time for calling people you care about. Is everything going well?"

"Yeah, everything's fine. The badass Detective Jane and I are about to pull some vigilante shit-"

"Valkyrie."

"Discreetly."

"Thank you."

"You used to like my wild side," Valkyrie says suddenly. Skulduggery doesn't expect the words, and Valkyrie laughs as if she said it to get a reaction. She probably did. "I get it. I get it. We need to walk the straight and narrow."

"I never said that," Skulduggery murmurs, leaning against the wall. "I simply requested the wild side also include some semblance of diplomacy."

Silence descends between them; he can hear her breath if he focuses. The song in the background is something about a long-lost love, something that aches and roars. Someone on Valkyrie's end is singing along, off-key and drunk, and Valkyrie snorts slightly when the person tries to hit a high note.

"I should go," Valkyrie murmurs. "Aurora's back."

"Get sleep at some point."

"I'll sleep when I'm dead," Valkyrie returns, and then the line cuts out. Skulduggery stares at the thin metal in his hand before sliding it back into his pocket.

"Three," he tells himself.

Skulduggery retraces his steps to the diplomat's door. He's amused to find that the teenagers took his words literally, and their ears are against the wood. "Anything?" he asks, and the pair start.

Omen mouths his answer but then frowns, realising no one can understand him. "Nothing," he whispers.

It's early for the hourly check, but Skulduggery pushes through the door anyway.

The diplomat is dead, his head missing. There's a note on the man's chest addressed to Lord Vile in penmanship Skulduggery will never forget.

"Four," he says aloud, pocketing the card and sliding into the hall. "Well, our principle is dead, so. We're doing splendidly."

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Valkyrie doesn't get dizzy much - unless she's close to death, which has happened more times than she's comfortable with - but there's something about Giddy Foster's apartment that sends her head reeling. She stumbles a bit, barely manages to keep from leaning against the doorframe, and murmurs, "Aurora-"

"Ah, tripped a sigil," the woman mumbles, shaking her hair back from her face. She looks ill, but she manages to lower herself to the carpet. She clicks her fingers and summons a spark, and then a small blaze. Aurora presses that into the mat, her free had buffetting the licking flames and keeping them from spreading. The three sigils hidden in the carpet fibres burn down.

By the time Aurora reaches the subfloor around the entry, Valkyrie can breathe again. Aurora uses a penknife to slice through the sigils drawn on the gypsum, reworking them with an untrained hand, and then Valkyrie's vision clears. Aurora gets to her feet with no issue, turning a little grin to Valkyrie. "Sorry about that. Guess I should have figured there'd be something more than an impressive lock."

Valkyrie shrugs, "It's nothing. I watched a guy get speared to the carpet the last time someone tripped a floor sigil; a little equilibrium failure is nothing."

"Ouch," Jane chuckles, but she seems more concerned than she did previously. "You Irish mages don't mess around."

"We don't, no," Valkyrie replies, slowly walking through the main room. A tendril pokes from her ring, and she allows it to search, too. The shadow snakes under the couch and analyses the spaces behind the furniture, the nooks Valkyrie can't reach. She opens the entertainment centre drawers, scanning. Nothing. Nothing. More damned nothing. "At least we're slightly less political than you lot over here, though."

Aurora has moved into the kitchen, opening cabinets with small gusts of wind, making quick work of the whole thing. "You have a fantastic point. Say, what's it like working for the Arbiters? Better than the Sanctuary, I'd imagine."

"Much," she agrees, getting to her feet. She meets Aurora in the hallway that leads to the bathroom and bedroom. "Asking permission sucks."

"Especially when you're not sure if the people you're asking permission to are on your side?" Aurora replies under her breath, eyes unblinking.

They share an expression that has no name. "Looking for a job, Aurora Jane?"

"I might be, Valkyrie Cain," she replies, but her lips twitch into a sad smile. "Well. Let's finish up here and go back to the drawing board. It doesn't seem like the doppelganger is piling his bodies in his homes. Or I am completely wrong about the entire thing, and there isn't a doppelganger at all."

"We've all had bad hunches before," Valkyrie assures her, moving toward the bedroom. She opens the door - everything is pristine, just like the living room. The bed is made, and the floor is spotless. Valkyrie sighs, letting the shadow do the rest of the examination for her. Nothing.

"Nothing," she calls when she leaves the bedroom. When Aurora doesn't answer, Valkyrie goes to the bathroom door, glancing inside.

Aurora turns to look at her, holding the shower curtain aloft. It's stained red at the bottom. "Found Talon."

Valkyrie steps into the clean bathroom and pokes her head over Aurora's shoulder only to groan. There's a body in the tub, split clear down the sternum, its cavity on full display. Valkyrie lets out a little breath and nods. "Alright then. We have a doppelganger, and it is currently living in your newly elected Elder." Saying it out loud, for some reason, makes it funny. Valkyrie snorts, and Aurora glances at her, raising a brow. "Sorry," Valkyrie tries, but another laugh slips through. "I just mean...you guys have it worse than we do, and a self-serving megalomaniac is running our Sanctuary."

"I'm beginning to think self-serving megalomaniacs run us all. Hell, our corrupt political system made that Flanery dick-for-brains President for four goddamn years."

Valkyrie snorts her agreement; she's honestly surprised that America's beginning to bounce back from the situation. She steps back to let Aurora take pictures of the body. When she finishes, the pair slip out into the quiet night, not bothering to cover their tracks. They burned a hole in his living room, after all - it isn't like the doppelganger won't notice.

"So, Foster's at the Sanctuary, I take it?"

"Mm-hmm. Care to pay a visit with me?"

"I'd love to. No one ever gets to see a doppelganger, especially not outside of a host - do you think it has a form or just some slithery parasitic thing? I hope it has a form of its own."

Aurora laughs as they climb into her car. "No wonder Tanith likes you."

Valkyrie raises a brow at her. "You're telling me that you're not excited to see what one of the most illusive fiends looks like?"

"Oh, I am shaking I'm so excited. That's why Tanith likes me, too."

Valkyrie bites down her grin, and the pair drive through the gloom of the suburbs, heading toward the Sanctuary.

 


 

"Can you please explain to me, Mr Pleasant, how this happened?"

Skulduggery doesn't flinch even though the chamber is cold aside from the rage coming off of the Grand Mage. Johann Starke is not a pleasant man - Skulduggery isn't sure how he got to the position he's in, given his improper dalliances in the past. And yet Starke glares down at Skulduggery from the highest seat in the chamber, and Skulduggery is forced to remain still and speak semi-professionally.

"Well, it seems as if someone managed to get into the room using something other than the warded window - and the warded door that we never stepped away from."

"Arbiter." It's a warning, one that makes Omen flinch to Skulduggery's left. Never is, no doubt, glaring defiantly.

"Grand Mage, I assure you that there is no possible way for someone to enter that room unless they have some kind of power we are unaware of."

"Get out," Starke hisses. "Get out until we call you for the inquiry. Take your little helpers with you. Useless things."

Skulduggery gives a bow, loving how it annoys the Grand Mage, and turns. "Let's get back home." They pass by Rippers in the main halls; Skulduggery keeps Omen and Never in front of him so he can ensure no one moves toward them without him knowing.

But Starke lets them leave, and the Rippers stare blankly ahead, indifferent.

Skulduggery takes them to their room. "Pack up." When the pair is inside the room and assembling their scant items, Skulduggery pulls the note from his pocket. It is blood-spattered from the dignitary's chest, but the text is clear.

The suit is nice, my love, but you've always looked better in armour

Skulduggery clicks his fingers and flame curls around the note, snuffing it to ash. He drops it on the floor.

He doesn't know how or why, but it seems as if Abyssinia is back, and Abyssinia is ready to play her games. He could tell the Grand Mage, of course, but Abyssinia isn't interested in Germany or their squabbles.

She merely wants to draw Skulduggery's attention.

 


 

Valkyrie and Aurora are a mile from the Sanctuary when Aurora's phone rings. The woman glances at the display on her dash and frowns. "It's the Administrator." She taps a button, and the Bluetooth connection reaches the speakers. "Wilhelm, what is it?" she asks.

The Administrator clears his throat and murmurs, "Giddy Foster is dead. It appears to be a heart attack."

"Have someone watch the body until I can get there," Aurora says, pulling up to the gate and showing her badge. The car screeches as it trundles through the opening gate and past the sigils barring others entry. "I'm almost there."

"He's in the morgue, Detective."

"Put some Cleavers on standby - don't let the coroner open him up until we get there," Aurora says, ending the call. They reach the parking garage, but Aurora leaves the car in the middle of the road, getting out and running toward the entrance. Valkyrie jogs after her, more than a little concerned about her car, but acknowledges that there are more pressing concerns at the moment.

The morgue is pristine and well-lit, and the coroner is waiting for them. "Detective Jane," she greets. "And...?"

"Arbiter Cain," Aurora rushes through before coming to the body of an older, plumper mage. "Well? Get on with it."

The coroner does. Valkyrie doesn't watch while the body is cut open - it reminds her too much of Nye, of how the Crenga tore into her chest. The y-incision on Valkyrie's torso itches at the memory.

"Holy shit," Aurora says suddenly, and Valkyrie joins her at the table. "Well, I guess you got your wish for a body."

There is a small, slender creature in the Elder's cavity, pressing the organs down and around. Its nubby, greenish body seems to curl in on itself as they watch.

"The doppelganger died and took Foster with it," Valkyrie murmurs, surprised.

"Well," Aurora dawls, leaning back from the table. "This was a bit anti-climactic."

Valkyrie narrows her eyes and leans forward. The creature seems to be melting away before her eyes, slowly disintegrating into a smaller, fungus-like mass. "Oh fuck," Valkyrie groans, shoving a hand out to catch the coroner on the shoulder, pushing the woman back. "Aurora, get me something!"

Aurora doesn't understand, so Valkyrie grunts, grabbing the mass of bubbling fungus in her hand. She calls up her shadows; they engulf the thing just as it begins to burst, sending spores into the air.

Aurora lunges toward the coroner, shielding her body, and clicks a flame to life. Valkyrie barely manages to get out of the way when Aurora tosses an arc of fire at the cloud of spores, disintegrating them in mid-air.

They all take a moment to breathe while Valkyrie's shadows writhe over the mess in her hand. "Okay," Valkyrie begins slowly. "I'm going to release the shadows. If there's anything left, you need to kill it, alright?"

The woman nods, understanding, and prepares another fireball. "Get out of here," she tells the coroner, and the woman does as asked, tearing for the door and closing it behind her. They hear the door lock, an ominous sound, and Valkyrie nods.

"Here we go," she murmurs, and the shadows disappear.

The thing in her hand wobbles and Aurora shoots the flame directly into Valkyrie's palm. The pain is excruciating, but Valkyrie manages to hold relatively still while she yells, while her eyes tear, while her skin blisters and cracks under the inferno.

It feels like a century before the flames are gone, the spores burnt off with it. Valkyrie wheezes, the adrenaline beginning to bottom out, and all she can feel is white-hot pain. "Fuck," she hisses over and over, while Aurora comes to her and checks the damage.

"It's...bad."

"No shit," Valkyrie laughs, but the sound is pitchy. She can see the bones of her hand in some spots where the skin scorched away. Helpful pain-reducing endorphins are beginning to rush into her body, making her stumble. "Can you catch me if I pass out?"

Valkyrie isn't sure if Aurora manages to catch her or not; all Valkyrie knows is that her world rocks to black.

 


 

Gordon Edgley stays in his hidden room now. It's not exactly fun, per se, but Stephanie tries to visit often and give him updates about the outside world. She even designed a little device to turn pages of laid-out books. Granted, the thing is a shadow-infused toy cat on a timer, and its paw isn't precisely detail-oriented. Usually, it manages to turn the pages three at a time - which isn't exactly helpful - but Gordon appreciates the attempt anyway.

He hears someone enter the study and hides in the echo stone, listening. The feet shuffle around a bit - it's probably that damned Wreath. Gordon had nothing against the mage before - hell, he even gave Wreath's name to Desmond when Stephanie's powers manifested - but the man has turned a bit daft if Gordon is frank.

And he dotes over Stephanie too much.

The feet move closer, and Gordon relaxes when he hears three soft raps on the bookshelf hiding his room. He comes out of the stone just in time for Stephanie to step through. She looks like hell, but he's kind enough not to say that.

"What on earth happened to you?" he chooses instead.

Stephanie chuckles and lowers herself to the floor, sprawling across it. The room is too small for her tall body to stretch out in, so she leaves the bookcase open for her legs to have room. "I look like death, don't I?"

"If you weren't my favourite niece, I would agree with you. But I'm fairly sure, as you're my favourite niece, that I have to say something supportive. Like, 'you are the most special, lovely woman in the world.' But, since you're my favourite niece and I know you appreciate honestly - you look like death."

She snorts. "I got to see some of my bones through melted flesh and muscle, so that was fun."

"You live an interesting and horrifying life, Stephanie. It's too bad I'm dead, or else I could write quite the cautionary tale about you."

"Cautionary tale?" she repeats. "Is that what your books are now?"

"Of course. Would I ever condone such over-the-top violence, lust, and death?" Stephanie tilts her head back to see his projection. "Well, I don't condone them. How terrible of a person do you think I am?"

"You're not terrible, just slightly horrible."

"You're now my third-favourite niece."

"Oh? I assume Alice would be the first, so this begs the question - which of the Toxic Twins do you prefer?"

Gordon is silent for a moment, and then his grin breaks through. "You're right; there's nothing you can do to be worse than them."

"Plus, I saved the American Sanctuary from a doppelganger yesterday."

"No." Gordon can't help the excitement that bursts through him. "Did you see it without a host?"

"Yep. It was not pretty."

"It was massive, wasn't it? I always pictured them as big, grotesque things that seep into a body through the nose by stretching themselves-"

"Nope."

Gordon narrows his eyes, thinking. "Was it grey?"

"Green."

"Huh," Gordon says aloud, glancing at the books around him. One of them contains information on doppelgangers, first-hand accounts, and none of them prepared him for green.

"It is a fungus, actually. It infects with spores." Gordon looks down at her, and she smirks up at him. "Yeah. I grabbed a handful of mushy fungus, and Aurora Jane burned it - and my hand - to a crisp."

"Well, at least you got that injury fixed," he murmurs; her hands look perfect, flawless - other than missing three fingertips on her left hand. "I accept your adoration for collecting scars, but having a hand burnt down to the bone..."

"We already have one skeleton running around," Stephanie agrees, wiggling the fingers on her right hand, turning it over to analyse.

Gordon is about to ask more about the doppelganger - and if she can have someone set up a computer to listen to his dictations - when a flicker of motion in the study catches his eye. "Oh. Hello," he says because he isn't sure what else to say.

Stephanie's head shoots up to find Skulduggery staring at them, so still that he looks like a decoration. "Oh hell," Stephanie grumbles, her head falling back to the carpet.

"Surprise?" Gordon attempts.

 


 

Chapter Text



Skulduggery follows Valkyrie into her room. She shuffles through her bureau as if he isn't there, as if he hasn't asked her a question.

"Valkyrie."

When he says her name, she always pauses what she's doing. It's almost like a magic trick; it would be more entertaining if she weren't acting stubborn each time it happens.

"I'm not sorry," she says as if he asked her to be. Her eyes turn to him, so dark they almost seem black. "Gordon asked me to keep him a secret, so I did."

"No one else knows?"

Something passes over her face. "If I said no one else knows, will you stop asking me things?"

"Only if it's the truth."

Valkyrie sighs and continues to look for clothing. "Gordon told my dad about the echo stone. That's how he knew about Solomon, and that's how I made it to the Temple. Gordon told him."

Skulduggery doesn't know why it hurts him so much to know Gordon wanted to be a secret. From the world, sure - but from Skulduggery? "I see."

Valkyrie groans and leaves the chiffonnier, coming to stand in front of him. "Don't be mad."

"I'm not mad at you."

"Don't be mad at Gordon."

"I'm not," Skulduggery assures her. He isn't mad, exactly. It's something less definable.

Valkyrie stares into his sockets as if they're windows to a soul he isn't sure he has. As if she's seeing through him, into him. "Go talk to him." When Skulduggery doesn't move, she hesitantly reaches out, fingers curling around his gloves. "Skulduggery-"

"It's fine," he says; he squeezes her fingers before departing. "How was the mission? You're later back than I expected."

"Fine - it was a doppelganger. We killed it."

"A real doppelganger? Was it grey and massive?"

"Nope - green and a fungus."

Skulduggery makes a soft noise. "Well, that's a bit of a letdown."

"It almost infected Aurora Jane, the coroner, and me," she adds as if it's nothing. When he doesn't answer she rolls her eyes. "We were locked in the morgue for a day while they ensured we weren't infected, I'm fine. Also, Aurora burnt my hand down to the bone and, as I suspected, I have a pretty good-looking skeleton." She wiggles her fingers and Skulduggery can't help a small laugh.

"Of course you'd have a good-looking skeleton. Look at yourself."

Valkyrie's smile softens and the moment stretches. Skulduggery takes a step back, reminding himself of the risk being close to her for too long. "I'll call out for pizza. We'll celebrate your good-looking skeleton."

"Aww," she teases.

"Oh, I meant myself. I suppose we can celebrate yours, too."

She huffs before tilting her head. "How was Germany, by the way?"

"Oh, that requires much, much more time than you can go without food, judging by the sounds your stomach is making."

"Tell me over pizza, then," she shrugs, going back to grab pyjamas. "I need a shower, but I'll be down in a bit."

He nods and leaves, passing the study and not bothering to glance inside.

Hurt, he realises. He feels hurt.

 


 

Omen comes in right as Valkyrie reaches for her first slice of pizza. "Can someone drive me to the dorms?" he calls from the foyer.

"Kitchen!" Valkyrie calls, setting her piece of pizza on a plate and glancing over when Omen trudges in, covered in mud. "Hey!" she snaps, eyes wide. "What the hell?"

"Sorry to be a bother. Never and Fletcher are practising teleportation all over the moors after she dumped us into a German river," he supplies with a small shrug. "So I need a ride. Sorry."

"I'm upset that you're dragging mud through my house, not that you need a ride," she mumbles, leaving her plate of pizza. Valkyrie is about to call up the stairs for Skulduggery, but she stops herself just in time. She finally convinced the skeleton to talk to Gordon, and she isn't about to be such an ass as to tear him away.

Valkyrie ignores Omen's apologies and grabs her keys from the small table in the foyer. She's still in her pyjamas, but she is far too tired to give a shit. "Come on," she says, leaving the house - and her pizza - for her car.

The first leg of the drive is quiet; Valkyrie glances at Omen out of the corner of her eye sometimes, noticing how he wrings his fingers around one another. He's always restless around her, but he seems especially nervous now. Valkyrie wants to ask what it is about her that makes people uncomfortable. She doesn't mind; far from it - she prefers when people give her some distance. But she and Omen have worked on jobs together, have trained together, and he still prefers the walking skeleton to her.

"Are you hungry?" she asks suddenly. She has a full pizza at home, but it's going to be cold by the time she gets back. She might as well try to bond with the kid for a moment, now that they're trapped in a car together.

"Um, no. No, you don't have to-"

"Omen, calm down. If I stopped for food, would you want some?"

Omen nods, suddenly exuberant, eyes wide and hopeful. "Yes! I mean...that'd be nice."

"Cool," she says because she isn't sure what else there is to say. She's never been good with people younger than her, not counting her little sister. "What sounds good?"

"Um...pizza?"

Valkyrie closes her eyes for a moment, internally frustrated that she walked away from the pizza at home. "Sure," she murmurs and gives him a little smile. It feels off and, from the confused look on his face, it looks off, too.

They stop in Roarhaven at a small cafe that Omen says has good pizza. The inside of the shop is bright, its cheery light illuminating the late evening.

Things are slightly awkward for the first bit, but once they are eating and Omen gets comfortable in the familiar surroundings, he starts talking, And talking. Eventually, Valkyrie wishes things were still awkward.

But then she focuses on the way he brightens with each story, how much he loves his more impressive, more popular brother, how much he appreciates all of the terrible things Valkyrie would have railed against. He's innocent and bright, ever cheerful, ever hopeful. He reminds her of Alice for a moment, and then Valkyrie can't stop smiling at the boy's purity.

"This was fun," Omen says, and he sounds surprised.

"It was," she admits. "Though, maybe keep your scepticism under wraps next time?"

Omen flushes but doesn't apologise - Valkyrie wonders if it has something to do with her new game of rolling her eyes each time he does. "I can walk to the Academy from here," he offers.

It's a brisk October evening, one that warns of the coming winter without actually biting. Valkyrie lifts her face to it, breathes it in, and nods. "I can walk you. It's a nice night."

They traipse across the street, and Omen leads her through a shortcut - a little alleyway between the Sanctuary and looping around to the Academy's dormitory door. Before they can reach the Academy, though, four people - all in dark cloaks, all in golden masks - stop them. Valkyrie stills and puts a hand in front of Omen, drawing the oblivious teen to a stop. The figures don't move, spaced out perfectly to block the alley.

"Halloween's not for another week," she calls ahead, rubbing her thumb against the ring on her left hand. A tendril lazily curls out, wrapping around her finger and teasing the smoothed edge of her missing knuckle.

The figures don't move - until they do.

One tosses a fireball while another pushes a wave of wind, accelerating it. Valkyrie grabs for Omen's arm, but he's already rolling to the ground. His fingers slice through the air in front of them, tracing a pattern, and a bright screen catches the fire, expelling it into small sparks toward the masked figures.

Valkyrie doesn't have time to be impressed because one of the figures is coming toward her with a pair of daggers, one swooping at her face, the other slicing across her belly. Her pyjama shirt splits and Valkyrie hisses, feeling the blade knick her bellybutton. Valkyrie slides back, the tendril snaking out. Her attacker falls back, but not before the tendril encircles their right wrist, crushing the bone.

The figure's knife hits the ground with a clatter, and Valkyrie swoops to grab it, using the blade to block another slice at her face. The tendril grows thick and blunt, shoving itself into the attacker's throat. They fall back, gasping.

Omen shouts when a burst of wind breaks through his protective barrier and tosses him back into the wall. Valkyrie goes to him; shadows swirl out toward the attackers.

She reaches Omen when a fireball hurls at them. One of Valkyrie's tendril splits it in half, acting before Valkyrie can, but sparks catch Valkyrie's sweater and hair. She shouts and tamps out the flames, shielding Omen, and Darquesse swirls up for the first time in weeks, howling.

The shadows extend, becoming a wall of darkness, and the wall crashes down onto the attackers, pinning them all to the ground. Valkyrie blinks back the glow behind her eyes, panting, and reaches out to help Omen up.

"Wish you'd done that in the beginning," Omen winces as he stands.

"Wish you'd held your own," she returns, but the words are gentle. She pokes and prods, looking for damage, but Omen seems relatively unharmed. "Bruises only," she says, nodding. "Go to the infirmary and get some leaves to chew on."

"What about them?" Omen asks, eyes travelling to the people on the ground, unconscious and trapped beneath the lingering mist of shadow.

"I've got it. You should get in there before someone notices you're gone." Valkyrie moves to the nearest attacker and pulls the mask off.

"I...I know her," Omen says when he refuses to go inside. "She's a student here."

"Oh good," Valkyrie mumbles. She moves on to the next three and, as Omen lists off their names, she winces. "Looks like your friends take curfew pretty seriously."

"They're part of this group," he says slowly, brows furrowing. "The Arcanum's Scholars. I don't know what they'd be doing out here right now."

Valkyrie, for the first time in a long time, doesn't know what to do. She grabs her phone and calls the only person she can. "Skulduggery, we're fine, but we were attacked outside the Academy. There are four of them, all incapacitated, and they're all students at the Academy."

"Students attacked you?"

"Yes, and I don't know what to do. They've seen Omen's face; for all we know, he's the one they were waiting for."

"We can't let him back into the school," Skulduggery agrees. He is silent for a moment before asking, "Are you hurt?"

"We're fine. What do I do?"

"Stay there - I'll have Fletcher come to pick up Omen, but you wait for me. I'll get the Bentley, and we can cart the students to the Sanctuary. This is their jurisdiction unless you can prove otherwise?"

"I can't," Valkyrie winces. The last place she wants to go to is the Sanctuary. "There are four - bring some shackles. I'm keeping them pinned, but I'm exhausted."

"I'll be there."

Skulduggery hangs up, and Valkyrie returns her phone to her pyjama pocket. "Fletcher's going to take you back to the house. You and Never are going to stay there until we can figure out what all of this is about."

Fletcher appears before Omen can ask any questions. He takes one look at Valkyrie and flinches. "Oh God, you are not going to be happy when you see yourself."

Valkyrie can still smell the burnt hair in the back of her nose; she's quite aware she's not going to like what she sees. "Get him out of here," she says; Fletcher nods, handing over shackles that Skulduggery no-doubt shoved in his hands.

Fletcher and Omen disappear, and Valkyrie takes a slow breath. She binds the attackers, releases the shadows, and then leans against the cold wall of the Academy. Her eyes struggle to stay open. The nick on her belly is wetting her ruined sweater, the tiny scrape bleeding profusely.

"Thanks for the assist," she says aloud.

"Anytime, precious," Darquesse replies, but there's something else in her tone, something guarded.

When Skulduggery arrives, he comes to her before checking the unconscious students. One hand goes to her arm, and the other hesitates over the burnt collar of her shirt, the no-doubt ragged half of her hair.

Valkyrie is too tired. She sags into Skulduggery's arms; he holds her, letting her close her eyes. "Tell me," he says. And, with stilted breath and her face pressing into his lapel, she does.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

"I have to admit that I didn't expect our coffee date to pan out like this," Militsa murmurs through a grin, grabbing another section of Valkyrie's hair and trimming it to an even length.

"Sorry," Valkyrie murmurs again, offering Militsa a smile the woman is too focused to see.

"No, not at all," the redhead laughs, tugging her hair gently, affectionately. "I'm just surprised you trust me with such a monumentous task."

"It's just hair. It grows back."

"Hmm, I suppose. I always find hair to be a magical thing, something intimate. A source of power, even."

Valkyrie glances up but can only see Militsa's arm from her angle. "A little biblical for my tastes."

"I suppose it is a bit biblical," Militsa agrees with a soft chuckle. She pulls back and lowers herself to a crouch, eyes glancing from left to right, making sure the sides are even. She makes a small adjustment and then grins. "Gorgeous."

