Chapter 1: Morning Elegance
Chapter One, in which Alice enjoys a Saturday morning with her family.
Alison Edgley comes downstairs to a muffled roar from the kitchen. She rounds the corner, finding her father standing against the back door, and pauses.
"What's the matter now?" Alice asks, but then she turns her attention to the countertop. A large pitcher of water gurgles with the intensity of a small motor rolling over. She grins at her father. "Really?"
"It's possessed," Desmond Edgley defends himself.
The new electric kettle - the one that Valkyrie kept chatting-up to their parents - clicks off, the gurgling water slowing, settling.
"Thank God; I couldn't hear myself think!" Desmond bemoans, still not moving from the door.
"Do you typically do that anyway?" Alice teases, sitting at the table and buttering one of the slices of toast Desmond made for himself. She eats it remorselessly - a kitchen appliance spooked her father, so she's reasonably sure she can hold her own if he whines about it.
Her mum breezes in just as the kettle clicks off. "Morning, love," Melissa greets her daughter, ducking down to press a kiss to her temple. She arches a brow at her husband as she passes to the counter, pouring steaming water in the prepared mug.
"Dad's scared of the kettle," Alice informs her.
"Am not," Desmond maintains, squaring his shoulders.
"Then why are you huddled by the door?" Melissa asks, turning with her tea, hiding a smile behind the rim of her cup.
"Huddled sounds so unbecoming. I am lounging by the door."
"If you're done being dramatic, would you like some tea?"
"Not if it comes from that monstrosity."
"Suit yourself," Melissa shrugs, coming to sit at the table. She takes the other piece of toast, ignoring Desmond's helpless moan, and begins to butter it. "Alice-"
"I can't today," Alice immediately interjects. She knows what's coming, of course - it's not like her mother hasn't spent the last week gushing over the trade shows sprouting up. "Val--Stephanie is taking me out."
"Oh, is she now?" Melissa murmurs. Her lips are attempting not to slide up at the corners, which makes Alice narrow her facade's false eyelids.
"What does that mean?" Alice asks, ignoring that her father has finally left the wall and is trying to use the kettle without being seen. It fails, of course, since neither Alice nor Melissa are blind. "Mum, what does that even mean?"
Her mum only grins, eating her toast.
Three quick knuckle raps on the front door echo through the lower storey now that the hellish noise of the kettle isn't thrumming through their very bones. They hear the door open, and then Valkyrie is slipping into the kitchen.
"Hey, you got the kettle!" she says immediately, stooping down to kiss her mother's cheek. "It's wonderful, isn't it?"
"It's the devil," Desmond replies curtly, turning to accept a hug and cheek-kiss from his eldest daughter. "It's probably trying to signal our location to all its demon friends."
"I don't think the devil would have demon friends," Alice muses, actually taking the time to think through one of her father's absent-minded rabbit holes. "Doesn't he need them to work for him?"
"Or her," her mum adds, eyes roving across her mobile's screen.
"Power dynamics are important," Valkyrie agrees, ducking down to wiggle her nose against Alice's. The girl scrunches but allows the Eskimo kisses, secretly loving them. "And Mum's probably right - the devil allegedly keeps a tight ship, so he's probably a she."
"I keep a tight ship," Desmond interrupts. "And I, as you are all quite aware, am not a she."
"Your ship is twenty employees, Des," Melissa murmurs, thumbs tapping out a message on her phone. "The devil's is..." she pauses, looks up, "...Steph?"
Valkyrie snags a sip from Melissa's cup. "I haven't met any demons or devils yet, so I can't confirm. I'd imagine any version of Hell worth its salt would have more than twenty employees, though."
Alice, getting anxious and in need of a proper workout, asks, "Am I training with Solomon today?"
Valkyrie raises a brow at her, turning her attention to their mum. "You didn't tell her?"
"I didn't. Your father thought it might be more amusing this way."
"What?" Alice asks, her heart sinking. Oh, God. Oh God, if she has to go to that kilo sale that her mum kept talking about --
Valkyrie confirms her worst fears. "We're going to that kilo sale."
"Steph," Alice groans, adding more than four additional e's to the name, and slumps into her chair. She imitates being boneless - it's working quite well. She thinks her mum might even feel bad for her. "Steph, you can't even fit regular clothes around your arms."
Valkyrie shrugs, tossing her hair over her shoulder. It's getting long again, growing like silky, shiny weeds. "Why do you think I wear so many tank tops?"
Alice groans. "But what's the point? I have so many clothes, and you already bought your Reflection new things, so-"
"The point is being good daughters," Valkyrie supplies. Alice's boneless drooping sinks her even lower, her chin finding the tabletop and melting there.
Valkyrie regards her with a little smile before leaning in, faux-whispering, "Do you really think I won't make things interesting wherever we go?" A tiny wisp of shadow slips from the ring on Valkyrie's middle finger, tickling across Alice's slumped chin.
Alice smirks, regaining her bones, and failing at pretending to be annoyed. "Fine. But only if you make someone trip on the catwalk."
"Is there going to be a catwalk?" Valkyrie asks, turning her appalled expression to their mother. "You didn't tell me there would be modelling. I might have to use veto power if there's modelling."
"I have no idea about a catwalk, but I do know that you promised you two would spend the weekend being normal girls."
"Ooh, here comes the guilt trip," Desmond says from where he drifted into the background, making more toast for himself.
"We will, we will!" Valkyrie assures, holding her hands up in mock surrender. "Normal daughters all weekend. See? I'm not even wearing black."
"You are, though," Alice points out - she's so damned glad Kenspeckle Grouse found a workaround for her missing eyes.
"Well, my shirt's not."
"Yes, but it isn't black."
Melissa opens her mouth to say something; the words don't come out, though, because there are footsteps on the stairs. Alice's gaze flickers to Valkyrie in time to see her face pinch up for a moment, her shoulders tensing.
"Good morning," Stephanie says when she enters, dark hair swinging around her shoulders. "Good morning, Valkyrie."
Valkyrie's jaw tightens a little, but she releases the gritted expression after a few moments. "Good morning."
"I can wait in the mirror if you wish to coordinate our memories."
"Not right now," Valkyrie says, getting to her feet. To her mother and Alice, she says, "I'll be by the car."
"Steph-" but Melissa cuts herself off and nods with a weak smile. "I still have to get ready-"
"We can go for a walk," Alice says, perking up, getting out of her seat. "To the pier?"
"Sounds good," Valkyrie grins, the expression genuine. She kisses her father goodbye, rolling her eyes at his whisper of this devil of yours will never get my soul. Her voice is hesitant when she turns her gaze to Stephanie. "Hold down the fort for us?"
"Of course," Stephanie beams prettily. She unsettles Valkyrie, and Alice can see why. When Alice used her own Reflection, it was a vacant-eyed drone - no real emotion, no real drive.
But Stephanie, like Valkyrie, is...different.
Chapter 2: Cleric
Chapter Two, in which newly-appointed Cleric St Clair arrives in America.
Melancholia St Clair ascends the steps. She gives a cursory glance around her, admiring the raw power tickling her amulet. Her chest grows colder beneath the forged necklace, practically radiating with frost.
She's seen dozens of cemeteries since arriving in New Orleans - they're practically on each street corner - but none were like this. They were all marbled, cracked headstones and mournful statues stacked close, nearly overlapping. But the magic coming from the dead there was lethargic. This place - nearly a hundred kilometres southwest from the airport - teems with death even though the headstones are small and wide-spaced, the ground untroubled as if no one has been buried in years.
"Can I help you?"
Melancholia glances back to the door. A small piece of the wood slid back while she wasn't looking, eye-height and leading into darkness. There isn't a face on the other side, but Melancholia can hear the man exhale. It's rumbly, almost like the noise massive beasts make while they sleep - half breath, half snore.
"Cleric Melancholia St Clair," she announces, squaring her shoulders and staring into the darkness. "From the Irish Temple."
"You're alone?" the figure asks, still not stepping into view. "Peculiar."
"For now," Melancholia replies, keeping her temper in check. This isn't her Temple - she won't get very far bothering the help. "Our High Priest arrives next weekend - I was sure he sent word."
There is silence, and then the door opens. Melancholia finally faces the man, but his entire form is swept up in the shadows under his draped hood. "I shall lead you to High Priest Virulent."
"I am here for our Death Bringer, not your High Priest," Melancholia replies. It's curt, but it isn't hostile. She has an image to carry, after all. "He directed us to see him personally - him and no one else."
The man hesitates before nodding deeply. "Of course, Cleric St Clair."
Chapter 3: The Toxic Twin
Chapter Three, in which Valkyrie has an unexpected heart-to-heart with a cousin.
The day is beautiful in spite of the thickness in the air, the threat of oncoming rain. Valkyrie even takes her jacket off, letting her shoulders catch the sun that peeks out from its cloud cover now and then.
Alice's frown seems to deepen each moment that passes. She practically snarls whenever some hapless, distracted adult bumps into her, or anytime young children trot by. One, barely ten by the looks of him, waves a pair of denims like a flag behind his head as he runs. Alice glances up at the sky as if asking for patience.
"What's up?" Valkyrie finally asks. Part of her assumed that Alice's mood would shift once they were here, surrounded by laughter, music, and the smell of delicious, greasy foods.
Alice glances up at her with those violet-blue eyes, the prosthetics that she didn't want but knew would make her parents more comfortable. "I thought I'd have some time with Solomon, or -at the very least - that we'd go out to the country."
Valkyrie doesn't bother glancing around to see if anyone is listening - Alice has perfected speaking in the veiled way Valkyrie does around mortals. "Sorry - if it makes you feel any better, Cassandra was more than pleased that you're taking the weekend off."
"The entire weekend?" Alice groans. "We can't go tonight after Mum's in bed?"
"Nope. We're normal daughters this weekend, through and through."
Alice raises a brow and lowers her voice, leaning in. "So that means Skulduggery isn't coming over for dinner tomorrow?" Valkyrie hesitates, and Alice goes for the jugular. "Because, you know, a normal daughter doesn't usually bring her skeleton boyfriend around."
"All boyfriends are skeletons if you think about it," Valkyrie replies. Alice's frown tries to deepen, but it becomes a begrudging - yet beautiful - simper. She's learned it from China, and Valkyrie is both amused and horrified by it. "Although," Valkyrie murmurs, mind wandering.
"Hmm?" Alice asks, disinterestedly wandering to a table of tops. Her fingers smooth over lace edges of brightly-coloured, summery camisoles.
"Is it weird for you all? Having him there?"
Alice glances up, and her expression turns to one of annoyance. "I thought you were smarter than you look."
"Well? You're being stupid." Alice picks up one of the camisoles - it's blue, dark enough to drown in. "Tanith used to come over on the weekends. And holidays. And randomly, too."
"Tanith is a little different than Skulduggery."
"Not really. Didn't you just get done saying all boyfriends are skeletons when you think about it? So are girlfriends. Stop trying to make things contentious."
"Someone's been hanging around China too long."
Alice's simper returns. She brandishes the top like a sword, tossing it into Valkyrie's arms. "Buy that for me."
"I'm not spending 20 euro on a single shirt at a kilo sale."
"Then I suppose you should find some more clothes to buy." Alice's gaze travels past Valkyrie, and she pales a bit. "Ah. I just...remembered something." And then she turns, pulls her brand new cell phone from her pocket, and scurries off.
"Alice!" Valkyrie calls after her, but something cold settles between the back of her shoulder blades. She slowly turns, her gaze locking with two sets of eyes, the two comical forms stepping up close. They're both the same height, but one is round while the other is somehow as thin as Skulduggery.
"Oh," Valkyrie murmurs, too dismayed to stifle the word. "Hi, Carol. Heya, Crystal. It's been a while."
"Hi, Stephanie," the twins reply in unison; then Crystal raises a brow at Carol. "You'd think, after three years apart, we'd stop doing that."
"Right," Valkyrie says, trying not to panic. She faces down magic daily, and yet her cousins are making fear spike through her blood. God, get me out of here, get me out of here, get me- "How is...sorry, I forgot your husband's name."
"Ex-husband," Crystal says, the words biting, "so I wouldn't know how he is."
"Oh," Valkyrie replies dumbly. "I'm...sorry?" Her mum probably told her about Crystal's divorce, but it slipped Valkyrie's mind. Most things involving Uncle Fergus and Aunt Beryl's children tend to do that.
Carol shifts in her shoes. "Crystal just moved back in with Mum and Dad."
"And you?" Valkyrie asks, hoping another horrifyingly sad revelation doesn't come from the straightforward inquiry.
Carol flushes a bit, but answers, "Still in Haggard, too, but I'm, ah. I'm living with a friend and her fiance. I just started working at the bakery in town - Mr Vallen's."
"Oh!" Valkyrie says, brightening. This she can handle. Divorces, moving back home in your thirties - those are things for which Valkyrie isn't equipped. But a new job? She can work with this. "That's awesome! I haven't been by there in ages."
"We can tell," Crystal murmurs, eyes scanning over Valkyrie's muscled arms, her taut belly, and her perfectly swelled hips and thighs. Valkyrie thinks about telling them that she's practically always eating, that she carries protein bars in her jacket wherever she goes, that she has eaten ice cream every night since the temperatures started rising. But she keeps that to herself, realising that it will sound more like bragging than anything else.
Carol flushes, but she smiles at Valkyrie. It's hesitant, almost like Carol is allowed one emotion, and this new one is conflicting with her programming. "You should come in some time. I can get you something on the house so long as Mr Vallen isn't around."
"Valkyrie doesn't want a doughnut," Crystal curtly replies.
Valkyrie's hackles rise and, before she can stop herself, the words "Actually, that'd be grand," leave her mouth. "I've been known to polish off a baker's dozen of pink sprinkled."
Carol grins, genuinely pleased, and Crystal glowers. "Whatever," the twin mumbles and turns, ghosting through the crowd, too slim to follow for long.
"Sorry about her," Carol murmurs, sliding in a little closer to Valkyrie. "She's been a bit out of sorts, as you can imagine."
"She has every right to be out of sorts," Valkyrie replies, finding it odd that she doesn't mind the conversation as much anymore. "It sounds like she's had a rough go."
Carol nods, glancing through the throngs of people. She angles her body out of the way for a passing mother and children - she still gets bumped, and she blushes. She tries to make herself smaller than her frame, tries to imitate her sister's sparse form.
"Want to get something to eat? I'm starving," Valkyrie offers, smiling a little. "You can catch me up on everything."
Carol's eyes light up, and Valkyrie's heart tightens. Where the hell did this Carol come from? Where the hell was the nasty, toxic girl from her preteen years? Or is this Carol the Carol that had always been there? Was it merely Crystal who brought them both down? Were three years apart from her sister all it took for Carol to relax, to sweeten?
Valkyrie loops her arm in Carol's and pulls her through the crowd. They make it to the furthest stall, and Valkyrie orders a bag of chips for them to share. They sit together on the grass, munching and people-watching.
Carol breaks the amiable silence. "Crystal's...different."
Valkyrie glances at her from the corner of her eye. "What do you mean?"
"She came back, and now she's...she's always mad. Mum isn't the easiest to live with, sure, but... I don't know, Stephanie. She's lost so much weight, and she's a complete bear most of the time. She just. She isn't my sister. Not really. I'm trying to be patient; I swear I am! But she's nasty to me now. She used to be nasty all the time, but never to me."
And here Valkyrie thought Carol would be the one to offer easy conversation. Valkyrie shifts a little, facing her cousin a fraction more. "I'm really sorry, Carol."
"I know it's not...I shouldn't be complaining." She's shutting herself down - Valkyrie can see it happening. Carol confided in her, didn't get the proper response, and now she is retreating.
"Carol," Valkyrie interrupts, setting the bag down on the ground between them. "You don't deserve to be treated like shit, especially not from your sister. But." Carol's eyes go downcast, waiting. "Crystal's entire life fell out from under her feet. She's not well, and she's evidently not accepting help from anyone if she's ostracising you."
"So what do I do?" The words are faint, almost lost amid the noise and laughter around them.
"The only thing you can. You tell her you're here for her, and that you're happy to give her the space she needs. And that you'll be there to talk to when she's ready." She pauses, thinking about the days -months; the year, really - after she and Tanith broke up. About how her mother and father handled it. How Alice did. "If she acts nasty, it's only out of self-preservation. Or self-loathing. It has nothing to do with you, alright? And if it gets too bad..." Valkyrie breaks off, surprised at herself. Did she almost offer to let Carol come over to Grimwood? Oh, God, what is happening.
"If it gets too bad, call me," Valkyrie settles on. "I work a lot, so it might be two in the morning when I get back to you...but I'll always get back to you. I promise. We can make a date for dinner, dancing, or...I don't know. A movie night?" Oh, God, what is happening.
Carol looks away, and a plump hand goes to her face, wiping under her eyes. "Thanks, Stephanie," Carol whispers, finally glancing over and offering a watery smile. "I'm...really sorry. How we treated you before."
"You were a bit of an ass," Valkyrie agrees.
Carol laughs and wipes her eyes again. Mascara smudges a bit around her lids; it looks intentional, like a daytime smokey eye, so Valkyrie doesn't mention it. "We did learn from our mum, and that's all I'll say about that."
Valkyrie and Carol's eyes rise. Alice is waving her over, pretending she can't see Carol. "Mum wants to go! Buy my shirt and meet us in the car!"
Carol hands the bag of chips to Valkyrie and gets to her feet. "What about...Melissa told my mum that you've been doing a lot of self-defence training. Do you think...if you ever have some free time...maybe you could teach me? Or, at the very least, how to lift weights. Or maybe do lunges. I don't know what most of the terms mean, but basically...I want your thighs."
Valkyrie laughs, and it's so genuine it startles her. "It's a lot of work. I mean...a lot of work."
Carol nods. "I know. I'll probably quit after the first lesson, but I'd like to...you know. I'd like to try."
Valkyrie smiles and nods. "Sure thing. But, before that - I need to find a kilo's worth of clothes and all I have is this."
Carol's smile is radiant - it lights up her entire face. "Now, shopping? I can handle shopping."
Chapter 4: The Water Serpent
Chapter Four, in which Melancholia meets the Death Bringer.
The Death Bringer isn't what Melancholia expects. He's dark-skinned, well-toned for a Necromancer, and he has kind, soft eyes. They're impossibly green. Melancholia has always loved green eyes; the Death Bringer's are like spring grass, something pale but vibrant against his sable skin.
He looks up when she enters the room, his face pleased. "Good evening, Cleric," he greets her.
Melancholia is caught off-guard for a moment - had someone announced her presence? Had the Irish Temple sent her photo and name along? "Good evening, Death Bringer."
"Thank you, Brother Donner, you can go," the Death Bringer says to the doorman, not taking his eyes from Melancholia. When the man leaves, the Death Bringer's lips marginally tilt upward. "We expected more Irish visitors today if I am honest, but I'm glad to meet you."
"Others will arrive at the end of the week, in plenty of time for the Passage." She pauses. "Excuse my curiosity, but when might we expect the Passage to begin?"
He stands, reaching his hand out to her as if he doesn't hear her question. "I'm Leviathan."
Melancholia glances at his hand and then at his smile. She shakes his hand awkwardly, unused to the motion. His grip is firm but doesn't squeeze to the point of being forceful. It's polite, honest, warm. It lights something inside Melancholia's belly.
The Death Bringer's expression shifts a little, becoming amused, and Melancholia realises that her cheeks are hot. She removes her hand from his and clears her throat. "It is a pleasure to meet you...Leviathan."