Valkyrie takes the mirror Militsa hands over, twisting her head to-and-fro to see. It's short, much shorter than Valkyrie is comfortable with. It doesn't look bad, though, so she isn't too upset. She shakes her head a little and watches the rakish bob flutter just below her chin.

"Thanks," she says, feeling her chest gladden a bit. She hasn't had short hair in so long that her face looks strange to her, but her head feels lighter, so she'll take it as a win.

"About that coffee?" Militsa asks while she sweeps up the hair on her kitchen tile.

"That'd be grand, actually," Valkyrie agrees, removing the towel from her shoulders and carefully wrapping it up, loose hair inside. She places it on the floor, not sure what else to do, and returns the chair to the small bistro set.

Valkyrie watches Militsa move around the kitchen before realising she's staring. She glances around for somewhere to sit, but her options are limited in the studio. There's a nicely made bed, the comforter a plush black, and a bistro table. Valkyrie sits on the edge of the bed, leaning back. "How long have you been teaching?"

"Oh, this is my second year," she offers, smiling. "I moved here about two years back. Roarhaven is much nicer than our Scottish community - prettier. It gleams."

"It's a little over the top," Valkyrie shrugs.

"I find it gorgeous." Militsa finishes with the coffee maker and comes to stand in front of Valkyrie. "I find a lot of things gorgeous here."

The line is obvious, and it makes Valkyrie laugh. But the laugh stammers and Valkyrie catches the scent of Militsa's perfume. She wasn't wearing it a moment ago; Valkyrie blinks back confusion, eyes rising to Militsa's. She wants to ask what scent Militsa is wearing, but all she can manage is, "I'm a snack, yes."

Militsa hikes up her robe to lower herself to Valkyrie's lap, wrapping her arms around her neck. "What happened to your hair, by the way?"

Valkyrie opens her mouth and closes it. Something's very wrong. "I was attacked."

"By who?"

"Some...some kids outside of the Academy."

Militsa's lips meet Valkyrie's, and Valkyrie is having a hard time focusing on anything else.

She loses time until the coffee maker trumpets a shrill note and Valkyrie jumps back into her skin. She's on the bed with Militsa, and Valkyrie isn't wearing her shirt. "I-I need to go," Valkyrie manages to bite out, tearing herself from Militsa's grip and hurrying into her shirt and jacket. "Sorry, I -- I need to get to a case. Murder case."

She's out the door and slamming it behind her before she can fall for Militsa's saddened face. Valkyrie nearly knocks Militsa's neighbour over in her haste to get down the stairs and into her car.

 


 

"We can't trust her," Darquesse says for what has to be the fourth time since meeting Militsa Gnosis.

"I'm getting that impression, yes," Valkyrie pants, lowering into an exhausted crouch on the cavern floor. The monster at her feet is a bulbous thing, rent in two by a tendril and leaking fluid.

"We should do some research."

"Research is boring. Research is homework, and I haven't done that in well over a decade."

"Your Reflection did, though, and isn't that the same thing?"

Valkyrie snorts and gets to her feet when she hears scuttling of little legs coming toward her. "I think we come down here too much. We're not giving the cave enough time to grow some decent monsters."

"Maybe we should go deeper, then?" Darquesse suggests.

"Or maybe we should stop relying on the cave to appease your temper? Practice mental training like Wreath thinks we do?"

Darquesse grumbles and curls around Valkyrie's consciousness, just as the tendril from her ring curls around her finger. Valkyrie sways her hand and pushes against the air - the tendril becomes slender, snaking across the cavern floor and impaling all of the scurrying shadows coming toward them.

Valkyrie turns and heads toward the tunnel leading back into the house. The anxious energy in her hands is fading, and Darquesse is languid again.

Valkyrie makes it to the kitchen before Darquesse bristles. "Someone's here."

"What?"

"Foyer."

When Valkyrie walks in, cautious, she finds a woman waiting for her.

"You must be Stephanie Edgley," the woman says, her smile slow and lazy. She's the cat that ate the canary personified. "I just began reading your late uncle's work. He wrote some amazing pieces - some are rather accurate, even."

Valkyrie narrows her eyes at the silver-haired woman; Darquesse's interest piques. "Who are you?"

"Just a fan," she shrugs, glancing around the walls. Her eyes fall to the re-hung pictures. "This is your sister, correct? Stunning girl," the woman says, stepping toward the frame of Valkyrie and Alice after playing football in the park this summer. "You two look rather different, don't you? Strange."

"Can I help you with something?" Valkyrie tries, clenching her fist to keep the tendril at bay.

"No, I just wanted to see the house where the magic happens," she grins, wiggling fingers tipped with very long, very red nails. "I heard a lot of things about this estate. It seems as lovely as claimed."

"And who told you about the estate?"

"I am an excellent listener. Some say I can hear anything said in the twilight," she chuckles; the sound is kind, but Valkyrie still doesn't trust it. "I didn't mean to intrude on you so long, Arbiter."

Valkyrie's body goes cold, and Darquesse tries to flood forward, seeming excited about another toy in her home. Valkyrie blinks her back and clears her throat. "What did you say your name was?"

"Give Lord Vile my best."

And then she is gone, disappearing into thin air.

"What the fuck?" Valkyrie asks the air. The air doesn't respond, but Darquesse does.

"I think we need to have a little tete-a-tete with your partner, Val."

 


 

Abyssinia sits on a wobbly stool, the only seat she could find in the ruined place. She crosses her feet at the ankles and watches Eliza Scorn. She's seen better days, of that Abyssinia knows. However, the blood and terror seems an improvement to the drab rags she is parading around in nowadays.

"Why the fanatical order of potato-sack people?" she asks.

Eliza coughs and another dribble of bloody drool leaks from the corner of her mouth. "We worship the Faceless Ones."

"Exactly. Fanatical order of potato-sack people."

Eliza narrows her eyes; Abyssinia sighs and presses the little button beside her. The table Eliza is strapped to slides a little further toward the spinning blade whirring between her feet. "You're a traitor to your own kind," Eliza finally snaps.

Abyssinia releases the button and Eliza comes to a standstill. The buzzsaw continues to yell, uncaring to the fact that there's a human being on the conveyor, not a log. "Eliza, you do realise that, if you were to succeed in bringing the Faceless Ones back, they would kill all of you. I, at least, am a little more merciful."

Eliza laughs, and the laugh rattles the bones of her ribs, the ones Abyssinia delighted in slamming over and over with her bare fist. The redhead coughs more blood; her lungs rattle wetly.

"I will not kill all of you," Abyssinia reminds her.

"Death is better than servitude."

Abyssinia rolls her eyes and looks up at the rafters. She'd rather not be mucking about in a dingy mill long-since abandoned, and yet Eliza has given her no choice. "Who else is involved in this?"

"No one."

Abyssinia presses down on the button. Eliza shrieks when the blade gets past her knees, slowly ascending. "Sierra Mettle at the Academy!"

Abyssinia lets up on the button. "And?"

"Thurid Guild in the Sanctuary."

"And China Sorrows?" Abyssinia presses.

"No. We're blackmailing her, getting details about the Arbiters."

Abyssinia's head is swimming with information. "What do the Arbiters have to do with the Faceless Ones?" Eliza doesn't say anything, and Abyssinia sighs. "Are you going to make me press this button every two questions? My finger is getting tired, and I am getting bored."

"They aren't. Not directly. China claims they have a book we need, that is all."

"A book?" Abyssinia repeats. "How about we pretend for one moment that your life depends on you answering my questions without making me ask more. Yes?" She presses the button to get her point across. She stops it when it's near the apex of Eliza's legs.

"China wants a book, something that can split souls from bodies, bring out the essence. China says the Arbiters might know where to look."

"A book that splits souls from bodies," Abyssinia repeats, her smile widening. Excellent. "Why would you want this book?" But she stops herself, eyes widening. "The Grotesquerie. You are trying to use the book to take whatever maligned thing is left in that dead Faceless One - do not bother answering, I understand now."

Abyssinia paces for a time before nodding. "Alright, Eliza, you have given me something else to consider before I lay waste to this hellish isle. But, now I need to ask you about something else." She presses a finger to the button, a quick flick, and Eliza screams when the blade cuts further up her dress, nicking her sex.

"What do you know about the day Lord Vile died?"

 


 

Valkyrie doesn't want to leave the house after her astral-projected visitor, but Ghastly has reminded her - gently and quite politely via text - that her clothing is ready for her. She can't keep blowing him off since it seems she's running into trouble daily now.

Valkyrie waits to leave until Omen and Never are back from their market run. "Omen, try to puzzle out some protection sigils against Sensitives if you can."

Omen flushes. "Um...I kinda forgot my carving knife at school. Where I can't go."

Never rolls her eyes. "We're on it, Valkyrie. He'll use a butter knife if he has to."

"A butter knife? That'd take ages!" Omen groans.

Valkyrie leaves them in charge of the house, really wishing she had a ferocious-sounding watchdog.

When Valkyrie enters Ghastly's store, she's surprised to find him with a customer. He dismisses them quickly after taking their measurements - by measuring tape, so Valkyrie assumes that they're mortal. She waits, walking through the cloth bolts and touching the occasional one.

The man leaves and Ghastly comes to meet Valkyrie, smiling warmly. "Valkyrie - Skulduggery says you've run into a handful of trouble since last we met."

"That I did. I got to see the bones in my hand, and then I also lost my favourite sweater when the shoulder caught fire. Worst of all, I lost some of my hair." She shakes her head a little to get her point across. She's done the motion more times in the past day than she has in her entire life.

"You're well enough to joke, so I suppose I won't scold Skulduggery so much. He still shouldn't have sent you out without protective clothing." He hands her clothes over to her and motions to a small back room. "Try them on; let's see how they look."

The trousers are thin and tight, but they move with her effortlessly. The tank is breathable, and the leather jacket looks like her own, but with a smorgasbord of pockets lining the inside of it.

"This is amazing," Valkyrie says, coming out to the shop and twirling for Ghastly.

He analyses the stitches and the fit before nodding. "One last test." He stabs a sewing needle into her leg, but it crumples when it meets the cloth.

"Jesus," Valkyrie snips, stepping back. "You could have warned me."

"It's a fun trick the first time I outfit someone," he shrugs, getting to his feet. "I have some boots for you, too."

When Valkyrie shoves her feet into them, she lets out a soft sigh. "It's like they're not even there."

"I can even make heeled boots that feel like that, mind you."

Valkyrie makes a face. "Not my thing, to be honest." She stomps her foot as if to make a point, but there is no noise when she does so. "Holy shit," she says, eyes wide.

"Quite."

She turns a little grin to Ghastly. "You're amazing. This is amazing. How much do-"

"Skulduggery already paid," Ghastly says with a faint smile. "He said the first one was on him."

Valkyrie nods and looks down at her new clothes, twisting to feel how it moves with her, a second skin. She begins to say "thank you so much," but it turns into, "Do you know anything about a silver-haired woman? Knows Skulduggery?"

"Silver-haired?" he repeats, scarred brow furrowing.

"Yeah, long silver hair. Tall, gorgeous, curves like no one's business."

Ghastly's eyes narrow a little further, but he shakes his head. "No, not that I'm aware of; not with Skulduggery, anyway. There used to be a woman who matched that description, but she was Lord Vile's lover. Until he killed her, that is."

Valkyrie's eyes widen, but she catches herself before she can say anything. "Oh. Um. Okay. Thanks, Ghastly." She grabs her old clothes and trainers, getting out of the shop as quickly as she can.

Valkyrie drives across the street and pulls into a vacant lot to catch her breath. "Shit," she says out loud. "Ghastly doesn't know Vile is Skulduggery."

Darquesse, amused, murmurs, "I guess we need to have that chat with your skeleton sooner than later, wouldn't you say?"

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Valkyrie practices her breathing before entering the study. Skulduggery is there, scanning through a tome while Gordon - not bothering to hide anymore - looks over his shoulder.

"Hey," Valkyrie says from the doorway, leaning against the jamb. "It's Sunday."

Skulduggery glances up at her. "So it is. Off to the famous Edgley dinner?"

"Yeah," Valkyrie begins, but Gordon looks confused.

"I thought your parents and Alice are on a train back from Inishmore?"

Valkyrie tries to keep herself from glaring. "No, that's next week." She turns her attention back to Skulduggery, offering him a half-smile. "Want to come with me?"

Skulduggery stays very still, and so does Valkyrie. The air around them is tense, and Gordon seems to sense it. "Sorry to interrupt this riveting staring contest," he says slowly, "but I am positive you said their trip was this week."

Skulduggery gets to his feet and closes the book - Gordon groans, hands uselessly trying to stop the book from shutting. "Of course, so long as I'm not banned anymore."

"Banned?" Gordon asks.

Valkyrie ignores him. "You were never banned from Sunday dinner."

"So you lied to me before?"

"Why does Skulduggery go to Sunday dinner?" Gordon asks, desperately wanting to know the gossip.

"Yes, I lied because things were weird. And now things are still weird, but it's manageable, and I miss having time to ourselves, so...dinner?"

"Why have I never been invited to Sunday dinner?" Gordon asks.

Valkyrie turns and heads down the stairs. Skulduggery follows her, facade rising and hat covering the short, dusky hair screening the dark scalp. Valkyrie gets behind the wheel of her car and Skulduggery, never pleased to ride in the rattling orange vehicle, grumbles when he folds himself into it.

"You have endless amounts of money, and yet you refuse to buy a nice car."

"This car is nice," she insists even though the gears grind when she shifts, even as the heater blows cold for the first five minutes.

"Think of the leg space."

"I like my leg space."

"Then consider my leg space."

"I was thinking of getting something a little sportier," she admits. "Maybe a motorbike like Tanith's. You rode on Perdita once, didn't you?"

"I did. It was appalling."

Valkyrie glances over at him and smiles. "Well, would you rather I find Perdita a sister or are you fine with your leg space in here?"

"You are a ruthless woman, Valkyrie Cain."

"And you're a goon, Skulduggery Pleasant, but I don't hold that against you."

When they reach the house, it's dark and quiet inside. Valkyrie flips the light switch, and the living room fills with a warm glow. She turns and waits for Skulduggery to realise the trap.

"No one is here," he observes.

"Yeah. They're on a train."

"Is this where you confess you've been getting close to me so you can kill me and take my skull to China?"

"Would China even want your skull?"

"Doubtful," he admits. "I'd imagine I'd make a lovely centrepiece on a shrine somewhere, though."

Valkyrie snorts and sits on the couch; she doesn't relax into the cushions though, angling herself toward Skulduggery when he chooses a chair to sit in. "We need to talk, and I thought it might be better if we did it in private."

Skulduggery's facade is watching her with concern, but he flicks the skin away, and she's left looking into his eye sockets. He knows she prefers talking to him over a false figure, and she appreciates that she doesn't need to ask anymore.

"There are a few things, and I'm not quite sure where to start. I guess by saying, I think I have a stalker and she might be using some kind of love charm when I'm around."

Skulduggery laughs, but when Valkyrie doesn't react, he sobers. "Apologies; I was sure you were joking."

"Why would I joke about having a stalker? Especially a stalker who somehow makes my memory go fuzzy when I'm around her?"

"Who is this stalker?"

"A professor at the Academy. Militsa Gnosis - she's a Necromancer."

"Of course it's a Necromancer." Valkyrie raises a brow at him, reminding him of her stint in the Temple. He nods his understanding, only to add, "They're not known to be a trustworthy bunch."

Valkyrie glances at the carpet under her feet. "I'm not sure what she's doing or if I'm weird, but I lose my senses around her. She has this scent, something floral but slightly sickly underneath. And then I get dizzy, I black out, and..." she trails off, shaking her head.

Skulduggery doesn't say anything for a while, thinking. Finally, he murmurs, "I can contact China. She can reverse-engineer it based on your symptoms."

"China hates us."

"But she loves information. If a professor is using her station to make illegal charms, then China will delight in the details." When Valkyrie doesn't continue, he presses, "And the next topic?"

Valkyrie tries to decide which to lead with. She settles on, "Ghastly doesn't know that you're Lord Vile."

Skulduggery stands and abruptly walks to the kitchen, out the back door, and through the garden. Alarmed, Valkyrie gets to her feet and goes after him. He's standing in the darkening twilight, eyeless gaze staring toward the pier, the shore.

"How did this come up?" he asks softly.

Valkyrie glances around. There is nothing but silence and soft street-light, but her arms prickle with unease. "I asked him a question, and he mentioned Lord Vile. He didn't seem to make a connection between you and Vile, and that made me think a little. And then do some digging."

"Digging."

"Lord Vile killed Ghastly's mother."

Skulduggery turns to her so sharply and suddenly that Valkyrie half expects him to strike her. But he doesn't; he merely fixes her in place with his heavy stare. "Why did you mention Lord Vile to Ghastly?"

"Can we go inside?" she asks softly. She knows no one else can hear them, but she feels as if someone is watching. "Please?"

Skulduggery gives the barest of nods and Valkyrie retreats inside, Skulduggery following. Valkyrie shuts and locks the door behind them, fighting back a chill as she does. When she turns, Skulduggery hasn't moved, blocking her way.

"Someone came by the house," Valkyrie begins. "A woman. She asked me to give Vile her regards." Before Skulduggery can ask, she continues, "Long silver hair."

Skulduggery laughs. The sound startles Valkyrie enough that her shoulder tense. She isn't sure if she's heard this laugh before, and certainly not from Skulduggery. It is an ironic one, one filled with bitterness and the sickest kind of amusement.

When he stops laughing, he strides into the living room and sits on the couch. Valkyrie loiters on the other side of the coffee table, waiting, her palms beginning to prickle with sweat. She hasn't anticipated this level of change - not from Skulduggery.

"Her name is Abyssinia," Skulduggery says finally, leaning back on the couch cushions as if he doesn't have a single care. "She's descended from the last of the Faceless Ones. And she's also my ex."

It's Valkyrie's turn to laugh, and hers is rueful. "Oh, good. I thought one of the perks of working with a centuries-old partner was that women wouldn't show up and threaten me in my own home."

"She threatened you?"

"Not...not really. Other than knowing my name is Stephanie and that I'm an Arbiter, I guess she wasn't that bad."

"I do not doubt that she was horrible," Skulduggery murmurs. "She doesn't bother popping in on anyone unless she feels like she can scare or kill them."

"Can she kill me?"

"Oh, yes. Abyssinia can kill anyone she sets her mind to."

"Perfect," Valkyrie nods, toes curling in her boots. "Well, I guess I'm lucky she wasn't hungry enough to eat me."

"Ironically enough, she does steal the lifeforce from her enemies. And enter their minds. Which of those is worse is heavily debated."

"You really know how to pick women."

"I appreciate a level of danger in my life," he admits. When Valkyrie continues to stand, arms crossed, he reaches out to her. She tries to keep herself from caving, but she can't refuse him. Valkyrie sits on the couch beside him. "Are you alright?" he asks sincerely.

"I'm fine," she says, but it becomes, "I don't know how you've complicated my life ten-fold, Skulduggery, but you have."

"Should I apologise, then? I don't make a habit of doing so, but I feel this situation might warrant one."

"Don't apologise, you idiot. It's amazing, and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but - seriously? Your ex? I didn't expect to have someone fighting me for your attention."

"I am quite the catch," he shrugs, but he continues, "If she's back, she's more than likely trying to kill me. I...might have run her through with a sword and then thrown her out of a tower. And then hunted her down after discovering she hadn't died. And then we dismembered her, cut her heart from her chest, and sealed it away."

"Well then."

"It was all very dramatic. She trusted Vile, which was her first mistake. She told Vile that she planned to kill Mevolent, and Vile...changed the course of things, I suppose you could say."

"Wait - you stopped her from killing Mevolent? Doesn't that...doesn't that make her the good guy?"

"Lord Vile killed her. And no, she was not, as you say, a good guy - she had immense love and kindness for those she held dear, but for the rest of the world? She planned - still plans, I'm sure - to rule over everything, sorcerers and mortals alike. But, somehow, Lord Vile loved her...as much as he could. Not enough to keep her alive, but..."

"Wow," Valkyrie breathes. "I can't believe I'm about to say this aloud, but you lead the most surprising life."

"I'd be shocked if that wasn't already the case."

"Yes, well, you keep adding layers and layers of mystery around yourself instead of taking them off. It's like you're trying to keep me on my toes or something."

"You're inquisitive, desperately in need of diversions, and I aim to please."

Valkyrie smiles at him, and his hand finds hers. She wants to pull away, but she leans in a bit, resting her head on his shoulder. Darquesse huffs when Valkyrie doesn't attempt a kiss, but remains quiet, not restless enough to test her tethers yet.

Skulduggery breaks the silence. "I do not know how to tell Ghastly. I don't even know if I should."

"If she can show up at my house, what's to stop her from calling on Ghastly?"

"Nothing."

Valkyrie gets rattled after a minute of silence. She's nearly pulling her hair out after three. She abruptly stands, unravelling her fingers from Skulduggery's, and goes to the speaker system Alice got for Christmas. She docks her phone and sets a playlist, one she put together for their rides in the Bentley. Most of them are old favourites of Skulduggery's, but it's peppered with some of her softer choices.

When the music is loud enough for her, Valkyrie reaches her hand out to Skulduggery. "Dance?"

Skulduggery raises to his feet, and a buffet of wind pushes the coffee table out of the way. He takes her right hand in his left, the leather gloves soft and familiar around hers. His right finds her waist and pulls her in closer than standard. Valkyrie looks up at him but doesn't protest, waiting.

He leads so well that Valkyrie can manage to put little effort into thinking about her feet. She's usually uncoordinated, but Skulduggery has had enough practice for the both of them. He limits the spins, given the tight quarters, but Valkyrie doesn't mind; she settles her cheek against his shoulder and lets herself relax.

The song ends, but he doesn't let her go. She tries not to read into things, but his grip on her waist tightens and pulls her in until they're flush together.

"Skulduggery," she begins softly, unsure what she wants to say, what she can say.

"I've missed this," he says.

"Me, too," Valkyrie murmurs; she isn't sure what this means, but she knows she agrees.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Wreath is gathering his things, planning on a long evening in the Temple library researching sigils for Valkyrie, when Melancholia stumbles into the house's foyer, crying out, "Solomon!"

He goes to her; she doesn't look wounded, but her eyelids are red, and her eyes are wet. She looks as if she is close to a breakdown, and her knees give out when Wreath joins her. "What happened?" he asks, brushing the blonde hair back from her face, searching her eyes for some clue.

"I don't know what's going on," she whispers, voice hoarse. "I keep losing time. I wake up in places I wasn't, and I don't know where the day has gone. My magic keeps working against me. I keep -- Solomon, I think I'm going mad."

Wreath helps her to her feet and leads her to the living room, settling her on the couch. She sits, picking at her cuticles and staring at the wall, refusing to blink.

"I'll be right back," he murmurs and leaves her only long enough to get a glass of water. When he brings it to her, Melancholia drinks it in three long gulps. She spills some on her robes, her shaking hands sloshing the liquid to the corners of her mouth, but she doesn't seem to notice.

"What's happened?" he asks softly, taking the glass from her and covering her hands with his. They're like ice; the skin under her fingernails is blue, and her palms are too pale. There's an odd nodule on her wrist, a small bump.

"I don't know," she whispers, shaking her head. "I-I think I'm losing my mind."

"When did it begin?" he presses softly. When Melancholia doesn't react, he squeezes her hands; she jolts. "When did you begin losing time?"

"I don't know, I don't -- I've gotten close to Mettle, but she's normal, there's nothing... But I...I don't know. I don't know."

Wreath wracks his brain for a moment. "We need to find a Sensitive. We need to see what's happening, and you're staying in the Temple until we do." He pauses, thinking. "Valkyrie and Omen were also attacked outside of the Academy a few nights ago by four masked students. Does that sound familiar?"

Melancholia shakes her head, looking far-off.

The front door opening makes Melancholia flinch, recoiling into the couch. "Valkyrie?" Wreath calls out, holding Melancholia's wrist to keep her from bolting.

Valkyrie enters the living room, a flaxen-haired girl following her. Alice - and it can only be Alice, given the number of pictures Valkyrie has of her through the house - looks at the pair of them with interest; Valkyrie looks at them with annoyance.

"I told you guys I needed the house tonight," she says, but she trails off when she realises Melancholia is staring at her, wide-eyed in terror. "What -- Alice, go into the kitchen and start homework."

"Is this some weird magic thing I can't hear?" she asks.

"Probably - go do your homework."

Alice groans and slips through the archway and toward the kitchen.

Wreath tells Valkyrie the limited bit he knows, Melancholia stares at the wall, and Valkyrie rubs her forehead.

"Okay," Valkyrie murmurs, trying to focus. "Okay, so, we need a Sensitive to find out what's happening, but there are barely any Sensitives left. The few that are are probably in hiding. That means we need to reach out to China to use hers, but China hates us and can't know we're doing our own side-projects that involves her damned book."

"Correct," Wreath murmurs.

"I might be able to help," a voice says from the hallway, just around the corner.

Valkyrie's shoulders tighten. "Alice, go do your homework."

"I can help," she insists, coming into the living room from where she was eavesdropping. "I know I can. I see things sometimes. I've seen lots of things, and sometimes they happen."

Valkyrie turns to her sister, brow furrowing. "What did you say?"

Alice lets out an annoyed huff of air. "I have dreams sometimes, I hear things sometimes, and sometimes I see things. I touch things, and sometimes I can see other things."

Wreath can see Valkyrie's scepticism and then watches as it slowly morphs into understanding. "That's why you don't touch people anymore," she says softly.

"Valkyrie," Wreath murmurs, "what's the harm in letting her try?"

"What's the-" Valkyrie can't even finish her sentence before snapping, "The harm is that she's ten bloody years old, Solomon. She's my sister, and we're in the middle of more bullshit than even I can handle. I can't-"

"I can do it!" Alice insists, coming closer to meet Valkyrie's dark eyes with her blues. "Steph, I know you're trying to protect me-"

"Alice, please."

"-but I've had this thing for years, and when Mum and Dad started to suspect, they got scared. So scared. So I lied to them, and I kept it from you, and I practised. I've gotten pretty good!"

Wreath straightens a bit but doesn't release Melonchalia's hands. "You have no training?"

"...No. But that doesn't mean I can't help; just let me try, Stephanie. Please?"

"I can't," Valkyrie whispers, imploring, turning her gaze between Wreath and Alice. "I can't let you -- Mum and Dad will kill me. God, I'll kill me if something happens-"

"Valkyrie," Melancholia says, voice rattling from between her lips. "Valkyrie, please. Please?"