"You ask when I'll be ready for the Passage?" he doesn't wait for a confirmation. "I'm sure a lot of folks are curious as to why, after a month of these powers, I haven't saved us yet."
"Just Leviathan," he says. "Our brothers and sisters refuse to treat me like a person now - hopefully you'll be the exception to this."
Melancholia wants to tell him that it's practically blasphemous to treat their Saviour so informally, but his smile is gorgeous, and his eyes are gentle. "Of course," she murmurs, cheeks still hot.
"The Passage will happen when I am ready," he answers finally. "And I'm not ready yet."
Melancholia isn't sure how to reply to this - she is sure that Wreath expects her to get this metaphorical show on the road, though. "I don't mean to press, but..." she trails off.
"This power is new to me; it's something I've only dreamed of - not even dreamed of...it's beyond that." He frowns and then reaches out to her; she steps a little closer.
When Leviathan lays his hand on hers, she feels it. She feels something cold and slippery leave his fingertips, invisible and raw as it splays across her extremities, sinking into her skin. She gasps, unable to help it, and a bloom of unfettered power floods her body.
It dies out before she can truly appreciate it. When she looks up at him, she knows her eyes are wide and possibly horrified. "What was that?" she breathes.
"I don't know. Yet." When Melancholia says nothing, he softly adds, "I think the world can wait a week or two while I figured this stuff out, yeah?"
He's still holding her hand. His voice is vibrant, colourful, ringing with the creole dialect she's heard since arriving in Lousiana. It's beautiful - she isn't sure she's ever heard anything so beautiful.
"Yes," she replies. Her head is fuzzy. Oh, God, he's handsome.
"Will you help me?" he asks. His eyelashes are long, full and dark - the envy of any woman.
"Of course, Death Bringer." She pauses and then smiles. "Leviathan."
Chapter 5: Family Dynamics
Chapter Five, in which Melissa Edgley takes a moment to assess her children at rest.
Melissa Edgley loves her children. She doesn't have a favourite, of course - but like most parents, that isn't precisely true. Her children are so similar in so many ways, and yet... There is a softness in Stephanie that Alice doesn't have; a vulnerability, an unwavering need to suffer for those she loves. In spite of Stephanie's insistence to hide it, to pretend it doesn't exist, it's there. Alice doesn't bear that nature - and hopefully never will.
There was a time when Stephanie stayed away from home, choosing to dedicate herself to her magical life. To her training. Stephanie became elusive - they'd be lucky if they saw her once a month.
It all changed, however, when - on Alice's third birthday - Alice looked at Stephanie, puckered her brow, and asked Desmond, "Babysitter?"
Alice knew - somehow, Alice knew that Stephanie and the Reflection Alice grew up with were not the same person.
After that, Stephanie returned. She visited. Stephanie spent time with Alice and took her to the park, took her to Gordon's house for the weekends, took her to movies and museums. She and Tanith came over every Sunday for dinner - they usually stayed until Tuesday morning, working their days off around the family.
There was a time when Melissa thought she'd lost her favourite child to a different life. But then Stephanie came back and made her amends. She came back and slowly, surely, fitted herself into the jigsaw of their lives.
The prodigal daughter, as Desmond says every time they reflect on that year.
Desmond has no favourite child; of this, Melissa is positive. It makes Melissa feel bad when she admits to herself that he's the better parent. Melissa hasn't failed her children; she's a damn good mother, and she knows it. But she isn't Des, that's for sure.
She brings the tea in on a tray, setting it in the middle of the coffee table. Stephanie is on the couch, scrolling through her phone; her long legs stretch out and drape over the arm. It's a warm day, and her clothing is nothing if not appropriate for it - soft, thin cotton shorts and a camisole she picked up from the kilo sale the day before. A lightweight hooded jacket droops around her, half hanging off of her shoulders.
Alice sports a similar outfit, minus the jacket, but she's sprawled across the window seat with a hefty, leather-bound tome balanced on her ribs. The sun spills across her, alighting her pale hair and making it shimmer like quicksilver. Alice mouths words and glances at the ceiling occasionally, closing her eyes and focusing. On what, Melissa doesn't know. Doesn't want to know, if she's honest.
And there it is - the reminder that her children are not ordinary girls basking in the warmth of family and a balmy evening.
"Is Skulduggery coming over?" Melissa asks, realising that Stephanie hasn't mentioned him once. He's usually here by now.
Stephanie sits up, her legs sliding around and under her with ease. "I think so - he didn't say otherwise."
"Should you...text him?"
Stephanie quirks a brow, reaching for a saucer and teacup. "Why would I? He'll turn up eventually."
"He always does," Alice adds from the settee, not turning her lidless gaze from the book. Her facade isn't active; Melissa is getting used to the lack of blinking, she supposes, but it still catches her off-guard on occasion. "He's basically a street cat."
Melissa can't help the small smile that spreads her lips. She sits on the couch beside Stephanie, dashing the faintest bit of cream into her cup. "Alice, your tea."
"In a minute," she replies distractedly. "Homework."
"And what class is that for?"
"No magic talk," Stephanie interrupts, gently setting her saucer down. "It's your rule, Mum, but you're the one that keeps breaking it."
Melissa smiles, caught, and shrugs. "We've never gone this long without something strange happening or being said. I suppose I thought it was a moot request."
"I silenced my Whispering account," Stephanie admits.
"Me, too," Alice agrees, finally setting the tome down and coming over to them.
"We've probably missed three million messages about the end of the world," Stephanie sighs.
"At least," Alice nods, taking her tea and drinking as if talking about the weather.
Melissa purses her lips to keep herself from laughing. "You put my needs above saving the world? My goodness, I wasn't aware my children were such sweet, sweet imbeciles."
Stephanie raises a brow at her. "We get it from somewhere, you know."
"She obviously meant Dad," Alice grins, finishing her tea in one go and putting down the cup. "I'm going to very secretly go upstairs and text a classmate about our not-at-all-magic-related assignment." And then she's gone, sprinting up the stairs.
Silence descends in the living room; Stephanie finishes her tea, not speaking. It is Melissa who finally breaks. "Is he coming over?" she asks again.
Stephanie grumbles, picking her phone off of the armrest beside her. She opens the odd app-like thing built into her mobile, the Roarhaven-wide information and communication network, Alice called it.
The what? Melissa had asked.
It's basically if Facebook had a sleek, magical baby with a state-run, oligarchical version of Google, Valkyrie explained. The Supreme Mage plans to take it global soon, so...what can go wrong.
Melissa can see at least six different notifications on Stephanie's screen when she swipes the messaging section down. She selects one, skimming it. "Yep, he's on his way as of-" A knock on the door - Skulduggery's three, cheerful raps on the wood. "-and here he is," Valkyrie finishes.
"Is...is everything alright between you two?" Melissa asks before either of them move.
Stephanie smiles, genuinely smiles. "What, are you thinking I'm getting tired of my magically reanimated partner-in-crime? Or that he's getting bored of the girl who has a psychopath living in her head?"
"Steph," Melissa scolds. She hates when her daughter mentions Darquesse in such a way - as if Stephanie is some sideshow freak.
Stephanie softens, leans over, and kisses Melissa's cheek. "Everything's good between us, I swear." And then she's on her feet and heading toward the small foyer, opening the door for a tall, thin man with a strangely bushy moustache.
"Oh God, get rid of it," Stephanie says, dismayed, stepping aside.
Skulduggery chuckles, steps in, and the facade flows away when Stephanie closes the door. She places a soft kiss to his jawbone, quick enough to almost be missed, and Melissa watches his hand brush hers in a discreet, fond way.
They've never been open with their affections around Melissa or Desmond - and Melissa is embarrassingly glad for it in a secret part of herself - but she can see the silent looks her daughter gives him. She can hear his adoration anytime he talks to her, about her.
As odd as it is, as strange as the prospect of her daughter being intimate with a - Good Lord, it sounds even worse in words - four-hundred-plus year-old skeleton, they love one another.
Melissa is pleased to see them share a few soft words, another brief brush of skin across bone, and then they're coming toward her.
"Melissa, lovely as ever," Skulduggery greets her.
Melissa smiles. "You're later than usual. Is the world ending yet?"
"Not yet," he assures her. "Trust me - a silenced phone wouldn't keep me away if the end of times were upon us."
Chapter 6: Sigils
Chapter Six, in which Omen reaches out to Valkyrie, and Valkyrie plans a trip to Roarhaven.
Valkyrie's day has been rather lovely, all things considered. She woke up in a good mood, had a delightful breakfast with Tanith, spent the afternoon doing wind sprints and their usual Tuesday interval training, and then lounged in the sun while Xena barked at birds.
It's been a few weeks since she's been on an Arbiter mission out of the country; while she found the break insufferable at first, she's grown used to the leisurely days. After Caisson, after their losses, it's been nice to have a break, to lick her wounds.
That downtime, though, means she hasn't seen Omen Darkly. The day after Auger Darkly's funeral, Omen packed up their room at Grimwood, quietly slipping away. At least Never left a note on the refrigerator before they disappeared.
Skulduggery assures her that Omen is still alive, still working. Throwing himself into work, in fact; between studying with China Sorrows and her students, he has been jet-setting across the globe with his best friend. They're in Australia right now, or so Skulduggery told her. They're looking into a handful of disappearances - all mortal, all torn limb-from-limb with impossible gash marks, teeth marks.
"Vampires," Valkyrie said without seeing the crime scene photos. When Skulduggery murmured his agreement, she continued, "I have no idea why there are so bloody many in Australia. You'd think they'd avoid the sun."
"Why?" Skulduggery had asked, sounding genuinely amused.
She thought about it, realised that she was basing that entirely off of terrible vampire novels and movies, and scowled. "Shut up."
But Omen and Never are doing their jobs - very well, in fact - and keeping a wide berth from Grimwood. Valkyrie is apprehensive enough not to reach out.
It's her fault that Auger died. It's her fault that Ghastly Bespoke died. Necromancer blood is on her hands, along with a dozen Cleavers' - all because she couldn't listen to Alice's warnings. Focus on the armour, on the book. Not me. Not Caisson.
But, Valkyrie is an idiot - everyone knows that. If Valkyrie were in the habit of externalising her loathing, she'd probably find a way to blame everyone else for letting her call the shots. But she isn't that type of person, so she draws it all inside of herself, shaping and re-shaping it to fit into her cramped, failure-filled soul.
She sits up when her phone vibrates in her back pocket. She wriggles to her side, pulling the piece of metal out and glancing at it. She has to adjust the screen brightness and shield her eyes to see the message.
It's from Omen.
Valkyrie's heart nearly stops. His message is short, but it's from him. Not Never. Not Skulduggery. Omen.
Vampires, the text says, and they have sigils.
The attached photos show dead bodies, heads removed, and old, awkwardly healed symbols on their pale, sickly flesh.
The same sigils she found on the vampires in Australia last year.
How many are there?
We've been tracking them south
A few were in a group, but there were
some solo vamps, too.
All heading south.
Never says 'lots of things'
When are you coming back?
Are you willing to come here
for the briefing?
The response takes much longer than the previous ones. And then, Yeah, we'll be there.
Valkyrie gets up and returns to the house, beckoning Xena in after her. She grabs her jacket, calling out, "I'm leaving!"
"Alice isn't out for another two hours!" Tanith calls from somewhere upstairs.
"Going to see China first! Want to come?"
"Hard pass! The hardest of all of the hard passes!" she shouts back. Valkyrie hears Gordon laugh, so she assumes Tanith is in the study with him.
Valkyrie smirks, zipping her jacket in spite of the beautiful weather. "I'll send along your love to our wonderful Supreme Mage!"
Tanith makes gagging noises; Valkyrie, grinning, heads for her car.
Chapter 7: Brothers and Grandmothers
Chapter Seven, in which Valkyrie meets with the Supreme Mage.
There is a new Administrator.
Valkyrie isn't sure how many China goes through in any given day, but this is the third face in as many months; such turnover is odd in the magical community. Then again, the Supreme Mage is China Sorrows, and China Sorrows is nothing if not careful. Valkyrie got banned from China's library for close to two years after knocking over an unauthorised waterbottle, for Christ's sake. No harm, but plenty of foul in China's mind.
When the Administrator begins to lead Valkyrie to the Supreme Mage's private rooms at the top of the Sanctuary, Valkyrie makes a face. "I thought she was meeting me in the council chamber?"
The Administrator - a small, nervous-looking man named Tipstaff - doesn't glance back at her. He's too busy tapping notes and ticking off his checklists on the device he uses to run the Sanctuary. "The Supreme Mage changed her mind, so it seems. This way, Arbiter Cain."
"I liked the last Administrator better," Valkyrie alerts him, knowing it's petty but unable to bite back her annoyance. A headache began to form as soon as she entered the bustling Sanctuary and it's making her cranky. "She wore the prettiest shoes."
When they stop at China's room, he knocks and steps aside. His eyes finally meet hers, and he thrusts a foot out, showing a well-maintained, patent-leather shoe. "Crockett and Jones," he says.
Valkyrie's eyes widen in appreciativeness. She doesn't know much about men's shoes in general, but everyone knows Crockett and Jones. "Damn," she says, both in recognition and apology. "Consider my saltiness withdrawn."
He smiles, straightens his finely crafted jacket - not as lovely as Skulduggery's suits, of course, but still nice - and gives a short nod.
The door opens, and China glances out at the both of them. She steps aside to let Valkyrie in, and Valkyrie nods to the Administrator. He is gone before she can speak.
"Your Administrators always have lovely shoes," Valkyrie says, not sitting. China hasn't procured tea for them, and she is in the process of putting new earrings in, her blouse undone. Evidently their meeting will be short and to the point. "But that's not what I'm here about."
"I'd certainly hope not," China murmurs, coming over to kiss her cheeks. "What is so urgent that I had to postpone my meeting with the city planner?"
"City planner?" Valkyrie repeats. "Isn't Roarhaven big enough? We still have entire quarters sitting empty."
China works her buttons into place, not answering, just waiting.
Valkyrie sighs and pulls her phone from her pocket, swiping her photos open and showing the symbols to China. "Please tell me you know what this is."
China's face rarely betrays anything, but Valkyrie catches the sudden stillness that overtakes the woman in the split-second her eyes first gaze on the symbols. She hands the phone back without glancing at the other pictures. "They're crude, but yes, I recognise them." She breezes past Valkyrie, into the hall, and toward her library. "When did you find these?"
Valkyrie follows, not paying attention to the four Cleavers stationed to either side of them. "Omen took that an hour ago. I first found them last year when we weren't on speaking terms."
The stacks of books are already rearranging themselves for China, and she finds the thing she's looking for immediately. "This was my Grandmother's," she says, offering the small, cracked leather journal to Valkyrie. "I have no idea who wrote it, who added to it before my Grandmother, but I do know that she coveted this."
"And this is?" Valkyrie asks.
"A priceless family heirloom...and a book on summoning the Faceless Ones." Valkyrie feels as if her eyebrows may shoot off of her face when she arches them. China lets out a sigh. " Don't be so dramatic - it's entirely rubbish, of course."
"The sigil?" Valkyrie presses.
China nods toward the book as if Valkyrie should glance through it, but she answers regardless. "That symbol is a mark of sacrifice. A mark inked or cut onto the bodies of those who would serve as vessels to the Faceless Ones when they returned to conquer us all. A host-beacon, if you will."
"Grand," Valkyrie murmurs, flipping the book open and thumbing through the pages. She can't understand most of it, given that it rambles from languages she can't begin to decipher, Gaeilge, and symbols. "Is there anything I can use?"
"Hardly," China chuckles. "It's all conjecture - folktales passed down for centuries upon centuries, recalled from the memories of who-knows."
"Folk tales? About a devastating race of Gods laying waste to all of humanity."
"Exactly," China smiles. "Aren't those the best kind?" Her smile fades a bit. "What is alarming, however, is that my brother took this journal from our Grandmother over four hundred years ago. I know that no one aside from Bliss and I has seen this book since then."
"I didn't know you have a brother." She pauses, remembers Gordon telling her that Bliss brought the soul-splitting artefact to him for safekeeping. Safekeeping from China. "And I certainly didn't know it was Mr Bliss."
"There are many things you don't know about me, my dear. Focus, perhaps?" She gives Valkyrie a moment and then continues, "The fact that these symbols have shown up, old as they are, concerns me. Evidently my family's past ramblings were not unique to them. Where did you find these vampires?"
"Australia," Valkyrie replies, turning the brittle pages in her hands. She's careful with them, but she feels one page begin to tear under her fingers. If China notices, she says nothing. "I found three last year, and Omen's found seven over the past week. Can you tell if these were carved before or after they became vampires? Is that possible?"
"Perhaps for someone who knows the effects of vampire skin regeneration. I, as you might imagine, am not that person."
Valkyrie closes the book and hands it back to China. "I know you're busy, but-"
"I will glance through the journal tonight and let you know if I find anything, yes," China finishes. She looks suddenly impatient. "If that is all for now?"
China kisses her cheeks again. "Remember when we used to drink wine and talk about ruling the world, not saving it?"
"It could be because you've already managed it as far as the magical world is concerned," Valkyrie laughs, feeling that annoying kinship flutter through her veins. China is many things and, though Valkyrie hates to admit it, she is a friend. As much of a friend as someone like China can be.
"Hardly - there are so many things left to do," China says wistfully, teasingly, and Valkyrie leaves her side with a smile she hasn't expected.
Chapter 8: Holidays in America
Chapter Eight, in which Valkyrie hears rumours from the Temple.
Hey, y'all. Alice has a Taken Name now - as you can imagine, coming up with a taken name was really annoying for me, but it had to get done. Her name will probably be updated once Landy gives her one, but also...maybe not? I chose the name (Shae Pyre) based on my future plans for her.
Alice's true name will only be used when she's in/speaking to someone in the magical community - much how Valkyrie's was for the first couple of books.
There's still an hour left before Alice's classes at Corrival let out, so Valkyrie goes to the Temple. She hasn't seen Wreath in a while - he moved out last month when he received the honour of being named High Priest of the Irish Temple. His lessons with Alice have been few and far between, as well, but Valkyrie doesn't mind that aspect.
When she arrives, she's mildly surprised to find out that no one will let her in. She has to argue with the woman at the door for ten minutes before the young Necromancer finally asks someone to find Wreath and bring him.
It takes thirty minutes. Valkyrie waits by the door, drumming her fingers on the dense, thick wood and pissing off the Necromancer on the other side. "Stop," the Necromancer hisses finally. "Just stop. Step away from the door."
"Farren," a voice chides from behind her. The door opens, and Wreath brushes past the young Necromancer. "Valkyrie, it is always a lovely surprise to see you. I assume I am not in danger of being attacked this time?"
"I guess that all depends," she admits, but smiles and accepts his hug. "How is life treating the all-important High Priest Solomon Wreath?"
Wreath chuckles and guides her behind the Temple and into a shady copse of trees. Darquesse can feel the prickles of death from the buried bodies around them, but Darquesse doesn't delight in it. She doesn't have fond memories of this place.
"I cannot stand it if I am honest," Wreath admits in an undertone. "I was much more suited for Cleric."
"And who took your place among the Clerics? Please don't tell me that Craven imbecile."
"Ah, no, Vandameer Craven transferred to one of the American Temples years back. I would say I'm surprised I didn't tell you, but I honestly forgot about his existence until just now."
Valkyrie smiles, sitting on a small bench under a drooping tree branch. Wreath joins her; his eyes are welcoming even though a horrifying, unhealing scar stretches between them. An injury Valkyrie gave him not so long ago. Certainly not so long that Wreath has forgotten.