Valkyrie swallows and closes her eyes. Wreath can practically see her counting to ten in her mind. Wreath's eyes find Alice's, and he nods. Alice steps toward Melancholia but hesitates. "Steph?" she asks.

"Go ahead," Valkyrie murmurs, but she keeps her eyes closed, cast away.

Alice places a hand on Melancholia's arm; the Necromancer flinches, but Alice doesn't move, concentrating. They wait, the seconds turning to minutes, and then Alice lets out a breath. "I can't. I'm sorry."

Valkyrie sighs, and it sounds like relief. "Oh thank God."

"Wait," Melancholia breathes, and then reaches out to take Alice's hand. The girl doesn't pull away or show any signs of discomfort, so Melancholia carefully places Alice's hand above her wrist. Right on top of the swollen node.

It happens quickly, almost too swiftly for Wreath to follow. Alice's eyes roll back, and she seizes, hand tightening around Melancholia's wrist and causing the woman to yelp in pain. Valkyrie shouts and reaches for Alice, but Wreath stops her, pinning her arms.

"Don't touch her," he tells Valkyrie who is still trying to wiggle free, to reach her sister.

"Wreath, stop it," Valkyrie begs him. "Wreath, get her away!"

Alice screams, and then Alice buckles. Valkyrie grabs her before she can dash her head on the floor; the eldest Edgley daughter's eyes flash and glow. "Get out," she snaps in a voice that isn't her own.

Wreath drags Melancholia out of the living room, out of the house, and into his car.

 


 

Skulduggery sits outside of a trendy, boozy stretch of shops near Temple Bar, waiting. He acquires some looks - it's probably strange to see a well-dressed man sitting alone, drinking nothing, eating nothing - but he keeps his gaze fixed to the north.

He can feel her presence before she comes into view. It makes his blood sing. It calls to Vile, and Vile seethes.

"Lord Vile," she says, suddenly beside him, her breath smoothing across his false chin, her lips pressing against his cheek. "I suppose it is Skulduggery Pleasant again, though."

"Abyssinia," he greets, forcing a smile that probably looks convincing. "It has been a while. How are your ribs?"

"Oh, they have had centuries to heal," she shrugs, nonchalant as she takes a seat across from him. She's more colourful than he remembers - icy-eyed and red-lipped. "The heart, however. The heart has never stitched itself up fully."

"You know, that dreadful creature Nye is still around," he offers. "It's supposedly pretty good at stitching things back together."

She laughs, and the sound is charming, just like the faint crinkle at the corner of her eyes when she smiles. "It's not something a creature can fix, Skulduggery. It requires blood. Suffering. Dominion."

"Speaking of your heart," Skulduggery continues, regarding her. Vile noiselessly fumes at the sight of her, but he is curious enough to let the conversation continue, to wait. "How did you retrieve it?"

"I'm not the type to wax poetic about my intelligence. You know that."

"For old time's sake, then?"

Abyssinia smirks, and it sends a pang through Skulduggery. It's akin to Valkyrie's smirk, minus the dimple. That similarity is one of the first things that drew him to Valkyrie, a moth to the ghost of a flame. "I have friends in high places. Friends with other friends who work in even higher places, places that can move, places that hide the worst of the worst."

"That's all? Your intelligence relied on fanatics wanting to bring you back?"

Abyssinia shrugs. "Isn't that how these things go? Dead things cannot come back unless living things manipulate the balance."

Skulduggery glances beyond her, watching a gaggle of mortal students pass by, tipsy and jovial, oblivious. "So, what's the plan? World domination?"

"It is my birthright."

"If you believe in that kind of thing."

Abyssinia lets out a little breath - it filters through the cold air, disappearing into the coming fog. "It's on the docket, but I've found a few other things I'm curious to solve before taking the Darklands back. For one - I want Lord Vile."

"He's dead."

"He is mostly separate from you, perhaps, but it doesn't take much to reunite the both of you. Especially when you have places to look."

"We will stop you."

"Oh?" she chuckles. "I know you will try - you and the new pet of yours. She is pretty, I will give you that. A little young, though, is she not?" Skulduggery doesn't answer, so Abyssinia leans toward him, a long fingernail gliding along his pant leg, wandering upward. "A little daft, too - living between her mortal life and her magical one? I can imagine that opens her up to a lot of vexations. Can you imagine how hard it must be to protect her parents? And that talented little sister?"

"It's getting a little late, and I'm sure you still need those fourteen hours of beauty sleep," Skulduggery begins, moving his leg out from under her hand. It takes all of his control, but he's able to fight her now. It's something. "Are you planning on actually threatening us, or are you just trying to panic my partner?"

"Either way. I was gone a while; it is strange how time makes you miss the small things. The intensity of it all. However, since you are probably anxious to get back to your domestic life, I will cut to the threats."

She stands and leans down, her lips against his ear. "I will find that fun little book, and I will use it to remind you of how wonderful things used to be. And then, when you're so weak, so defeated that you don't think you can hurt anymore...I will burn everything you love right in front of you. I will burn everything you care about until there is only our family and our kingdom."

She leaves, and Skulduggery lets her, clenching his jaw and trying to think of a way out.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

When Omen reaches Valkyrie's house, he finds her pacing the second floor's landing, running a hand through her short hair. "Omen!" she snaps when she sees him. Omen recoils slightly and wonders if he can outrun the woman. There isn't a chance, he decides, and the fear leaves him when she continues, "Thank God. My sister's unconscious, and she isn't waking up. Did you put down those Sensitive wards?"

"I - y-yeah, I mean, you asked me to, so-"

"Break them," she says. "Break them all." And then she's heading toward her bedroom.

Omen goes into the kitchen, looking for the penknife Never got for him. He can't find it, so he searches his backpack. It isn't there - of course it isn't, he reminds himself; he hasn't been back to school in days.

He settles on a steak knife, tearing through the bottom floor and breaking the sigils, reworking the language. The five by the doors are gone, the three under the windows in the front destroyed, and then Valkyrie shouts, "Omen! Are you done yet?"

Omen hurries to the others before dropping the knife on the kitchen counter and running up the steps. Valkyrie's bedroom door is open, so he pushes through.

There's a girl on the bed, stirring. She looks around the room, but Valkyrie pulls her into a fierce hug. "What happened?" The girl blinks blearily, and her eyes land on him with confusion. "Um. Who are you?"

Valkyrie glances over her shoulder at Omen and lets out a sigh. "Sorry, Alice, the house is warded against Sensitives. I completely forgot...and kind of figured Omen did, too."

"Ouch," Omen breathes from the doorway.

Valkyrie pulls away from Alice. "Did you see anything?"

"Only vague things, and only a snippet. And then everything hurt. And then I woke up."

"Sorry," Omen mumbles. The sisters either don't hear him or they ignore him.

"I saw a room, like a classroom. There were maps and scrolls, and something about...I don't know, something on the wall. Something dark. And a woman - short brown hair, a scar on her temple."

"That's one of our professors," Omen says quickly, brow furrowing. "I see her all the time - saw her, I guess. Since I don't go there anymore?"

"Omen, focus," Valkyrie snaps. Alice is also staring at him, her gaze as intense as Valkyrie's.

"Sorry, sorry, um...I can't remember what she teaches, but it's something weird. Religion something -- I don't know, I've never taken it. Or know anyone who..." he trails off, furrowing his brows. "The Arcanum's Scholars, those masked kids. They all take her class."

"The boys who attacked us, the ones in the Sanctuary cells...they're involved in this teacher's class, and this teacher is trying to mess with Melancholia."

"But why?" Omen asks. "It doesn't -- I mean, it doesn't make much sense, does it? We aren't even openly aligned with Melancholia, are we?"

"Not that I am aware of," Valkyrie murmurs.

"Well, they're either working together, or you pissed off a lot of people," Alice says, sounding bewildered at their confusion. "A whole lot."

Valkyrie snorts, and the snort turns into a wry laugh. "Oh, Alice. Sweet, innocent Alice. There are a handful of people who like us, and then there's everyone else."

Alice rolls her eyes. "You're so dramatic." She gets to her feet and wipes her palm, the one that had been on Melonchalia's wrist, on her jeans. "Okay, we're going to the school, right?"

"We?" Omen and Valkyrie say at the same time. Omen's is followed up with, "I almost died the last time I went there!" and Valkyrie's becomes, "You are not getting anywhere near this."

"You said that about letting me help before," Alice points out. "And then you let me, and I helped."

Valkyrie shakes her head, standing firm. "You are going to stay here with Omen and do that French homework. I am going to talk to a friend at the Academy, and then I am going to come back home and make plans with Skulduggery. After that, we are going to have dinner like a normal family, and then we watch a movie and go to bed. Ca va?"

"Peu importe."

"Good enough. Oh, and think of a taken name, by the way. Something cool that you won't hate in a few hundred years." And with a quick goodbye, Valkyrie is out the door and driving away.

Omen bites the inside of his cheek, raising a brow at Alice. He's finally on Valkyrie's good side, and now she has an equally sharp little sister to impress. "So, uh. I don't know French, so I can't help you there. And I'm kind of rubbish at names, too, so..."

Alice blinks at him. "Who are you?"

"Ouch," Omen breathes.

 


 

Valkyrie tries to find Fletcher first, only then remembering that he and Skulduggery are spending the day training Never. If there's one thing she doesn't want to do, it's taking training time away from Never.

Cursing, she goes to the only other person she can speak to.

Militsa is both surprised and thrilled when Valkyrie comes into her office. "Valkyrie! I kind of figured I'd have to show up at your door to kidnap you."

Valkyrie opens her mouth and closes it, unsure what to say. "Sorry about the other day; I got out of a weird relationship recently, and I'm still kind of...easily spooked, I guess?"

Militsa smiles and comes to stand by Valkyrie. She reaches around her and closes the door, and then locks it.

Valkyrie raises a brow at her. "Ah, I'm not here for...that. I have a question about one of your colleagues."

"You know," Militsa begins, pressing herself against the door. "She told me she perfected the scent, that it is virtually impossible to break free from; and then there's you. A freak in all regards."

Valkyrie steps back, further into the windowless classroom, and swallows. She can smell it now. The perfume. Floral, with something sickly underneath. "Militsa, you need to let me out of this room."

"Oh, I will," she smiles gently. "But right now, I need to make sure you go under; then I need to bind you, and then I will let you leave. Well, not on your own, of course. That'd be silly."

The scent is overpowering. She tries to call up a shadow, but her ring isn't responding. Valkyrie can't focus enough to call on it, and Darquesse is silent, unreachable.

Valkyrie rummages through the inside of her jacket pocket, fingers fumbling for anything to help. Her fingers brush a small vial of oil Wreath made for her - a protection anointment, or so he called it - but her eyelids are fluttering, and her fingers won't curl.

"It's harder to fight it each time," Militsa murmurs and sighs. "I thought we'd have more time to play before the endgame, but here we are."

Valkyrie gives one last attempt before she can hit the ground - she slams her fist into a desk, flashing shadow from her ring. But it doesn't go anywhere, just arcs up and over her, sparking as it hits the floor.

 


 

When Skulduggery reaches Grimwood, expecting to find Valkyrie and Alice alone with a movie, he finds something very different.

Wreath is on the couch, looking distracted, staring through the spectacle that is Omen and Alice. Omen is crouched down, covering his face with his hands while Alice practices her punches.

"Alice, we need him as healthy and functioning as he can be," Skulduggery chides. "Where is Valkyrie?"

"She went to the Academy to talk to Ms Gnosis," Omen says from behind his arms. Alice stops hitting him, but he doesn't seem to like his chances of it staying that way. "She left me in charge of Alice."

"You mean, she left Alice in charge of you?"

Alice grins. "Guess who's magic?"

Skulduggery is about to ask about Valkyrie's visit to Militsa, but he pauses. "I'm sorry?"

"Alice is a Sensitive," Wreath says from the couch. His voice strains as he adds, "And Melancholia was attacked by a teacher at the school."

Skulduggery isn't sure what to focus on first. "When did Valkyrie leave?"

Omen, finally dropping his defensive position, glances at the clock. "Um...five hours ago? Man, she probably should have been back by now, huh?"

Skulduggery grabs his mobile and tries calling her. No answer. Valkyrie never fails to answer a call of his; except, of course, the time she was being ripped apart by Dr Nye. "Something is wrong," he says and pockets his phone. "I'm going to the school."

"I will come, as well," Wreath says.

Skulduggery wants to tell him to piss off, but he's too distracted. He gets back into the Bentley and Wreath slides in beside him. "Don't adjust the seat," he tells the Necromancer before he can do so. "Valkyrie is quite particular."

Wreath doesn't reply, but he does let go of the lever. "You're quite fond of her, aren't you?"

"The Bentley is my sole passion, yes."

"I unmistakably meant Valkyrie, Pleasant. The fact that you deflect says more than your words do."

Skulduggery really can't stand the pompous ass; he thinks about throwing Wreath through the window with a blast of unexpected wind but decides against it. If the Bentley is in the shop for repairs, Valkyrie would have to drive them in that hideous car.

"I could ask you the same, Wreath, but I won't because I don't care enough to waste the words."

Wreath smiles and looks out the window. "A simple yes would have been much quicker, Arbiter."

They reach the Academy in record time. Valkyrie's car is in the carpark; Skulduggery can't decide if that reassures him or not. Wreath seems to take it for a terrible sign because he speeds his pace, shadows hastening his wake.

Skulduggery had called Fletcher on their way, and the blond man meets them at the side door. "Militsa isn't here - she supposedly called in sick for tomorrow, too. I didn't see a struggle in her classroom, so I guess there's that?"

"And the Religions professor, Mettle? Have you had time to-"

"Not yet, I'm heading to her place right now," Fletcher says, looking exhausted. He's been run ragged recently between classes, helping Valkyrie with missions, and tutoring Never. "I'll call you when I have something."

And then he's gone.

Skulduggery looks around the darkened parking garage and shakes his head. "Well, I suppose we're breaking into the administration office to find Ms Gnosis' address."

"Or," Wreath begins, eyes landing on Valkyrie's car. "Does Valkyrie have a GPS, and do you have a copy of her key?"

Skulduggery hates that Wreath thinks of it, but he keeps the high ground. "I let you have that one," he informs the Necromancer before going to the orange vehicle. He doesn't have a key, but there is a spare magnetically clipped to the inside of her wheel well. He told her - more than once - that it was a terrible idea to keep the extra, especially in such an easily-found location. She never failed to remind him, however, that the car is almost as old as her and bright orange. If anyone wants to go through the trouble, they can have it.

Opening the vehicle, Skulduggery grabs the small GPS and turns it on, flicking through her recent history. Valkyrie knows most of Roarhaven by heart, but she is terrible at navigating the apartment stacks without location services.

Skulduggery gets out of the car, locks it, and pockets the key. He tosses the GPS to Wreath, who catches it with no problem, and the pair return to the Bentley.

 


 

A heavy-handed slap wakes Valkyrie, and she shouts.

"Are you thinking about talking anytime soon?" Militsa asks. She sounds so sweet. So lovely. But she's still splattered in Valkyrie's blood, and Valkyrie is in too much pain to fall prey to her damned perfume. "It doesn't really matter, I guess. Abyssinia will be back in a week; she'll tear around in your head, and then she'll probably kill you. Until then, love, you're stuck here with me."

"If she can handle this so easily, what's the deal with torturing me?" Valkyrie breathes. Her tongue is swollen from her biting down on it when Militsa flayed her pinkie. Her right eye is swollen shut - everything is a blur from her left. Valkyrie absently, deliriously wonders if she should get an eye exam -provided she lives, of course - but then realises that there are tears she can't feel clouding her vision.

Militsa smiles. It's so radiant. So pure. "Honestly? Because you frustrate me, Valkyrie. You're so goddamn sure of yourself, so sure you know what's going on. And even when you're strapped to a goddamn chair, threatened with innumerable pains, you still sit there like you think someone is going to save you."

Valkyrie would shrug, but her shrugging shoulder is dislocated and wrenched behind her back. She would try to smirk, too, but she's lost most of the feeling in her body, endorphins finally kicking in, eventually dulling the pain around the edges. "I'm an eternal optimist."

Militsa chuckles and sits on the bed across from her. She seems to have lost her desire for bloodshed, which Valkyrie is thankful for; she isn't sure how much she has to spare at this point.

"Why are you helping Abyssinia?" Valkyrie asks, talking to keep herself from passing out again.

"She's persuasive. And powerful. And, to be honest - I'm just kind of sick of hiding in the shadows. Why can the mortals live an open life, and I cannot? Because I can manipulate shadows?"

"Right now I think it's because you torture people, but okay," Valkyrie mumbles.

"Aww, is Valkyrie Cain feeling a little delicate?" Militsa laughs. "Does it wound you deeply, love? The fact that there are people who want to use you and discard you? People you can't trick into caring for you?"

"You know what? I think you're onto something." Militsa doesn't expect that, so Valkyrie continues, voice raising while she slowly, awkwardly shifts her body, tilting her dislocated shoulder further to the side. "I'm used to getting my way." Valkyrie twists her wrist, wincing but covering it with a cough. The cough is a little much, a little too loud, but it muffles the sound of her shackles rattling while she tests them.

Militsa raises a brow at her. "You do realise that I'm sitting right here in front of you, yeah? I can see you trying to lift your arms over the chair back. Good luck with that dislocated shoulder, by the way."

A knock on the door makes Valkyrie start and Militsa sighs. "If that old crone next door complains again, she'll wind up in the other chair," she mutters, walking toward the door. She glances through the spyhole and begins to pull away sharply, but the door flies open, breaking at the locking mechanism and sending jagged shards of wood to the floor. Militsa curses and tosses a sheet of shadow in front of her, blocking the shrapnel. She hurls the shadows toward her attackers, but Solomon Wreath flicks them aside, and Skulduggery Pleasant forces a sharp burst of wind into her chest, the strength of it sending her back into the wall.

Wreath comes to Valkyrie's aid, ducking down to analyse the shackles. "One moment, Valkyrie," he assures her, gingerly unfastening them. Valkyrie cries out when he jostles her arm, which is often, and he apologises each time. He returns her ring to her, and she feels the cold band warm, the inquisitive tendril snaking up her arm and around, analysing the new cuts decorating her neck and collarbones.

Skulduggery has his gun - the one Gordon used to display in his study - pointed at Militsa's head, and Militsa is very still, watching Valkyrie with thinly-veiled rage.

"I knew I was right about you," Militsa says. "Always the damsel. Always relying on the strength of others."

Wreath finishes with the shackles and takes them to Militsa, securing her hands and removing the bracelet on her wrist. "Valkyrie," he says, standing with a grimace. "I need to reset your shoulder."

Valkyrie winces and nods, but she doesn't open her eyes. Wreath makes quick work of it, a sharp crunch echoing as the socket realigns. Valkyrie bites out a sob, gritting her teeth and breathing raggedly.

When she can finally look up, Valkyrie sees Skulduggery and her heart jolts. He still has the gun pressing into Militsa's head. "Skulduggery," Valkyrie murmurs.

"Go on ahead," he says without looking up. His voice is very low and very quiet. "I want to look around for a bit."

Wreath takes Valkyrie's good arm and shoulders her weight, helping her out of the flat and down the steps. He puts her in the backseat and Valkyrie lays there, waiting for the gunshot.

 


 

Skulduggery takes the gun from Militsa's head, regarding her carefully.

Militsa, for her part, chuckles. "Abyssinia said you used to kill people for looking at you the wrong way, and yet here you are. Chaining me up and leading me to a cell."

"I'm not leading you to a cell." He steps aside and says, "Run."

Militsa's eyes narrow. "What, you're going to murder me?"

"I am."

Militsa laughs but stops when he doesn't move. "I'm not going to run out of here so you can shoot me down in the street."

"Then run to the door, and I'll shoot you down in your flat."

She doesn't move, but her confidence is fading.

Skulduggery gives her one minute before he grabs her arm, hauling her to her feet. He places the gun to her temple, and she flinches. "You will get into the car, and you will do so without a word. You will not speak to Valkyrie or me. You will not speak to our associate. You will sit, and you will stay quiet, or God so help me, you will know what wrath I can unleash."

Militsa doesn't speak when he leads her out of the apartment. She doesn't speak when he puts her into the boot.

Skulduggery drops Wreath at the Academy and gives him Valkyrie's spare key. He then takes Valkyrie to Grouse's, passing her off at the cinema doors. And then he stops, loitering just outside of the Bentley. He can feel the energy inside of him. He can feel the rage - not Vile's, but his.

His phone buzzes with a text from Fletcher. Mettle's apartment is full of creepy Faceless Ones shit. Sending photos

Skulduggery waits. When the pictures come through, he glances through each of them before shaking his head.

 

Did you find anything else?

I'm still doing a sweep, but so far nothing
Other than these weird dolls
What are they?
They look like something out of Blair Witch

What is Mettle's discipline?

She teaches religions

I understand that. What is her discipline?
Her magic?

I don't know
I just kind of assumed religion

Get one of those dolls, go to the house
I will meet you there

 

Skulduggery paces the sidewalk for five minutes until he can focus on something other than the urge to wrap his fingers around Militsa's neck. He finally trusts himself enough to get behind the wheel, reminding himself that he would have to use Valkyrie's orange monstrosity if he drives the Bentley into a lake.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

China, surprisingly, is not as upset at Skulduggery's appearance in her chamber as he expected. She gives Fletcher a once-over, raises a brow, and rolls her eyes when he declares everlasting love.

"I'm not even trying," she tells Skulduggery before he can reprimand her.

"I know, this is just how he is."

China smiles, but it's thin. "To what do I owe the honour? I expected never to see you again if I'm honest."

"Would that have pleased you?"

"Of course not," China laughs, and this time her soft smile is genuine. "You know I adore you, Skulduggery - in spite of your constant recklessness." She motions for Skulduggery and Fletcher to follow her. They stroll through the halls and into her library where she offers Fletcher tea.

"We have some information," Skulduggery says after declining the tea for Fletcher. He knows Fletcher is glowering, but Skulduggery doesn't care. "And I am hoping you might have some answers for us in return."

China tilts her head slightly, her coiling, loose plait sliding over her shoulder to sway across her back. "It must be serious."

"It is. I am not coming here lightly."

China sits and motions for them to do the same. She sips her tea delicately while Skulduggery talks and Fletcher ogles. When Skulduggery finishes telling her about Sierra Mettle and Militsa Gnosis, China clears her throat and adjusts herself in her chair. "Sierra Mettle. I am...surprised by this. She's never shown anything but upstanding behaviour."

"We have a teacher who got attacked while she was at the school. We have a Sensitive who saw it, saw the classroom, saw the woman."

"Which Sensitive is that again?" When Skulduggery doesn't reply, she gives a little nod. "As sweet and wonderful as Valkyrie's sister-"

"China, this isn't about Valkyrie."

"-she is less than a novice. She has no idea what she's doing, what she's seeing. She's a child, Skulduggery."

"Why are you protecting Mettle?"

China pauses and lifts her pale eyes to Skulduggery's sockets. "Excuse me?"

"Is it because you were going to name her as an Elder?" Skulduggery presses. China doesn't react. "Is it because Eliza wants another Faceless Ones follower in the highest seats of power? Have you switched sides? It wouldn't be the first time."

China stands, and the motion is so quick that it surprises Skulduggery. She's a coiled snake ready to lash out at him. "You dare."

Fletcher clears his throat and anxiously gets to his feet. "I don't mean to get in the middle of...whatever else is going on here, but, you can't ignore this. Al -- our Sensitive," he corrects, "is young and inexperienced, but she isn't lying. I don't personally give a shit about whatever power play is happening in the Sanctuary; it's not my job. What I do care about is making sure my school - the school that took me in even though I was useless in the beginning - is safe and that these fanatics aren't attacking other teachers. Or students. Or anyone, I guess."

China stares at him for a very long moment before dipping her head slightly. She returns to her seat, as does Fletcher. "Well," China begins, voice calm. "Sierra Mettle was on the short-list for Elder, yes, but I cannot ignore this development. I would like to speak with the girl-"

"When she picks a name, we would be glad to introduce you."

China's smile widens a little. "She should hurry to pick one, then. It isn't too hard to find out about Alice Edgley, given that her sister is so openly involved in her life." She waits, ensuring no one has another outburst. "As to this other issue."

"Militsa Gnosis," Fletcher supplies. Being helpful seems to be his second-nature all of a sudden. "She's the Magical Theory professor at Corrival."

"It seems as if the Academy needs to do a better job screening their faculty, wouldn't you say?" When no one replies, China continues. "As for Ms Gnosis - we will have our Sensitive consult with her. She won't bother you or your partner again. And yes, before you ask, I will pass along any pertinent information about what we find inside Gnosis' mind."

China leads them out herself - an odd show of friendliness, given their past seven months. The slightly lighthearted moment dashes to bits when they approach the holding cells. There is a bustle of activity, and the Administrator comes to them as soon as she sees them.

"There's been a death," the Administrator murmurs, her eyes wild. Skulduggery has seen the manic expression before - it is the Administrator's first time seeing a dead body in person. "Suicide."

"How?" China demands, but the Administrator only shakes her head, not processing. China sweeps past a Cleaver and into the room, coming to a halt in the doorway before the blood can ruin a shoe. "How did this happen?" she demands again, louder, sweeping her attention around the hall. The Cleavers are silent. The detective on guard is ashen-faced.

Skulduggery approaches, carefully stepping around the blood. The wards preventing magic are down, and Militsa Gnosis' Necromancy bracelet is on the floor amid the carnage. From the state of the rest of her body, it seems as though she used her power to tear herself into pieces. The blood is still hot and dripping off of the walls where it splattered. It happened recently. Very recently.

"Jesus Christ," Fletcher whispers from behind Skulduggery.

"Someone gave her bracelet back to her," Skulduggery murmurs.

When he turns to China, she's furious. "Mr Pleasant, Mr Renn, please show yourselves out from here; It seems I have some housecleaning to attend to."

"We can stay and help-" Fletcher begins, but China cuts him off with a dismissive hand.

"Nonsense. There's no point in wielding supreme power if I don't use it. And, right now, I would like to do so." She turns her attention to a Cleaver. "Find Valentine."

Skulduggery raises a brow at her. "I don't think your Sensitive can do much with a shredded brain, China."

"No," China murmurs darkly, "but she will work wonders on these guards."

Fletcher abruptly looks ill, no longer in love with the raven-haired mage. Skulduggery takes Fletcher's arm, turning him around, and leading him out of the Sanctuary.

"What do we do?" Fletcher finally asks when they reach the carpark.