"I thought Alice might be with you."
"Shae," Valkyrie corrects.
Wreath winces slightly. "Of course. Old habits and whatnot."
"It's taking some getting used to," Valkyrie admits.
"And she is...?"
"At school. I actually popped over here to see if you were still coming to the cemetery Saturday evening? She's been on me about practising."
"You don't approve."
"That has not changed, no."
"Even though using death magic to assist her Sight was the only way she broke past Abyssinia to contact you?"
Valkyrie is well aware that she's being dumb about this entire thing, but she can't help it. "I've seen what Necromancers can do, Solomon."
"Melancholia has made amends. You said so yourself."
"She's not the only Necromancer I've known to stick their toes in the deep end. Remember Militsa Gnosis?"
"How could I forget? I'm still surprised she made it to the Sanctuary in one piece." Wreath softly smiles. "I'm afraid I cannot help this weekend. Or next, perhaps. I am heading to America Friday and have no idea how long I will be gone."
Valkyrie narrows her eyes. "Why?"
"You know I cannot discuss Temple business with you, Valkyrie. You are not one of us - not anymore."
"Valkyrie," he returns, but his smile is sneaking past his attempt to scowl.
"Who is the new Cleric? Surely you can tell me that - it's not like your hierarchy is a well-kept secret."
He sighs, knowing it's a trap. "Melancholia."
Valkyrie doesn't react. "Melancholia's in America right now, too." When Wreath's eyes narrow, Valkyrie shrugs. "She friended my sister on Instagram; it's not my fault she has geotagging on."
Wreath closes his eyes, resigned. "I knew her sudden fondness for technology would backfire on me."
Valkyrie grins, leaning in a bit more, whispering, "What's going on in Lousiana, Solomon?"
"I can't talk to you about this. No one outside of the Order."
"Shae's technically part of the Order, right?" Valkyrie presses. "You can tell her."
"Your sister is an outsider - she doesn't live here, she doesn't adhere to our doctrine, she hasn't reached her Surge...there are rules in place, Valkyrie. Not that you know what a rule is."
Valkyrie breathes in very slowly and then lets it out. There are few things she can't coerce out of Wreath, but he is trying so damned hard. It must be important. It must be world-shattering. If he and Melancholia are going to America, there has to be something requiring their assistance. There has to be something big enough that the Temples would join ranks in peace-time.
She focuses her eyes on his. "Is there a Death Bringer?"
The flicker behind his eyes confirms it. Valkyrie's skin goes cold and Darquesse giggles, warmth spreading along Valkyrie's arms. A tendril of shadow pokes from the Necromancer ring - Darquesse's influence - and Wreath looks at it wearily.
"How long do we have?" Valkyrie asks softly.
"You and your family will be safe," Wreath assures her, misunderstanding. "You are all on the list of untouchables."
"How long do we have to stop you?" she clarifies.
Wreath looks away from her, and then back. His eyes scan the quiet grounds around them, ensuring no one is within earshot. "Valkyrie...I can't."
"You've basically told me everything so far. I could just go to Louisiana and find the dumbest looking graveyard, and that's where they'll be, right?"
Wreath scowls but lowers his voice, "At this moment, Valkyrie, there is nothing to stop."
Valkyrie's brows raise in surprise. "Really?"
"The Death Bringer claims that he is not ready to cure the world until he understands the source of its malcontent."
"So, in other words, he's never bringing about your Passage?"
Wreath is probably regretting that he told her anything about the Passage before she was truly one of them - back when he thought she might be their Death Bringer, their 13-year-old messiah. He probably regrets a lot when it comes to Valkyrie, and yet he keeps coming back to her. "Melancholia says he is stubborn, but who of us Necromancers isn't?"
"Most of you seem a little tuck-tail if I'm honest." She glances down at the ground and says, "Even so - I'm going to need to talk to him."
Wreath can't help the smile that breaks his frown. "Your willfulness is the most wonderful thing about you,"
"You hate how willful I am."
"I do at times," he confesses. "But even so - it's admirable." He opens his mouth to say something else, but then he closes it. A sharp wind whips Valkyrie's hair around her face, and Wreath moves some of it behind her ear. "And how is your partner?"
Valkyrie pulls back a bit, wary. "Why?"
"I haven't seen him since Aranmore Farm. It is odd to see you two separate for so long."
"He's fine," Valkyrie replies, hating how her skin feels like it's crawling with insects. She gets to her feet, putting some distance between them. "He's been busy with a different case."
"Of course; I expected nothing less," he says with a voice that betrays his scepticism. Wreath stands and gives Valkyrie another hug. When he pulls back, he murmurs, "The next time I see you, Stephanie, it will be in a safe and happy world."
"The only way our world will be safe is if your Passage kills all of us," she replies. "Have a nice trip and, whatever else you do, don't make your new Death Bringer less hesitant."
Wreath smiles and Valkyrie waves.
It's close to the time for Corrival to let out for the day, so she drives to the school. As far as Valkyrie is aware, Alice is the only Corrival student who doesn't live in the dorms. The headmaster wasn't pleased when China gave the mandate to accept Alice into the over-crowded Academy - in spite of no dorm space - but he conceded. How could he not? China is not a person to deny.
Valkyrie sends a short message to Skulduggery, ensuring that he's coming to Grimwood for Omen's impromptu meeting - adding we have a new case. I need to talk to you one-on-one - and then glances up in time to see the doors opening and a blonde girl stepping out.
Alice Edgley - or Shae Pyre, as she's known around Roarhaven - grins when she picks out Valkyrie's car. Not like that's a hard thing to do - Valkyrie's car is a horrifying purple.
When Alice gets in, Valkyrie's smile pushes back the niggling fear this new Death Bringer brought on. "Omen's coming round the house tonight."
"And Never?" Alice asks, hopeful.
"Yep. It's business talk, but I'm sure Omen would love being your punching bag for a bit."
Alice grins, Valkyrie grins, and they drive home.
Chapter 9: An Unremarkable Man
Chapter Nine, in which Leviathan shakes Melancholia's faith.
Melancholia wakes when the door to her room wobbles under a heavy fist. She sits up, holds the blankets to her chest, and waits for someone to burst in. When it doesn't happen, she slowly pads out of bed, across the small floor, and cracks the door open.
A tall, brusque-looking Necromancer, sans hood, watches her balefully. "Cleric. The Death Bringer requires your presence."
She raises a brow at him. "Give me a moment to dress." She closes the door again, her heartbeat slowing, evening out, becoming calm. Her hair is a mess - she had quite the time getting to sleep last night, unused to a different bed, a different scent. Her makeup, scant though it is, will take longer than the Necromancer will wait, she's sure.
She sighs and settles with putting her hair in a bun, smoothing moisturiser over her pillow-creased cheeks and the dark circles under her eyes.
Her robe slips on over her nightgown, because who the hell will know or care? Her feet slide into her shoes, she zips the ankle-boots, and then she places her amulet around her neck. The dense chain falls beneath her robes, the cold prickling through her bones.
She raises her hood - just enough to cover the flyaways - and steps into the corridor. The Necromancer glances at her, unimpressed, and then murmurs, "Please keep up."
And then he's moving. Melancholia thinks he's doing it on purpose - he's so fast that she is having trouble keeping up with his rolling strides. Exercising isn't her thing - the speed-walking she's attempting at the moment is making it hard to keep her breath.
The Temple is larger than the Irish Temple, which is both surprising and not, she supposes; Americans have a thing for the biggest, the grandest, the sparkliest.
The corridors sweep around one another, sometimes curving, sometimes running parallel and bisecting as corridors should. Melancholia is lost after the first few turns - she's downright sure the Necromancer is leading her in circles after five minutes.
They eventually get to a flight of spiral stairs cut into the very foundation of the building. The steps lead down at a slant, worn away by hundreds of years of foot traffic.
And down they go. Circling.
Melancholia is dizzy by the time they finally get to the bottom. The floor is rough-hewn, and Melancholia is positive that this area is not open to the everyday acolyte.
No light illuminates the cold; she knows it's unbecoming, but she grasps the Necromancer's robe as he leads her on. He slows for her, at the very least, and doesn't snicker at her tight grip. "This way," he says, and his tone isn't as harsh as it was before.
The Necromancer comes to a stop, knocks on what must be a door that Melancholia can't see, and says, "Cleric St Clair."
The door opens; light floods their cramped hallway. Melancholia releases the Necromancer's robe, smoothing her own garment down. "Good morning, sir," she greets him. She knows he prefers his name, but she isn't sure what level of cosiness she should show around the others.
Leviathan glances at her, smiling, and then frowns at the man. "Why don't you have a light? Good Lord, Briggen, she could've broken her neck."
Leviathan seems annoyed, but he doesn't seem mad. "Use a cell phone at the very least. You could've broken your neck, too, you know." To Melancholia he adds, "I know it's early, but I wanted to show you something I've been working on."
Briggen, the fleet-of-foot Necromancer, gives a small bow, nods goodbye to Melancholia, and leaves them.
Melancholia enters the well-lit room; it is only when she can actually see that she stumbles, caught up on the fraying edge of a massive rug covering the stone. Leviathan reaches out as if to grab her, but she steps away, steadying herself, and awkwardly rights her hood. "Apologies - I've never been good going from the dark to the light."
Leviathan smiles as if she said something witty. He nods his head to the side, requesting she follow, and he leads her further into the room. In the back corner, overly-lit with medical lighting, is a table — a slab. On the slab, there is a man.
"What...is this?" Melancholia asks. Her amulet doesn't tremble the closer she gets, so he is still alive. Somehow. He holds so still that it takes her a few moments to find the rise and fall of his chest.
"I assembled this room earlier this week," Leviathan explains. He either doesn't realise she's more interested in the man than the lab, or he is ignoring it. "I want to study how my power works, how the soul works. Life, the Universe, and Everything." He grins at her like he expects her to understand.
His face begins to fall. "...Life, the Universe, and Everything? It's, ah. It's a book — an old one. I just figured everyone...nevermind. That isn't important," he declares, reaching out for her hand.
Melancholia hadn't realised that she stopped in the centre in the room, staring at the not-quite-dead man on the mortuary slab. She hesitantly takes his hand and allows him to draw her right next to the man.
"This is Gerald Leavy," he says. Part of Melancholia expects Leviathan to introduce Gerald to her for a dark-humoured giggle, but he thankfully does not. "Gerald Leavy wants to die."
"He looks nearly there," Melancholia murmurs, eyes roving over the man's naked body. He's mottled in bruises. His lip has burst in two places. There are shiners on both eyes, a cut brow, and jagged slashes along his belly. She thinks a testicle might be burst, too, but she does her best not to look at the sad state of the man's reproductive organs.
Gerald doesn't bleed, but the wounds threaten to reopen with the slightest provocation.
"I found him in the park yesterday," Leviathan murmurs, tilting his head, watching Gerald's eyes flicker beneath his lids. "Three men attacked him - he didn't put up a fight. He wanted to die. He wanted it to be over."
Gerald might be dreaming - the force his eyes exert, flitting around as they are, makes Melancholia wonder if he's reliving his beating. "Why is he here? Alive? These injuries...he should have bled out in the grass."
"He should have," Leviathan agrees. One fingertip finds Gerald's cheek, brushing off a dried fleck of missed blood. "I'm feeding a bit of my magic into him, keeping him together. The trauma is overwhelming - the pain he'd be feeling if I wasn't taking it from him is...extensive."
"Leviathan...why is he here?" Melancholia tries again. She isn't sure why her palms are sweating, why her heart keeps thudding louder and louder. Oh God, what the hell is he doing? What the fuck kind of experiments -
"I went to help him," Leviathan softly answers. His gaze is kind when he looks down on the middle-aged, complete unremarkable form in front of him. "I don't know why. I saw him on the ground, and then the men dispersed, so I..."
Leviathan pauses. He swallows. Is he about to cry? Melancholia can't tell if the man is intensely sensitive or intensely unhinged. Perhaps both.
"Gerald is Irish," he tells her. "For some reason, hearing his voice made me decide to save him." Leviathan chuckles humourlessly, and then he turns his gaze to Melancholia. "He woke up not long after I began healing him. He didn't thank me - he begged me to end it; to let him move on to Heaven.
"I could've told him that there's no Heaven, that there's only the stream between life and death. That there're shadow-cities of souls, not rolling hills of grass and puppies and lost loved ones."
"The stream is heaven enough," Melancholia replies.
"Spoken like a true Necromancer," he laughs, his gaze soft and warm. It makes Melancholia's belly flutter. "Even so. Gerald wants a place where he can finally be himself, be the person inside, not the one on the outside. He wants love and protection and purpose."
"The stream takes all of those things away," Melancholia furrows her brows, not understanding. "It doesn't matter what confusion or failure he feels, or that this world puts on him. In the stream, we're energy. We're all that we're meant to be."
"To play the Devil's advocate," Leviathan begins, pressing a hand to Gerald's slowly-rising chest. "Even if our idea of Self, morality, sexuality, whatever else, is pointless...how do you tell someone that? How do you tell a mortal that their release, their promised land, is merely rejoining a stream of energy? How does that offer peace to a soul tied down in our human bodies?"
Melancholia doesn't know how to answer that. Melancholia doesn't know if anyone could answer that.
"Can I show you something?" he asks. "It's...odd. It isn't pleasant at first. But I think it might clear up some questions."
Melancholia nods; she can't find her voice, her words. Leviathan gives her that gentle smile of his, the one that could soothe baby birds in the jaws of a snake. And then he takes her hand in his.
She feels something the moment they touch. She watches Leviathan's fingers become a fist on Gerald's chest. The clenched hand begins to release, to open like a blooming flower. Melancholia senses a strange pull toward the feeling coming from his palm. But as she leans in, Leviathan orders, "Stay back."
Gerald stops breathing; Leviathan softly grunts, and then Melancholia feels Gerald - feels the essence of the body, the true Self - slide between their linked fingers.
"What?" The word leaves her mouth without her permission, hanging in the air like the tingling, ghosting feeling slithering along her arm. She feels Gerald, feels his personality, feels everything that makes him him. It's still there, still inside of the spirit.
"The Temples have taught us that our wants and desires mean nothing," Leviathan whispers. He's standing so close; his breath tickles across Melancholia's neck. Her hood fell away at some point, and now Gerald's energy flows across her exposed clavicle. Leviathan's fingers squeeze hers. "And yet, here is Gerald. He isn't just energy. You feel that, don't you? That we're still us even as souls?"
Melancholia swallows; Leviathan's free hand takes back the soul and releases it into Gerald; the mortal's chest rises and falls again. "How can I comfort him about death when I know that he won't get the thing he wants, he craves, that he was promised?"
"They don't need comfort," Melancholia tries to say, but her words stammer and her heart can't feel the truth of these words anymore. Leviathan, in the span of one minute, has shaken her faith. "The Passage is immediate - no one will know. No one will need words. And then...and then they'll be..."
"Free?" Leviathan finishes for her. "Safe? Eternally one with the universe and those we deem fit to remain on this esoteric plane?"
Melancholia shakes her head, uncomprehending. Is this what an existential crisis feels like? Oh, God, she can't breathe. Oh, God, she's going to pass out. She's never lost consciousness before. Will it hurt? Will she feel the blackness overtake her or will it just happen, bang, a sudden departure from one moment and a shunt into the next?
Is that what energy feels when it passes into the stream? Nothing and then everything? Everything and then nothing?
Nothing and then nothing?
She's crying. Jesus-bloody-Christ, she's crying. She's on her knees and curling into herself. Nothing makes sense - why is she crying? She doesn't need to cry, damnit, she's not sad, she's -- she's...
Leviathan's on the ground with her, his arms circling her, drawing her in. She wets his neck with her tears, but he doesn't seem to mind.
"I can't trust the the Order, not after this," he whispers. "But you, Melancholia...I can trust you. You were blinded, as we all were - as everyone else still is. But now you understand; you understand why this power can only be a last resort."
She looks up at him. She meets his eyes with her own - tear-blurred blue to sombre green - and she whispers, "I understand."
"Will you help me?" he asks. "I know what I am asking you to do - I know this goes against everything we-"
"I will," she replies because she knows she doesn't have a choice. Not anymore.
She stands, brushing herself down as Leviathan releases her. She glances at Gerald Leavy, the man who opened her eyes. He is unremarkable, and yet wholly responsible for the world remaining untouched.
Chapter 10: Australia Roundtable
Chapter Ten, in which the Arbiters - and Alice - have a
Random aside - it was brought to my attention that most families don't kiss each other's cheeks when they meet/part? I had a shit home-life as a kid, BUT my adult-years family/friends do it constantly, so I'm not gonna stop writing it, damnit xD. Enjoy!
Valkyrie and Alice step into a home thrumming with voices and music.
And laughter. It's been a while since Valkyrie's heard this much laughter in Grimwood.
Alice tosses her bag down in the corner of the foyer, kicking her shoes off and trotting toward the kitchen. Valkyrie hesitates, taking extra time to unzip her boots and set them gently against the wall. She listens while Alice chirps, "Omen! Never!" and she listens while Xena barks excitedly, Never laughs, and Omen loudly blurts, "Hey, you have eyes!"
Valkyrie takes a breath, lets it out, and begins her trek toward the others. Before she makes it to the kitchen, Omen rounds the corner, eyes scanning for her. When their gazes meet, Omen awkwardly smiles, cheeks flushing. "Hey?" he begins - it comes out like a question.
Valkyrie bites her lower lip, grinning. "Hey yourself."
Omen takes a few hesitant steps toward her; she mimics it, stopping a metre away. Omen shifts in his mismatched socks. "I, um. I'm sorry."
Valkyrie shakes her head, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling. "Don't do that."
"Sorry," he mumbles and then sighs. "I'm not really good at these reunion things."
Valkyrie opens her arms a bit, sure that he'll retreat, that he'll remember Auger's slack face when he sees her. But Omen steps into the hug gratefully. "We've missed you. I've missed you."
Omen chuckles thickly, pulling back. "I'm s-" he flushes and breaks off when Valkyrie raises a brow at him. "I shouldn't have taken off like that. We all knew what could happen...I mean, we figured it wouldn't; figured that good would triumph and we'd all go home, unburdened until the next crisis. But... I know it wasn't your fault. I never thought his death was on you. I just, um. I guess I...I just needed..."
"Time," Valkyrie helpfully finishes.
"Yeah," he sighs, shoulders deflating.
Valkyrie wants to ask how he is - if he wants to talk or blow the meeting and grab an ice cream - but Alice pops around the corner, raising her brows at them. "Hello? Never brought food from all over the world, and you two are out here talking about your feelings? Let's go." And then she's gone again, disappearing around the corner and turning the music up.
"Remorseless little thing," Valkyrie smiles, bending at the knees a little to nudge Omen's shoulder with her own. "Come on; I think Alice might eat everything purely to spite us."
When she makes it into the kitchen, Never offers an awkward smile. Never's always been odd around her even though Valkyrie's reasonably sure she hasn't done anything to her. Fletcher, on the other hand, drags Valkyrie into a hug that squeezes her innards a little too much.
"Oh God, why?" she gasps, wiggling to get out of Fletcher's grasp. "We saw each other last week!"
"Well, Tanith threatened to have me castrated if I tried hugging her, so you get a double dose." He releases her with a crooked grin, adding in an undertone, "I figured if I didn't make a huge show of it, she might figure out that I really just wanted-"
"Okay, don't finish that thought," Valkyrie winces. She glances toward Tanith, but the woman is deep in conversation with Skulduggery on the other side of the massive kitchen. Her face is wistful while she listens to him. Her smile is bittersweet.
They're talking about Ghastly. Valkyrie doesn't have to hear Skulduggery's words to know.
It's been barely a month since Ghastly died and, while Tanith has perfected the poised look, Valkyrie knows the wound is still fresh. Tanith hides it well, but Valkyrie's known Tanith for a long time.
Valkyrie tosses a grin at Skulduggery when his sockets turn her way, but she diverts her attention to the smorgasbord of international delights on the counters. She heaps a plate with Margherita pizza slices, a dollop of aromatic hummus, a piece of naan, and a glass of cachaca.
While she eats, she picks pieces of intriguing-looking food from others' plates, too, which flames Alice's vitriol. "There's an entire box of these," she snips when Valkyrie grabs a pao de queijo from the blonde's plate. "Get your own!"
"But I didn't know if I wanted to eat it all," she defends, finishing the delicious morsel.
Alice glowers, sliding off of the barstool and going to the corner with Tanith and Skulduggery. "She keeps stealing my food," she explains when they glance at her.
"Why steal? There are entire boxes of food," Skulduggery unhelpfully says.
"She probably didn't know if she wanted more than a bite," Tanith shrugs as if it's a common tactic. To be fair, it is a very common tactic for Valkyrie.
They all eat and tease one another - all except Skulduggery and Fletcher. They move out of the kitchen, heading upstairs to converse in the quiet of Gordon's study. Valkyrie's eyes follow the men as they retreat, but she returns to her attention to Never's unrelenting quips and Omen's unrelenting flush.
When the music fades down to a murmur, and the group moves to sit in the living room, Fletcher and Skulduggery return. Fletcher looks exhausted, far-off; he doesn't even try to catch Tanith's eye. Skulduggery's skull, as always, is unreadable. "Omen," Skulduggery says, voice cheerful, "the room is yours."
Omen gets out of his armchair, stumbles a bit on the rug, and wanders to the centre of the room. "I, ah," he begins, looks suddenly sweaty and nervous.
"Why are you standing?" Never asks, settling back and crossing her legs. "And why are you nervous? You know all of us."
"Oh, leave him be," Tanith grins. "It's cute."
Omen's flush deepens, and Alice snorts, trying to cover it with a fake sneeze.
"You found vampires?" Valkyrie prompts while Omen side-shuffles back toward the armchair. Skulduggery, though, has taken the spot; Omen fumbles, looking confused, flushing even more.
"Um, yes," Omen begins wandering back to the middle of the room. "So, yeah, we found vampires. They were snatching mortals, usually pre-dawn joggers or drunk tourists staying out too late."
"I get the drunk tourist bit, but why does anyone jog pre-dawn?" Never suddenly asks.
"Or after dusk," Tanith adds.
"They do tend to be the ones who get kidnapped and murdered," Valkyrie acknowledges.
"Or find the bodies of people who were kidnapped and murdered," Skulduggery adds. "Valkyrie, perhaps you should take up jogging?"
"So you can play the hero when I get kidnapped?"
"He does like playing the hero," Fletcher says.
"If anyone could kidnap you on even footing," Skulduggery purrs in that voice that does terrible things to Valkyrie's brain, "then you wouldn't be my partner."
Alice bites her lower lip to keep from smiling, feigning annoyance. "Guys, this is a briefing. Let's act our ages, shall we?" she gives Skulduggery a pointed brow raise.
"Okay, so, we found the vampires," Omen says, finally getting his bearings after the momentary reprieve from people looking at him. "We all remember Valkyrie's vampires from last year. The ones Never and I found are basically the same, covered in these weird carvings. I added the photos to our group Whispering folder-"
"I didn't get them," Alice says.
"Because it's the Arbiter account and you're eleven," Valkyrie replies.
"I'm sitting here in the middle of a briefing - I feel like I'm basically an Arbiter-in-training."
"Nope. Not a thing."
"I don't mean to interrupt," Tanith interrupts, "but I am in the Arbiter account, but I don't have the pictures, either."
"My folder's lacking, too," Fletcher agrees.
Never sighs, as if she expected this, and taps away on her phone. Within a few moments, their phones buzz. Tanith and Fletcher look at the images; Alice wiggles over to peek at Tanith's screen.
"So," Valkyrie chimes in when everyone finishes their viewings, "I talked to China about these symbols. They are beacons of a sort - designed to call to the Faceless Ones into a host body."
"Wait," Alice begins, already lost. "Wait, so. They...whoever they are...marked vampires to be hosts for crazy Gods? Why?"
"There is a group of religious zealots-" Skulduggery begins, but Alice waves him off. Skulduggery stops talking, tilting his head at the girl in something like surprise.
"I know that. I mean, why mark vampires? Aren't they super hard to get the drop on? Wouldn't it be easier to target mortals or something?"
"They might not have been vampires at the time," Tanith offers. "Maybe the carving was so powerful that it stayed with them through the transformations, the skin shedding, whatever other gross things they do."
"Or," Fletcher begins slowly, "maybe they just really wanted a strong host. Hosts that are consistently fast, powerful, terrifying."
"Human bodies don't take well to hosting Gods, from what I've heard," Skulduggery adds. "The human hosts burn out quickly, which leads to constant host-hopping. Perhaps..." he pauses. "We don't know the effect a Faceless One could have in a vampire body. Perhaps they burn through slowly."
"What I'm curious about," Never interrupts, "is why they're all seemingly heading south and blatantly attacking randos along the way."
The room descends into silence. It becomes heavy, laden down with all of the unknowns. "China said she'll look through some of her grandmother's old things. She'll try to identify anything she can."
"Good," Skulduggery says, getting to his feet and straightening his tie. "Well then, I suppose that concludes this meeting? Unless someone else has something to add? No? Alright then."
He begins to walk away, raised brows and confused eyes following him.
"Is...everything okay?" Omen asks Valkyrie in an undertone that fails at being an undertone. "I mean, I don't mean to pry, but...?"
Valkyrie brushes down her jeans, hands smoothing over her thighs, wiping any crumbs onto the floor for Xena to find later. "He's still looking for Caisson full-time."
Never looks uncomfortable. Omen pales and mumbles, "So it, ah. It isn't going well."
Valkyrie doesn't need to answer; it wasn't even a question. "Not well, no."
They all begin to filter out as the mood in the room plummets; Omen and Never to their flat in Roarhaven, and Fletcher to the Academy library for information on - to his horror - vampiric skin-shedding.
Alice says something to Tanith that makes the woman grin, then Tanith waves toward Valkyrie, saying, "I'm going out for a ride; clear my mind and what. Tomorrow's leg day so don't do anything too crazy tonight."
"Don't do anything -- what's happening right now?" Valkyrie asks, confusion colouring her words.
Tanith winks and leaves; Alice hops to her feet and says, "I have homework - I'm going to do it down here in arm's reach of those pao de queijo things."
"Save me some."
"I have at least two hours of homework, zero caffeine, and a professor who can't handle a little bit of passive voice in her essays. The possibility of me not eating everything is nonexistent."
Valkyrie grumbles, going to the box of the cheesy bread treats and shoving two into her mouth.
"Attractive," Alice smirks, grabbing her phone and slipping earbuds in. "Night."
Valkyrie kisses her cheek, leaving greasy lip-prints in her wake, and heads toward the stairs. She double-checks that Tanith locked the front door, hums a little tune, and ascends.
Chapter 11: Touch
Chapter Eleven, in which Darquesse - and then Skulduggery - cool Valkyrie's anxieties.
Chapter Warnings: Sex, super brief sexual violence (Valkyrie/Skulduggery)
This is the only chapter with smut, so either skip ahead if you don't want to read it, OR enjoy it while things are still chill enough for sex to happen.
Valkyrie looks into the library, but Skulduggery isn't there. It's completely silent, so Gordon is evidently in his echo stone. She thinks about calling him out to say goodnight but decides to leave her uncle to his 'time in the abyss,' as he enjoys calling it.
A little twinge of annoyance pinches her chest. Skulduggery's been, understandably, distracted of late. Valkyrie knows she shouldn't hold it against him - he's trying to track down the King of the Darklands. It's a big deal. It's time- and thought-consuming.
Even so, a very small, very selfish part of Valkyrie sulks because he left without at least saying goodnight.
She finishes chewing the fried dough in her mouth, pushing her annoyance to the side and redressing into a two-sizes-too-large jersey. Valkyrie turns music on while she wiggles through the room, brushing her teeth and thinking about nothing. Darquesse lets her - Darquesse has been distant, as well.
Valkyrie opens the bedroom windows, breathing in the summer night. The room feels empty; Xena hasn't followed her up. She supposes that Alice is downstairs and within arm's reach of food, so it's only natural the dog with a bottomless-pit would stick closeby.
Valkyrie hums through her nightly routine. She tosses her hair into a messy ponytail, removes her makeup, washes and moisturises her face. And then she wanders into her room, only to jump back and shriek. "Jesus! Skulduggery, what the hell?!"
"You left the windows open; I assumed it was an invitation," he says, a smile in his voice. He lounges on the sill, hat in his hands.
"When have I ever invited you to scare the hell out of me?" She lets out a slow breath to centre herself.
"Last Halloween, if I remember correctly. You were calling Abyssinia a cow because it was Halloween and you needed a good drink and a good scare."
"It's a stretch saying that was an invitation for nearly seven months later."
"You would have been expecting it on Halloween." She raises a brow at him. "To be fair to me, I use your front door on a stunningly regular basis - like a normal person, as you demand."
"And yet, here you are."
"I can't pretend to be unimaginative day-in and day-out, Valkyrie."
"Are you implying that my use of doors is unimaginative?"
"We can't all be magnificent." Valkyrie scowls at him, and he concedes, "For what you lack in room-entering, you make up for in your shadow-twirling."
"Twirling?" she repeats. It's so hard to keep a straight face. Valkyrie crosses her arms and bites the inside of her cheek to suffocate the laughter.
"The hand motions are a little twirly."
"This is not going well for you."
"I just mean to say that you have a flair for the...overly-dramatic, perhaps?"
The smile is close to breaking free, so she juts out a hip, exaggerating her annoyed stance. "For thinking I'm overly-dramatic, you sure enjoy raising my ire."
"There is little I enjoy more," he admits. "You get this little crease between your brows when you're pretending to be upset - which is more often than healthy, I am beginning to think. It's a miracle you don't have wrinkles."
Her smile flickers into view at that. "Are we going to critique each other's skin now, skeleton? Is that what's happening?"
Skulduggery chuckles and moves from the ledge to the floor with more grace than Valkyrie has ever possessed. He puts the hat on her head and then carefully hangs his jacket inside her wardrobe.
"I thought you left without saying goodbye," Valkyrie says, fiddling with the brim. She cocks it down over one of her eyes, her gaze lingering where his gloves unbutton his cuffs.
"You wound me. I merely thought you'd come outside for a smoke and we could part there."
"Just like that? A short goodbye by the Bentley, and then you drive off, leaving me to smoke in the darkness?"
"It's a decent end to a noir film," Skulduggery offers. He pauses once he finishes with his sleeves, his sockets roving to her eyes. "What were you doing this time last year?"
Valkyrie laughs, undoing her ponytail, repositioning the hat to suit the new look. "At this moment? Probably drinking." Skulduggery waits, so she adds, "At Deadfall's. I might be fuzzy on the memory though - it's not like this time last year was special." She bites her smile. "What were you up to?"
"Working a murder case, as it happens."
"Hmm. Sounds like a typical night."
"It was. And then it wasn't."
Valkyrie steps a little closer, loosening Skulduggery's tie and unravelling the cloth. "Did you ever solve your case?"
"I did, thanks to a very attractive, very connected woman. The dark-horse type; the one you never really know if you can trust."
"Oh, she sounds fun," Valkyrie grins, sliding the tie from his collar. She lays the strip around her neck, stepping back a bit. "You probably immediately fell in love with her."
"Not quite; she was a bit insufferable in the beginning, actually." Valkyrie scrunches her nose and Skulduggery laughs. His gloves reach out, taking his hat from her head; a gust deposits it on the chair in the corner. Reaching out to her again, he grasps the tie ends, using them to drag Valkyrie back to him.
"You're lucky she knows you're full of yourself," Valkyrie murmurs, lips pressing against the hinge of his jaw. "Or she might be offended."
"She's tough - too tough for faux-outrage."
"I don't know - I've been known to faux-outrage with the very best." She kisses his teeth; he presses back, the force his only way of returning the affection. "I've missed you."
"Of course you have - I'm me." Valkyrie moves to pull back, to glower, but one of his arms hooks around the small of her back. His free hand slides up her forearm, ghosting beneath the large jersey sleeve, gripping. "And I've missed you," he returns softly.
"Naturally," she teases, pulling away, slowly backing her way toward the bed. "As much as I love our flippancy-"
"Flippancy is the spice of life," he purrs. He follows; his movements are slow but effortless, a predator stalking inattentive prey.
"I thought that was variety?" she continues, only to yelp when the back of her thigh hits the footboard of the bed sooner than she expects. She knows she's gone red because how can she not? She's sprawled in a rather unbecoming way, braced by one foot on the floor and the other dangling over the thick wooden rail.
Skulduggery doesn't answer - he mightn't have even heard her with the way he closes the remaining feet between them. One gloved hand grabs her dangling thigh, pulling it around to right her. The other flicks his facade into place, then draws her chin up. His lips catch hers - they're full, a little redder than expected, and soft. God, they're so soft. China's recent tweaks to the facade seem designed for Valkyrie moreso than Skulduggery.
Valkyrie prefers when she and Skulduggery are naked to the bone - so to speak in her case - but the facade certainly has its advantages. She rolls her hips against the air and lets out a frustrated grumble when Skulduggery chuckles and doesn't come in closer.
Valkyrie breaks free from him, clambering up the bed and quirking a brow at him. Darquesse coils and burns through Valkyrie, threatening to sizzle her skin with the intensity of it. Valkyrie forgot to take off the ring China made for her last month - the one that loops Darquesse's powers, feeding it back into Valkyrie, cycling, forming a black hole in the pit of her belly.
Valkyrie thinks about thumbing the ring off, getting it away from her, cutting off the flow...but there's a part of her that's curious.
"Your eyes are glowing," Skulduggery informs her. It doesn't seem to bother him because he is removing his shirt. The cloth gives way to a slender torso, and the dropped pants expose sharp hipbones that look more painful than aesthetic.
"And your hipbones are attempting to escape," she replies coolly, leaving her jersey where it is; she likes tormenting him on occasion. It seems appropriate to do so now; it's been two weeks since she saw him last, and that amount of distance had nothing to do with Valkyrie.
She tries not to let the annoyance rise. Her face is too expressive - if she allows it to betray her, she's going to ruin everything.
'Kes? A little help? she asks, and Darquesse chuckles.
Did you tell him you're asking for my help in the bedroom? Does he know this is a pattern?
Darquesse, of course, knows the answers. Before Valkyrie's annoyance rises, Darquesse sidles into a fraction of control; Valkyrie feels the muscles on her face twist her lips into a simper. She lets it happen, using Darquesse as a crutch, as something to keep her focused enough.
To keep Skulduggery from realising what a fucking disaster she is - how much, in a small corner of her heart, she hates this life. And, in an even smaller corner, how much she hates him.
Skulduggery moves to her, not noticing the flicker behind her bright eyes, the tensing and releasing of her muscles. Skulduggery's mouth finds Valkyrie's again while his hands - gloveless, faintly waxy - slide up her thighs. He tugs the jersey from under her ass; Valkyrie laughs, pressing her face into his neck, biting the skin and tasting nothing.
Just like Valkyrie relies on Darquesse, Skulduggery relies on Lord Vile. Granted, Lord Vile's involvement stays on a leash; it's only for the physical necessities. Valkyrie wonders what he might think, knowing that Darquesse is her emotional crutch. That he's recently - basically - been fucking someone else half of the time.
Stop. Thinking. Darquesse's words are harsh in their mind, ricocheting around. Stop thinking and maybe you could handle intimacy without me saving you.
Valkyrie would flinch, but Darquesse takes more control, wraps Valkyrie's legs around Skulduggery's tapered waist. It's almost like being with him as bones. Except not at all, really, but --
Jesus tapdancing Christ! Darquesse snaps, simultaneously moaning into Skulduggery's neck. She thrusts into Skulduggery's seeking hand, the fingers teasing between her legs.
This isn't fair. It isn't fair to any of them. Fuck, Valkyrie is such a goddamn coward.
She screws her eyes shut, manages a huffing breath, and then takes control back. It's like slamming a metal door on half of herself. She's empty. Hollow. Left with nothing but herself and a small pool of inky hatred deep, deep in her core.
Darquesse isn't there. She's gone. Shuttered.
Skulduggery pulls back, and his facade betrays his confusion. "What happened?"
Valkyrie quickly shakes her head, reaching out to him. "Nothing, sorry. I got lost in my head for a second."
Skulduggery doesn't move. "Valkyrie."
"That was not nothing."
"Can we just..." she trails off because she knows they can't just ignore it. That isn't them. They aren't goddamn children.
"Valkyrie." His voice is serious.
This is serious, she supposes. She can't imagine what it must feel like to have your partner's demeanour change entirely in a moment that --
"Shut the fuck up," Darquesse shouts in her head, breaking down the barrier, smashing it to pieces. The words come out of Valkyrie's mouth, and Valkyrie recoils, shaking her head. "No, no, Skulduggery -- not you."
"I assumed as much," he replies. His face is composed, impassive, but the space between his brows furrow. "Is Darquesse...?"
Just bloody tell him, Darquesse mutters. Drama queen.
Valkyrie shakes her head to both Darquesse and Skulduggery. "She's fine. She's...a little mad at you."
So you're lying to him now?
Skulduggery leans back. "Is that so? Darquesse is upset with me?"
"Yeah. She might, maybe, kind of think you've been a bit of a dick."
Fucking liar. Valkyrie isn't sure if that was Darquesse or her.
Valkyrie continues, digging her grave. "She's being petty; you're busy, you're trying to save the world. There are more pressing matters than coming on a case or two with me. Or coming by the house once in a while to check-in, or...I don't know. Something." She pauses, realising she's making it too personal.
Are you terrible at everything? Darquesse asks. She knows the answer to this one, though.
Skulduggery grabs her legs and slides her to him, leaning in when she is close enough. His false lips find her forehead; his false fingers caress her hair back from her face. "I'm sorry."
Valkyrie blinks, tilting her neck a bit to see him. "What?"
"I said that I am sorry."
"I know what you said, but I'm...stunned? I'm so stunned I can't think of an appropriate word for what I am."
"Did Darquesse break you?"
"No, but I think you just did." She shakes her head, still amazed. "You apologised."
"I apologise all the time."
"You never apologise. For anything."
"Nonsense. I apologise when an apology is called for."
Valkyrie's mouth drops open. "When it's called for? You literally bumped me into oncoming traffic in Jamaica, then told me that I should, and I quote, 'be better prepared next time.'"
"The street was mostly empty, and 'be better prepared' is excellent advice."
"A local and two other tourists agreed with me that you should have apologised. You probably looked like an abusive boyfriend or something."
Skulduggery leans in, his mouth brushing hers. "Would you like to return to the conversation that matters?"
Valkyrie presses her forehead against his. "I'm being petty. And selfish. And possibly a little fragile."
"No more than usual," he assures her.