"We go back to the drawing board," Skulduggery murmurs; he regrets not murdering Militsa himself. "Welcome to crime solving, Fletcher. Now - to Grouse's clinic, if you don't mind?"

Fletcher is still pale, too shaken for his usual over-confidence. Fletcher places his hand on Skulduggery's arm, and they disappear.

 


 

The first time Valkyrie awakes, she's freezing. She opens her eyes and finds herself in a dim room that smells like moss. The tub she's lying in is filled with a thick substance; mud and yellow minerals float around her, soothing her aches and pains.

When she looks up, Grouse is leaning over her, analysing the side of her face. Her eyes slide across the room to where Skulduggery leans against the wall. She thinks he might be meditating upright, but he notices her gaze and starts toward her.

Valkyrie can hear his voice, but she can't answer him; her mouth is dry and sore. She can reach out with her uninjured arm, though, stretching it across her body to seek his fingers. His hand finds hers without hesitating.

The water's properties will probably ruin his gloves, she thinks in some small place in the back of her mind.

 


 

Valkyrie doesn't remember falling asleep, but she evidently did. She wakes up again, but this time she is in a regular bed. Skulduggery's glove, stained from the mixture that healed most of Valkyrie's wounds, is still on. His hand is still holding hers. His gaze is still fixed on her.

"Hey," she says. She sounds like she crawled up from a grave.

"Rest," he bids her, and she does.

 


 

She wakes again, but only to lean across the bed, extracting her hand from Skulduggery, and violently retching on the floor. It's mostly blood, and her mouth is coppery. Skulduggery eases her hair from her face and helps her back into the pillows.

 


 

The next time she's awoken, it is by a very enthusiastic and eccentric woman - Grouse's new assistant. She talks a lot while she watches Valkyrie eat a lunch that is too large for her aching stomach. Valkyrie doesn't listen much, instead busying herself looking out of the opened door.

She can hear Skulduggery talking, the dulcet tones purring through the hallway. His words don't make any sense, bleeding into one another, but then the voice comes closer and stops outside of the door.

Ghastly is looking in on her; Valkyrie feels caught, embarrassed, and Ghastly offers her a sad smile. He turns his attention back to Skulduggery, murmuring, "She's awake."

Valkyrie looks away from the door and back at her plate of food, poking at her gelatine. Skulduggery and Ghastly move further down the hall before continuing their conversation.

 


 

The next time Valkyrie wakes up, it's to Skulduggery helping her out of bed, helping her into a change of clothes, and then helping her into the Bentley. They drive home in silence, but Skulduggery reaches over to gently touch her hand.

She doesn't know why he's treating her like glass. She isn't dying or anything - she's fine. Grouse fixed her.

But when Valkyrie climbs into her bed and Skulduggery begins to pull away, she understands. Her heart pounds when his hand leaves hers. The dark room is too much like waking up in Militsa's studio. "Wait," she says before she can choke back the fear. "Can you...can you stay for a bit?"

Skulduggery returns to her side, taking his jacket off, gently laying it across the chair. He unbuttons his sleeves and moves the covers aside. "May I?"

Valkyrie wiggles out of his way, but she returns once he's settled, pressing her face against his arm. Skulduggery doesn't seem pleased with the position because he further lowers himself to curl beside her, an arm draping over her waist and pulling her into him. "Rest," he requests, and she presses her face against his clavicle, succumbing.

 


 

 

Chapter Text


 

It only takes two days of sleep in Skulduggery's arms to revitalise her. It revives her so much that she says something she hasn't ever planned to utter. "I want to show you something in the caves."

Valkyrie isn't used to having anyone in the cavern with her. With Skulduggery at her side, she feels almost childlike, seeing the hollow through new eyes. Everything seems darker with a fresh perspective. Water drips from stalactites; Valkyrie hasn't paid the damp any attention for a long time, but now she shivers.

"There are monsters," she warns him again, her voice coming out with a slight tremor of cold. God, how is it so cold? How has she never noticed before? Granted, she's usually in the cave when she feels Darquesse becoming anxious, threatening a nuclear explosion of darkness and murder if she isn't satiated. "Not many this close to the exit, but we're going in a bit further."

"So you said," Skulduggery murmurs, but he does step a little closer to her. The flame in his palm doesn't do much to warm her, but his proximity helps. "How far until the altar?"

"About a kilometre," she replies, trying to focus on the shifting walls, ensuring that the dripping water and crawling bugs aren't seeping terrors. "Things will get a little more chaotic when we get closer."

"They usually do," Skulduggery begins to say, but he cuts himself off, coming to a halt; the fire in his hand begins popping wildly. His hand unfurls, and the flame disappears; the gloom swallows them, caresses them. "Do you smell something?" he asks, and Valkyrie furrows her brow.

"Smell? Can you smell things?"

"No, but you can. Do you smell something?"

Valkyrie still doesn't understand, but she takes a tentative sniff and pauses. The air feels prickly, the crispness cutting into her nose, making her tingle. "Yes. It's...sharp."

"Ozone?"

The smell fits into place and she lets out a soft sound. "Yeah. I've never smelled it down here b-" she breaks off because it's getting stronger. "Skulduggery..."

Skulduggery sweeps her back, and fire erupts from his free palm, the flames arcing in front of them in a long, popping, illuminating sweep.

They're everywhere. Dark creatures, differently sized, but all bulbous. They shriek at the light and scuttle faster. Another ball of flame erupts, this time right in front of the swarm. Four of them catch and scream, flail, the darkness inside of them leaking out, coating the floor.

The remaining horde sweeps toward them as one, crawling around and over their fallen brethren. They're dumb, sometimes charging directly into sparks and alighting like petrol. They're all leaking fluid and reforming from it, bubbling up and collapsing under their own weight over and over.

"Valkyrie," he snaps, and she tears herself from her confusion, sweeping her left hand in front of her. Shadows leak from her ring and slither out, darting to spear the little creatures four at a time. Light erupts each time Skulduggery calls a flame, flaring when he tosses the air around it, curling it into a raging, circling blaze.

Valkyrie focuses on her own mayhem, sweeping the beasts around, crushing them in folds of darkness. She lifts some and throws them into a crevice she once nearly died within - she hopes the awful plant-creature inside enjoys the treat. A handful makes it past the magic, managing to reach her boots, but she stomps and crushes until the things are nothing but their bubbling, ozone-scented fluid.

When they're finally gone, Skulduggery touches her arm. "Are you alright?"

Valkyrie would make fun of his tone, but then she realises that she's panting and her eyes are wide. She shakes it aside, the odd fear that's suddenly clawing at her throat. "What was that?"

Skulduggery takes a moment, possibly trying to determine how much of the truth she deserves. "They are Abyssinia's...malice, for lack of a better term. Monsters she uses her stolen souls to breathe life into."

"Oh, sure, nothing weird about that," Valkyrie laughs without humour. She steps through the thick ooze on the ground, not bothering to find an alternate route. Skulduggery, on the other hand, floats over them, protecting his beautiful shoes.

"So prim," she tries to tease, but the wry amusement doesn't come. Her words are hollow. The smell of burnt ozone is everywhere, clogging up her senses. "How did they get down here? When she came to the house?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps not," Skulduggery murmurs, falling back into step beside her. "They're creatures of death and darkness; this cave is, as well. It wouldn't be hard for them, mindless and constantly seeking magic, to find a way in through other means."

Skulduggery is about to summon another flame, but Valkyrie puts her hand on his before he can. "Maybe we should limit the magic use. I didn't consider that I have a reanimated skeleton walking around, drawing extra attention."

Valkyrie assures he isn't about to set her hand on fire before grabbing her phone and clicking on the torch. The cold light sweeps toward a tunnel to their left. "Through there," she murmurs. "Watch your step. There are some pitfalls."

Skulduggery takes her waist, and she freezes, confused, but then they're gliding through the air. He's helped her over obstacles before, but hovering and flying have never stopped being a strange sensation for her.

When they touch down, Skulduggery holds her for a few moments, letting her catch her bearings. Valkyrie has always had excellent balance, but it is unsettling to go from one state of being to another without practice.

She leans into him and lets out two deep breaths before nodding. "I definitely said not to draw attention to ourselves with magic, but damn if that isn't a fun trick."

"You have little idea how fun it can be," he replies cryptically before venturing through the narrow passage, his slender frame having no problem.

"What does that even mean?" she asks in a whisper, ducking in and following his stooped form. Valkyrie has to adjust herself around narrower bits in the rock, and part of her envies that Skulduggery has much less problem even with his three-piece suit and hat. God, she hates tight spaces.

"Much further?" he asks, ignoring her question and reaching back for her phone.

She doesn't press him - she can usually coerce answers from him, but the cave isn't great for playful banter. She hands her phone over so that the flashlight illuminates the path in front of her. "Not too much. It should open up in a quarter of a kilometre or so."

The passage eventually opens into a small chamber. The rocks here are rough and jagged, poking out with unusual ferocity — Valkyrie skirts by, passing Skulduggery to enter the room first. "Right here," she says, pointing to a flat altar. It's mostly loose stones of varying shades; none of them are from this cavern, as far as Valkyrie knows. They shimmer, sending iridescent rainbows of colour flying around when the torch hits them.

"It's beautiful," Skulduggery says as if he hadn't expected such a thing.

Valkyrie smiles and steps toward the shrine, lowering herself to her knees to analyse it closer. "Can you read Gaeilge?" she asks, pointing out an inscription above the altar. It sits just above the platform where the book previously rested, and just below a jagged rock.

"Of course - I'm ashamed that you can't." Skulduggery steps forward; he makes it within a metre of the shrine when a jagged piece of igneous shoots out, barely missing Skulduggery. "On the floor," he shouts before getting there himself.

The other pieces are jolting into action, spearing blindly in varying patterns.

"What the hell?" Valkyrie snaps. "What did you do?!"

"Nothing to warrant this," Skulduggery calls back. He pushes at the air, but the rocks keep going, stabbing, seeking prey. "I take it this has never happened?"

"I'm pretty sure I would have warned you if the room was savage," she shouts back over the excessive sound of shifting stones. "Can we get out?"

"No, it seems like the rocks have the entrance well-cordoned," he replies, but he turns onto his back, trying to see anything he can use. "What does the inscription say?"

Valkyrie doesn't understand for a moment before rolling onto her side to see through the gloom. Her phone is on the ground somewhere in the corner of the cave, spilling light onto the ceiling in a semi-useless halo. Valkyrie grunts and puts a finger to the writing, feeling the shapes and trying to make it arrange into some semblance of sense. "D-A-D-A? Ah, shit. A-C? H, I think?"

"Valkyrie, as much as I love hearing you stammer-"

"Shut up; I'm concentrating!" She focuses again; the inquisitive tendril - which Skulduggery is sure somehow manifests because of Darquesse - coils around the words, the darkness cutting into the rock and taking form. "Dada ach an Ársa!" Valkyrie mangles the words, but it makes Skulduggery's head whip in her direction.

"You're wrong," he says as if he knows.

"Dada ach an Ársa!" she repeats, harder this time, insistent.

Skulduggery grabs her hand and points it upward to the ceiling. Nothing happens, and Valkyrie is baffled why he did it. "Are you trying to ruin the rest of my left hand?"

"Do something - anything."

She stares at him before realising her ring is alight, and the tendril has become ten, all seeking, seething. Valkyrie blinks back the confusion, willing the shadows to sweep up in a column amidst the thrusting stone. She tears her hand through the air and toward her chest, twisting the shadows. The rocks disintegrate beneath the force, covering them.

"What the fuck was that?" Valkyrie coughs, digging herself up and out of the layer of silt. She attempts to shake it from her hair, but she's fairly sure she's grey now. When Valkyrie does look up, Skulduggery is sitting there, looking very un-put-together, and staring in her direction. At her, she assumes. "What?"

Skulduggery crawls - Valkyrie is surprised to see him in such an unbecoming position - to the altar, coming to a stop beside her. He clicks his fingers, summons a spark, and illuminates the inscription. "Dada ach an Ársa," he whispers, and he sounds awed.

"That's what I said," she reminds him, feeling vindicated at his previous questioning tone. "Okay, so the accent is a little lacking, but..."

Valkyrie trails off because Skulduggery is looking at her again. "My magic didn't work in here during the assault," he says slowly. "But yours did."

"Maybe it doesn't like Elementals."

Skulduggery traces the words. "Dada ach an Ársa - only the Ancients can pass. It stands to reason that only they can stop the mechanism, as well."

Valkyrie stares at his finger, and then at the side of his skull - his hat fell somewhere, probably at the same time her phone did. "What?" she asks.

Skulduggery's head turns toward her again, and his voice is awed. "You're a descendant."

Valkyrie laughs. She laughs a lot. And then, when Skulduggery doesn't move, when he doesn't join her merriment, the laughter stops dead. "No," she says.

"Yes. You, Valkyrie Cain, have the blood of the Ancients."

 


 

Alice almost turns around and goes back to the waiting cab. Stephanie and Skulduggery's cars are here, and Alice doesn't want to see either of them yet. Even though she hesitates on the porch, still undecided, she waves the cabbie away.

She takes a deep breath and unlocks the front door, pushing into the silent house. Silence is good - silence never happens when Skulduggery and Stephanie are nearby.

Alice finds the subject of her search in the back bedroom on the first floor. Solomon Wreath flips through a tome at his desk; a shadow pens his notations while he reads, as independent and helpful as Stephanie's are.

Alice watches for a moment; Wreath's teachings are clear in Stephanie's powers, but there's something more refined about his. More learned. Alice knows he has centuries on Stephanie, training wise, but she's also very aware that her big sister does not tolerate authority as much as she should.

That's why she loves Skulduggery, Alice guesses.

"Miss Edgley," Wreath murmurs without looking up from his book. "May I help you with something?"

Alice blanches but relaxes a bit when she notices Wreath's lips have tilted at the corner. "Actually, I did have some questions," she says, pressing into the room and loitering against the wall. She peeks at the book, but it's covered in a hand-written script, old and unrecognisable, and strange symbols. "About...the things I see."

Wreath closes the book, and the shadow releases the pen and disappears into the cane across the room. "I am untrained in the Sensitive arts, Miss Edgley, but I will do all I can to assist."

Alice shifts in her shoes. "I...sometimes the things I hear, the things that I see...I can't tell when they are. They sound like the past sometimes, things that already happened. But other times, it's stuff that's happening across the room, but...different. The same people, but somewhere else, something -- I can't," she says finally, shaking her head. "I can't make sense of what's now and what's then, what's here or what's...somewhere else."

"Somewhere else?" Wreath softly repeats.

"I don't know," Alice mumbles, shaking her head again. Wreath's gaze is intense, and Alice can't help continuing, "I'm sorry, I know you don't know what's happening, I guess I just hoped...maybe if you have books? Maybe I can read something about it?"

"Unfortunately, the Temple library is lacking when it comes to Sight." Wreath pauses, and Alice watches him think. "But, I do know someone who might have something for you, if you'd like to go on a trip to Roarhaven?"

She perks up. "Really?"

"Will your sister mind?" Wreath asks, seeming to realise he's offering to take a ten-year-old girl to an unknown location while her family has no idea where she is.

In all honesty, it does sound untoward, but Alice squares her shoulders. "Stephanie doesn't mind."

Wreath watches her for a few more moments before slowly nodding and sweeping to his feet. He recovers his cane and smiles wanly at Alice. "If anyone asks your name, do not give it to them."

Alice nods, familiar with the practice. "Names have power."

"Good. If you do plan to become a piece of our community, you must take your own name. Think on it," he adds before she can mumble out handles, "and only choose what you can live with for centuries. It's nearly impossible to remake yourself once a shape takes form."

Alice nods and follows Wreath out of the house and to an understated black car, sliding into the passenger side and adjusting the seat. They drive in near-silence, the hum of the road melding with her thoughts about names. For now, Alice will ignore everything else but choosing a name, following Wreath's instructions, and disregarding the shaky images that flash in her preconscious, the faint voices.

 


 

Valkyrie and Skulduggery spend an hour in the room. Valkyrie has no idea what he's looking for while he touches the nubs of broken rock, the walls of the cave, the ceiling. She pretends to do the same, but she's just trying to use the damp stone to clean the rubble-dust from her hands.

Skulduggery turns to examine the floor, but debris covers it. Valkyrie sweeps a shadow across the room, piling the rubble into a corner.

"Thank you for finally helping," Skulduggery says lightly.

"Excuse you; I was looking for stuff on the wall."

"You were covering sections I already did."

"Well, yeah. You might have missed something."

Skulduggery doesn't grace her with a response, removing his glove and tracing a skeletal finger across the floor. He seems not to appreciate what he finds and stands. "There's nothing here."

"What, did you expect a trapdoor or something?"

Skulduggery shrugs. "We just discovered you have the blood of the Ancients in your veins; I feel like anything is possible now."

"We don't know that I do," she argues with no energy. It's a moot point denying it now - it explains why her uncle Gordon was so sure that the book was safe in the caves. And then Valkyrie, idiot that she is, took the damned thing out of the one place it might never be touched.

"I kind of set all of this in motion, didn't I?" she asks while they shimmy out of the tunnel and toward the main gallery chamber. "Taking that book, I mean."

"Things are set in motion all the time, by many people," is Skulduggery's non-answer. "Was it intentional? No. Was it misguided? Oh yes. Was it the worst thing you've done? Not by a longshot."

Valkyrie stops moving, and Skulduggery nearly runs into her. She glances over her shoulder, but she can barely make out the pale bone of his skull. "What the hell else have I done that's worse?"

"For us? Nye."

Valkyrie can't help the smile tugging at her lips. "The world, though?"

"If we're referring to the world, then yes, that was the worst thing you've ever done. Presumably - I am terrified to think what your younger years entailed."

"Well, I didn't end the world, so there's that." She begins moving again, but Skulduggery stays closer to her as if he's waiting for her to continue. Valkyrie has no intention of continuing, but her mouth doesn't get the hint. "If I'm a descendant of...them."

"The Ancients."

"I know who they are, Skulduggery." She takes a breath and stops again. This time she turns to him; her phone illuminates him from where it's poking out the top of her tunic, wedged into her bra. "If I am a descendant of them, what does that make Darquesse?"

Most of the time, Skulduggery's facade makes her uneasy. Sometimes, like now, she wishes she could see his expression, though. He quietly watches before saying, "I don't know."

Valkyrie nods and finds that she can't stop nodding, her neck replaced with a tiny coil. Her eyes are stinging; it takes her a moment to realise she's close to tears.

"Valkyrie-"

"I'm not crying," she says quickly, which only makes her throat burn more.

"It is completely natural to be overwhelmed-"

"I'm not crying," she croaks out, and then tears are leaking, and she's descending to a crouch, curling over and onto herself, cursing.

Skulduggery lowers himself to join her, running a hand over the back of her head. Loose dirt falls as he does, speckling her jacket. He doesn't speak, which she is thankful for.

Valkyrie furiously wipes at her face, finally under control, and looks up. "I'm not crying; I'm just...overwhelmed."

"I know," he says kindly. God, she could listen to that voice all day.

She collects herself, a piece of her feeling a little lighter after the outburst. "Okay," she breathes. "Let's get back because I think I need a drink."

"I poured out the whiskey."

"What?! How did you even find it?" she whispers back, trying to keep herself from yelling. At least now she knows who the culprit is.

"I suspect there are very few things that I don't know about you, Ms Cain. It almost pains me to think that you assumed I wouldn't check behind that hideous fake fern in the study."

"Jesus hell," she mutters before turning again. "Gordon told you."

"He did, but I like my story better, so I think I will stick to that one. Now, might we get out of this awful cave?"

Valkyrie refocuses and picks up the pace. Spikes nearly impaled Skulduggery not so long ago; she figures she owes it to him to get him home in a timely manner.

When they break out of the tunnel and into the main chamber, though, Valkyrie freezes. The oozing pile of fluid that leaked from the menace monsters is reforming, taking shape, all of the sludge oozing together to congeal into an unbelievable form, all curves and mire.

"Skulduggery," Valkyrie whispers. The ozone scent is overpowering as it grows. "Skulduggery, I don't think I can fight that."

Skulduggery grabs her waist, and they are in the air, jettisoning away. The thing is too slow to follow, leaving a slime behind it like a snail. Unlike a snail, however, the trail reforms, rushing back to the central mass.

"What the hell is wrong with your girlfriend that she can make that?"

"Ex," is all Skulduggery answers as they break through the small tunnel leading into the house.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

"Before we go inside," Wreath murmurs as they idle in his car. The Sanctuary parking garage is mostly quiet, but he speaks in an undertone anyway. "I would like to remind you that China Sorrows-"

"I know," she groans. This is the third time Wreath has said it in less than thirty minutes. "Supreme Mage Sorrows is not to be trusted with secrets. I should keep as much about myself as quiet as possible. I should speak kindly, but not affectionately. And, under no circumstances, do I grovel or fall in love with her. And, also, don't mention Stephanie unless I have to, and if I do, I am to call her Valkyrie."

Wreath smiles slightly. "You remind me of your sister, which is only the more concerning that you will be in our community." Despite the fond rebuff, Wreath looks slightly proud. "Well then, Miss Edgley. Are you ready?"

Alice nods, but there are butterflies in her belly, and she is beginning to feel jittery. If she were in class, she'd be doing maths right now.

This is so much better than maths, she internally admits. "This is so much better than maths," she accidentally says aloud, which makes Wreath chuckle.

He guides her through the Sanctuary and into a foyer. A pretty woman with a significant air about her promises them that China Sorrows will be with them shortly. She does eye Alice a little peculiarly, but her smile is sincere when Alice says, "Thank you," to her assistance.

"That is the Administrator," Wreath tells her when the woman leaves. "She knows everything that happens inside the Sanctuary, and she is a good source for help in a pinch. Those," he nods to the men and women with scythes strapped to their backs, "are the Cleavers. A bit like police, I suppose, but mostly for the Sanctuary business. There are private Guards, as well; hope that it's the Guard that meet you if - like your sister - you run afoul of things."

Alice glances up at him. "Steph -- Valkyrie gave me the impression she was a stellar member of the community."

"And...is that believable, given all you've seen?"

"No," Alice admits, and then the Administrator is in front of them again. "The Supreme Mage will see you," she says and leads them to a large chamber full of mirrors.

Alice falls in love completely and wholly when she sees China Sorrows. The woman is a vision in a casual pair of linen pants and a gossamer top. "Oh my," China murmurs when she sees them. She glides across the floor and toward them; joy and beauty burst from her when she smiles, the corners of her eyes crinkling just slightly, just enough to show her genuine, sincere love for them --

"Sorrows," Wreath snaps and then feeling fades. Alice blinks, disoriented, and then curses under her breath. She broke so many rules in less than a second.

"I do forget the effect I have on people," she lies with a little twist to her lips. Her eyes flicker to Alice, and she becomes curious. "And I see you have a new pupil. Goodness, they get younger every day, don't they?" she chuckles slightly. "It feels like yesterday when Valkyrie was your shadow."

Alice's eyes widen a little at the casual mention of her sister; China notices it, and her smile grows. "What's your name, dear?" she asks Alice, leaning down slightly to meet the girl's eyes with her own.

Wreath sighs and senses that the jig is up. "China-" China looks away from Alice to raise a brow at Wreath. "Apologies. Supreme Mage Sorrows."

"Solomon, we're old friends," she murmurs graciously. "You may call me China in private."

Alice furrows her brows, understanding in one moment why Wreath so thoroughly warned her about China. "I don't have a name yet, but I'm Valkyrie's sister," Alice says, forcing her shoulders to remain square, defiant.

"She shows abilities as a Sensitive," Wreath supplies. "We hoped we might borrow a book-"

China doesn't seem surprised. "Absolutely not."

"China, one book."

"Books are not so light a thing, Solomon Wreath. You know this."

"I want to learn so that I have control over this," Alice speaks up, startling both adults. "I didn't choose it, it just happened, so I need to find out how to control it."

China stares at her before letting out a delicate sigh. "Well, at least you have more care about things than your sister. Follow me - but if you so much as drop a book, child, I will be forced to flay you alive."

"China," Wreath grumbles.

China sweetly smiles. "You know I tease, Solomon. I love children making noise and mess in my library." She gives Alice a glance, but it's softer this time. "Come along then; let us see if we have something of use."

 


 

China allows Alice to borrow one book from the library, and she gives Alice a stern warning about any damage, and then a threat to Wreath if such damage occurs.

On the drive back to Valkyrie's, Wreath glances at the girl in the passenger seat. Her hair glimmers in the sunlight, the platinum shimmering, almost looking silver. "You came to ask me for my assistance quite early in the day," he says suddenly, drawing her attention away from the book she's attempting to puzzle out. "You told your sister that you dreamed things. Did you see something last night?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure." She doesn't look like she wants to continue, but after some time in silence, some time to stew, she sighs. "It's always white. Blinding. And I can feel the sun on my back; it's warm, but I'm so cold. I can hear Stephanie, but she's far off, somewhere else." She shakes her head. "I try to look around, but I can't. I can't move. Something's on my neck, but I can't move even if I wanted to. I can't raise my arms."

"Is someone holding you?"

"I don't know," Alice whispers. Her fingers curl into her palm, clenching, and her brow furrows as if she's in pain. "Yes, behind me. It's too bright. Too white. I can't see anything."

Wreath glances at her. She's staring in front of the car, but she doesn't see anything. He watches her fall into her own mind, digging, attempting to find something. "I feel it in my bones," she says softly. "I feel scared. I hurt. And Stephanie keeps screaming, sobbing, but I can't see her."

Wreath gently reaches out his gloved hand, offering her comfort; he's sure she won't accept. He did it for Valkyrie many times, providing his support, and yet she never received it.

Alice, on the other hand, takes it and holds it.

When they draw close to the house, Wreath takes his hand back and pulls a small vial out of the inside of his jacket, handing it to Alice. "I always carry one; so does your sister. It's an anointment - it will protect against non-aggressive spells. Charms and the like. I doubt you will need it anytime soon," he adds, "but I always felt it is better to be prepared for all the things we can prepare for."

Alice takes it, uncorks it, and breathes in. She recoils at the strength and then takes a second, more hesitant sniff. "Cinnamon?"

"Mmm. Basil and morning glory, as well. Salt from the Dead Sea."

Alice raises a brow at him in much the same way Valkyrie used to. "Does it work?"

"As far as I know," he laughs, loving that she doesn't scowl, that she grins and taps her finger to the mouth of the vial, dotting it on her temples.

"I usually suggest the back of the neck so that it doesn't overpower you too much."