Valkyrie laughs, shaking her head and leaning back on her hands. "I'm sorry, too. For not, you know..." she lets out a distasteful sigh, "talking about it before now. I'm more of a 'fuck the pain away' type at my core."
"I assume that means the sooner we stop talking, the sooner you'll lose the scowl?"
Damnit, she hates him. And loves him. He's unbearable. And perfect for her.
Jesus Christ, Darquesse grumbles.
Skulduggery takes her waist and moves her back until she's against the headboard, the smooth, antique wood cold on her back. Her jersey comes off, and she shivers, leaning into the room-temperature body above her. He pushes her back further, though, and pulls her legs up at a steep angle. He gives her another push into the wood when she tries to get closer, tries to cover his lips with hers.
And then he moves in. The false cock presses into her, slowly easing; she mewls, struggling to speed him up, to lift herself, to coil, to take him deeper.
"Shh," Skulduggery suddenly chides in her ear. "We're not alone, and I haven't even started. You're likely to wake the dead at this rate." Another push and Skulduggery is fully inside. Valkyrie gasps, wordless but certainly not noiseless. Skulduggery's laugh is sultry against her neck.
"Downstairs. Headphones," she gasps through the fumbled thoughts jumbling together.
"Well," Skulduggery brightens even while his voice goes softer, darker. "In that case."
He thrusts; she gasps, bucking, the angle enough to make it hurt. Darquesse swirls, finally entertained, but Valkyrie keeps her back. Skulduggery takes his time, keeping the pace slow enough to be maddening. Each roll of his pelvis makes Valkyrie's skin tingle.
She knows she's leaving furrows in the facade's back. She knows that, had it been real, she might have cut enough to bleed. But Valkyrie doesn't care. She doesn't care when Skulduggery reacts to the sensation, Vile's influence somehow making it more real than it should. She tears in, her vision swimming. Her teeth gnash against his jaw, just barely keeping from biting down to the bone when her orgasm takes her.
When she goes limp - a twitching mess pinned between sweat-slicked wood and a surprised Skulduggery - he pulls away. Valkyrie doesn't try to prepare for his probing questions about the sudden violence; she's so tired. Too tired.
But he doesn't ask.
He grabs her ankles and tugs her onto her back, deja vu sweeping through her for a moment. It ends when Skulduggery lowers himself to her; her legs go high on his waist. His hands move into her hair, elbows under Valkyrie's shoulders, supporting her, bringing them together.
Their noses touch, bumping and sliding. Their mouths hover. Their eyes lock.
When he climaxes, it's with her name on his lips.
They collapse, but they collapse with Valkyrie wrapped in Skulduggery's arms. She presses her face against him, leaning down to kiss the tattoos on his collarbone.
The facade flows away, and she adjusts herself accordingly. His arm tightens around her, harder but brittler than the facade's. She prefers it regardless.
"We're good, right?" Valkyrie asks just before sleep takes her.
Chapter 12: Botched Attempt
Chapter Twelve, in which Xena finds something new to bark at.
Valkyrie reels when the sound of barking and snarling wakes her.
Skulduggery is moving while she's still staggering; his trousers go on as he looks out into the yard, shirt draping around bone. Valkyrie flounders to do the same, tossing her jersey on and struggling into a pair of jeans.
Out the window, the lone floodlamp picks up shadows on the edge of the treeline.
The bedroom door opens - Alice. She doesn't even blink that Skulduggery's shirt is undone and his pearly ribcage glistens in the light streaming in from the hallway. "I let Xena out - something else is out there, too. She chased it into the treeline, but-"
"What did you see?" Skulduggery asks. His tone is even, unphased. Valkyrie finishes dressing and breezes past Alice, not even waiting for details.
"A vampire, I think. Xena ran after it-"
"Bloody vampires," Valkyrie seethes, grabbing her armoured jacket from its hook, jogging out of the door while zipping her coat. "Lock the doors!" she calls back in, listening to Alice scamper down the steps to do so.
A door isn't going to do shit against a vampire, of course, but it's something.
Valkyrie doesn't flinch or say a word when Skulduggery arrives via the window. She runs to the woods; he flies.
"Xena!" Valkyrie shouts. The ring on her finger pulses. Another loop. More power coursing through her. That dark pit sharpens a little more. "Xena! Come!" she shouts the command, but she doesn't hear anything except the crush of undergrowth beneath her uncoordinated steps.
She can hear Skulduggery calling from above the treeline, but she can't see him. She runs further in, whistling, shouting, threatening the vampire.
A flurry of sound hits her, and she veers to her right, bouncing off of a tree with her elbow when she nearly smacks into it. The hit sends her off her balance, feet tripping herself up, hurling her into another tree.
And out of the path of the vampire suddenly lunging at her.
Valkyrie can't help the yelp that comes through as she staggers into the wood, and then away, putting the trunk between her and the discombobulated creature.
She shakes out her hand, shadow whipping from her ring and channelling, slashing through the air and toward the reeling vampire. It hits its head as it ducks away, trying to dodge and misjudging.
It's hurt. Xena hurt it.
Valkyrie snaps her wrist, hand splaying out, and a river of darkness floods the space between them, pinning it down, securing around its wrists and ankles. She uses the shadows to splay the hunched creature, stretching it out, listening to it wail. A wrist breaks, and then an ankle. The howling reaches a critical pitch.
She remembers Caelan above her, trying to bite her. Trying to kill her. She remembers tearing into his throat, his hot blood coating her face, her tongue, her very soul.
She remembers enjoying it at that moment, while her fingers tore him open. She remembers giving in to that little darkness and wanting more of it.
Her fingers convulse; the shadows tug harder and then dissipate. Valkyrie blinks through the bloodlust, through that little darkness, and then she falls to her knees. She can still taste Caelan's blood.
The vampire isn't there when Valkyrie regains her vision. She blinks at the space. The woods around her are silent.
She stumbles up, fingers tingling. She leans against a tree, eyes scanning, waiting. But the vampire's gone. The vampire made a shockingly smart decision. A shockingly human one.
Skulduggery finds her a few moments later. "Xena's at the house - she's hurt, but it isn't bad. Tanith's on her way back now."
Valkyrie nods, still leaning on her tree. Her knees are so weak, and Darquesse is so quiet. The deep darkness, the inky little blot in her belly, is still there. Still waiting.
"Can you carry me?" she asks, half-joking but entirely serious at the same time.
Skulduggery takes her waist. "I can do better."
They lift into the air. Valkyrie closes her eyes.
Chapter 13: A Change of Plans
Chapter Thirteen, in which Valkyrie re-focuses on what's important.
Alice finishes her homework on the floor beside Xena's bed in the living room. Valkyrie drinks a tea blend Wreath left for her - lemongrass and lavender, a dollop of honey added for sweetness. She sits very still on Xena's other side, fingers coiling through the thick fur, soothing herself as much as the dog.
Skulduggery doesn't come inside. Valkyrie waits and listens.
The house is quiet except for Alice's pen, softly scraping against the paper. The ringing in her ears is overwhelming, but Valkyrie doesn't get up to turn the television on; she ignores the music app on her phone. She doesn't bother asking Alice about her homework. She doesn't praise or verbally dote on Xena.
She waits. And she listens.
Alice finishes her homework, but she loiters on the floor, brushing a gentle finger across the bridge of Xena's muzzle. The dog's eyes droop; the leaves Valkyrie gave her comforted her wounds, making her drowsy while Valkyrie shaved the area down and Tanith sewed it up.
And now Xena dozes, finally at rest.
Valkyrie glances from the dog to her little sister. The blonde girl looks exhausted but unwilling to move. "Take the couch," Valkyrie suggests. "You have school."
"You're going to make me go?"
"'Course I am - it's school."
"You never went to school."
"I always went to school, actually. In a manner of speaking."
A look crosses Alice's face, but it's gone before Valkyrie can get annoyed. Alice doesn't suggest using her Reflection - not after what happened with Abyssinia. But now Valkyrie looks like a hypocrite, letting her own Reflection wander around again. It stands vigil in Valkyrie's absence - it protects Valkyrie's sister.
It protects their sister.
Alice gets onto the couch and snuggles into the cushions, covering herself with a throw and letting out a little sigh. "I don't think I can sleep."
"I know," Valkyrie mumbles, folding her legs and bringing her knees to her chin. "I'm sorry."
"It's just annoying," the girl murmurs. "I can see things, but half the time they're stupid things or things that don't matter in the grand scheme of saving our lives."
"You're eleven, Alice. You're not supposed to save our lives."
"You seriously think, after all of this, that I can just...turn it off? Tune out? That's not how it works. I either work on it, keep focusing, trying to channel it...or it runs wild. Isn't that what happened with Darquesse? You ignored her, and then she ran wild?"
Valkyrie frowns. Goddamnit, what she wouldn't give for a blase sister right about now. "Of course you don't try to ignore it. But delving further into the darkness?"
"I'm not you, Valkyrie."
Valkyrie flinches, unprepared for the name on her sister's lips.
"I'm not anything like you were; there is no darkness for me. There are dreams and visions and light." Alice softens. "Besides, you said it yourself - Skulduggery's looking for Caisson and nothing is working. I'm the only one who can help us."
"You're not the only Sensitive, Alice."
"Do you trust them as much as you trust me?"
That gives Valkyrie pause. "What does that mean?" Alice goes quiet. "Alice...what do you mean?"
"I just mean that I've been more helpful than Cassandra Pharos or Tipper Valentine. You admitted that I'm more powerful than them. I don't need to use Dream Whisperers or steam or any of that. Hell, I can draw on death magic, Valkyrie. I can feed my visions."
There's that name again - Alice uses it as if she's gotten used to it. As if Valkyrie hasn't been Stephanie in her mind for a long time. Valkyrie keeps it to herself even though it stings. "I don't want you using necromancy."
"I'm going to use what I can to make sure we don't die. I know you don't agree, but you don't get a say in this. You know that."
Valkyrie does know it, so she presses her forehead against her knees, taking a breath. "At least you're doing something to try to help," Valkyrie admits. What has Valkyrie done in the hunt for Caisson? Exactly nothing. She tells herself that it's because Skulduggery has a vendetta and Skulduggery asked her to keep focused on other cases.
Not that she's done much of that, either.
You've been pretty useless, Darquesse acknowledges. Valkyrie closes her eyes and lets Darquesse monologue. Why not? Maybe she'll be able to kick Valkyrie's ass into gear. Things are piling up faster than Tanith and Omen can handle them, and you're sitting around babying your sister. Your sister who has shown she's stronger than you'll admit.
"So I'm just supposed to leave her? With it?" Valkyrie mumbles.
"What?" Alice asks.
Valkyrie winces. "Nothing. Talking to myself." It's hard to filter her conversations with Darquesse - hard to stop herself from replying to the voice in her head out loud. It sounds like Darquesse is right beside her, whispering in both ears.
Darquesse feels tangible. Has she always felt this tangible?
Alice shifts on the couch and Darquesse purrs, Did you forget about Wreath? His little trip to America? Did a bare ribcage seriously make you forget about a possible Death Bringer?
Valkyrie stiffens. She gets to her feet so suddenly that Xena's head pops up, ears cocked and alert. Alice rolls over again, confused.
"Sorry," Valkyrie quickly says, leaning down to pet Xena reassuringly. "I have a case I need to look into tomorrow. Tanith will take you to school-"
"Tanith is going to Italy tomorrow," Alice reminds her, brows furrowing further. "I thought you were taking a sabbatical?"
"I am, I am, I just need to...check something out." Valkyrie thumbs through her phone, furrowing her brow. The Arbiter's Whispering account details their locations, their plans, their time tables. Skulduggery's is blacked out except for the words Find Caisson. Tanith's shows that, yes, she is going to be in southern Italy for a rush of sorcerer murders around tourist spots on the coast. Omen and Never are on a two-day rest before Omen is set to help China with extra fortifications around Roarhaven's invisible barrier.
Valkyrie's time table is entirely blank. The local cases have dried up, leaving her with nothing.
She edits her status - America - Death Bringer rumours. And then she nods to herself. "Okay. I'm going to leave a message with the headmaster. You're going to be sick with pinkeye-"
"Eww!" Alice protests.
"-and can't make it in for the rest of the week. Kenspeckle can fake a note-"
"Kenspeckle won't fake a note about pinkeye! Kenspeckle won't fake a note at all."
"Kenspeckle will do anything for us, Alice, and the sooner you realise it, the sooner you can exploit it." Valkyrie pauses. "It's tidbits like this that make you unbearable, isn't it?"
"I learn from the best," Alice agrees.
Valkyrie hates this. "I'll drop you home tomorrow after Mum and Dad leave for work. Tell them you have the week off."
"So Stephanie is watching me then?"
Valkyrie flinches; somehow it's even worse hearing Alice call the Reflection Stephanie. "Just for a few days. Probably just for a few days. Maybe not even that - the necromancers barely know what they're doing in their own Temple, let alone other countries' Temples. It's probably nothing-" she realises she's saying too much. Alice is a sponge, and one should not think aloud near sponges.
"Get sleep," Valkyrie shifts to, sending a text to Fletcher to meet her at the Edgley home tomorrow morning.
"I can sleep all day tomorrow."
"Yes, and you can also sleep now." Valkyrie stoops to press her face against Xena's thick neck, the dog's wet nose leaving a trail on her neck when she snuggles in. Valkyrie presses a kiss to Xena's head. "You'll have to watch Xena for me, too."
Alice brightens at that. "Done."
Chapter 14: Exceptions
Chapter Fourteen, in which Valkyrie receives an unexpected visitor.
Valkyrie puts her suitcase in the boot and glances at the sky. It's bright and sunny, the breeze occasional and cool. It's a perfect day for being outside. It's a perfect day for a walk along Roarhaven's sparkling lake.
Alas, Valkyrie is going to America.
She closes the boot with a sigh, turning her course toward the house. Something snags her foot, which confuses her enough, but then she looks down.
There's a hand on her ankle, and it's tugging her down into the shifting ground.
Valkyrie yelps, unable to help it, but the hand doesn't draw her in too far - just enough so that her foot's immobile and she's wobbling to keep her balance. Valkyrie fumbles for her stolen straight razor, the one she usually keeps on her person, but it isn't there. She's still in her pyjamas.
Billy-Ray Sanguine emerges from the ground; his smile is toothy, gleaming, and - objectively - pretty. "Well hello there, darlin'."
"What do you want?" she growls, tugging at her foot. It's useless - she's seen a full-grown ogre unable to break free from this same stupid trick.
Sanguine straightens his tie and adjusts his sunglasses. "Look, I ain't here to-"
And then he flinches, crying out in surprise, holding the back of his head.
Alice strides toward them, her slender arms laden down with granola bars. She hurls another one, the hard brick hitting his forehead.
"Jesus!" Sanguine snaps, blocking the third one. "I'm not here to -- dear God, would ya just quit it for one goddamn minute?"
"Alice," Valkyrie groans, and Alice stops lobbing her makeshift weapons. "What do you want, Sanguine? I assume you're not here to kill me, given I'm still mostly above ground."
"'Course I'm not here ta kill ya," he laughs as if it's an absurd reaction. "We're friends, Val. You, me, 'n Tanith. Peas in a pod."
"You tore my eyes out," Alice interrupts.
"You ain't part of the pod, lil' miss."
Alice throws two granola bars at the same time. One misses, but the other smacks across his ear, upending his sunglasses. "Let her up," Alice says, not amused in the least.
Sanguine mumbles, "Liked ya better when you were name-bound to silence," while placing his hand on the ground around Valkyrie's ankle. It cracks and shudders, slowly breaking apart until Valkyrie can pull free. Sanguine falls back, his forehead beading in sweat. The pain abruptly crippling the man is alarming.
"What...what happened?" Valkyrie asks.
"Ya fucked with my tunnellin'," he grunts between gritted teeth. "Can't go too long 'fore my insides start churnin'. That sword messed me up, Val."
"Good," Alice and Valkyrie echo. Alice steps closer, defiant, the two remaining granola bars held in each of her hands. She looks like she might beat him with them. "What do you want?" Alice demands, "Because it must be good if you're willing to come out here."
"You know what I want better'n anyone," Sanguine says, righting his sunglasses to cover the fact that sweat is rolling into his eyebrows - possibly into the gaping holes where his eyes used to be. "I want Abyssinia. That bitch left me for dead in Switzerland."
Valkyrie glances at her watch, sighing. "Look, Sanguine, I'm already an hour late-"
"You can't listen to me for a second?" he demands. He actually sounds hurt, but Sanguine has taken the occasional trip into melodrama when the mood strikes. "You cut me open an' messed up my tunnellin', but ya can't listen for a minute or two?"
Valkyrie crosses her arms, leaning back on her foot, watching him. He looks pathetic. He's good at looking pathetic. Her eyes rove to Alice, to the way her facade's eyelids narrow, how her brow puckers. "Well?" she asks her little sister.
"We should kill him."
Valkyrie baulks, surprised, but covers it by running a hand through her hair. "I'll take him to the Sanctuary - they can figure out how long he gets to sit in a cage without his magic."
"Val, Jesus!" Sanguine snaps. "I did what I did 'cause I was paid to do it. It weren't personal - you know that. You know it weren't personal."
"Cutting my eyes out wasn't personal?" Alice asks, voice low. "I don't remember Abyssinia asking you to do it."
Sanguine hesitates, picking his words very carefully. "Okay, yes, that was personal."
Valkyrie looks at her sister, and then at the man still sprawled at her feet. "Abyssinia is dead."
Sanguine looks surprised. "Well. I'll be damned."
"Now her son is on the loose."
"Oh." Sanguine's face falls a little, and then he perks up. "Okay, well, if she's dead then I can go after the son. You want him dead, too, right? Well if I can't kill her, the next best thing is her son. She talked 'bout him a lot - so damned much. It'd probably be nice to take him out just so I never hear that damned name again."
Alice makes a noise of disgust, turns on her heel, and heads toward the door. She pauses, though, when it opens from the inside.
Fletcher and Skulduggery come through - Fletcher evidently because he got tired of waiting at the Edgley house. "Good timing," Alice chimes. "Sanguine's over there if you want to-"
Fletcher moves toward Alice, blocking her and staying close enough to get her out if things go south. Skulduggery, on the other hand, comes for Sanguine.
"Wait!" Sanguine shouts quickly, trying to scurry to his feet but stumbling, grunting in pain. "Wait, I'm here to parlay! We're parlayin'!"
Skulduggery's elbow smashes into Sanguine's jaw. The blond man goes careening away; Valkyrie steps aside, watching him sprawl.
"He wanted to kill Abyssinia," Valkyrie informs Skulduggery as the skeleton stoops, pulling Sanguine up by his lapel, hitting him twice before letting him sprawl again. "He says he'll help us with Caisson so he can get revenge on Abyssinia for abandoning him."
"Does he now?" Skulduggery asks, voice smooth, cheerful. He grabs Sanguine's short hair, ripping him to his knees and ignoring the cries of pain. His knee finds Sanguine's chin, slamming into it from below, and then he tosses the man down. "And did you tell him that coming here was not the proper course of action?"
"Alice was quite clear about that."
Valkyrie glances at Fletcher, raising a brow. The man goes into the house, trying to pull Alice along. Alice, though, doesn't move. Her hatred radiates from her while she watches them; Darquesse excites in the hostility, purring, 'Nothing but light inside her,' my ass.
Valkyrie ignores her. "What are you doing here?" she asks Skulduggery. The man has a foot pressing into Sanguine's ribs. It isn't enough to cut off his air supply, but it's certainly enough to pin the injured tunneller.