"You could have told me before I did it; I can't smell anything but cinnamon now." But then she laughs and corks the vial, putting it into her jeans pocket. "Thank you, Mr Wreath," she adds, and it sounds sincere, appreciative.

"Solomon," he corrects her with a gentle smile. "Just Solomon."

 


 

Valkyrie and Skulduggery lock the trap door leading to the caves, and then they close the door leading into the small room it rests inside. They stand at the door, silent, listening, but nothing makes a noise for ten minutes.

Valkyrie lets out a soft puff of air. "You don't think it will morph and travel up here, right?"

"Doubtful," Skulduggery replies, pulling himself off of the wall but loitering, his hand brushing hers. "Nothing from the cave has ever found the entrance tunnel, yes?"

"I guess not," she mumbles, but she isn't willing to play so fast and loose with anything Abyssinia has sent their way. "Maybe we should move some stuff in front of the door? Block everything off? Just until Omen can ward it properly."

"Would that make you feel better?" When she nods, feeling foolish, he pulls her from the door. Three bookshelves slide neatly into place in front of the entrance. A small, but heavy, coffer joins the mix followed by, oddly but amusingly, a potted plant that has seen much better days.

"Shall we bring the couch in?" he teases; he does it kindly, though, so Valkyrie doesn't take offence.

"For now, I think this is enough to hear the thing if it comes through."

"What's going on?" Alice asks, turning the corner.

"Alice, what are you doing here?" Valkyrie changes course when she realises that her little sister is chewing on a granola bar. "Hey, where did you find that?"

Alice stops chewing. "Um."

Valkyrie narrows her eyes. "You found my snack horde."

"To be fair," Skulduggery murmurs, "you're not as sneaky as you think, sending tendrils downstairs to rummage through the hidden pantry cupboard."

Valkyrie sighs. "Does Fletcher know? He's the main reason I have caches - that kid is going to eat me out of house and home."

Alice finishes the snack quickly as if Valkyrie might take it from her. Her voice is a little choked when she says, "So, what's up with the terrible redecorating?"

"There's a monster in the cave that we didn't want to deal with," Valkyrie says as if it's nothing.

"That we aren't sure we can deal with," Skulduggery corrects. When Alice's eyes widen, comically large, he belatedly adds, "But it's fine; it's not coming up here."

"Right," Alice begins sceptically, "you barricaded the door because the thing definitely won't try to get in."

"What are you doing here?" Valkyrie repeats, glancing at her phone and cursing. "Why aren't you in school? Was there a short day?"

"Not...exactly," Alice begins haltingly. "I, ah. I came over this morning to see Solomon."

"Solomon?" Skulduggery repeats, his voice deepening, tinged with annoyance. "Why did you want to see Wreath?"

"Skulduggery," Valkyrie gently warns, reminding him that not everyone has such a tumultuous relationship with the Necromancer.

"I've been having this dream, and I thought maybe he might be able to help. Since, you know, you guys are determined to keep me in the dark."

Valkyrie blinks. "When did you get so salty?"

"Solomon took me to see China," Alice adds, and Skulduggery explodes into motion, striding past Alice and toward the kitchen where the scent of cinnamon is overwhelming.

Valkyrie huffs and gives Alice a disapproving look before following her partner. When she arrives, Skulduggery and Wreath are as close as they can be without touching.

"How dare you?" Skulduggery seethes. Valkyrie stops in her tracks; it's rare to hear so much anger in his voice.

"Apologies, Arbiter," Wreath begins slowly, calmly continuing to stir the concoction on the stovetop. "I wasn't aware cinnamon bothered you so, else I would have done it sooner."

Skulduggery lashes out, but Valkyrie is nothing if not prepared. A tendril shoots out, grabbing Skulduggery's wrist and holding it. "Everyone, take a breath," Valkyrie murmurs, slowly stepping toward the pair. "Skulduggery - are you alright?"

"You took her to China?" Skulduggery spits. "You took a ten-year-old to China?"

"I told him you approved," Alice says, coming up to shadow Valkyrie. She looks worried, and the source of concern seems to be Skulduggery. "I said you guys knew and it was okay."

"Alice," Valkyrie groans, and then, "Can I let you go without you attacking anyone?"

"Yes," Skulduggery says, but Valkyrie isn't sure if she can trust him.

Her tendril tightens a little. "No fighting in the house," she says, making up the first rule since Grimwood became the Arbiter headquarters. "You want to tear into each other, go outside. But I need you both alive," she adds, her tendril tightening a little on Skulduggery to make her point. "You want some fisticuffs, then you go outside and settle it without magic."

Wreath narrows his eyes. "You are quite aware I stand no chance against him without magic."

"Then maybe don't be stupid," Valkyrie retorts softly. "Maybe don't take my little sister galavanting around without having a taken name."

"I didn't tell China my name," Alice offers, and then admits, "but she knows I'm your sister."

Valkyrie raises a brow at Wreath, and he blinks, seemingly unconcerned. Skulduggery releases his fist, and Valkyrie releases her tendril. Valkyrie turns to Alice. "You can't just run off."

"I know. I figured I could ask forgiveness instead."

"Oh," Valkyrie mumbles. "Oh, God; you're me." From behind her, Wreath chuckles. Skulduggery doesn't make a sound. "Solomon, you were right from the beginning."

"Solomon?" Skulduggery repeats.

"Christ, you two." Valkyrie pulls Alice to the bar and sits her down. "Tell me everything."

Alice suddenly seems uncomfortable, but she tells Valkyrie about the dreams, about the blinding light, about Valkyrie sobbing. Valkyrie listens and focuses on not giving anything away. When Alice finishes, Valkyrie glances over toward Skulduggery - who is now loitering against the wall and ignoring Wreath completely. Wreath stirs his simmering concoction, turning the heat off to let it cool.

"What do you think?"

Skulduggery doesn't answer right away. Finally, he lets out a little sigh. "I am not sure. There's not much to go on - no indication of time, no indication of anything, really."

"Except that something happened that made Steph upset," Alice reminds him.

Valkyrie doesn't bother being offended - she prides herself on keeping together, even though Skulduggery and Tanith have taken jackhammers to her emotional blockade. "Is there anything else, Alice?"

She closes her eyes, which flutter behind her lids. She opens her mouth and closes it. "I don't...I don't remember."

"That's fine," Wreath assures her. Valkyrie glances over, noting the tone. It's soft, fatherly, and it is surprising to hear. "If you have the dream again, try to focus on things other than sight."

Alice nods, looking a little bewildered. She swallows it down, though, and nods again. "Right."

Valkyrie glances at the men. "Could you give us a second?"

Skulduggery is around the corner before she can finish the question; Wreath loiters for a few moments, stirring his mixture, and then disappears after Skulduggery.

Valkyrie brushes strands of Alice's pale hair from her face. "You need to pick a name," she murmurs. "You can use Gordon's library for inspiration, or..." she pauses and takes a deep breath. "Or Solomon can take you to the Temple to look through some older texts."

Alice's eyes widen, and her smile erupts, growing with each moment. "Really? You're really -- you're going to let me?"

"I'm not going to make Dad's mistake. You've been hiding this from us, and that's heartbreaking. I don't want you to feel like you're alone. Like you're going insane. But," she adds, leaning in to press her forehead into Alice's. "You need to tell Mum and Dad, yes?"

Alice groans but nods.

"Come on," Valkyrie smiles, pulling back. "You need to get home before Dad shows up. And you need to tell them that you skipped school."

Alice looks guilty; Valkyrie's pleased to see that, at least. On their way to Valkyrie's car, they find Skulduggery in the yard, looking out toward the thicket of brambles and trees to the side of the property.

"What are you doing out here?" Valkyrie calls, unlocking the car so Alice can slide in. Valkyrie comes to join him, glancing toward Ginger's stone-ringed grave. Damn, she misses that stupid cat.

"I was curious to see if Wreath would follow," is his nonchalant response. He glances toward the car. "How did things go?"

"Well enough," Valkyrie sighs, following his gaze. "I'm taking her home to tell our folks, and then she's going to pick a name. She can work with all of us - including Wreath. I want her to have the support system I didn't. I want..." she pauses and swallows. "I made some awful choices in the beginning, Skulduggery; hell, I'm still making them. But I want her to have a chance - I want her to have people she can trust."

Skulduggery reaches out to her, and she goes to him, hating how much his arms reassure her, comfort her. "You're doing the right thing."

"I know," Valkyrie mumbles against his shoulder. "But it feels awful."

When Skulduggery pulls back, he asks, "Would you like me to come with you? For support, perhaps?"

Valkyrie hesitates, looking between the car and her partner. "I'm...I'm not sure. I don't mean to be -- I'm not trying to be rude or anything-"

"It is a family matter," he allows, graciously letting her free from her rambling. "I understand."

Valkyrie takes a chance and coils the fingers of her left hand with his right. "You could, however, drive us in that nice car of yours, then go shopping for me."

"Shop for you?"

"Mm-hmm. I need shampoo, trash bags, and more granola bars."

"You realise you are asking for something terrible to happen."

"It's trash bags, Skulduggery. What could go wrong?"

"I more meant the shampoo aspect - you're begging me to get something that makes your hair fall out."

"That is a fair argument; I've already lost more hair than I wanted this month."

Skulduggery chuckles and his fingers tighten around hers. "I would be happy to drive you, but I refuse to do your shopping."

"Then you need to come with me after the soul-devouring conversation I'm about to spring on my parents."

"I can do that."

Valkyrie lingers for a moment, staring into his sockets, before detangling herself from him. She jogs over to her car while Skulduggery heads for the Bentley. "Change of plans," she says, leaning into the car where Alice is flipping through a massive tome. "Skulduggery's driving us."

Alice perks up. "In the Bentley?"

"Yep."

Alice hops out of the car and trots to the Bentley, reaching for the passenger door. "Nooo," Valkyrie calls, locking the car. "Know your place."

Alice grins, and Valkyrie melts. The girl dutifully gets into the backseat, buckling before busying herself with the book. Valkyrie slides into the passenger seat, giving Skulduggery a faint smile. "Here we go."

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Tanith pretends to be sleeping when Sanguine slips out of the hotel room and into the cold morning. When she's sure he isn't coming back, she throws herself out of bed, shrugs into her jacket, and cracks the shutters.

Her eyes follow the usual path that Sanguine takes, passing between two houses across the street. He stops just inside the mouth of the alleyway, but he doesn't go far enough to disappear.

The woman is there. The woman is finally, finally there. Tanith grabs her phone and, ensuring the flash is off, snaps as many pictures as she needs until she gets a handful of clear ones.

She steps away from the window and lets out a shaky breath, vibrating with cold and anxiousness. Tanith thumbs through the photos, deleting all but the good ones, and then sends them to Valkyrie.


Does this look like the silver-haired woman you mentioned?


Tanith anxiously waits, but Valkyrie isn't getting back to her. Tanith peeks through the shutters again, ensuring that Sanguine is still preoccupied. She paces the room four times, checks her phone to make sure the ringer is on, and then verifies that Sanguine is still talking to the woman.

Her phone buzzes violently in her hand - Skulduggery is calling her. "Skulduggery," she rushes out when she answers, taking up vigil at the window. "Did Val-"

"Where are you?" He demands. "When did you take this?"

"Ah, I -- Estonia. And I took it about three minutes ago," she replies, returning to the window to check on Sanguine. He isn't there, which makes panic spike through her. "Shit -- I've got to go, but is that the silver-haired woman Val's been seeing?"

"It is," he replies, voice hard. "We're on our way-"

"Wait, wait, no," Tanith rushes out, "Sanguine keeps meeting with this woman about a job in Russia. Something to do with excavating an item from a cave. I don't know anything else yet, but I'll keep you posted. I have to go; he's on his way back."

Tanith wiggles out of her jacket, tossing it on the back of a chair, and dashes into the bathroom just as she hears the door click open.

"Tanith?" Sanguine calls. His voice is bright and cheerful. "Darlin', we got ourselves a job!"

Tanith frazzles her hair before stepping out of the bathroom, giving Sanguine her best attempt at a sleepy smile. "Where to?"

 


 

Skulduggery goes to the Edgley's door, knocking three times in rapid succession before pushing the door open. He comes in to find Melissa and Desmond on the couch with Alice in their arms, Valkyrie sitting in the chair beside her father. They all look up, startled. "I apologise for the interruption," Skulduggery says, trying to sound cheerful. "Valkyrie, something's come up. Something we can't neglect."

Valkyrie blinks at him. "I -- what?"

"Abyssinia," he says, and Valkyrie is on her feet, struggling into her jacket.

"Sorry, sorry, we've got to go," Valkyrie rushes out. She goes to Alice and takes her face in hands, kissing her forehead. "Pick a name," she says, and Alice nods. Alice looks concerned, though, knowing that such a reaction means something significant is happening.

"Steph, stay for dinner at least!" Melissa says voice choked. "And Skulduggery, of course. We just -- we need-"

Desmond, though, shakes his head. "They need to go, Melissa. We can talk through everything. Unless we've forgotten how to be proper people, in which case we might as well return to the sea."

"Wow, okay, dark turn," Valkyrie mumbles, kissing her mother and father on their cheeks. "We really have to go - world saving and all. Love you. Bye!" She's out the door before they can say anything.

"Skulduggery," Desmond says before the skeleton can follow. "She's my daughter, so I am fairly sure I need to warn you against letting her die. Or letting her lose more fingers - at this rate, she's going to be fingerless by 30."

"I will never let her get hurt if I can help it." It isn't as reassuring as Desmond wants, but at least it's honest. Skulduggery turns and leaves, finding Valkyrie pacing in front of the car. "You left your phone in the car - Tanith spotted Abyssinia in Estonia."

"Yeah, she said she saw someone, but-" she breaks off, ducking into the car and grabbing her phone, cursing. "So she's really there."

Skulduggery joins her and the Bentley turns, going faster than Valkyrie is comfortable with, but she doesn't say anything about it right then. "She hired Sanguine for a job in Russia."

"What the hell is in Russia?"

"Magnificent views," he replies, his permanent grin suddenly terrifying when his voice, low and musical, takes on a rough undertone. "And the cave where Lord Vile died."

Valkyrie doesn't understand for a moment, and then - "Oh fuck."

"Precisely," Skulduggery replies. "Call Fletcher, have him meet us at yours. And we should send Omen to watch over your family's house, just in case. I don't like the thought of Alice left alone without us, given all that happened today."

"Yeah," Valkyrie mumbles while she texts, thumbs flying across the display. "Him and Never, just in case they need to teleport them out." She glances up for a moment, checking the road, and then adds, "Solomon can keep an eye on the house, too." Skulduggery doesn't answer, and Valkyrie huffs out a breath. "I know right now isn't the best time, but what the hell happened between you two?"

"I don't trust him."

"Well I do," Valkyrie returns. "He's not trying to harm me, or Alice, or you. Granted, he might not rush to your rescue as he would ours, but he's not going to do anything to hurt you."

"I'm not worried about his intentions. I'm worried that he will make a mistake; he tends to do that when given responsibility."

"We've all made, and are still making, mistakes. I think our intention is our only redemption, really."

Skulduggery doesn't respond; Valkyrie lets him stew.

 


 

"So what's going on?" Fletcher demands when they enter the house - Valkyrie blows past him and up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Skulduggery follows her, and Fletcher comes behind, annoyedly demanding, "What's in Moscow?"

"Nothing at the moment," Skulduggery replies, sitting on Valkyrie's bed while the woman drags a small suitcase down from her closet and begins tossing clothing inside. There doesn't seem to be a rhythm or reason to it, but what does Skulduggery know? "You have been, yes?"

"Of course I've been," he says as if he's offended.

"Good. We need you to get us to Moscow," Skulduggery says as if it's that simple. "Unless, of course, you know Koltsovo?"

"Koltsovo? No. No, why -- I've been to Moscow, and that's all I care to say on the topic of Russia."

"You sound like you have some feelings about this," Valkyrie says, tossing underwear into her suitcase. "I would love to make fun of them, but we're a little strapped for time."

"We're not," Skulduggery tells her from where he perches at the foot of her bed. "Not technically, anyway. We need to get to the Ural Mountains, so that means a flight from Moscow to Koltsovo, a bus from Koltsovo to Andrianovichi, and then a very uncomfortable trek."

"I'm not great at treks," Fletcher says slowly.

"Well, that is terribly bad for you, seeing as we need you to teleport us out if necessary. And that is a large possibility, knowing Abyssinia's love for playing dirty."

"This is about your ex?" Fletcher groans.

"She's trying to steal Lord Vile's armour," Valkyrie rushes through the bullet points. "She wants to take over the world, cull lots of us, imprison the rest."

"Well, that sucks," Fletcher understates. "Okay, crazy lady wants to ruin the world. Why does she need armour to do that?"

Skulduggery's tone is wry. He gets to his feet and says, "She might still have an interest in Vile's abilities. And Vile himself."

"Oh," Valkyrie mumbles. Somehow that never occurred to her. Possess Skulduggery with the armour, yes, but not that she still...

Fletcher looks between them. "But Lord Vile is already dead."

Skulduggery, as usual, ignores him. "I need to pick some things up from my house-" before he can finish, Fletcher is placing his hand against Skulduggery's arm, and they disappear with a soft pop.

Valkyrie stares at the place they were just standing before shaking her head, returning to packing. She's never been to Russia before, but now she wishes she'd had time to do some shopping.

"There are shops in Moscow," Darquesse reminds her. "And you'll need to wait for a flight, anyway. Plenty of time."

Valkyrie pauses, hand hesitating on a pair of thick woollen pyjama pants. "You sound excited."

"It's not every day you see the place your lover died."

"He's not your lover," Valkyrie mutters, only to switch to, "I am pretty sure Vile wants to rip you apart."

"Isn't that what love is?" Darquesse purrs. "Tearing one another apart until the only thing left is raw and beating?"

Valkyrie decides not to argue the philosophies of life and love with the thing possessing her mind. She grabs the pyjama pants and drops them into her bag.

 


 

Russia isn't nearly as cold as Valkyrie expected, so she's already sweltering under the three layers of jackets she's shoved herself into.

"You were wrong," Fletcher says, leaning in to speak in an undertone. "You still look ridiculous even in the cold."

Valkyrie glares at him, but her attention follows Skulduggery's path through the crowds.

"Why do you work with him?" Fletcher asks suddenly.

"What are you on about?" Valkyrie asks, eyes scanning. Though the airport is bustling and Valkyrie and Fletcher are easily seen, no one glances in their direction. They're not that remarkable here, Valkyrie supposes; just two more people.

"Skulduggery. You guys don't seem to get along that well."

She turns to raise a brow at him, a disbelieving laugh slipping from her lips. "What? We get along swell."

"The first time I met you, you two couldn't even look at each other."

Because he just told me that he didn't want to continue our improper tryst, she thinks, setting her jaw. "You don't know anything. Skulduggery and I are partners. We're...us."

"I just mean...you don't really need him, but you come running when he calls. That's all."

"Oh, that's all?" she snorts, flipping her wind-tossed hair from her eyes. "I need him, and he needs me. Stop asking stupid questions. You know, maybe just stop asking questions that don't involve you being our pack mule."

Fletcher looks genuinely hurt, and Valkyrie softens her expression. "Sorry; just a little stressed. Lots riding on this - maybe. Maybe not - maybe she's looking for the armour to destroy it for us."

"Is that...likely?"

"Nope, not even a little. Stop asking stupid questions."

Skulduggery approaches them; his facade is stubbly-faced and handsome. He waves them over with a strong, thick-fingered hand and replaces his hat atop dark hair.

Valkyrie appreciates the facade, she has to admit. It isn't one of his best, but it's nothing to scoff at. When she and Fletcher reach him, following him into an airport cafe, Valkyrie murmurs, "When's boarding?"

"Two hours," Skulduggery replies. "Then Koltsovo. Then Andrianovichi."

"I didn't understand anything you just said," Fletcher informs him, taking his boarding pass and tucking it inside of his fake passport.

"Well, I suppose I could say: within a day, we will be walking uphill for a very long time, and we will be cold, wet, and miserable. Rather, you two will be cold, wet and miserable."

"Yay," Fletcher grumbles.

"Who looks stupid for wearing extra layers now?" Valkyrie asks.

"You. Still you."

 


 

Valkyrie hasn't slept much recently; she hadn't planned to get sleep tonight, either, seeing as it is Halloween. Halloween has always been her second favourite holiday, from the costumes to awful horror movies. Granted, her new life is kind of like Halloween daily. That doesn't stop her from lamenting that she's in a train in Russia instead of at a party, though. "Damn Abyssinia. Bloody cow," she mutters more than once, surprised when Skulduggery's facade smiles each time.

When she's done complaining - too exhausted to keep annoying Fletcher, eyes hurting more than she can bear - she slips into her compartment. She changes into her pyjamas and curls up, her anxiety fading the closer she gets to the blessed abyss of sleep. Valkyrie is dozing when her door opens, filling the room with light. She groans, winces, and shoves her face into the pillow she sequestered.

"Hey, I'm going to grab some dinner," Fletcher's voice filters in. He's speaking softly; she supposes because he doesn't want to disturb her, but the attempt is useless. "Do you want to come? Or I can bring you something?"

"No," she mumbles. "Close the door, trying to sleep."

Fletcher does as asked and Valkyrie eases, letting her mind wander. She thinks about Alice, spending her first Halloween without her sister. And with magic. Valkyrie thinks about her mum and dad, how terrified they must be; two daughters, two children they adore, and both destined for something much different than either parent imagined.

The door opens again, and she sits up, snarling, "Goddamn it, Fletcher, I don't want di-" and then her eyes take in the dark figure there, silhouetted against the lights in the hallway. He's tall and slender, and his hat makes him unmistakable.

"Skulduggery?" she asks, confused.

He closes the door behind him, but he doesn't move further into the room. He loiters. Valkyrie's chest tightens. At first, she thinks he might be attempting to startle her, to try a proper Halloween scare. But the longer he stands in the shadows, the less likely that seems.

Valkyrie gets to her feet, slowly crossing the metres between them. He looks down at her; his facade's eyes are soft. Valkyrie's heart speeds up, and she reaches behind him to lock the door. She lingers, her fingers slowly sliding from the entrance to his hip. "I can't do this again," she says softly. "Not if this isn't real."

Skulduggery finally moves, a bared hand rising to her jaw, tilting her head the small fraction. Their lips meet, and Valkyrie lets out a helpless noise, melting against him.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Tanith doesn't like Russia. It's too cold, for one, and so damned dreary. She doesn't have much room to complain about gloom, coming from London, but the annoyance warms her up a bit.

"Can we get a room yet?" she breathes, bouncing on her heels. She should have worn more, but she's so fond of her leathers and scoop necks.

Sanguine is scrolling through his phone, waiting for a message from one of Abyssinia's thralls. "Hold on, hold on," he grumbles. "Trynna figure out where the fuck the next stop is. I can't focus on all'a these weird letters."

Tanith rolls her eyes and shoves past him and into the lobby of a pristine hotel. She smiles at the pretty girl behind the counter while she requests a room. The girl is passing her phone number to Tanith when Sanguine finally arrives, slinging an arm around Tanith's shoulders. "Alright, baby girl, we are good to go."

Tanith looks at his arm, and then his face. Her scowl is enough to make him retreat, holding his hands up. Tanith takes the phone number from the clerk, winking at her before heading for the elevators.

She crumples the number when she's out of view, and tosses it into a gleaming trashcan when she comes across one. If there's one thing Tanith isn't in Russia for, it's love. Rather, she supposes, it is love. But a different kind of love. Something undefinable.

Tanith risks sending a text to Valkyrie while in the elevator, pretending she's scrolling through Instagram. Sanguine is too distracted with smoothing back his wind-touseled hair to notice.

Val, we just got to Moscow
The second he has the time and place for the meet I'll pass it on
Be safe, love you

She deletes the texts from her phone and slides it into her pocket before Sanguine notices, pushing off of the gleaming wall and sauntering to the room.

Room service arrives before Sanguine's phone goes off. He grabs it, reading the text, and his grin cannot stop widening. "We're gonna be rich soon, babe." He taps out a response, still beaming.

The smile disappears when Tanith takes a heavy lamp from the side-table and hits him over the head with it.

"Sorry babe," Tanith over-enunciates, leaning down to watch him struggle to keep conscious. She seizes his phone before reaching into his pockets, feeling around until she finds his straight razor. Tanith grins when Sanguine moans, and she kisses his forehead. "In spite of you low-key kidnapping me, it's been fun. See you next time, sweetness."

A boot to his face puts him to sleep.

 


 

Valkyrie is having trouble breathing, clutching Skulduggery's head while his facade trails lips and tongue across her neck, teeth nipping. His hands aren't warm, exactly - and they are somewhat waxy against her - but she can't tell the difference when one of his fingertips glides into her pants, collecting the wetness already beginning between her legs, sliding it up to her clit and rubbing.

"Wait," she gasps, trying to find a single thought. Skulduggery stops immediately, pulling back. "I just...the facade."

He chuckles and presses his face against her neck. His nose - nose - brushes across her throat as he does. "I'm afraid I can't take it off. It might be hard to explain why my passport, fake as it is, does not match the man I appear to be at all."

She lets out a soft chuckle, but something inside of her is still unsure. "I just...I like it being us."

"It is still us, Valkyrie. But if you are uncomfortable..."

Valkyrie's eyelids try to flutter, but she manages to keep them under control. Damn his voice. Her mouth goes to his; feeling lips is odd - she isn't entirely comfortable with it, but he groans into her mouth, and her eyelids do flutter.

"I thought," he murmurs, gently guiding her back into the room, "that perhaps we could see what this facade is capable of before Abyssinia tears me into pieces."

She grins and bites her lower lip, letting him press her against the plush booth. "I suppose - given that we're possibly going to die soon - we deserve a bit of fun before the end."

Skulduggery sits her down, his hands slowly easing her from her pyjama pants, the only thing left on. His grip is firm; he doesn't graze or touch her as if she's glass. His mouth travels in rough nips and licks, flicks of tongue and scrapes of teeth.

"You asked me if this is real," he sighs as he slopes down her belly, her abdomen, spreading her legs to either side so he can lower himself to her. "You are the only thing I've been sure of in a long time."

Valkyrie can't tell if her heart will burst from his words or the mindnumbing path he's taking down her body. "Skulduggery," she whispers, a hand reaching out to the back of his head, pulling him into another kiss. She wants to tell him that she's in love with him, but she knows it will ruin everything. So, instead, she releases him and leans back, offering him a smirk. "Were you planning on doing something with those newfound mouth-bits of yours?"