"I saw the update on the calendar. You didn't tell me there are Death Bringer rumours."
"I was going to, but the night went a different direction than I expected. Besides, it's probably nothing," Valkyrie tries; she wants to squirm. "It's probably just...I don't know. Solomon and Melancholia on vacation in Louisiana."
Skulduggery tilts his head. "Are Wreath and Melancholia one for vacations in the hellish weather of the southern United States?"
"No," Valkyrie admits. "And neither am I. Do you know it's ninety per cent humidity on a typical May morning in Lousiana?"
"Your exaggeration is noted."
"I'm not exaggerating!"
"She ain't," Sanguine adds from under Skulduggery's boot. "It's gonna feel like you're drownin' when you breathe."
Skulduggery presses down a bit more, making Sanguine grunt. "Well, the important thing is that I will be comfortable."
Valkyrie scowls and then raises a brow. "Wait - you're coming with me?"
Fletcher returns with shackles before Skulduggery can answer. Valkyrie takes the cuffs; Sanguine doesn't even put up a fight. "You must be hurting," Valkyrie says, catching his supine wrists and snapping the binding circlets into place.
"Somethin' fierce," Sanguine admits.
"Good," Alice and Skulduggery echo. Skulduggery steps off of Sanguine and reaches down to pull him into a sitting position brusquely.
Alice steps forward, so close that Sanguine could grab her if he weren't bound. She looks down at him, and he smiles. "Well, lookit those beautiful eyes. See, I did ya a favour."
Alice smacks him with both of the remaining granolas before turning around and getting into the car.
"Can you two handle him?" Valkyrie asks even though it's rhetorical. "I need to get Xena and Alice to the house and then get to America."
Another head-tilt from Skulduggery. "Did you forget that I am going with you?"
"You were serious?" Valkyrie asks. She doesn't mean to sound so surprised.
"If there is a Death Bringer, I want to be there to kill them."
Valkyrie's eyes widen. "I know we might have to, but Solomon thinks that he's unwilling to do anything. If we get there, we can maybe...I don't know. Convince him not to set the Passage in motion?"
"You think that we can trust him even if he assures us of that? You are willing to allow someone with that power to go free?"
"You let me go free every day," Valkyrie mumbles softly.
Fletcher makes an odd noise, grabbing Sanguine. "I'm, ah. I'm going to let you two handle this while I take -- aaand no one is listening," he nods to himself. He disappears, Sanguine with him, and Valkyrie raises a brow at Skulduggery.
"No response to that?" she presses.
"You let me go free every day," Skulduggery reminds her in an undertone, brushing her hair from her eyes. "We are our own exceptions to the rules."
"How many rules?"
"As far as I can tell? All of them."
Chapter 15: The Whispering (I)
Chapter Fifteen, in which the Arbiters attempt to be professional in their Whispering group chat.
I just got to Grimwood and no one is here?
Skulduggery and I are in America
Tanith is in Italy
What do you need?
Why are you in America?
Bloody hell, check the calendar
I can't find a calendar
Val where is your calendar?
She obvious means the calendar in our Whispering group
You know. The group you're currently using to bother all of us
What are you even doing at Grimwood?
I wanted to use the gym!
...and why does someone need to be home for you to use the gym?
I still don't entirely trust myself around heavy machinery
For good reason
You know you could have asked me to come along...it'd be easy to do
Because, you know
We live in the same flat
But you make fun of me
I am about to make it my personal mission in life to make fun of you constantly unless you stop texting us with this mess
That got intense out of nowhere
You can't tell me these constant chimes aren't driving you absolutely mad
I'm quite used to it, actually
I kind of like it
That's because no one ever messages you
It's nothing to be ashamed of
We can't all be amazing
Bloody hell. Some of us are working
As much as I enjoy Valkyrie's imitations while she reads this aloud, I have to remind you all that the Grand Mage is prone to snooping, so perhaps keep it professional?
Can she do that?
Snoop on our official group?
There's no law against it.
Even if there was a law, I doubt she'd let that stop her
Okay, someday you have to tell me why you two hate each other so much
Wait even VAL doesn't know why?
Do I need a reason when it comes to tyrants?
I think if she can read this, she might not like being called a tyrant?
I doubt she'd enjoy it.
Well she can come have a go if it bothers her so much
Tan, how is the case going?
I'm on a nude beach in southern Italy, so things could be much, much worse
I assume the same beach where the sorcerers are going missing?
Skul, I'm a professional even when my clothes are off
If you need some suntan oil or something just let me know
I can be there
Val, how is America?
The sun's going down and I still feel like I'm dying
And these Temple asshats are worse than ours. They're keeping us standing outside,in the heat, wearing these itchy, fake robes while they wander around and decide if we can come in
It's been four hours
It has been sixteen minutes.
And I would like to point it out that Valkyrie and I are standing within a foot of one another, and yet she is completely ignoring my attempts to speak verbally.
Is that weird?
Not at all
It doesn't sound weird to me, either
They're technology babies, Skulduggery
I resent being referred to as a child
I'm over 100
Skulduggery's over 1000
450 or thereabouts, actually.
What happened to 'age is all relative'?
Doesn't change the fact that I have seen you put your technology above others more times than I've seen you smile
That isn't fair
I never smile
She is smiling right now.
Shut up judas
Sooooo, no one is coming back to Grimwood in the next few hours?
I don't have any plans, but no, I am definitely not coming all the way out there just to watch you make a fool of yourself
ALL THE WAY? You're a teleporter!
Well then, it sounds quite clear that you are on your own, Omen. Now, Valkyrie, if you wouldn't mind putting
the phone down so we can pretend to be pious death worshipers?
This conversation was not my fault
Can I say sorry for saying sorry?
You know the answer to that, Darkly
Chapter 16: Irish Acolytes
Chapter Sixteen, in which Melancholia puts trust in an unexpected pair of familiar faces.
Melancholia strides to the Temple's main door, confusion filling her veins. Why has Wreath sent a pair of acolytes? It doesn't make sense. Even so, she follows the doorkeeper and glances through the piece of wood that slides aside.
She peers at the figures; they are both tall - one is broad-shouldered under the robe, the other oddly thin. Their heads are down, hoods covering their faces. "Identify yourselves," she asks finally.
The thin man lowers his hood - Melancholia doesn't recognise his blue eyes or bland face. The broad-shouldered one steps a little closer, moving her hood back a fraction. Dark eyes stare out at Melancholia. "High Priest Solomon Wreath sent us to act as your seconds. You told him that you need assistance with the Death Bringer's work?"
Valkyrie Cain doesn't smile - she looks calm, blank-faced, pious. It's all nonsense, but the sight of Valkyrie makes something in Melancholia's chest tighten. She hesitates before stepping aside from the door, nodding to the keeper. "I know them."
The door opens. Valkyrie Cain and Skulduggery Pleasant - because it can only be Skulduggery Pleasant - step into the Temple. They follow her to her room. She closes the door behind them, eyes narrowing. "I should have had you killed," she hisses in an undertone. "What the hell is Solomon doing, sending you here?"
"He didn't," Valkyrie admits. "He has no idea we're here."
"You're here to kill him, then?" Melancholia demands. "You found out, and you're here to kill him?"
"We're not here to kill anyone! We're here to help."
"Why would you help bring about the Passage?"
"Your Death Bringer doesn't want to end the world," Skulduggery speaks up. "And, seeing as I quite enjoy the world, I'd like to ensure he keeps to his newfound morality."
"And kill him if he does not?" Melancholia guesses.
"We're not going to kill anyone unless we need to," Valkyrie says.
"Or unless we're in a mood," Skulduggery replies; he doesn't sound flippant when he says it, though.
Melancholia takes a moment, eyes never leaving the pair of them. And then she glances toward the door. "Keep up."
She steels herself, hoping that she remembers the way to the basement, and begins to walk.
Chapter 17: Blooming Alliances
Chapter Seventeen, in which the Arbiters meet the Death Bringer.
Gerald is gone when Melancholia brings Valkyrie and Skulduggery to the basement. It surprises Melancholia, but it also reassures her. She isn't sure what the Arbiters might ask - or do - if they saw the man.
Leviathan smiles at Valkyrie and Skulduggery, looking genuinely pleased to see them. "Arbiters," he greets. He shakes both of their hands - Valkyrie is hesitant to accept it, but finally gives into decorum. She's a better official than Melancholia would have expected. "I am Leviathan," he continues.
"And the foretold Death Bringer," Skulduggery adds.
"Yes," Leviathan laughs, but his forehead slightly furrows as he steps away from Skulduggery. "Sorry for how you were treated at the door - necromancers aren't very welcoming by nature. They even gave Melancholia a hard time when she arrived, and she was one of them."
Valkyrie frowns at him. "Sorry?" She caught the past tenses, the distancing language.
Melancholia discreetly reaches out, a finger brushing Leviathan's hand. In an undertone, she whispers, "They won't believe you."
"They might," he replies at a normal volume, not taking his eyes from Skulduggery.
"He said you were one of them?" Skulduggery interrupts. Valkyrie's eyes find Melancholia, skewering her in place. "What does that mean?"
Melancholia glances between the Arbiters, and then casts a furtive glance at Leviathan. "I doubt the Passage." She looks away from them, biting the inside of her cheek.
"This basement," Skulduggery interrupts, taking long, smooth strides around the cavernous room, "what is it used for?"
"Finding the soul," Leviathan shrugs. "Finding the essence. Finding out what happens when a soul seeks out its end. What it feels - how it acts."
"Have you succeeded?" Skulduggery asks.
"I have not, but I also have," Leviathan replies. "I've taken souls from bodies and returned them. I've seen how the souls react, how they try to find other souls to attach themselves to. How they sometimes fragment. How they sometimes flitter away, as if seeking the stream." He smiles softly. "I've found ways to embed souls into other people. Did you know that's possible? To feed a soul, to demand it joins another?"
"We did," Skulduggery replies. "We've seen it happen. Melancholia's seen it happen."
Melancholia feels her cheeks flame when Leviathan's head whips toward her, eyes full, surprised. "You -- why didn't you tell me?" he asks. He sounds hurt but excited - thrilled, even. "When? How?"
"I didn't...that was different. The woman -- she used an artefact to do it, to force the souls together, to force them into one body. She used dark, dark magic. It is nothing like...it isn't like you."
"Isn't it?" Skulduggery asks. "Leviathan - have you told her about the urges? The feelings, the cravings that come with the kind of power you wield?"
Leviathan doesn't look at Melancholia. "No. I figured it's better to keep those somewhere no one, not even I, can find them."
"Is it working?"
Leviathan softly smiles, something passing behind his eyes. An understanding of sorts. "It works better than you might imagine. There are moments - brief flashes of apathy. The curiosity to see what I can do if I push myself to that limit. But those urges pass because I force them to."
"It's that simple?" Valkyrie asks. She doesn't sound that sceptical about Leviathan anymore, and that confounds Melancholia.
"It's easier for some to give in to the darkness than others, Ms Cain."
Skulduggery doesn't seem less sceptical, though. "What is your goal?"
Leviathan glances at Skulduggery, weighing his question. "To discover how to make the planet safe and happy without killing anyone."
"A death worshiper with morals?"
"I do not worship death," Leviathan replies. "I worship life. That might have been different a month ago, true. But once I held lives in my hands, once I knew that I could take them with a single thought, a single breath...once I took those lives," his voice softens, "once I took them inside myself, I felt...them. All of them. All at once. I felt everything they were, and I felt everything they were drain, disappear, become pieces of me. I took them. And when I tried to give them back, they...were different. They weren't them. I absorbed them the longer I held them. For those four minutes, those short minutes, I drained them of themselves, and when I gave them back-" he breaks off.
His eyes are blown-wide. He's reliving it, Melancholia realises. She wants to touch his shoulder, to draw him back, but she stays where she is.
"I see," Skulduggery finally says.
"See what?" Valkyrie asks. She looks confused, uncomfortable.
"He's a death worshiper with morals," Skulduggery repeats, but it isn't dubious this time.
"The Passage is a lie," Leviathan softly says. He turns his pale green eyes between the Arbiters. "I have no intention of ending the world as we know it. Not like this. Not until I know that everything will be better when all is said and done."
Valkyrie looks torn. "Can you give us a moment?"
"Of course," Leviathan murmurs.
Everyone stays where they are. Valkyrie raises a brow at them.
"Oh," Leviathan blinks. "You want us to leave?"
"Yes. The hallway is dark and mouldy, and this place is bright and smells like lemons, so."
Leviathan lets out a short laugh, sounding amused. "Sure. Just let us know when you're done."
Leviathan reaches out to Melancholia. Melancholia doesn't meet Valkyrie's gaze when she sweeps by her, discreetly slipping her fingers into Leviathan's as he guides her out.
Chapter 18: Illogical Steps
Chapter Eighteen, in which Valkyrie and Skulduggery gamble with the world. Again.
"Did you see that?" Valkyrie asks, blinking back her surprise.
"The proclaimed Death Bringer who doesn't wish to bring any death?"
"No," Valkyrie waves it off as if it's old hat. "No, I mean -- Melancholia and Leviathan. They're - oh God, I can't believe I'm saying this - I think they're...together."
"And this is important because...?"
"Doesn't it seem weird? I mean..." Valkyrie shakes her head, bewildered.
"Says the woman dating a skeleton."
"No, no, I mean -- he's gorgeous."
"I just -- Melancholia's pretty, but he's gorgeous."
"Should I wait with the other adults in the hallway? Give you a moment or two?"
"No, I'm fine." She can't get the words out of her head, so she blurts, "I just mean, if he strangled me to death, I probably wouldn't mind."
"It is a good thing I have a handle on my more jealous nature."
Valkyrie can't help the grin that overtakes her. "Sorry; I'll behave starting now."
"Wonderful. So - what are your thoughts aside from those already expressed in unnecessary detail?"
"Well," she begins slowly, "I was wondering if it was my afore-mentioned unnecessary thoughts blinding me, or if he genuinely seemed to mean what he said?"
"I want to believe him."
"But you don't?"
"It's hard for me to - after all, Lord Vile was the last person to be considered powerful enough to be the Death Bringer."
"Abyssinia's armour did that."
"No," Skulduggery murmurs. "He was like that before the armour. It was always there, just more focused with Abyssinia's help."
Valkyrie swallows but doesn't look away. She thinks about that splotch of inky darkness, something even more profound than Darquesse. Dormant, silent without the ring on, but willing to be tapped. She wonders if Abyssinia could have focused that part of her, harnessed her, made her into a glorified pet. "Leviathan isn't Lord Vile."
"Of that, we can all rejoice. If he's been ready for an entire month, then it does speak to his control over the urges," Skulduggery murmurs. "But we cannot ignore this - we cannot walk away today and pretend there isn't someone possible of ending the lives of half the planet."
"So what do we do?" Valkyrie asks. "Kill him?"
"That is the most logical step, yes."
Valkyrie furrows her brow. She wonders if the words are his or Vile's. She wonders if that actually matters. "I don't want to kill him if we don't absolutely have to, and he's made it pretty hard for me to think we have to."
"This is true. We can try to build some kind of device for him - we had such a thing before Arggedion died. We used it to keep him contained."
"Didn't work too well, did it?" Valkyrie asks. "I mean, it was before my time and all, but Solomon took personal pleasure in telling me how you lot flubbed the whole thing."
"It is easy for a man to judge when he hides underground all day."
Valkyrie smirks at him. "A containment device might work, sure, but it might backfire like Argeddion's did. It'd probably take longer than a hundred years for him to break through it, but I'm sure it'll still be us who have to deal with it, so."
"You sound like you're ramping up to something, Ms Cain."
Valkyrie glances toward the door. "We rope Melancholia in. She's practical and self-serving - hell, she might even be in love. If we offer to protect them, she'll do it. They're on the outside of the Temples now, and they can't hide it forever. Solomon will be here Friday, and who knows when the other Temples will arrive. It'll be difficult for them to stave off the Necromancers the longer this goes on. Solomon will suss her out in very little time."
"It seems you're beginning to question your first mentor."
Valkyrie pretends she doesn't hear the slight pleasure the thought brings to Skulduggery's voice. "All I know is that Melancholia is scared and desperate enough not to tell Solomon what's happening. And she let us into the Temple. She wouldn't do that if she weren't nervous."
Skulduggery dips his head in acknowledgement. "Well then - it seems we should have someone keep an eye on the Temple."
"And who's going to do that? I can't play around in America for God-knows how long."
"Omen and Never, then. You and Fletcher can take over the Australia investigation - part-time, of course; Fletcher can have you home in time to pick up Alice from school. Omen and Never can stay here in America and be ready to save the day at a moment's notice."
"I don't know if I trust Omen and Never to save any days. The last time they watched something, my sister got abducted by your ex-girlfriend."
"You haven't been in the field with them recently," Skulduggery soothes. "Omen's getting the hang of things; Never hasn't dropped them into a single lake in two weeks."
"It's worrying when those are your words of assurance," Valkyrie mumbles but nods to herself. "Right. Okay. I guess -- I guess we're helping the Death Bringer."
Skulduggery begins toward the door to let the others in, but Valkyrie grabs his arm to stop him. "I'm really bad at making the proper decision, so you need to step up and tell me if I'm about to ruin the world again."
"You haven't ruined the world yet," he says, patting her shoulder as if it's encouraging.
Chapter 19: Virulent
Chapter Nineteen, in which Leviathan betrays his orders and Melancholia receives her bodyguard.
High Priest Virulent folds his hands in his lap and tilts his head down a bit, his chin nearly resting on his chest. Leviathan watches the old man - the man whose skin is like paper, whose eyes are more cataract than anything else.
"I understand your hesitations," he says finally but still does not meet Leviathan's gaze. "How can I not? You are young and passionate. You haven't seen the realities that centuries bring."
Leviathan leans back in his chair. "You definitely have the centuries on me."
"I remember when I had my Surge," the High Priest murmurs as if he hasn't heard Leviathan. "The power was glorious. I played more than I should have - tested my powers. Tested myself."
Silence falls. Leviathan waits as patiently as he can until the ringing silence makes him clear his throat. "High Priest-"
"Ah. Yes." He takes a deep breath; it rattles his lungs. No wonder the man hardly leaves his chambers - he sounds inches from the grave. "I suppose I wished to impart the following wisdom - we are running out of time. The other Temples, after I assured them things were fine and on schedule, have postponed their visit until next month. They are all eager, of course, but we must listen to our Death Bringer's wishes."
"My wishes don't include the Passage happening next month," Leviathan says, voice even. "I'm still studying my abilities."
High Priest Virulent finally looks up, but Leviathan isn't sure if the man can see him. "You will do it," he replies gravely, "because you must. I cannot keep the others from sniffing around. You know this as well as anyone - I've heard the Irish girl follows you everywhere, and her High Priest arrives tomorrow."
"You couldn't convince him to wait?"
"I could not."
Leviathan wants to leave - wants to get up, grab Melancholia's hand, and flee. But there's still Gerald. There's still so much to do. So he sits and murmurs, "What do you want me to do about High Priest Wreath?"
"Leave Solomon Wreath to me," High Priest Virulent says with a crooked smile. "You take care of the girl."
"...Take care of?"
"Kill her or turn her into one of your pets - I hardly care. All I want is time -- and you to find your sense of purpose."
Leviathan keeps his breath calm. "I'll have it done within the month."
"Within the week."
"I have too much work, and she's a mindless helper," Leviathan replies, getting to his feet and ending the meeting then and there. "No one can touch her without my permission, do you understand?" And then he leaves; Virulent doesn't shout for him to come back and no one tries to stop him.