"Did that sound better in your head?"

"Much, but the sentiment is spot-on."

He laughs and the tension breaks. He steals another kiss from Valkyrie before hefting her muscled thighs over his shoulders, leaning down and taking her breath away.

Valkyrie is having more trouble breathing because Skulduggery, at first a little rusty, has found his pace and is making it known that he is very skilled with a tongue. Even a fake one. She tries to keep herself quiet - acutely aware that Fletcher is possibly back from dinner in the next compartment - but Skulduggery drags a finger across her slickness, slowly pressing inside of her. She yelps; the yelp turns into a moan. She's too caught up to be embarrassed, though, and grabs the back of Skulduggery's head, hand twisting in his hair, pulling him down.

He goes without hesitation, teeth gently scraping across her nub and eliciting a rough groan from her throat. His finger speeds up inside of her, a quick, sharp pace. A second joins the first and Valkyrie is already trembling.

"Wait," she whispers, choking through the need clawing at her throat. Darquesse roars, attempting to silence her. "Wait, wait," she repeats, and Skulduggery's head lifts. His fingers still, but he doesn't remove them. "I don't want to come yet."

His mouth, glistening with her, widens into a grin. One of his fingers hooks inside of her, rubbing across the sensitive bundle of nerves. She bucks and gasps; she's already on fire, but she knows her flush is darkening. "I will not be finished with you after a single orgasm, Valkyrie; you wound me with the mere suggestion."

She swallows and nods, her inside burning, curling. Darquesse, pleased with his response, settles back and purrs when his tongue returns. "There," Valkyrie whimpers when Darquesse mewls, when Valkyrie jolts. "There, harder."

His lips and tongue speed up, the force rough. Both if his fingers hook and rub along her, stealing her breath and thoughts.

She comes hard, whimpering and trembling, biting her forearm to keep herself in check. Her thighs vice around Skulduggery's neck; her free hand is gripping his suit, the nails digging in, not letting go.

Skulduggery lingers, drinking her in and letting her catch her breath. She stares at the ceiling, trying to understand anything at all. Everything is soft around the edges. Dreamy.

When he pulls away, kissing across her thighs and up her belly, she comes back to her body. She drags him down onto her; it's an awkward position on the bench, but it gives her the chance to shove his jacket away, and then his shirt, and, finally, his pants.

Skulduggery doesn't bother with folding his suit carefully, as is his custom. He kicks the pants off and leaves it all in a rumpled pile. Valkyrie can't help that her eyes dart down, finding a flaccid cock. She's too curious to filter her question.

"Does it...?"

"Let's see."

Valkyrie reaches out and takes him in hand, her heart pounding. She's almost scared to find out. Skulduggery lowers her to the bench, swinging her around so that he can rest one knee beside her, the other leg bracing on the floor.

Valkyrie raises a bit to meet his lips with hers, her hand sliding across the cock in her hand, the thing that isn't Skulduggery but somehow is. It doesn't do much for a bit, but then Skulduggery makes an odd noise, and she feels him growing harder.

"I didn't do that, did I?" she asks.

"If I said it was you, would you believe me?"

"Well not now," she snorts; the noise turns into a lusty groan when he bucks in her hand, the cock roughly thrusting against her fingers.

Valkyrie thinks of reciprocating the oral, but she wonders if it would even matter, given that she couldn't get a reaction out of him. So she guides him lower, pressing him against her dripping sex. "How'd you do it?" she breathes.

He doesn't answer her; it would be concerning, but he thrusts into her with a long, hard stroke, and she forgets her name.

She can't see for a moment, vision swallowed by light. When she opens her eyes, Skulduggery is looking down at her in something like reverence. Devotion. She worries what her expression is betraying.

He slows his pace, the excitement of the new sensation fading off, replaced by his apparent need to touch her. His hands caress across her, cupping her breasts and squeezing her nipples, eliciting moans. He fingers his way across her ribs, the muscles of her abdomen, and the cropped curls between her legs.

"Skulduggery," she whispers, arching up a bit to take him a little deeper. She's going blind; she's sure she's going blind. It's so hard to focus on anything but the facade's green eyes. Skulduggery's green eyes.

He returns her name, face lowering to her shoulder, mouth following the cleft of her collarbone. His pace is slow and deep, rocking them together; it's the most intimate, graceful dance she's ever been part of. Valkyrie's tongue slides up his neck, not even noticing the lack of a pulse, of sweat, of any real taste at all.

It doesn't matter. Nothing else matters.

He coaxes Valkyrie into two more orgasms before she gasps, "I can't - oh God, no more."

Skulduggery chuckles and kisses her neck, her jaw, her mouth. "It is hard to believe the indestructible Valkyrie Cain has such low stamina."

Valkyrie wonders if her brain is leaking out of her ears. "Stop making fun of me," she says, but her voice sounds whimsical while she basks. "Besides, you would have never lasted that long if you were still in your own skin."

"This is true, though I refuse to acknowledge it henceforth." He begins to pull away from her, and she moans, slightly distressed at losing him. His cock is still large, still ready, but it flags almost immediately.

Valkyrie frowns. "Seems like it's only half-way functional."

"I'm afraid so," he chuckles, leaning back to give her room to sit up. Which she does, but very slowly. She doesn't bother getting dressed; her body is too exhausted.

"I could help," she begins softly, leaning toward him a little, pretending she doesn't waver with the motion. The shadow curls out of her ring, seeking him. "My magic seemed to do something last time."

Skulduggery pulls her over, and she ends up in his lap, arms around his neck. "Best not to tempt Vile, don't you think?"

"Good point, I suppose..." Valkyrie frowns at him, the shadow retreating. "Who did the sigils on your collarbones? Maybe they can tweak it so that you get some physical enjoyment out of it?"

He laughs, the sound full and echoing in the room. It makes her insides feel squishy. "It would be a very uncomfortable conversation, given recent history."

Valkyrie is perplexed for a moment before wincing. Of course. "China?"

"The one."

"Maybe Omen can puzzle it out."

"Do you trust Omen to carve sigils on me at this point in time?"

"Right, of course, he'd mutilate you." She leans in to rest her forehead on his shoulder, eyes closing.

"We have a lot of time to discover the ins and out of this, Valkyrie," he promises her. It's an empty guarantee - God only knows how long they have - but it's one she holds onto, gripping it as if it is her last lifeline.

 

 


 

Chapter Text



Omen is exhausted, but he still grabs his phone from Never's bedside table when it buzzes. "Hullo?" he mumbles. Never was right - staying up reading a comic, no matter how good, wasn't a proper use of his time. Well, it was - he loved the goddamn thing - but he regrets it even more when Wreath's voice fills his ear.

"Omen, something has come up at the Temple," Wreath says. His voice is tight. "I need to go see to Melancholia, so I have to leave Alice's house."

"So you want me to watch it?" he asks, tilting his head back and closing his eyes. He's so tired. He can't even imagine sitting around staring at a house all day.

"And Never, just in case things do not go as we hope. Alice will be off to school in an hour, so it shouldn't be too taxing for you."

"Sure," Omen mumbles, shaking the sleep from his head. "Yeah, sure. I'll get Never, and we can come right over. Wait. Where are we going?"

"The Edgley house," Wreath says; his tone is dark, annoyed. "You have the address, yes?"

"Um."

"She texted it to you and to Never."

"Oh, okay. Then yes, I have it. I think." Wreath makes an exasperated noise, and Omen winces. "We'll get there soon," he promises before hanging up. He dresses quickly, finding Never and her family sitting at the table with breakfast.

Never takes one look at Omen and her eyes widen. "What happened?"

"Something at the Temple - Wreath needs us to keep an eye on Alice until he's done."

Never is out of her chair and heading for the door, pouring herself into her boots and coat. "We'll be back later!" Never calls to her parents. Omen isn't sure if they hear her or know it's useless to try to stop her, but they leave the house and make it to Never's brother's car without an issue.

They stake out the house until Alice leaves, backpack over her shoulder, hair gleaming. She looks a little distracted, but Omen figures it probably has something to do with her sister being in Russia, or school, or maybe a boy? Omen isn't sure, the more he thinks about it, what normal kids go through.

They stake out the school, watching from afar and somehow not drawing authorities while they spy on the grounds. Omen needs to pee and Never is annoyed with him because he didn't pee before they left.

"Go inside and get it done," Never finally snaps when Omen begins slowly wiggling in his seat, shifting left and right. "Don't draw attention."

Omen gets out of the car and dashes into the building, drawing many confused looks from smaller children and adults alike. Lunchtime has just started, and kids are everywhere, like driftwood tripping him up.

But then he sees Alice and brightens, shoving his way across the courtyard and toward her. "Alice, hey! Where's the nearest-" but he pauses when Alice's eyes meet his. She looks lost. Ill, perhaps.

And then Omen realises what's happening. "You're not Alice."

It smiles, but the expression doesn't reach its eyes. "I am Alice. It's nice to see you again, Omen."

"You're Alice's Reflection," he says, horror beginning to fill him. He grabs its arms and shakes, startling nearby children into a cacophony of surprise. "Where's Alice?" he demands.

Alice's Reflection doesn't react other than to say, "I am Alice." But in a softer voice, it adds, "I thought about staying home today, getting some extra sleep. But now I am here."

"Excuse me!" And adult is wading through the children and toward them, red-faced. "What is the meaning of this?"

Alice's Reflection pulls back from Omen. "He's a friend. He's excited to see me."

"I was just leaving!" Omen says as he turns and runs through the courtyard and back toward Never's car, darting inside. "We need to go back to the house - that's Alice's Reflection."

Never blinks. "Her...oh, goddamnit."

"Yeah."

"Shit," Never snaps, throwing the car into reverse and peeling out of the parking lot with more intensity than expected, but not more than is warranted.

The house is quiet when they arrive, but the front windows are shattered from the inside, glass sparkling in the garden like dew. Never curses while Omen shouts for Alice, running inside the house. The door, like the windows, has been splintered as if a bomb erupted inside.

"Alice!" Omen shouts, cold fear clogging his throat. He can hear Never calling Wreath while he runs upstairs, throwing open doors. The second room is Alice's, and it is not empty.

"Oh?" comes out of Omen's mouth. "What, ah..."

He stares at the dark, bubbling mass of blackness dragging itself across the carpet, leaving an oily trail of darkness behind it.

And then there's another one crawling from under the bed. And another plopping out of the wardrobe.

He feels something slither over his foot, impossibly heavy for how small it is, and Omen shouts. He flings his foot out, trying to dislodge it, but it's coiling around his shoe. Omen yells again, flails, and the thing seems to smile at him.

"Teeth," he gasps - for some reason that's the only word that will come to him. The thing's jagged teeth tear into his shoe and Omen slams his foot against the wall. Black fluid smudges across the plaster, thick and smelling sharp.

Never is at his side suddenly, yanking him out of the room. She deftly kicks the back of Omen's knee, sinking him to the ground with a shout; she then uses the toe of her boot to push his shoe off. Never takes his arm and kicks the door shut; the world twists and they disappear.

 


 

Andrianovichi is cold and wet, the drizzle oppressive in its insistence, but that doesn't stop Valkyrie from running into it when she sees Tanith approaching.

Fletcher takes one look at the blonde through the cafe window and puffs his chest as if he's a bird trying to impress a mate. "Damn," he says appreciatively. He runs a hand through his hair, ensuring it's at maximum ridiculousness, before asking, "Is she single?"

Skulduggery glances at the man. "Even if she is, you stand very little chance."

"I'm great with women."

"You're not great with anyone. Sort of insufferable, really."

Before the teleporter can try to retort, Valkyrie and Tanith, both rain-drenched and smiling, come inside. "Skul," Tanith greets, leaning over to press a kiss to his facade's cheek. She slides into the booth with him, and Valkyrie glides in beside Fletcher.

Fletcher doesn't look pleased with his booth partner, but he changes his mind when Tanith removes her jacket, her low-scoop tunic giving him a stunning view. "Are you single?" he asks, and Tanith raises a brow.

"Ignore him," Valkyrie says with a thin smile. "It's the only way to stay sane."

"Looks about right," she replies, eyes narrowing. "How much do you spend on hair product, by the way?" Before Fletcher can stammer something out, she turns her attention to Valkyrie and Skulduggery. "Right, so. Abyssinia is planning on meeting Sanguine and myself near a refinery outside of Yesaulovo in fifteen hours."

"Does she know where the armour is?" Valkyrie asks. She has no idea where Yesaulovo is; she isn't even sure she can point to their current location on a map.

"She has some idea," Tanith begins slowly. "I've never had the pleasure of speaking with her, but Sanguine seems to think she knows what she's doing."

"Wonderful," Skulduggery murmurs, thinking.

"She might be bluffing," Valkyrie offers, trying to fake optimism.

Skulduggery sits up a little straighter. "At least we have some time on Abyssinia, and we know where we're going...mostly."

"Mostly?" Tanith and Fletcher echo. It's almost cute how they don't know Skulduggery's humour yet.

And then Skulduggery adds, "It's been a very long time and, if you never noticed, mountains are rather similar in style."

Valkyrie's smile fades. "Wait, we don't know where we're going?"

"We do know where we are going. We are going north. And then northeast. And then into a cave."

"Oh no," Valkyrie exhales, drawing the words out. Skulduggery seems sure he can find the cave, and it would be silly to think he won't find it, won't save the day. Even so, it probably means they're in for more walking than anyone expected.

Valkyrie's very glad that she bought a thick coat when they arrived in Andrianovichi.

Tanith perks up a little and reaches into her discarded jacket, pulling something out of the pocket. "I have a present for you, Val."

Valkyrie's face lights up when Tanith offers Sanguine's straight razor. "No," Valkyrie breathes, delighted. She takes the razor, flipping it open and inspecting it. "This is the best gift you've ever gotten me. Well...after Ginger. Second best."

"I'll take it," Tanith laughs, her expression softening.

Skulduggery's phone buzzes and he takes it out, the facade's eyebrows furrowing. "It's Omen."

"Maybe he finally found something on those damn sigils," Valkyrie mutters.

Skulduggery stands and leaves the cafe, rounding the corner into an alley before answering. "Omen?"

"Skulduggery -- oh, God, I don't-"

"Omen, take a breath."

"Oh God, I messed up. I messed up so bad-"

"What's going on?" Valkyrie asks from behind Skulduggery. He turns to find the three waiting for him at the corner of the building.

"Omen, what's happened?"

"I-it's Alice. Alice is gone. She sent a Reflection to school, and we didn't see it when we were tailing her, but she wasn't her! It was - fuck - it was her Reflection! And now she's gone, and the windows were blown out, and there were demon monsters, Skulduggery. Demon monsters in her bedroom."

Valkyrie is walking toward Skulduggery, her face beginning to screw up in fear. "Skulduggery, what is it?" she demands. He only then remembers that his facade is up and she can see the panic that would stop his heart if he had one.

"Omen, get to the house," Skulduggery begins.

"We are, we're here."

"Good. Stay there - Fletcher and Tanith will be there immediately. Call Ghastly, Wreath, and Melancholia. Tell them everything, and then scour anywhere she can be. If you don't find her by nightfall, go to China. Understood?"

Valkyrie grabs Skulduggery's arm. Her eyes are wide. "Skulduggery, what's going on?"

"Okay, okay - I can do that," Omen is saying, but Skulduggery hangs up. He puts his hands on Valkyrie's shoulders, meeting her eyes with his own. To Fletcher, he says, "Take Tanith back to the house and talk to Omen. He'll fill you in."

Fletcher, for once, doesn't press. Tanith, as usual, looks concerned but accept her orders without question. She's a professional, after all. Fletcher takes Tanith's hand, and they wink out of existence.

"Skulduggery," Valkyrie whispers. "What happened?"

Skulduggery takes a breath he doesn't need and brings her further into the alleyway. He keeps hold of her, hands sliding from her shoulders to her elbows. "Alice sent her Reflection to school. Omen was trailing the Reflection, and now no one knows where Alice is."

Valkyrie wavers and her eyes rapidly blink. "What do you mean...where..."

"The others will scour Haggard; they will check Roarhaven, they will go everywhere. They will bring China in if they have to. They will find her," he promises, but Valkyrie isn't hearing him. She is staring over his shoulder, seeing nothing. "Valkyrie," he whispers, tilting her face up to him. "Valkyrie, you need to speak to me. Tell me what is happening."

Valkyrie closes her eyes and then she opens them. They glow, whiteness behind the dark, and Skulduggery tightens his grip. "Valkyrie-"

"Tell me she'll be okay," Valkyrie finally rasps out. "Tell me she's fine. She's at a friend's house, or Mum took her on a surprise girl's day, or..."

Skulduggery brushes her hair from her face, waiting until she looks at him, meets his gaze. "Alice will be fine. Tanith is there. We have Wreath and Ghastly, and two teleporters." His thumb brushes her cheek. "They won't leave a stone unturned."

She nods, and her eyes begin to shift, becoming her own. She looks exhausted; Darquesse is becoming harder to fight. "I think I might faint if that isn't too awkward for you."

"Of course not; I have known you long enough that catching you is second nature."

"I just mean if someone walks by," she mumbles, eyelids fluttering. "Might look a little..."

And then her knees give out.

 


 

Chapter Text


 

Tanith and Omen stand beside the new front door of the Edgley house. Tanith drinks tea and Omen mumbles to himself while he wards the front door. The Cleavers are working on removing traces of the trauma inside, but it is slow-going.

"Don't say anything to anyone," Tanith abruptly says when a car rounds and comes to a stop in the driveway. Omen watches her as she puts her tea down and goes to meet a man; Desmond Edgley, Omen assumes.

Tanith leads him inside - he's asking about the men replacing his windows, looking absolutely baffled as to why such a thing is occurring. "And who is that?" Desmond asks, staring at Omen as they pass. "And why is he carving up my doorway?"

They go inside; Omen stays by the window, pretending to consult the sigils while watching them. Tanith sits the man down and takes his hands. She leans in; she speaks in a familiar way. She holds his fists when he vehemently shakes his head, when his shoulders deflate, when he lets out an animalistic noise that Omen can hear through the closed egresses.

Tanith wraps her arms around his shoulders. She's speaking to him, her face torn between exhaustion, sorrow, and anger. Omen can't hear her, but he can see how her mouth moves, how sharp her words are, how vengeful.

When Tanith leaves him, Alice's Reflection steps into the room and sits beside her sort-of father. He doesn't speak, and he doesn't blink - he merely stares.

"Is he okay?" Omen asks when Tanith steps through the door, softly shutting it behind her.

"Not even a bit," she replies. She takes a deep breath, checking her phone before nodding. "Right then. Wreath has ensured that she isn't at the Temple. He needs us to check places around Haggard, and for you to put some barriers in place around town; something that will alert us if anyone magical goes in or out. Wreath is going to call on China Sorrows. Hopefully, she knows something or - even more naively - hopefully Alice is with her."

They climb onto Tanith's motorbike, and Omen takes a breath, preparing himself for the terror of riding with Tanith Low. Before she can start the engine, he blurts, "What did you tell him? When he was crying."

He doesn't think Tanith will answer, but she does. "I told him we'd find her. I told him if someone took her, we'll make sure they never breathe again."

She starts the bike, and they jolt forward.

 


 

Valkyrie thinks she's dreaming when she wakes up. She sees flashes of life, but then the air whooshes them away. She feels the world bottom out only to arise again. Her ears are nothing but pressure, and her throat feels like cotton. She can't get a lungful - everything keeps whooshing in and out, leaving her breathless.

And then the world comes into view and stays that way. Valkyrie reels, trying to make sense of things, when she finally realises that she's in Skulduggery's arms and he is slowly lowering her to a wet, mossy rock. He keeps hold of her shoulders while she wavers, catching her breath.

"I told you teleporting an unconscious person was a bad idea," Fletcher says from somewhere to Valkyrie's right. She can't look up, too busy realigning herself by staring at a clump of slippery moss.

"Where are we?" she asks, clearing her throat and repeating herself when the first attempt fails.

"Nearly there." When Valkyrie looks sceptical, Skulduggery amends, "Nearly there to the mountain range, it will be a bit still until the cave. Presuming I can find my way around."

"That's grand," Valkyrie nods. She can't even complain, though - this is par for the course with Skulduggery Pleasant. Valkyrie then remembers Alice and her blood runs cold. "What the hell is Fletcher doing here?" Valkyrie demands. "He's supposed to be looking for Alice!" She wheels on Fletcher. "Did you find her?"

Fletcher looks down and away, and Valkyrie feels her heart sink even lower. It might be digesting in stomach acid, as terrible as it feels. "Nothing?" she whispers.

Skulduggery takes her hand and turns her to him. In a surprising lack of decorum, Skulduggery pulls Valkyrie into his arms, holding her close. "Valkyrie, they are doing all that they can. We will find her. I promise you this. And she will be fine. But right now..."

"We need to focus," Valkyrie finishes, and it breaks her. Something inside of her cracks and crumbles, but she bites the inside of her cheek and closes her eyes, trying to catch her breath. "Alice will be fine, and we need to focus on foiling this bitch." She winches. "Sorry. Abyssinia."

"I prefer the former, actually."

Valkyrie wants to force a laugh or at least smile, but she can't. She pulls back and nods before returning to Fletcher. "Let's find this damned armour."

Skulduggery's gloved hand finds her free one, and he squeezes.

The world bottoms out.

 


 

The next 48 hours pass with a rotating troupe of helpers. Fletcher brings in the others here and there, switching people back home when things get too bleak. The only ones who stay regularly are Skulduggery, Valkyrie, and Omen.

Omen is having a hard time understanding what he's supposed to be doing, but he doesn't dare ask. Valkyrie is sombre, but Omen has seen anger grow from nothing before. Skulduggery is overly-cheerful, which Omen is beginning to understand means that things are not going well.

"How much time?" Valkyrie suddenly asks while one of her tendrils scouts another cavern entrance cut through the mountains. It's more of a slender shaft than a cave entrance, but Omen keeps it to himself.

Skulduggery doesn't consult the time; he keeps his eyes focused on the cave. "A day. Maybe two. I suppose it depends on how keen Abyssinia is to find it."

"I'd wager she's quite keen."

"As would I," he replies softly. And then, "Anything?"

"Nothing that I can find," Valkyrie mumbles, attention torn. "This one goes back further than I can scout. I can try going in there, but I'm not sure if I can fit."

Skulduggery glances at Omen and Omen bites back his terror. "Right. I'll go in. Nothing wrong with entering a tiny, tight, cramped coffin of rock."

"That's the spirit," Skulduggery says.

Omen swallows and meets Valkyrie's eyes. She tries to smile, but it barely appears before disappearing.

"You don't have to do this," Valkyrie says before he can move.

"You do not," Skulduggery agrees. "This is a bit more than we alluded to when we asked you to help us locate a book."

Omen feels his cheeks flush. "What? No, I -- I want to do this! I want to help. I'm just a little...claustrophobic." He stares at the entrance, acutely aware that every second he refuses to get into the tunnel, they are one second closer to losing. He wishes his brother was here. Auger could do it; Auger can do anything he sets his mind to.

Valkyrie abruptly hits his arm, and he groans, pulling back. An affectionate half-smile follows the hit. "I'll pull you out the second something happens, okay? Now go show that cave who's boss."

Omen lets out a small breath and nods. He can't stop nodding. God, his chest is going to burst. "You can count on me," he says, hoping he's right.

Valkyrie's shadow tendril returns from the cave only to loop around Omen's waist. "When you get past the tether, do not forget where you left it. I'm serious, Omen. You can't forget anything when you're down there."

Omen is still nodding. He might be nodding even as he descends into the cold, damp abyss.

 


 

Tanith doesn't know what to do - she isn't even sure if she can do anything. Between her shifts helping the others in Russia, she paces through the Sanctuary. Now that China has removed Tanith from her detain on sight status, the blonde decides to stick close to the hub of everything. The Guard and Cleavers have all of the roads covered with checkpoints; they are making rounds of the residential sector. They are checking every nook and cranny.

And still no Alice.

Tanith is exhausted, but the ever-present fear clawing at her throat won't let her so much as blink for too long. She's known Alice for all of the girl's life practically. She's spent Thanksgivings and Christmases with her. She taught her basic self-defence when she was seven.

God, it hurts. It hurts so bloody much.

A hand finds her shoulder, and she whirls to find Ghastly Bespoke. Tanith lets out a relieved sigh and offers the man an approximation of a smile. She can't believe he snuck up on her; she really needs sleep. "Hey. Just got back?"

"I did. I can't say I'm fond of Russia's mountain wilderness." He offers her a thermos. "Coffee?"

"Oh thank God," Tanith groans, gladly taking the metal canister and warming her fingers for a moment before sipping. "The Sanctuary coffee is an atrocity."

Ghastly chuckles and ducks his head slightly. Tanith takes a moment away from her inner angst to watch him while she sips his coffee, how he doesn't meet her eyes for too long. When he does, though, it's intense — all-consuming.

Tanith hands the thermos back and needlessly shakes her hair out of her face. "Are you in a hurry?" she asks suddenly, and it seems to startle him.

"I am currently in the 'wait' part of hurry-and-wait," he smiles.

"Brilliant; you can show me to your new office...Elder Bespoke." Tanith loves how his eyes widen, how he suddenly looks caught in a precarious situation. "I heard some of the sorcerers talking about it down the hall," she continues when he can't seem to form words. "Careful with this lot, yeah? Chatty as hell."

Ghastly glances around the hallway - it's currently empty, their murmurs the only noise. "You think I am making a terrible choice, don't you?"

Tanith snorts, putting a hand over his. The thermos is warm, but Ghastly is somehow warmer. "Show me that office."

She follows him through the corridors and to an unremarkable door. The room inside is bare, lacking any sort of personality - the perfect new-office appearance. Tanith takes a seat on the couch in the corner, a sleek, uncomfortable thing, all angles. "Come sit," she bids, and Ghastly does.

They share the couch, angled toward one another, and pass the thermos back and forth. Finally, Tanith clears her throat and leans toward him a little. "You're nervous about taking the job."

"It isn't much of a fit if I'm honest."

"Nonsense. I think you'll be an excellent Elder."

"You just met me two days ago."

"I'm a quick, accurate judge of character," she shrugs, leaning her shoulder into the couch cushion. "And Valkyrie adores you, which gives high marks in my book. Plus, you're taking this seriously. You're questioning yourself. That, to me at least, shows you're leagues above these grubby little wankers."

Ghastly laughs and Tanith grins. She loves his laugh.