He makes it back to the basement to find Melancholia with a tome.
"The Arbiters?" he asks.
"Left. They said they will have some agents on standby in case we need them." She narrows her eyes at him. "What happened?"
"You have to tell your High Priest not to come. Have him send someone in his stead - someone who can protect you without being seen as a threat."
"Protect me?" she laughs incredulously. "I'm in the Temple - why would I be in danger here?"
"Because High Priest Virulent wants to kill Wreath and he wants me to kill you."
Melancholia blinks at him. She closes the tome and sets it aside. "Why?"
"More time. He needs time to convince me to be his puppet, and he doesn't want the global community to find out I'm rebelling."
Melancholia doesn't react to this news - her eyes stay focused on his, unblinking. "How much time do we have?"
"I don't know. He won't expect me to move against you until he kills Wreath, and he can't kill Wreath if Wreath isn't here." Melancholia begins to walk past him, but Leviathan murmurs, "I won't hurt you."
She pauses. "I know."
"I do." And then she's moving again, slipping into the darkened corridor outside.
Wreath doesn't understand why Melancholia asks him not to come and to, instead, send the creature to her - a gift for the Death Bringer, she told him. He enjoys experimenting, and perhaps the thing in the basement will amuse him enough to trust me more.
Wreath trusts her. Melancholia has never been so grateful for that as she is now.
The Teleporter waits outside of the Temple at noon. He looks bored, but there's a tightness to his stance - he doesn't like Necromancers, she assumes.
"Mr Renn," Melancholia greets him.
Renn smiles at her, but it's thin-lipped. "Special delivery. It's kind of heavy, and it smells to high Heaven, so get one of your lackeys to take it inside."
And then he's gone.
Melancholia rolls her eyes and tips the suitcase a bit, releasing the wheels and moving it inside. "I needed some essentials," she explains to the doorkeeper - not that he cares - and wheels the thing directly to her bedroom.
When she opens the case, she recoils, scrunching her nose. The smell, dear God -
The zombie looks up at her, blinking against the light, and then mumbles through a mostly-ruined mouth, "Master?"
"Vaurien Scapegrace," she says, taking five steps back and covering her nose with an open palm. "Welcome to your new home."
Chapter 20: Veils Lift, Questions Rise
Chapter Twenty, in which Eliza Scorn begins to wake from the fog Abyssinia left.
Gruesome Krav has seen better days. Once upon a time, Eliza Scorn would have told him that to his face. These days, though...Eliza supposes she's seen better days, as well.
"Well?" he asks. He's impatient; Eliza would have hit him for the audacity if she was still the woman Gruesome Krav came here to see. "Haven't seen me in twenty years and you won't even stand to greet me?"
Eliza rises from her knees to her feet; she's gotten quite good at it even with her hands bound, the chains clanging mournfully with her movements. When she turns to Gruesome Krav, letting him fully see her, he takes a step back.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asks, no longer cheeky. "Did...Jesus, did China do this?"
Eliza regards him. "I have nothing for you, Krav."
"We -- Christ." He's having a hard time looking at her - she wonders if it's the shorn hair, the lack of makeup, or the chains that unsettle him most. "How did she do it?" he asks.
"She didn't do this," Eliza murmurs. "Abyssinia did."
Gruesome Krav's eyes widen - they're comically large, hilariously round. "Abyssinia died centuries ago. The Diablerie was there, we-"
"And now she is back, searching for Lord Vile's armour and her son."
Krav's brows tighten. "Why?"
Eliza swallows and glances around. The Cathedral is empty aside from them - Eliza made sure no one was around during her prayers. How Krav got in is still a mystery - one she will rectify with her security team. "China Sorrows cannot be touched."
Gruesome Krav's face screws up. "I beg your pardon?"
"Abyssinia marked her," Eliza murmurs. "She will give China to her son when she finds him."
"If she finds him."
"She will," Eliza replies. "Abyssinia always comes back for what she wants. It might not be now, or months from now, or years. But eventually."
"And what then?"
Eliza smiles this time, a faint twitch of her lips. "And then we kneel and perish."
"I think you mean kneel or perish."
Eliza chuckles and returns to her knees, closing her eyes. "No, Krav, I do not."
Eliza thinks about the encounter for hours while lying in bed. She thinks about how long ago that visit from Abyssinia was - October of last year. She remembers it clearly - how could she not? Abyssinia laid waste to her body in a way Eliza never expected. She cut and tore and sliced. She took something that Eliza hadn't known lived within her. Abyssinia questioned her for the sheer fun of it, for the sport, and then she meddled and muddled Eliza's mind. Swished it into a semi-lucid scramble.
And yet, it has been seven months since then. No whispers rose around her. Abyssinia didn't make the news for setting fire to the world. There wasn't a Caisson with his mad eyes and unsettling smile wreaking havoc through Roarhaven.
So Eliza does something she hasn't done in months.
She goes to the Council Chambers.
China Sorrows isn't there, of course - it's three in the morning. Neither is Elder Bespoke, not that Eliza expected him, either.
She also doesn't expect to find Ghastly Bespoke's name, carved into his seat, gone. Nothing but smoothed wood, worn a bit from sanding and one-too-few shellackings.
Eliza narrows her eyes. Her steps, only audible because of the rustle of her chains, lead her to Elder Bespoke's office.
Nothing. The room is empty - the desk is bare. Eliza looks around, eyes wide, not comprehending. The last time she'd been here was around the new year - she'd come in to find Elder Bespoke and a buxom blonde in a hushed conversation. The blonde, upon seeing Eliza, got up and came toward her, blocking her view of the monitor. It had been a map, of that Eliza knew. But a map of where?
Eliza makes a small circle of the room. The cabinets are empty, and the computer is wiped clean. The desk drawers are precise, barren.
She hasn't spoken to the Supreme Mage in longer than it's been since she saw Elder Bespoke. She's done it for her own safety, of course, because very little means more to her than that.
Abyssinia's warning or not, Eliza isn't about to let this go. Not now. If nothing else, Eliza can run. She's quite good at running, especially if she's unfettered by these damned chains.
First things first - speak to China.
Chapter 21: Backup
Chapter Twenty-One, in which Omen breaks rank and Valkyrie considers a temporary replacement.
Valkyrie expects to come home to Omen, Never, Alice, and Xena. Instead, she comes home to Never and a box of cold pizza.
"Hey," Never greets Valkyrie, coming out from the study. "So, things have happened in the last ten minutes since talking."
"Where is everyone?" Valkyrie asks, already uncertain. "Is Alice-"
"She's fine, she's good, she's at the house with your mum and dad. And the...thing. The Reflection."
Valkyrie nods, the motion slow. "Okay. So what's happening?"
"Australia's happening," Never replies.
"When isn't it?" she groans, sinking onto a barstool. "What's wrong in Australia now? Let me guess - goddamned vampires."
"Well...no, but maybe yes? Omen got the call from Sophie about ten minutes ago - three different mortal tour groups went missing over the past week, all while backpacking."
"And why do missing tourists concern us?"
"Because we just caught word of Warlock sightings in Tasmania - straight-shot south of the insane vampire trek we've been following."
Valkyrie blinks. "I'm...I'm sorry, did you just say Warlock sightings?"
"And Omen, I assume, went back to Australia when he got the call?"
"Yeah - I told him we're supposed to be in America to watch that Temple, but we know how well Omen follows orders. Plus he fancies Sophie. I'm sure he'll listen to you if you yell at him a bit, though."
Valkyrie grabs her phone from her pocket and dials Omen. He picks up after two rings; Valkyrie can hear the blush in his voice, which isn't necessarily strange when it comes to Omen. "Uh, hi. Valkyrie?"
"Never said you're in Australia?"
"Er...yes. I mean, I'm just at the Sanctuary. I wanted to check in, see if these Warlocks are...you know. Actually related to the vampires. I think they are, but I'm also a bit low on sleep, and I might be seeing double. Did you even know Warlocks were real? I didn't know that, but evidently they are."
"I did know," Valkyrie interrupts before he can keep prattling. "Long story, but Tanith and I had to kill one in Bulgaria. That doesn't matter - we need you and Never in America. Australia and their tourists can wait for a few days."
"I don't think they can," Omen admits, though he sounds nervous about disagreeing. "I don't know, Valkyrie. I'm probably just being me, but this feels...it feels bad. I want..." he falls silent, clears his throat, and tries a little harder. "I need to do this. I need to finish this. These vampires, all moving toward the coast; the Warlocks sightings in Tasmania; something's going on out there. This was my mission, and I want to finish it."
Valkyrie listens to him breathe, listens to the passion thinly veiling the nervousness. "Okay," she murmurs. "But you call me the second you need me."
"I will," he exhales, relieved. "I will."
"I'm keeping Never, though," Valkyrie informs him.
That makes Omen's voice go tinny. "O-oh. Um. Right. Okay."
"I need a teleporter in America."
"Right. Who is Never's back up?"
Valkyrie closes her eyes and glances at the ceiling. "Not positive, but I have someone in mind. I'll have Fletcher call round tomorrow morning to coordinate the plan; stay out of trouble tonight."
"Y-yeah," Omen laughs nervously.
Valkyrie narrows her eyes at nothing. "What are you doing tonight?"
"Nothing!" Omen insists. "Nothing, really, I just...eh."
Valkyrie smiles; Omen's ability to fluster must be a magic power unto itself. "Have a nice date with Sophie."
"What?!" Omen whines over the line, but Valkyrie hangs up and pockets her phone, grinning at Never.
"I think he's going on a date."
"I doubt it. He's probably going to daydream about going on a date."
Valkyrie reaches for the pizza box, flipping it open and snagging a cold slice. She chews through the thick layer of congealed cheese, opens her phone's contact list, and clicks the photo of an attractive man in a three-piece suit.
"Valkyrie," Skulduggery greets. She can hear the sound of the road over the line; he's still driving. "I assumed I had the night to myself."
"That was silly of you," Valkyrie replies between bites. "You do, I just wanted to let you know that I'm going by the Sanctuary in a bit."
"Mmm-hmm. I want to have a little chat with Sanguine - I'm curious to see how serious he is about helping us out."
Skulduggery is quiet for a moment, and then Valkyrie hears the distant ticking of his indicator light. "I'm coming to pick you up."
"You don't trust me to deal with Sanguine on my own?"
"Of course I don't," he replies coolly. "Every time you two meet, one of you ends up injured."
"Not every time."
Skulduggery makes a noise - it isn't pleased, exactly, but it is amused. "I will be on your doorstep in ten minutes."
"See you then," she begins to say, but he's already hung up. Valkyrie glances at Never, who awkwardly smiles back. "Skulduggery and I are off to break your new teammate out of gaol. Would you like to come along? Meet him while he's cuffed and vulnerable?"
Never pales. "I -- what?"
"It'll be fine, he's mostly harmless," Valkyrie informs her. Never doesn't look as sure as Valkyrie feels. "We have ways to make him behave."
Chapter 22: Assurances
Chapter Twenty-Two, in which Sanguine meets his temporary partner.
Chapter Warnings: mild torture. I didn't even want to call it torture, but it totally is, so...it's a quick thing, though! Please enjoy!
Officer Rattan is not a pleasant man, but even Valkyrie doesn't expect him to be such a massive dick today. Skulduggery made his point quite clearly when they entered the administrative section of the gaol. Good evening, Officer! Arbiters Pleasant, Cain, and Never, as you're aware. We're here to speak to one of the prisoners - Billy-Ray Sanguine.
Officer Rattan, however, did not want anything to do with Billy-Ray Sanguine - or the Arbiters, more likely - so he called in Officer Lush. When Officer Lush also refused to do anything to help them, Valkyrie finally snapped. Jesus! Get Seargent Yonder in here, followed by a hotly muttered, Can't stand around dealing with you idiots all day. Christ.
Seargent Yonder is not a pleasant man, either. He also attempts to keep them from seeing Sanguine. There are a lot of accusations - you lot keep ruining Roarhaven; you lot have no jurisdiction here; you lot aren't Sanctuary officials and, as such, we don't need to do anything you ask; you lot don't seem to realise that our orders come from the Supreme Mage or no one.
There are a lot of you lots involved, and Valkyrie is not pleased with it. She keeps watching Yonder's red features and thinking how nice it would feel to wrap him in a chokehold and pop that damned head off.
Finally fed up, Valkyrie snaps her fingers - an unsettling-looking feat, really, given she's missing the top of her middle finger - and shadows furl around her hand. They spew and retreat into her Necromancer ring, leaving a coiling, frothing ball of darkness in her palm.
Lush and Rattan fall back, eyes wide. Yonder's face pales, goes even redder, and he spits, "You threaten us?"
"Of course not," Valkyrie purrs, her soft smile never wavering. "I just thought that maybe, perhaps, you forgot a little something. I don't take orders from the Supreme Mage; I don't take orders from anyone."
This feels good. God, this feels so good. It's been a long time since she just let go, let her ego coil and stoke the flame her belly. Darquesse used to bring this on in her regularly - used to make her veins run hot and her mouth salivate with the need to hurt, to tear, to maim.
Keep going, something inside of her purrs - it isn't Darquesse. It's that little pit of inky darkness begging to be unleashed. Keep going. This feels so nice, just keep going. Get mad. Get wrathful. "You're a Sergeant in the High Sanctuary - I'm a goddamn Arbiter. I could kill you right here, right now, and walk away from it."
"True, albeit a bit confrontational for my immediate mood," Skulduggery interjects. He's gone very still beside her, sensing the change, unsure what to do about it.
Valkyrie feels his confusion as if it's water dripping onto her skin; it makes the shadows in her palm pop and fizzles with excitement.
"You three, however," she continues toward the officers. They're frozen in place, hands raised but not calling on their powers. "You can't do shit to me without the entire force of the global community coming down on you."
"The Sanctuaries are quite pleased with our work," Skulduggery says, a smile to his voice. So friendly. So reassuring. Don't worry, that voice says, my partner is entirely sane and not-at-all in danger of snapping and killing everyone here.
"Let's not forget that you answer to China Sorrows - how do you think she'd respond to you acting against us?" Never adds - she's cool, detached.
"China is also quite pleased with our work," Skulduggery nods.
"And she's a friend," Never reminds.
"And she's Valkyrie's friend," Skulduggery acknowledges.
"You and China are friends, too," Valkyrie murmurs. She lets the shadows fade a bit, leaving a tendril to slither between her fingers. She takes a breath, takes another, and then remembers herself. She's a professional - she isn't an untethered hell hound. Not anymore.
"It depends on the definition, I suppose," Skulduggery says, seeming to think about it. "I suppose we're friends in the I killed your family, helped you a few times, betrayed you a few times, and now we're in a very grey area way."
Valkyrie rolls her eyes. "You're so dramatic." To Yonder and the others, she smiles again. "So. How about you get Billy-Ray Sanguine set up in an interrogation room for us? There's a good boy," she says when Rattan begins to move.
Valkyrie follows, loving how the man's shoulder blades clench at her proximity. She just barely hears Skulduggery say, "Thank you so much for your cooperation, Seargent. It's always a pleasure."
When Billy-Ray Sanguine sits, he grins. "Well, well. Ain't you a sight for sore eyes." His brows wiggle, accentuating the pits where eyes should be.
Valkyrie smiles, perching across from him. Skulduggery, for once, takes the metaphorical backseat, standing along the perimeter of the room with Never. This isn't a typical shakedown; this is a friendly chat between old compatriots - or so Valkyrie pretends. "Hello, Billy-Ray. You sound like you expected this."
"'Course I did," he chuckles, leaning back. In spite of his lackadaisical demeanour, Sanguine's jumper's collar just barely fails to hide a ring of bruises along his throat. Yonder's crew, no doubt, while manhandling him into his cell. He's missing his sunglasses, too.
It reminds Valkyrie of Alice after Sanguine got his hands on her. It reminds her of how much she fucking hates him.
It takes all of Valkyrie's willpower not to attack him. A chill of anger seems to radiate from Skulduggery, too. He keeps his posture loose, though; Valkyrie's reasonably sure she and Darquesse are the only ones who can read him like this. Can feel the barely-veiled rage.
"Someone get his sunglasses," she says, but she doesn't take her eyes away from the pits. She doesn't watch Never slip out of the room, probably thankful for something to do.
"How can I help y'all?" Sanguine lazily asks.
"We have a proposition."
"Aww, Val. I knew ya'd come around. I thought to myself, 'she's a lil' upset; totally understandable, you blinded her lil' sis. But, you know, she always comes back. We're just drawn to one another that way'."
"Is that what we are?" Valkyrie asks, tone wry.
"You've been sweet on me since day one."
Valkyrie lets out a long, slow sigh before saying, "We need some help in America - a contracted asset, as Skulduggery calls it."
"I have never called it that," Skulduggery says.
Valkyrie's lips purse a little while Sanguine's stretch. "Sure thing, doll. You get me outta here, I'll do whatever ya need."
"You aren't getting-out getting out, just so we're clear," Valkyrie says. "You're getting out for a bit, and then you get put right back in."
Never re-enters, handing the sunglasses to Sanguine. Sanguine, of course, turns his mega-watt smile to her. "Thanks, gorgeous."
"Eww," Never immediately reacts, pulling back and turning widened eyes on Valkyrie. "You want him to come with me?"
"He'll be leashed," Skulduggery assures her. "His magic drained, and his good humour ensured."
"His good humour is what I'm worried about," Never grumbles, returning to Skulduggery's side and glaring toward Sanguine.
"You'll grow to love me. They all do."
"Sanguine," Valkyrie interrupts. That's all she says, but she puts a threat of hostility - a promise of annihilation if he keeps at it - into those words.
Sanguine just grins. "You got a headache, Val? You're all scrunched up over there."
"As Valkyrie said," Skulduggery intervenes, "you will go on this mission with Never. You will be there to ensure the escape of two Necromancers in the case that they need a getaway. To ensure your cooperation, we will bind your magic. I'm sure you expected as much. In addition to the binding bracelet, you will also have a fun device our friend Kenspeckle Grouse cobbled together some months ago. We intended to use it on another cold-blooded killer-"
Sanguine snorts. "Pot callin' the kettle."
"-but it turns out that Abyssinia died without needing us to subdue her. Grouse's work is not all in vain, because now we have you. So, if you don't mind, Mr Sanguine - please remove your jumper."
"Excuse me?" Sanguine spits out, his amusement draining to something like horrified surprise.
"Just to the waist."
"And pull up the undershirt," Valkyrie adds, unable to help the smile in her voice. "That is...if you want us to get your sentence lowered. You're in here for, what, 412 years? Is that right, Skulduggery?"
"It is," Valkyrie repeats. "The Supreme Mage already agreed to reduce your sentence to 150 if you help us out."
Sanguine looks between Valkyrie and Skulduggery. He ignores Never now that he's gotten under her skin. "You expect me to go back in a cell if you let me out?"
"You will try to escape," Skulduggery acknowledges. "But you won't try as hard as you might think."
"Jumper down, shirt up," Valkyrie reminds, getting to her feet and grabbing the bag she brought. "Unless, of course, you aren't interested in seeing the sun for 412 years."
"I want it in writing, signed by the high and mighty China Sorrows herself. I want it all spelt out, nice and clear - I'm a simple country boy, after all. Can't use all them big words to confuse me."
Valkyrie actually smiles at that. Sanguine is many things, most of them terrible, but stupid isn't one of them. "Done. We'll have someone down with the paperwork."