"I suppose now is as good a time as any to ask China for those facade tattoos."

"Facade tattoos? Why would you ever need a facade?" Ghastly's scarred brow raises at her as if she's daft. She realises, and then she laughs. "You'd better not; scars tell stories."

"Mine aren't quite as exciting as all that."

"Well, I like them." Tanith leans in a bit more; she almost reaches out to stroke one of the many lines through his cheek, but she stops herself in time. Ghastly's eyes rove from her face to the hand she began to move, and then back.

"I should let you get some rest," he says suddenly, getting to his feet. "You can use the office for as long as you need." And then he's leaving without her, without his thermos.

Tanith takes a drink of the coffee, lingering in Ghastly's office and trying to understand what happened between them. She is so sure he was going to kiss her - and, for some reason, she is positive she would have let him.

It isn't exactly the best time to focus on attraction, of course, but as Ghastly said - they are in an infuriating game of hurry up and wait.

Tanith finishes the coffee, knowing she'll be too wired to sleep but attempting it anyway. The couch smells like leather and Ghastly's faint, woodsy aftershave.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

They've tried eight caves, and not one has been right.

"Skulduggery, we're exhausted," Valkyrie informs him, glancing over her shoulder to where Never and Omen are drinking much-needed water. They're both speckled in grime, but Omen is worse off - he's been with them the entire time, all two days. "We haven't slept in eighteen hours."

"Right," Skulduggery sighs, glancing around. "Well, you all can make camp in the mouth of that cavern; we at least know every threat inside is torn apart thanks to you."

"I'm sorry I killed a lynx that only wanted a warm place to sleep, Skulduggery. I'm sorry I wasn't aware you, for some unknown reason, adore lynxes. And I'm sorry the damned thing jumped at my face, and my instincts took over."

"And what about the wolves?"

"They're wolves, Skulduggery. What, did you want me to punch them all?"

"That'd be preferable. Tundra wolves are endangered, you know."

Valkyrie glares at him; his sockets stare back, impassive. "You manage to know the endangered status of a tundra wolf, and yet you don't know where this very import cave, holding very important armour, is."

Skulduggery dips his head. "That's about the sum of the parts, yes."

"Cheers," she draws out, turning away from him and joining Omen and Never. "Eat something quick and let's keep going," she orders, tone firm. They don't bother whining until she's stalking off to the north, traversing the rocky, uneven terrain with exhausted trudges.

When Skulduggery and the teens meet up with her, she's scowling. "You manipulated me."

"You're more productive when you're mad."

She punches his arm, hard, and gets back to walking.

 


 

Tanith and Valkyrie have finally taken a break to catch some sleep, curling together for warmth. They're too nervous about using fires outside, given that Abyssinia could be anywhere now, so they huddle under a massive comforter Fletcher procured for them an hour ago.

Valkyrie feels as if she hasn't slept at all when her shadow slithers back to her, tingling while it caresses her fingers. She groans and opens her eyes, blinking blearily, not understanding. And then Valkyrie is on her feet and grabbing Tanith, shaking her awake.

"They found something!" she whispers roughly, and Tanith is up, jogging through the dim murk toward the shaft Skulduggery and Omen are scouting.

Valkyrie follows, less sure with her footing; she refuses to feel bad about her stumbling, though - Tanith's most impressive skill is walking on things no person should be able to. When she makes it to the mouth of the cave, Skulduggery is waiting for them. He helps Valkyrie, nearly blind in the dark, across slick rocks while Tanith trots along effortlessly.

"Where?" Tanith asks, voice overcome with excitement. "Is it really the armour?"

"Omen says it's leaking shadows all over, so I assume so."

Skulduggery's voice is rough and clipped; it makes Valkyrie nervous, but it brings Darquesse forward, pressing against her constraints. Valkyrie focuses on the mental exercise she and Wreath perfected - the chains locking together, the stakes spearing it into place, the binding circle, the jagged rock. She follows each link as she always does, she counts them, but Darquesse doesn't leave. She stays in Valkyrie's conscious, thrumming.

"I don't think I should keep going," Valkyrie bites out, not wanting to give into the smart choice but forcing herself to. "Darquesse -- I think she feels it. Feels Vile."

Skulduggery pauses. He clicks his fingers and fire floods the dank walls with light. "Are you sure?" he asks softly.

"No," she mumbles and then sighs. "Yes. I can't risk her being her while you're near Vile's armour."

"It would probably not end well." He checks the time and nods. "Fletcher should be checking in within the hour. You could wait for him topside; get him prepared for the flight."

Valkyrie nods but doesn't move. Neither does Skulduggery. Tanith is further down the cave, giving them privacy, but the place is too dark for her to go far. "Be careful," she says, and it kills her that she won't be there beside him. "Don't do something stupid."

His free hand brushes through her dirty, stringy hair. It's been days since her last shower, and she knows she has mud caked most everywhere. Even so, Skulduggery's voice is low and gentle, adoring. "You know I enjoy doing stupid things. It's why you love me."

The word startles her, but she refuses to waste her energy on hormonal confusion. She kisses his teeth before forcing herself away from him, tripping up the jagged rocks toward the aperture.

Valkyrie waits outside in her four layers of clothes and parka. She watches the sky lighten, and then the sun is breaking. It's oddly beautiful, even though the wet wasteland around them gives it something decrepit, something ominous.

Fletcher appears a little ways off, just at the foot of the hill before her. He teleports beside her, too lazy to walk it.

"You should probably be saving all of that energy for your flight through the world," she says, glancing up at him. He looks rested, which she's pleased to see. "They found it."

"Oh thank God," Fletcher breathes, looking up at the sky. "I don't know how much longer we could keep this up."

"Anything on Alice?"

Fletcher flinches as if he is preparing a thoughtful way to answer. "No," he says softly. "I'm sorry, Val. We'll find her; she's just..."

Valkyrie doesn't hear him anymore. The sunlight flares into her eyes; she stares on in horror. "Fletcher," she whispers. "Fletcher, go into the cave and find the others. Get that bloody armour out of here and then take the others home. Now."

Fletcher follows her gaze and stiffens. There are two figures on top of the hill. Their heads glint in the sun, reflecting like quicksilver. "Is that - oh God, does she have...?"

Valkyrie stands. "Go," she orders. Darquesse swirls, making some kind of animalistic noise too old to know.

Fletcher runs. Valkyrie stares into the sun and watches Abyssinia approach, her hand around the back of Alice's neck.

 


 

Fletcher slips more time than he'll admit, but he manages to follow the sound of talking to find the trio down a fork in the tunnel. He's panting, and he's reasonably sure he cut his forehead during one of his falls.

"We need to go," he gasps out. "She's here."

Skulduggery starts to move around him, to head topside, but Fletcher grabs his arm. "She said we all need to go."

"It is charming that you think you can stop me."

"I can," Fletcher says, eyes narrowing. "I can teleport you into the middle of the Adriatic if I want. But Alice is out there," he continues. He can't tell what Skulduggery's facial expression might have been, but he can feel how still the skeleton has gone; it's as if he has ceased being. "And I need to get this damn armour out of here, and then I need to get you guys home."

"I'm not going."

Before Fletcher can start in, Tanith interjects, "We don't have time for this. Get the armour and go."

Fletcher grits his teeth but releases Skulduggery. "Fine."

Omen finishes carving sigils on the case the armour hides within. He wipes his brow and nods awkwardly. "Done."

"Does it work?" Tanith asks.

"Only one way to find out, and we'll die if we try," Omen replies. He attempts to pick up the container but blanches under the weight, setting it down. "That's, um. That's pretty heavy. Good luck."

"Damnit," Fletcher grumbles, taking the container and wavering beneath the weight. "Stay here - I'll be back within a few minutes; just gotta hit 100 cities consecutively. No biggie."

"I'm going out there," Tanith says, already moving around Omen. "Omen, go home and wait for us. We'll be back soon."

"What about after I get him home?" Fletcher asks. "Do I come back here?"

"That is probably best," Skulduggery murmurs. "I'm not sure if we can fight her."

Fletcher disappears, and Skulduggery nods to the thin air. "Right then. Ms Low, are you ready to die today?"

Tanith is already pulling her sword from its sheath, cracking her neck. "Pitter-patter." And then she's running, feet slipping noiselessly over loose and notched rocks.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

They meet at the hollow of the mountain. Valkyrie ignores Abyssinia, her eyes training on her little sister, focusing on what parts of her she can see. Alice wears a white jumper and nothing else, the sleeveless shift fluttering in the breeze. She's shivering, but she isn't trying to run. She isn't complaining. Thin white gauze obscures her eyes.

"I'm so sorry," Valkyrie wheezes. "Baby, I'm so sorry."

"Alison has been a perfect companion these past few days," Abyssinia murmurs, brushing her fingers through Alice's wind-touseled hair. "Very compliant."

Valkyrie feels her heart bursting. She can't stop the tears blurring her vision. "Alice," she whimpers. "Sweetie, talk to me."

Alice opens her mouth; a soft noise leaves her lips before she closes them.

The ground erupts beside Abyssinia and Sanguine stands with them, his smirk covering his smug face. "Well look at this. Valkyrie Cain, all on her own. Not real sportin' of your friends to leave ya high and dry, is it?"

Valkyrie ignores him, eyes turning to Abyssinia. "What did you do to her?"

"I did nothing," Abyssinia laughs, the tone like velvet. "I would never hurt a hair on her head." As if to prove it, she brushes a loving hand through Alice's locks. "Sanguine, on the other hand."

Valkyrie's moving before she realises it. Sanguine is at her side in an instant, burrowing just in time to grab her ankle and send her sprawling two metres from Abyssinia. He grabs her ring and rips it from her finger, shoving his entire weight on a knee to her lower back; Valkyrie wheezes, unable to take a full breath, and Sanguine chuckles.

"Your wifey hit me on the head witha lamp. A lamp, Val. To my face."

"I wish she hadn't stopped," Valkyrie gasps, stupidly using some of the precious air she has.

"Now, now, Sanguine. You have had your revenge already; let her up."

Sanguine presses down a little harder, probably enjoying her gurgle of protest, and then departs. He returns to Abyssinia and Alice, standing behind the girl. "Your lil sis ain't quite the handful you are - she's positively delightful, all in all. But I figured - what's the best way to get back atta person?"

"Destroy what they love," Abyssinia answers with a soft smile. "Slowly. One piece at a time."

Sanguine unwinds the gauze; Valkyrie knows what she will see before she does. Even from her distance, the trauma shiners are dark and angry; Alice's eyelids have been sliced away, and her sockets are empty, sightless.

"She could pass as my kid, huh?" Sanguine smiles, taking off his glasses and leaning down to press his grinning face against Alice's sombre one. "What's the worst part of this, Val? That she ain't gonna see her folks' faces anymore? That she can't even cry when she thinks about 'em? That you did this to her?"

"Or," Abyssinia pretends to whisper, voice carrying on the gentle breeze. "Maybe it's the fact that her true name was so easy to find?"

Valkyrie can't inhale. Darquesse rages, slamming against the cages Valkyrie has confined her in. She rattles and screams, and she is wriggling the bars loose. Valkyrie can't keep her down - she can't even form a coherent thought.

"Alice," she tries, but her voice chokes on the first syllable.

Abyssinia lowers her mouth to Alice's ear and murmurs something. Her true name. Valkyrie sees the lips slowly move - two syllables - but she can't make sense of it. And then she murmurs, "Don't worry, darling. Go speak to your sister."

Alice aimlessly stumbles toward Valkyrie and Valkyrie rushes to meet her. When her arms circle the girl, the deluge pours out of her, tears thick and blinding. She is very aware that she is failing everyone by letting her emotions get the best of her, but she doesn't care because Alice is in her arms and Alice's voice is in her ear.

"Kill her. No matter what."

"I love you," Valkyrie murmurs and a sob breaks through Alice, her body sagging into Valkyrie. "I love you so much, baby. I'm not going to let her hurt you. I'm -- fuck. I'm so sorry."

"I love you," she whimpers. "Mum and Dad, too. Tell them whatever hurts less."

Valkyrie shakes her head, hands clearing Alice's hair from her face, from the dried blood ringing her ruined eyes. "No, Alice, you're coming home. I'm bringing you home, okay? Fletcher is going to be here any minute and-"

"Kill her," Alice repeats. "No matter what."

Sanguine grabs Alice's arm and drags her back and away, giving Valkyrie and Abyssinia a clearing. He holds Alice by the neck, smirking. Valkyrie watches her go and lets out a shuddering breath. "Let's end this, then."

Abyssinia laughs, but she doesn't direct it at Valkyrie. "I was beginning to wonder when the whole entourage would arrive."

"Hey, baby girl," Sanguine adds.

Valkyrie doesn't turn; she can feel Skulduggery and Tanith at her back. "I told Fletcher to get you out of here."

"You knew that wasn't going to happen, love," Tanith chuckles wryly. Her voice is humming with anxiety and adrenaline.

"Whatever would you do without us?" Skulduggery adds, clicking his fingers and summoning a flame.

"They look so delightful, do they not, Alison?" Abyssinia smiles at her little joke. "With their little fires and swords."

Alice doesn't answer. Valkyrie can hear Tanith break, a small gasp leaving her lips at the sight of Alice. Whereas the realisation makes Tanith freezes, Skulduggery moves. He stalks toward Abyssinia, his long legs spiriting him toward her with little effort. An arc of flame shoots at her, streaming, crashing around her.

Abyssinia moves like she isn't there - she migrates as if the air shifts around her, transporting her without stirring. She chooses Tanith first, ignoring the flames licking at her feet. Tanith swipes her blade experimentally, testing, and Abyssinia effortlessly turns to the side, her smile lazy. The edge slides through the air a metre from Abyssinia's belly, but Tanith changes course mid-swing, twisting her wrists and bringing the blade swooping toward the woman.

The blade nicks her forearm, but Abyssinia doesn't seem to notice. She grabs the sword in her left hand, blood streaming from her fingers, and holds it in place even as Tanith tries to wrench the blade back. Abyssinia's right hand comes down on the edge, a quick crack of her fist, and the sword breaks in half.

Tanith flips out of the way of Abyssinia's kick, dancing back. Skulduggery has given up on the flames, given the wet surroundings, and grabs his gun. He fires all of the rounds in quick succession, his free hand swooping the air around Abyssinia, holding her still so the bullets find purchase in her chest.

Valkyrie whips shadows at the woman with the cold eyes and red lips. She twists them around herself and shoots them from her, arcing after the bullets, speeding them on.

Each bullet hits her dead-centre. Each shot burrows deep into the exposed bit of her chest, nestling around her sharp collarbone and between the swell of her breasts. Abyssinia looks surprised. She glances down at the bullets, at the tendrils shoving them deeper, burrowing.

"Well, that is an interesting display of cooperation." She shakes her hair back from her face, and her lips tilt upward. "But it is ultimately futile; I am already dead."

Her eyes go dark and thick veins pulse through her, through each exposed stretch of skin. She flicks one wrist, and the bullets fall out of her back. With the other wrist, she points at Tanith. "Run, little one."

Tanith rolls into action, sliding down the small slope to meet the woman. Valkyrie attempts crushing Abyssinia with a surge of shadow, but the wave parts like a biblical sea around her, hitting Tanith and spinning her to the ground in a gasping heap.

Skulduggery is going in, attempting to give Tanith a moment to stumble up, to get back in the game, but Abyssinia turns to him. "What of Caisson? Do you know?"

Skulduggery stops in his tracks. She stares at him, skin crawling with darkness, and he looks back. Valkyrie is too stunned to move. She doesn't understand what's happening.

"You remember, don't you?" Abyssinia asks. Tanith begins to struggle up, groaning as she does; Abyssinia kicks her down again, eyes never leaving Skulduggery.

"I remember more than I'd like."

"Skulduggery," Valkyrie tries. She's already exhausted from using her shadows. Almost all of her power is in her ring, and Sanguine is tossing it up in the air and catching it, his free hand keeping Alice in place.

Skulduggery doesn't look her way; neither does Abyssinia, but the woman smiles. "I am not sure why I'm surprised that you don't know where he is. You were never fond of the boy, were you?"

"Is that what this is? Is that why you took Alice?" he asks softly.

"No," she chuckles, glancing back toward the girl. "No, I had no intention of taking her - merely killing her. But she does remind me of him when he was young," she murmurs wistfully. "Strong-willed, stubborn. Like his father." She waits, but Skulduggery doesn't reply. She shrugs and continues, "You know that fighting me is a lost cause without that armour of yours. Her without her ring. The other one there without her...well; she never stood a chance, so we might as well ignore that."

"I will come with you," Skulduggery begins slowly, "if you let Alice go home. If you never bother them again - none of them - I will help you find Caisson."

Abyssinia laughs and steps toward Skulduggery, but her eyes turn to Valkyrie. "Did you hear that, darling? Your sister or your lover. What do you think? Who would you choose?" She stops just shy of Skulduggery, reaching out to touch his jaw. Valkyrie can see him struggling to keep still, struggling not to hit her.

"Tick-tick," Abyssinia chides. "Come now, Stephanie. I grow weary of this climate, and I have other things to do."

Valkyrie lets out a soft noise. Skulduggery finally turns to look at her, and she murmurs, "I love you."

"I love you," he returns without hesitation.

Valkyrie swallows and turns her attention to Abyssinia. "Alice. Alice comes home with me."

Abyssinia's smile softens - she almost looks tender. "You are a good sister," she nods slightly. "Alice will remember that when she thinks of you." She snaps, and Billy-Ray pulls Alice into his arms; they disappear underground for a moment, flying rock and dirt the only thing proving they were there.

"No!" Valkyrie screams and Skulduggery jolts into action, grabbing Abyssinia around the neck and twisting. Valkyrie can hear the crack of bone from where she is, but Abyssinia can still strike. She shoves a heel into Skulduggery's knee and then pins his foot as he stumbles, sending him toppling. She's above him faster than Valkyrie can process, fist smashing into his cheek.

Sanguine and Alice appear further up the hill. Valkyrie stumbles up, trying her damnedest to summon a shadow, to grab her sister, to get her away from Sanguine. But the exertion only results in sparks between her fingers and her knees hitting the dirt.

Tanith is up and stumbling over, a knife in one of her hands. Abyssinia hears the woman before she can get too close, and Abyssinia gets to her feet again. "You may leave, you know," Abyssinia begins. "I have nothing against you, dear. You can wait your turn when I burn and enslave this wasteland."

Tanith lunges, the blade slicing close to Abyssinia's throat. Abyssinia sends a knee into Tanith's thigh, deadening it, and Tanith pitches back again, almost losing her knife. Abyssinia watches her lurch across the wet ground, watches her wobble to her feet.

Skulduggery grabs Abyssinia's ankle and twists, spinning the woman to the ground. Tanith takes the opening and slides the blade across Abyssinia's throat. The woman gurgles for a moment before the darkness in her veins slithers and covers the wound, like sutures but wriggling. And then her fists palm both Skulduggery and Tanith away from her.

Valkyrie is trying to breathe, but she's close to passing out. She tries to summon another shadow, but the tendrils leaking from her fingertips do nothing, bubbling across her hands and sliding to the earth. So she gets to her feet, exhaustion trying to silence the adrenaline, and she launches herself at Abyssinia.

Fighting the woman up-close is a terrible idea. She's stronger, for one - she easily deflects Valkyrie's fist to her collar, the knee to her groin, the shoulder to her ribcage. She shifts without moving, suddenly one place and then another, ghosting behind her, to the side, never anywhere long enough for Valkyrie to land a decent hit.

Without warning, Valkyrie gets lucky - she spins to the left, anticipating, and lands her elbow into Abyssinia's throat. It stuns her enough that she falls back, eyes widened in surprise. Valkyrie shoves her elbow against the woman's nose in two quick cracks; Abyssinia flounders for a moment before one of her hands balls and slams into Valkyrie's abdomen, sending her to the ground, wheezing.

Tanith almost gets Abyssinia, but the descendant of the Faceless Ones twirls, hair shimmering, and kicks Tanith in the stomach. Tanith anticipates the hit, tightening her core and merely stumbling with a cry. She lashes out with the knife - a thrust to her belly, chest, neck, neck, and then her abdomen again. The last attack fails when Abyssinia grabs her wrist, gliding to the side and twisting Tanith to the ground. The blade falls, but Abyssinia catches it, wraps an arm around Tanith from behind, and crashes the knife into her belly.

Tanith collapses and tears sting Valkyrie's eyes. She's trying to stand, but everything inside of her hurts. She thinks her ribs break a little more each time she tries to get up.

Skulduggery is back on his feet and trying to reload his gun; Abyssinia merely laughs. "Have you not tried this already?" She drifts toward him, seemingly shifting in and out of view. Skulduggery clicks the chamber closed and raises the gun, shoving it directly into Abyssinia's head.

Abyssinia smiles. "Pull the trigger - prove that you're still some semblance of a man."

Skulduggery pulls the trigger. The bullet finds her brain. Abyssinia jolts and falls; her body lies still on the ground.

Valkyrie lets out a shuddering breath and falls to her knees. She blinks in disbelief at the woman, at the blood slipping across her forehead. "Is she...?" she whispers, but the wind takes her words.

Skulduggery steps closer to Abyssinia, leaning down to analyse the wound. His fingers move across her forehead in a more intimate caress than Valkyrie expects.

And then darkness coils around the wound; Abyssinia is swirling in corruption, the bullet shooting out of her and striking through Skulduggery's cranium. He falls back; Abyssinia rises. She laughs. She waves her hands and darkness spills from her eyes, from her mouth, from her very being.

The monsters. The malice. They froth and bubble, forming together, and Abyssinia lowers herself to the skeleton. "You are a disgrace," she says to Skulduggery; Valkyrie attempts to get to her feet - to run to Abyssinia, to ruin that smile, to split her head beneath an elbow - but flounders and stumbles.

Abyssinia grabs Skulduggery's head and twists, yanks, tears. His skull comes free, the screams stopping suddenly, and she beams. With a twitch of her hand, the bones of his body burst from his clothing, scattering. Valkyrie watches in disbelief, her mind trying to tell her that she's imaging it all.

Abyssinia takes his skull to Alice, delicately placing it in the girl's hands. "Crush it," she murmurs.

Alice shakes her head. Her body trembles.

Abyssinia leans in and murmurs in her ear. Alice lets out a choked sob, and her fingers tighten. They dig, scrabble for purchase. Her fingernails break at the effort, blood pooling around her cuticles.

Abyssinia covers Alice's hands with her own. A mere flick sends the skull shattering, fragments cutting into Alice's palms.

Let me out, Darquesse rages. She's almost through. Valkyrie wonders what the point of holding her back is; everything is going to hell anyway.

Abyssinia is coming at her and Valkyrie stumbles up to meet her. Red-tipped nails scrape across Valkyrie's neck, and Valkyrie cries out. She can feel the blood rushing from her throat, but it isn't fatal.

She staggers, Darquesse seething at the sudden rush of corruption from the scratches, the prickling, burning pain. Poison. The realisation brings a rueful chuckle to Valkyrie's lips. "You're such a bitch."

Abyssinia laughs and doesn't take offence. She lashes out, catching Valkyrie on the jaw and then the top of her skull when she totters. The elbow to the back of her head drops Valkyrie. Valkyrie pants and struggles to get up, her arms giving out beneath her. The world is swimming. Nothing makes sense.

"Valkyrie!"

Valkyrie grunts and looks up, just barely seeing Omen at the top of the hill through the blinding light behind her eyes. Darquesse is winning. "No," Valkyrie mumbles. "No, no, no." She catches Abyssinia's wrist before she can leave, trying to wrench the bones apart but merely managing to dislocate two fingers. "Omen, run!"

But Omen isn't listening; he's tracing sigils on the ground, hands working frantically. When Abyssinia yanks herself free from Valkyrie and goes for him, Omen stomps on one of the sigils and shoves his hands out, forcing a gale to sweep across Abyssinia. She wavers.

The leaking shadows, her children, coil up toward Omen; the sludge is trying to climb the slope before it gives up on the slow-moving tactic. Instead, it gathers its brethren into a column and surges upward into the air, tipping toward him.

"Omen!" Valkyrie tries again. "Omen, go!"

Omen swings his foot across another sigil, and a wave of almost-water strikes it. The force sends the column of darkness teetering, and Abyssinia giggles. The thing begins to disintegrate - most of the boiling monstrosity smashes into the ground, formless. But some manage to reach Omen, one attaching to his chest. He shouts and flails for a moment, stamping on a sigil that doesn't glow or react.

He messed up the language.

Valkyrie sweeps the towering monstrosity aside with a weakened screen of shadow, pinning it back, but she can't see him anymore; she can hear the screams, though.

Valkyrie wonders if she'll stop hearing them before she dies.

 


 

Chapter Text

 


 

Jaipur. Omsk. Jakarta. Guatemala City. Basra. Jinan. Kyoto. Warsaw. Bangkok. Algiers. Tashkent. Mandalay. Khartoum. Johannesburg.

Fletcher is close to exhaustion by the time he makes it to the base of the Swiss Alps. Lucerne is beautiful, but it's cold, and snow is beginning to fall. He texts the number Valkyrie gave him, shifting in his coat and wishing he had a coffee, a bed, and some damn whale sounds or something.

Why is saving the world so much work?

A car trundles to a stop at the kerb; Fletcher jogs out of the alleyway he took refuge in, and the driver gets out to help him with the box. "Fletcher Renn? I'm Aurora Jane, a friend of Valkyrie's. I'll take it from here."

She's gorgeous, dark-haired, and her smile is perfection. Fletcher, though, is much too exhausted to put effort into flirting; he still has to go back and get Omen, and then hopefully save Valkyrie, the hot blonde, and the skeleton from said-skeleton's ex.

"The shit we deal with," he says aloud without meaning to.

The woman laughs and hands him a wrapped sandwich, a bottle of electrolytes, and a pack of pain-relieving leaves. Thank God, too, because his headache is close to killing him. "Want to sit in the car to warm up?"

"No, just get that thing somewhere safe," Fletcher bids her. He teleports to the cave only to find no one there. "You've got to be shitting me," Fletcher mumbles, shoving leaves in his mouth and the rest into his pocket. He drops the food and drink and then teleports outside.

He finds Omen first, covered in something black and seething, writhing over the boy's chest, branching toward his face. Fletcher takes a single second to take in his surroundings - the dawn sun, Tanith unmoving on the ground, the way Valkyrie is on her knees, screaming like a wounded animal.

Skulduggery. Where is Skulduggery?

Fletcher runs to Omen, clawing the goop off of the motionless boy's chest. It leaves Omen and climbs up Fletcher's arm, forming and decaying under itself, reforming and squealing at him like newborn piglets.

One part of it breaks free and teeth emerge.

And then another set.

"What the fuck?!" Fletcher begs thin air, fumbling for his knife. One of the sets of fangs gouges into his thumb, tearing skin and ligaments. Fletcher yells, unable to hold it back, and jams the knife into the centre of the mass - and through his wrist.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," he chants, using the knife to scrape along his arm, tearing away the beast, his coat, and some skin in the process.

He looks up and sees her watching him. Abyssinia. She smiles. She smiles, and he feels his heart eroding beneath the stare's weight. Fletcher presses his hand firmly against Omen and teleports them.

 


 

Valkyrie is snarling while struggling to her feet, but she keeps stumbling. Her boots slip on the moss - and then she realises it isn't the ground's fault, but her tired legs. Valkyrie grunts, getting to her knees and glares up at Abyssinia. She isn't moving; she's merely watching, enjoying.

The earth shifts beneath Valkyrie; Sanguine is there, a hand reaching up to grab her neck, pulling her into the ground with him.

His hands are there one moment, wrapped around her throat - and then they're not. She feels him taking the straight razor from her pocket, nicking her neck with it while laughing. And then nothing.

Valkyrie is stuck; the ground around her begins to close in, to knit back together.

She can't breathe. She can't breathe. She's going to die.

With her last thought, she surrenders.

Darquesse explodes forward; the ground collapses, the force rippling out and levelling the immediate terrain.

She emerges to destruction, and it's about goddamn time.

 


 

China doesn't like that she's in this position - she understands, of course; how can the people trust a single sorcerer to rule them all unchecked? Even so, it pains her more than the deepest sword when she announces that Eliza Scorn will be joining Ghastly Bespoke and herself on the Council. Granted, something has happened to Eliza Scorn in the past week; she acts surprisingly demure. China doesn't trust it, of course, but it's been a nice change of pace. Eliza's threats can get quite excessive.

And Ghastly. She can't say that she adores the thought, given Ghastly's obvious bias for the Arbiters, but he is a much safer option than Thurid Guild. Certainly much safer than Sierra Mettle.

"I am so sorry for the wait," China murmurs as she enters the laboratory, shaking her hair back over her shoulder. "The ceremony went on a bit longer than I expected. Are they ready?"

"They are, Supreme Mage."

China continues through the hall and toward the operation suite. She rolls her sleeves up as she does - she really should have changed, in retrospect, but China is too anxious to waste one more second than she had to.

"Sierra," she greets as she enters the room, smiling at the gagged woman. "Thurid. I am dreadfully sorry for the accommodations; I'm afraid the lab is the only place with drains in the floor."

Thurid wiggles and rages, bound and unintelligible. Mettle glares.

"You both know why you're here, so I won't spell it out for you. I will, however, hear any last words you'd like to pass on. Or you can spit on me, but your deaths will be much more painful."

She goes to Guild first, lowering herself to a crouch beside him. She removes the gag and waits. She doesn't have to wait long, because Thurid immediately snaps, "We did nothing."

"Oh, but you did," China murmurs. "You, dear Thurid, gave Militsa Gnosis her bracelet; you shut down the wards in the holding cell. And, to top it all off, you tried to steal my book. You killed two of my best agents to do so." She pauses, pondering. "Honestly, I'm not sure why so many people are after it; perhaps it's worth the risk of raising my ire. And I hate to admit it, darlings, but you have raised it to epic proportions."

"What about the keys," he adds, trying another tactic. He's getting nervous, sensing his impending death. "The keys we took off of your dead agents? You'll never find them without us, so you'll never get your hands on that book."

"If I cannot find the keys then no one else can. Given all the trouble you imbeciles caused, I would almost rather have them remain missing."

Guild's eyes are bugging. He's at a loss for words.

China softly smiles, offering him a bit of comfort in the end. He calms and stares at her, completely at ease. "There now," she murmurs, tapping a small tattoo on her wrist, "everything is fine."

He slumps when her fingers touch his forehead.

China moves on to Mettle. She undoes the gag and Mettle immediately spits on her. China flinches when it hits, lips turning down in disgust. She wipes the saliva from her cheek. "That is unfortunate." She stands and steps back. "I gave you an option, Sierra. Remember that."

Sierra screams when China taps both forearms and slides her palm across two more tattoos on her left hip. Sierra shudders and then convulses into a heap, all of her bones shattering. A million tiny bone slivers slowly wrench their way out of her skin. The first to break free are from her slender arms - they smash through her skin, gurgles of blood following in their wake. And then her belly. Her chest. Her legs. Her eyes.

She goes slack then, the bone working its way through her brain.

China ensures she's a twitching mess on the floor before leaving.

"You have blood on your skirt, Supreme Mage."

China looks up at the creature before her; its missing nose never ceases to disturb her. "Never you mind my skirt. Clean up that room and incinerate the bodies."

"Of course, Supreme Mage," Dr Nye breathes, glancing down the hall to the shuttered operation suite.

"Incinerate them immediately. No cutting open, no experimentations. Remember the rules and follow them, else you'll be right back in the moors where I found you. Limbless, too, if you test me."

Dr Nye dips its head, but the string-laden lips curl in a way she doesn't trust.

"Incinerate. Immediately." And then she leaves, covering some of the blood spatter on her dress by folding her hands in front of her, looking pensive and serene.

 


 

It's been a while. She doesn't get let out enough, not that she can blame Valkyrie; Darquesse is still an unknown to them. To herself, even. But it is an unknown Darquesse is intent on discovering.

Abyssinia looks at her with something more than idle amusement, sprawled on the ground from where the blast knocked her off of her feet. She seems dazed. "What are you?" she asks, not understanding.

"Hush," Darquesse chides, wiggling her fingers, feeling the sensation of the cold. The jacket, the one Ghastly made for her, has taken much of the blows Valkyrie received, but not nearly enough. Two of her ribs shattered. A slipped disc in her back is agonising. The sprained ankle, the concussion.

"You're so fragile," Darquesse says aloud. Darquesse can't feel Valkyrie, but she knows she's there somewhere, reeling.

Abyssinia stands, eyes narrowing. "I'm not the one half-broken."

Darquesse rolls her eyes. "I wasn't talking to you."

The silver-haired woman is getting angry, the first real emotion that has leaked out. She strides toward Darquesse, a right hook coming to her neck and knocking the breath from Darquesse for a moment. It's a new sensation, taking damage so intimately. There's no filter now, not when she's in the driver's seat.

"Neat," she murmurs to herself as her trachea knits back together, as her aches fade away within seconds of her thinking about them. "I guess you're not as strong as Skulduggery implied." Abyssinia hisses and rakes her nails across Darquesse's cheek; Darquesse scowls, eyes narrowing. "Perhaps you should run along - I'm more interested in finding this armour than I am in killing you."

"You talk too much," Abyssinia informs her, elbow bouncing off of Valkyrie's jacket, barely phasing Darquesse. She grabs the woman's wrist and slams her fist into Abyssinia's throat. She holds the woman's wrist as she falls, gagging. She holds the woman's wrist and slams her foot into the joint of her shoulder until it pops and Abyssinia screams.

The darkness beneath Abyssinia's skin flares up, her veins pulsing with it. Darquesse clutches Abyssinia's neck, tilting the woman's head back to see her eyes clearer. "Interesting," she murmurs. And then she digs her cropped nails into Abyssinia's neck, right over her jugular, and pulls the darkness out.

Abyssinia screams and writhes; Darquesse lets her, analysing the section of the vein that pulses with corruption. She doesn't understand what she's seeing, but she's fascinated by it. The darkness leaks across her palm and her shadows engulf it, feeling it, breaking it apart.

Abyssinia's body is knitting itself together; her jugular is reforming, painfully slow, and the gasping, wet noises she keeps making cause Darquesse's skin to crawl. Even so, Darquesse can't help herself; she tears the forming vein out, grinning. Abyssinia is going pale, her hands scrabbling weakly at her neck.

Darquesse delights in dragging the knitting vein out over and over. She moves on to the chest, breaking open the sternum with a quick elbow to the bone. She listens as the bones mend - she hits it again and laughs when Abyssinia gags, lungs wheezing, and passes out.

Darquesse doesn't have time to tear into the woman's body, to examine all of the interesting mysteries Abyssinia holds. Sanguine is back, spilling through the ground and reaching out for Darquesse. She laughs, surprised he's dumb enough to try the same trick twice. But he cuts her heel instead of grabbing her, the straight razor slicing through her Achilles and scraping bone.

Darquesse stumbles, but the wound is healing before she hits the ground. She swipes at the air and shadows burrow after Sanguine, pulling him up but pinning him to the ground at the ankles, stuck mid-retreat. She can't see his eyes, but she can taste his fear on the air.

"Jesus Christ, Val," Sanguine says, both amused and terrified.

"I've always wanted to tell you something." Darquesse pauses. "That old cowboy hat was much, much too much."

"I don't even wear it anymore!"

"Tanith and I used to make fun of it. Well, Tanith and Valkyrie. It's odd sharing the same headspace with someone. Anyway," she breathes, flinging her hand out to the side. Tanith's broken, jagged sword slips from the blonde's limp hand, a shadow coiling and bringing it to Darquesse.

"How about you keep that silly little knife of yours," she murmurs with a grin, testing the weight of the blade in her hand. Valkyrie has never trained with one, so Darquesse isn't quite sure how to make the cut neat.

"Only one way to find out," she muses aloud, unused to having a real voice.

"What?" Sanguine demands, trying to tear free from the earth, trying to sink, trying to do something.

Darquesse grins and slides the blade across his belly, opening him up in a dramatically slow fashion. And then Darquesse releases her shadows; he falls to the ground, voice rasping from between parted lips.

"Where is Alice?" she asks, shoving a boot into the small of his back, pushing his open wound into the torn ground.

"Fuck you," he gasps.

Darquesse sighs, grinding her boot against his back. "You're more loyal to this employer than you were to Tanith, interestingly enough. What's she giving you in return?"

"Tanith didn't pay me," Sanguine rasps. When her boot lifts and slams down, he coughs into the dirt, shouting, "Fine! That crazy bitch over there is offering somethin' better than servitude. Power."

"You don't know what to do with power; power isn't something someone like you can wield. You'll get bored. You'll break. You'll destroy everything from the inside, and then you'll be gutter trash forever." She leans down, faking a whisper, "Just like your daddy."

She lets him up and steps back, grinning as he struggles to reach Abyssinia while keeping his guts inside of him. Darquesse focuses on Abyssinia, trying to determine if molecularization is a real possibility. She planned on testing it on Skulduggery the first time, just to make it a little extra special. But what could be better than Lord Vile's ex-lover? Not even the living skeleton is as delicious of a kill.

Sanguine reaches Abyssinia and grabs her, pulling her limp body into his arms. Darquesse narrows her eyes when Abyssinia doesn't disappear into particles, when Darquesse's attempts to rip her into a mist of near-nothingness fails. She snarls when Sanguine lets out an anguished cry, he and Abyssinia sinking into the dirt.

Darquesse can't stand that she let them get away, but part of her delights in the possibility of hunting them. It will be a fantastic use of her new freedom.

Valkyrie begins to stir, finally coming to, and she is eddying, attempting to take control. Darquesse shakes her head, trying to dislodge her. "Be patient," Darquesse says aloud, narrowing her eyes at the sharp pain between her eyebrows. "You'll get this body back when I find one I'm suited to."

She smiles when Valkyrie shrieks in their consciousness.

 


 

Ghastly paces the foyer, more agitated as each moment passes. Fletcher should be back by now.

He is about to try calling the man when Fletcher appears right in front of him. Omen is on the ground, and they both have something that looks like tar splattered across them.

"What happened?" he demands, going to check Omen. The boy is breathing, and his pulse is steady; the only sign of trauma is a bite to his neck. Not vampire, thank God, but it looks painful.

"Armour's hidden," Fletcher gasps. He's pale - he's also missing a lot of skin from his right arm and hand. "Abyssinia's there. I think -- I think they're done for. Tanith is down, not sure where the hell Skulduggery is, Val is half-dead-"

Ghastly grabs his shoulder. "Take me."

Fletcher doesn't have the strength to argue. He releases Omen and Ghastly is abruptly on the remains of a flattened hollow at the base of immense mountains. Fletcher is cursing. "It wasn't like this," he keeps saying. "It wasn't...what the hell happened?"

"Get yourself together," Ghastly orders. He can see Tanith, half-buried under debris and rocks. She isn't moving. The hair in front of her face is barely fluttering - whether it's with her breath or the breeze, he has no idea.

"Take her to Grouse," Ghastly says, rolling his sleeves down to protect his forearms.

"I don't know if I can come back," Fletcher warns. "I need to get you all in one go, or it's-"

"Take Tanith," Ghastly repeats, already moving toward the sound of screams. "Now!" He doesn't look back to ensure that Fletcher follows his orders.

When he gets closer to the middle of the crater, he stops and stares. Sanguine is on the ground, crawling and shouting through gritted teeth. Abyssinia - seeing her again makes a shot of terror freeze Ghastly's soul for a moment - is on the ground, unmoving.

And above them, Valkyrie stands, glaring and focusing. Sanguine and Abyssinia are gone before Valkyrie does anything, and Valkyrie snarls in annoyance. She shakes her head and talks to the wind.

It sounds like she's fighting with herself.

And then she glances up and sees him. Her dark eyes shine with some kind of light, something behind the corneas.

"Right," he mumbles. "Skulduggery chose a possessed partner." He slowly begins to descend the crater, hands up to show he's unarmed, and calls out, "Valkyrie?"

The woman tilts her head and smiles. "My goodness, it's a revolving cast around here, isn't it?"

 


 

Chapter Text


 

"I'm not going to fight you," Darquesse laughs when Ghastly begins to circle.

"Where's Skulduggery?"

"Dead. Or whatever version of death he experiences." She shrugs. "I think I saw most of his bones go that way, but his skull is dust now. Abyssinia was not pleased with him."

"Why did she attack him?"

Darquesse is confused for a moment before she smiles. "Oh, that's right! You don't know about Skulduggery and Lord Vile." Valkyrie thrashes and screams, she rattles her cage and scrapes her nails across Darquesse's consciousness.

"What are you getting at?" Ghastly snaps, falling back into stance, adrenaline sharpening, searching for weaknesses.

"They're the same person," Darquesse says, and Valkyrie quiets, horrified. "Vile was Skulduggery; Skulduggery was Vile." She glides toward him, and he dodges her, swiping a hit toward her shoulder. It lands, deading her arm for a split second. "Your best friend killed your mother, Ghastly. How does that make you feel?"

"Stop talking," he demands and lashes again.

Darquesse swipes her hand through the air, and he goes flying on a wave of shadows. "Valkyrie likes you, and I - annoyingly - enjoy Valkyrie. So, here's my offer - I will leave you and yours alive. I will walk away. Someday you all will get Valkyrie back when I'm done with her. Or perhaps you won't - I suppose it depends on my mood."

The air pops in Darquesse's ear, and she turns in time for Fletcher to swing a bat at her face. Darquesse falls back, biting back a gasp while her broken nose reforms, straightens. The next hit finds her throat, but she barely feels it through excitement.

She reaches to grab him, but Fletcher keeps winking in and out of existence, hitting her with random items and then disappearing. But Darquesse has time and healing abilities, so she waits until she gets his pattern. She abruptly reaches into the air just as Fletcher appears, grabbing him by the head, squeezing. Darquesse can feel the bone under her fingers, so breakable. Begging for her to end it all.

"Your hair is absurd," she says finally.

Fletcher tries to teleport, but Darquesse squeezes a little more, overloading his sense. He yelps, trying to break free, but there's too much pain for him to focus - too much exhaustion, chaos. She releases his head and slams her heel into his knee, forcing him down with a shout, losing a clump of hair in the process. "You're lucky I don't want to give Valkyrie a reason to break out again. I would love to tear that hair off of your head, one handful at a time."

Something shudders the earth around her; she stands, turning her gaze onto Ghastly. He's back up, and he's thrusting his hands into the soil. Darquesse only has a moment to think about how ironic is it that Ghastly - the one who used earth magic to turn himself to stone for eight years - is attempting the method again. She isn't even trying to kill him, for God's sake.

But he's not trying to turn himself to stone, she realises too late. Fletcher disappears, suddenly at Ghastly's side. She looks around, confused. "What are you doing?!" she demands when the ground fractures beneath her. An earthquake. She's never felt one before - never even thought to consider it a possibility - and it's intriguing enough that she doesn't manage to get out in time.

The earth shudders and rises, new mountains of mud and shale, quaking and crashing down on top of her, enveloping, dampening everything, filling her throat.

 


 

Valkyrie thinks she's dead for at least ten minutes. Then she opens her eyes and takes in the deepening darkness. She stares at the stars; she's never seen so many before.

"You saved me?"

Darquesse snorts; she isn't pleased, but she isn't raging. "If I let you die under hundreds of kilos of earth, then I'd be stuck in your decaying body. I'd rather not find out what happens to a magical parasite when its host dies."

"Is that what you are?" she asks the sky. "A parasite?"

"As far as I'm aware, we're two halves of a coin, shoved into a single body until we merge or tear each other apart."

"Sounds about right." Valkyrie closes her eyes; they hurt so much. Everything hurts.

She thinks about Alice and crumples into herself, her heart shredding into pieces. Alice, sightless, trapped with two emotionless psychopaths.

Skulduggery dead. In pieces. Skull shattered, pieces sticking into the fleshy parts of Alice's palms.

Valkyrie sobs, but there are no tears; she has nothing left inside to cry. She merely wails, a sharp, barking howl into nothingness.

"He's probably still alive," Darquesse informs her. "Maybe not, but are we even sure he can die?"

Valkyrie struggles to her feet at that, stumbling through the near-dark and collecting bones. Valkyrie wishes she paid more attention to anatomy lessons - she wishes she did the smart thing and took a refresher once she began pining for a living skeleton.

She tries to put the bones together, but she's reasonably sure she's ruining everything. Possibly beyond repair. So she sits on the cold, hard ground with a femur clutched to her chest.

She waits.

 


 

It's mid-morning the next day before Fletcher appears, looking worried. Valkyrie is in the middle of a nap when he calls out, "Val?"

Valkyrie sits up and scrambles out of the cave where she had to retreat for warmth. "I'm here!" she shouts, voice echoing through the cave.

Fletcher meets her at the mouth of the cavern and pulls her into a hug. The reaction stuns her, but she doesn't pull back. "I missed you too?" she tries, and his responding laugh is disbelieving.

"How did you...how are you here?"

Valkyrie shakes her head. "It was Ghastly - he tired her out. And you helped a lot," she adds, which makes him beam. "Nice trick with the teleporting all over."

"I know, right? I've always wanted to try it."

"Also, the most painful of all of those things was that lamp, believe it or not."

"No kidding?"

"No kidding," she sighs, looking at the pile of bones she collected. "Can you take me and all those to Grouse?"

"In a few trips, sure." Before she can fully consider it, she's standing in the cinema, staring at the screen's door. She always feels odd walking into Grouse's labs when she isn't injured, but it's even stranger now that Valkyrie should be dead, reduced to stone or shattered to pieces.

And yet, here she is.

Valkyrie follows the sound of Tanith's laugh to an open door. The blonde is sitting up in her cot and beaming, looking at the door as if she is expecting Valkyrie. Ghastly is beside the bed; he doesn't meet Valkyrie's eyes, expression tight and nervous.

"Hey, Bunny," Tanith grins. Valkyrie doesn't have to ask; she can tell the woman had something a little stronger than leaves for her pains. "It's about time you came for a visit."

"Sorry. Just made it back."

Tanith's brow furrows in confusion, but Fletcher arrives in the doorway before she can question. "Grouse has the bones," Fletcher softly tells Valkyrie.

Tanith's eyes widen, and she looks between Ghastly and the pair in the doorway. "Bones?" she repeats.

"Ah...Skulduggery is kind of...in pieces?" Fletcher tries to break the news gently; it doesn't work.

She looks at Ghastly, her eyebrows raising high. "You said everyone was fine!"

"Grouse didn't want you upset."

"What happened?" she demands, ignoring him and staring at Valkyrie.

Valkyrie swallows. She hasn't thought about how to tell anyone, how to piece the ruins of her life back together. "Abyssinia still has Alice. Darquesse fought off Abyssinia, but she -- she's too strong. I couldn't do it alone. Darquesse tried to take control, so Ghastly-"

"I attacked Darquesse," Ghastly says before Valkyrie can continue, before Tanith can ask anything else. "And then we all got away."

"All?" Fletcher wryly laughs. "Except for Val and Skulduggery, sure. We all got out without a hitch." Sarcasm drips from the words, acidic; Fletcher obviously had qualms with leaving Valkyrie in Russia.

"You are really not helping," Valkyrie informs Fletcher. To Tanith, she soothes, "It's fine, I'm fine, everyone's fine. We're going to heal up, regroup, and figure out how to get Alice."

Tanith looks down at her hands, folding them in her lap. "Ghastly, you can go now. Thanks for being a pal and looking in on me, but I think I have it from here."

"Tanith," he tries, but she doesn't look at him. Valkyrie steps out of the doorway and Fletcher uses the flurry of motion to slip away from the awkward air.

Valkyrie waits until the hall is empty before sliding into the room. Tanith scoots aside with a few winces, and Valkyrie climbs up beside her, tucking her face against Tanith's bandaged shoulder. "Abyssinia has Alice's true name. She...she has her. There's nothing I could do."

Tanith is silent, but she does sweep Valkyrie closer into her arms, face buried in her dirty hair. "We can kill her."

Valkyrie pulls back. "Tanith, I barely survived that. Sanguine nearly killed me, and Abyssinia was toying with us. The only possible way is Darquesse, but if we want her that strong..."

"Then we have to let her out." Tanith pulls back from Valkyrie, meeting her eyes. "What's the plan, Val?"

Valkyrie shakes her head and can't stop doing it. "I don't -- she has Alice. I." The tears begin in earnest, and Tanith is holding her again, smoothing her hair back, kissing her forehead. "What do I tell our parents?" she gasps and Tanith's arms tighten.

"We'll tell them together. All of us," Tanith murmurs. "However many of us they need to reassure them that we're going to find her; we're going to raze the bloody mainland if we have to."

"The world," Valkyrie corrects, a deep joy flitting through her while she ponders how many ways she can destroy Abyssinia and her entire world.

Everyone cares about something. Valkyrie just needs to find what Abyssinia loves.

Darquesse coils, tightens, laughs.

 


 

When Valkyrie comes to visit him, it's at his house and three days after he was put back together. Grouse had to replace many smaller bones and, of course, his skull, but he's back to his old self - for the most part.

She stands outside the door and starts when she sees him. "Oh."

Skulduggery steps aside to let her in, and she does so. She can't help curiously peeking at the new skull, which isn't quite as handsome as his last one. Skulduggery expects her to say as much, but instead - "Huh. I like the head; it looks nice."

"Not nearly as nice as the last one."

"Really?" she asks, peering at him curiously. "It looks pretty much the same."

"I see that you finally came to visit with the sole intent of hurting my feelings."

Valkyrie smiles, but it fades quickly. Skulduggery knows what the topic is going to be before she says anything, but he waits.

"I want to kill that bitch," she says. "I want to pull her head off of her shoulders. I want to tear every bloody vein from her body until she can't regenerate. Tear out whatever thing she has for a heart. I want..."

Skulduggery reaches out, gloves tracing her cheekbone. She's radiating with her anger, her eyes shimmering. She's her, but she's changed. "I want to, as well."

"But?" she presses.

"But nothing."

Valkyrie stares. "I can't do it without Darquesse."

"This is true."

"I need to find ways to tether her, bring her back before I lose all control." She winces after she says it; Darquesse is raging in her mind, no doubt. "If we're going to try this, I need to practice letting her out."

"I agree."

Valkyrie is shaking her head. "No, Skulduggery - you can't agree with me. You're supposed to be the voice of reason here. You're supposed to tell me that there are other options, that there's something else - something we can do that doesn't involve me becoming more like her."

Skulduggery's hand slides into her hair, caressing her nape. He doesn't know if her means Darquesse or Abyssinia; he guesses there isn't much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. "I would be lying. I assumed we aren't supposed to do that with one another?"

Valkyrie swallows, swallows again, and then lets out a choked noise. "Tanith's in, too. And Fletcher." Her eyelids flutter and close. "Omen. Never. Ghastly."

"This is good news."

"No," Valkyrie whispers, voice ragged. Her hands tighten on his lapels and don't let go. "No, it's not. I am leading everyone into a shitshow of such epic proportions, and I -- I don't even know if I can control it. I have no idea what I'm doing, and I know I'm going to get all of us killed, but what other option do I have? I have to do something; I can't not do something."

"I know," he murmurs. "We all know, and we are with you." Valkyrie hugs him, face pressed against his shoulder. He holds her, stroking her hair.

After Valkyrie collects herself, looking embarrassed and wiping at her eyes, she mumbles, "I would kiss you, but. You know."

"And here it is."

Valkyrie reaches up and touches his chin, fingertips ghosting across the bone. "Is it odd that I'm nervous about kissing someone else's skull?"

"You already have." When Valkyrie's eyebrows shoot up in surprise, he laughs. "That skull wasn't my skull. Goblins stole my skull decades ago."

"Goblins..." Valkyrie pulls back, obviously unable to decide whether to believe him or not. "Whose skull were you wearing?"

"I am not sure; I won it in a poker game."

Valkyrie swallows and clears her throat. "Okay, I am surprised how uneasy that information makes me."

"As am I."

Valkyrie chuckles; she straightens his lapels, smoothing out the disarray her fingers caused. "I need to pick Tanith and Omen up from Grouse's."

Skulduggery waits for a moment, watching while she hesitates, before murmuring, "Shall I say it first, or did you want to?"

"I have no idea what you're referring to."

"You do."

Valkyrie scrunches her nose at him. "You're unbearable. But," she softly adds, "I love you anyway." She presses her lips to his teeth even though he can feel her hesitation; she relaxes into his arms when he pulls her closer.

"We'll find her," he promises her when she steps back. "You and I."

She forces a smile and nods. "I know. And...thanks. For agreeing with me. I also hate that you agreed with me, but."

"I am eternally at your disposal."

"Damn right you are." She kisses him one last time before slipping out of the house, her car growling to life and jolting away. He watches her turn off of Cemetery Road, the ugly orange car disappearing into the coming evening.