"Aww, I don't get to enjoy your charmin' company again?"
"Afraid not - we have better things to do than play courier. So? Would you like to raise that shirt for me, or are you just a big tease?"
Sanguine watches them, impassive. And then, very slowly, he stands. He undresses to the waist. "What now?" he asks, suddenly less blase about the whole ordeal.
Valkyrie glances at Never. "Would you like to do the honours?"
"What honours?" Sanguine asks; his tone tries to be even, but panic trickles through.
Valkyrie passes the bag to Never when the woman brushes forward. Never removes the slender box, and then the slender metal discs.
"Wha...what the hell is that?" Panic. Full panic now. "Val -- what the actual fuck is that?"
Never steps toward him; he tries to push her away, but Skulduggery uses the air to snap his arms back, pinning him to the wall. Never continues, stepping close and pressing one of the discs to his chest. It instantly attaches, sharp spines sinking into his flesh and raising a shout of alarm.
"This is a pain regulator," Skulduggery says. "Now, I'm sure you've heard of them before, but this one is a bit different. It was made to subdue Abyssinia, as I was saying."
Sanguine is shaking his head; Never takes four steps back, and Skulduggery releases the air around Sanguine. The man stumbles and then goes very still.
"You should try running," Valkyrie suggests. "We'll even give you a head start."
"Fairly sure that's the opposite'a what I should do," Sanguine says, fingers clenching and unclenching.
"It is," Skulduggery praises. "See, Valkyrie? I told you he'd learn quickly."
Never tilts her head to look at Skulduggery over her shoulder. "I still think he needs a demonstration." And then Never twists a small section of her disc.
Sanguine drops to his knees. He doesn't make a sound through his gaping mouth, but spittle is quick to leave him. He curls in on himself, face red, the veins in his eyes popping out a startling red. A capillary bursts, sending a flood of blood across the cornea.
"That's enough," Valkyrie says, beginning to feel queasy.
Sanguine keeps twitching, writhing, and Never barely blinks.
"Let him up," Skulduggery finally says after much longer than Valkyrie wants.
Never shuts off the device, stepping back again. Sanguine's body trembles, quakes; little noises escape his lips. He's wet himself, the scent unmistakable. Valkyrie is suddenly and fiercely sick to her stomach. She doesn't know why - she should love seeing him in pain after what he did to Alice. But that...
"That's the minimum setting," Never says.
Valkyrie turns and swallows, eyes raising to Skulduggery's sockets. He doesn't say anything, doesn't move, shows no sign of unease. "We'll pick you up tomorrow morning," Skulduggery informs Sanguine. "If you're going to attempt taking that device off, I suggest doing it tonight while Never can't see."
Valkyrie leaves the room, nodding to one of the Cleavers. "Take him to the clinic. He'll need a shower and fresh clothes, too. We'll pick him up tomorrow morning." She thinks about popping in to tell Sergeant Yonder, too - just to enjoy the quick flicker of fear when he sees her - but she decides that she's too tired. Besides - if it's done tomorrow then she can ruin his day a second time.
"Never," Skulduggery says when they reach the front steps of the Sanctuary, "I need you to assure me that you can keep your personal feelings contained during this mission."
Never raises a brow at him. "Of course I can."
"You will only use the pain regulator if he tries to escape or turns on us, yes?"
Never groans, "Skulduggery, you know me. You've been out there with me. I'm not going to ruin things just because he creeps me out. I don't even like violence unless really, really necessary." When Skulduggery doesn't say anything, and Valkyrie doesn't meet her gaze, she flushes, hurt. "You told me to act tough and to test the device before he could get any ideas."
Valkyrie did say that, but she didn't expect that level of pain; not from the lowest setting. She certainly didn't expect Never to keep it going for as long as she did. It was less than ten seconds, but those ten seconds felt...
"It's done now," Skulduggery says. "I apologise for asking, Never, but I would ask anyone in this position of absolute power."
Never hesitates and then nods. "I get it." She glances at Valkyrie again - Valkyrie meets her eyes this time, pushing her unease down. "Are we okay?" she asks.
Valkyrie nods and takes Never's offered hand. "Of course. Let's get home."
Chapter 23: Leverage
Chapter Twenty-Three, in which Dusk makes his move.
He waits to leave, loitering in the treeline, and pushes the syringe into his skin. The icy concoction slides into his veins, suppressing the pull from the approaching night and giving him a moment to breathe, unfettered.
Dusk glances up when he hears Valkyrie's voice. She's come out with the skeleton and one of their young pupils; the former loiters by his obnoxious car, and the latter goes to a late-model sedan. Valkyrie bids the protegee a good night, and the protegee calls back with something Dusk doesn't catch. Something about America? He isn't sure. It doesn't matter.
The sedan bumps away and through Grimwood's gate. Valkyrie turns back to the skeleton and Dusk mutters under his breath when she presses a kiss to his skull, averting his eyes when the woman's voice purrs out a throaty laugh.
Dusk can't understand the skeleton's words from this distance - they run together like water, spilling from one syllable into the next, fluid and musical. Dusk doesn't need to hear their conversation - all he needs to know is that Valkyrie is home for the night without plans.
He doesn't have to stay here, crouched in the underbrush, spying like some degenerate. And yet, he doesn't move. He listens to the cadence of their voices, the quickfire banter, and feels his hands clench.
The skeleton disgusts him - has for centuries - but the girl...he had high hopes for the girl when they first met. She seemed logical then. Level-headed. He thought she might be the one to change things for the vampires - to get them a seat at the table, so to speak.
Back then, when Valkyrie sat across from him in a rundown flat, surrounded by bloodthirsty vampires, her pulse singing sweetly, she made him smile. She piqued his interest while she folded her legs and let Dusk tell her tales. While she ignored the skeleton outside Dusk's door. While all of her attention was focused on Dusk.
She seemed...objective. Rational. Unburdened with the hatred for him - for his kind - that had become the norm.
It wouldn't be perfect - Valkyrie isn't a miracle worker after all. But she has the Supreme Mage's ear, and sometimes the proper words in the appropriate ear are all it takes. The Supreme Mage is nothing if not practical - all the Supreme Mage needs is a word from an ally.
He doesn't know if Valkyrie is that person. What he does know, however, is that the skeleton will never abide by what Dusk needs. What they all need. He knows that if the girl is thoroughly entangled with Pleasant, then there is very little chance.
The Bentley circles, trundling through the gate, and Valkyrie hums to herself. The tune, a wavering and confusing thing, carries on the breeze while she flicks ash from a cigarette. She saunters to the awning, opening the door and calling, "Is there a puppy who wants to go for a walk?" Dusk hears the not-at-all-puppy-sized dog excitedly bark; the bray rattles through Dusk's chest, and he reflexively pulls back.
He leaves before the hound can catch his scent.
She's alone - Dusk hasn't anticipated this, but it only makes things easier. If her parents are out, that means less chance for things to escalate into bloodshed.
He glances in the windows to be sure no one else is home, keeping to the shadows in the back garden. Alice Edgley moves through the kitchen, singing along to a song blaring from the living room. Her voice is higher than her sister's - more musical.
She's making biscuits. Dusk pulls back from the window when she turns to the sink; she misses a high note she attempts but doesn't care in the slightest, powering through.
She seems like a nice child. A happy one.
Dusk slides to the front door, planning on entering there to take her by surprise. But there are wards etched into the wood, glowing faintly when Dusk's hand moves close to them. They're blue, active, but he hasn't tripped them. That's good. That's very good.
He moves around the windows. Three are open, but sigils line the bottom of the sills.
Dusk mutters to himself and lowers to tamper with the sigil, rend it inactive, but Alice sweeps into the living room. He veers away, thinks she might have seen him, and waits. She doesn't glance his way; she collapses onto the couch, flicking through her phone. The music lowers with the tap of her finger, and then she switches the song to something soft.
Dusk slides around the house and, to his surprise, finds the door there open, a fresh bag of trash in the bin. Dusk ensures that the door is not warded before stepping through.
Something hits him across the side of the head; he stumbles, reeling, eyes suddenly unfocused. Another hit sends him to his belly. When he rolls, trying to take the attacker's feet from under them, a jolt of unbridled current flows through his side.
Everything goes very dark for a few moments while he huddles in on himself. The pain is unfathomable. He can hear voices - Alice's and...
"You," he hisses, but the word comes out stuttered between Dusk's still rattling teeth.
Valkyrie Cain smiles down at him, but the smile is slightly off. So are the eyes. She brandishes a long, smooth stick in her hands. "Perhaps you shouldn't have attacked a very paranoid Arbiter's family, vampire."
Alice comes toward him, cuffing him with shackles. They're magic dampening, but that does nothing to Dusk. Alice, as if sensing his thoughts, murmurs, "Valkyrie assumed we would be attacked by a sorcerer when it happened, not a vampire. These are still strong, though; too strong for you to break through in your current state."
The stick in Valkyrie's - no, not Valkyrie - hand crackles with electricity. The thing with her face hasn't stopped smiling.
"What are you?" Dusk asks.
"I'm Stephanie Edgley."
"She's my sister's Reflection. Well - she was my sister's Reflection. Now we don't really know what she is."
"I'm in the room," it reminds them, eyes never leaving Dusk.
"Sorry," Alice awkwardly smiles. To Dusk, she says, "Your second mistake was assuming I don't have magic."
"Alice Edgley, you will let me go," Dusk growls.
Alice doesn't move. "I'm a Seer. I saw you coming here, and I saw what you came here for."
"I obviously have a taken name," she interrupts. "I just told you I'm a sorcerer."
"Wow," the not-Valkyrie murmurs, resting the shock-stick across its shoulders like a baseball bat. "The amount of unpreparedness here is almost astounding."
Alice bites the inside of her cheek, regarding Dusk. "Stephanie is going to knock you out now - sorry in advance. And then, when you wake up, you and I will have a sit and chat. I made biscuits, too - do you like biscuits?"
"Time's up," Stephanie intervenes, swinging the shock-stick down against his forehead. His vision swims, and he gags on the sudden urge to vomit the emptiness in his belly. The electric shock is a blessing when it comes - he passes out, given a brief reprieve from the pain.
Chapter 24: Expectations vs Realities
Chapter Twenty-Four, in which Omen finds a Warlock.
The truck doesn't bounce. Omen is surprised to find that this fact, this simple thing, is ruining his day.
But, here it is. The truck, the goddamn military truck, doesn't bounce. They don't have to shout over the noise of the off-road tyres. There's no heavy feeling of doom surrounding them. Everything is calm, quiet, and perfect.
When Omen thinks of military trucks, it's with memories of over-the-top movies. He thinks of soldiers bobbing about in their vehicles, speeding through hostile territory, dodging bullets or mines or --
"Why aren't we bouncing?" Omen asks one of the Cleavers. He knows better - they're not going to answer him - but he thinks maybe that's why he's brave enough to air his stupidity. "I assume it's magic," he continues. Omen now realises that, sure, they're not going to remember any of this after the mission, blocking it all out - but that doesn't mean he won't remember this interaction. "I mean, what isn't magic nowadays?" he laughs, and the noise tinges in panic. "I mean, why not, right? If we've got it, might as well use it. Hah."
He can already see this memory swimming up to haunt him at three am some morning, abrupt and unbidden.
There are ten Cleavers in the truck with him - five across, four to his left, and one in the front. They don't give him a single thing, not a word or a look.
"Sorry," Omen laughs, internally begging his body to release him from this situation, to melt into a puddle of goo and be done with it. "Our, um. Our Cleavers aren't very chatty, either. Just thought, you know, 'oh, Australians, they're so nice.' So you know. Maybe you are chattier? I mean. It makes no sense." He chuckles, but it cuts off halfway through forming, coming out like a groan. "I really like it here. Australia. You've got...you've got beautiful beaches. I mean, I haven't, um. I haven't seen them. Yet. Haven't seen them yet. I've only been here on work, and Tanith always gets the beach assignments. I'm not bitter, though - she's obviously the one people want to see on a nude beach, but-"
The words keep going. Jesus Christ, Omen can't stop talking. Every second of silence is so heavy in the quiet, bump-less ride that Omen feels the need to fill it. And fill it he does.
"Stop," the Cleaver across from him finally interjects, voice low and gravelly. "Talking."
Omen closes his mouth, but he doesn't recoil from the shock; he'll chalk that one up as a win.
They find the decimated campsite at the exact coordinates the adventure agency's guide went radio-silent. It's a hot, wooded spot along the St George River.
The group, according to the agency's filed itinerary, was comprised of two newlywed couples - one fit, one so overweight that the guide secretly worried they might not last; a newly-divorced, sometimes-father of two; a new guide; and her new trainee.
"Oddly specific in some spots," Fletcher mutters when he checks in around noon, popping into the emptied truck while the Cleavers examine the site outside.
"It sounds made up, don't you think?" Omen asks. "Because I thought it sounded a little...weird. All the new's. Those passive-aggressive descriptions."
"Yeah," Fletcher confirms, handing the tablet back. "Probably just some bored administrator being an ass for the giggles. I'd probably do it, to be honest." He glances out of the opened truck door, peering at the segment of ruined campsite he can see. "Well, there aren't bodies; That's good news."
Omen shrugs. "No bodies, but it looks like they were dragged further down."
"Maybe they got away," Fletcher says, though he doesn't sound like he believes it. "Maybe you'll find them all huddled up in a tree waiting for someone to save them."
"In a tree?"
"It's practically ninety-per cent trees around us. Why not in a tree?"
"I mean...they were already on the ground, so why be in a tree...?"
"Predators are on the ground," Fletcher replies, brows furrowing. "They've been missing for four days; you can't think -- am I going mad? You do realise that things can kill you out here, yeah?"
"I know that," Omen mutters, trying to sound cross to cover the blush flaming his cheeks.
"Look, Omen. I know you were a terrible student-"
"You didn't even have me!"
"Thank God from what I can tell," Fletcher laughs. "Dear Lord did the others talk. Miss Wicked thought you were dropped on your head as a child."
"I probably was," Omen admits. "Are you just here to insult me?"
Fletcher softens. "You were a terrible student, but you're weirdly good at this. You miss things, overlook others, and damn-near trod some into the mud-"
"This was beginning to sound like a compliment, but then it went horribly wrong."
"But you're a quick study," he continues, "and you never make the same mistake twice, do you?" Omen mumbles and Fletcher continues, "Well, this is a new experience for you. You've never been Warlock-hunting, especially not while alone."
Omen's throat feels tight. "The Cleavers are here. You're here."
"The Cleavers aren't your pals, and I'm on-call; that's different." Fletcher grins. "Hey. Don't make the same mistakes twice. Keep your head up for threats because you are your own best friend out here. Don't get bogged down in trying to get people to like you. These guys don't like anything as a standard rule."
Omen smiles and then winces. "Someone told you about the outburst, didn't they?"
"Oh yes - the Cleaver himself is ranting about you to all who will listen. He's arranging for his re-training course via the global link as we speak," Fletcher tries not to laugh, fails, snorts instead. "You broke a Cleaver, Omen."
Omen's face is glowing. "I didn't break anything. He was probably already teetering on the edge of losing it."
"Of course," Fletcher smiles. He checks his watch and then groans. "Right then. Call me when you need me - I'll check in around midnight local time if I don't hear from you beforehand."
Omen smiles, nods, and then Fletcher is gone. Omen swallows down his nerves; the Cleavers aren't here for friends, and neither is Omen. He squares his shoulders, gets out of the truck, and goes to investigate by himself.
They leave the truck along a service road in Lorne and walk through the scraggly edge of the coastal reserve. The drag marks fade in and out, but they manage to find the bodies around sundown. The corpses are still stinking in spite of the sun-fried skin and scavenger-cleaned innards. Omen turns away from the scene before he vomits, leaving it to the Cleavers.
Omen walks far enough so that he can't smell the remains. He saw enough - the bodies torn to pieces, claw-shorn faces, slashed throats. Drained blood.
Vampires. How is it always bloody vampires in Australia?
One of the couples had tried to run, hand-in-hand. Omen knows this because when they were cut down, the redheaded woman's arm severed from her frame; her dark-haired wife died while latched to her bodyless fingers.
The guide and her protegee must have been the first two killed - their blood-soaked clothing proudly displays their names under the tour company's logo.
The sometimes-father of two tried to climb a tree and lost a leg for the effort, and then most of his features.
The other couple, the overweight ones, aren't here.
Omen is exhausted - he wants nothing more than to turn around and go back to civilisation. He wants a scalding shower, and then dinner, and then a long bath. Maybe a spot of television.
He pulls his phone from his pocket. 1711 hours local time. The magic-boosted device has service, but just barely. Omen sighs, checks his Whispering account, and then the group calendar. Never will be in America tomorrow with -- oh dear God, does that say what he thinks it does?
He clicks on the entry, pulling up the full details. Sure enough - Never's travelling companion is Billy-Ray Sanguine. The same Billy-Ray Sanguine that helped kidnap and blind Alice.
Never is stuck with a psychopath.
Omen makes a mental note to yell at Fletcher, and then tell Fletcher to relay the yelling to Valkyrie.
Omen moves around a copse of trees to have a leak but stops before he can unzip his fly. He blinks and then freezes. "Oh. Hullo."
The woman stares at him, her face a blank. "I am Terra. You are Omen Darkly."
She doesn't raise an eyebrow at his questioning tone. She doesn't do anything. And then she says, "I am one of the Warlocks you're seeking."
"I kind of, um. I kind of figured that, yes."
"And you are here looking into the sigils." When Omen doesn't answer, she continues, "The sigils on the vampires."
"I -- well, yes. And the missing backpackers, but it kind of looks like they're just vampire victims, so..." he trails off, realises he's still holding his zip like he's going to go ahead with the piss. He lets go of it, settling his arms into something he hopes looks like confidence.
Terra watches him for a moment. "They arrive en masse, trying to cross into Tasmania. Many of them are feral, so they collect bodies to try floating - as far as I know, it never works. The smart ones, the ones who still remember some humanity, use a human face to fly or take boats. Those are the dangerous ones."
"Your assistance this past month has been most helpful. You had no idea what you were doing, of course, but you still culled their numbers before they could reach us. For that, we are grateful."
"Oh," Omen blinks. He's heard a lot of things about Warlocks - mostly that they went extinct after Mevolent's purge. And, of course, the folktales passed around at bedtime. They were beasts, or so he was told. They ate their young and devoured the souls of anyone who set foot near their home.
"I kind of thought you might eat me," he admits, and then realises that this is not the best way to form a friendship.
The woman tilts her head, regards him. "I prefer my meals to put up a fight." She nods past him. "Tell your murderers to stand down - my brother and I will assist you from here."
"I don't think that's wise."
"It is your only choice if you wish to see the thing that's calling them here."
"The...what is it?" Omen quickly asks.
"A rift between realities - closed but not sealed. It's calling to those with these markings," she murmurs. She raises her shirt a bit, and Omen catches sight of a matching sigil carved into her abdomen. "The tear is strengthening, Arbiter, and we have little control over it now."
Omen doesn't know how to react, so he merely nods dumbly. "Sure. Yeah. Makes sense."
Terra stares; Omen doesn't move. "Are you going to tell the others?" she asks finally.
"Ah, yes, I mean...I still need to pee, so..."
Terra sets her jaw - she has a very firm, strong jaw. "My brother and I will wait in Strathgordon - meet us tomorrow morning outside of town."
"Outside of...wait, I need more than that."
"Strathgordon in Tasmania - southwest on Gordon River Road," she sighs as if she's speaking to a child. "Do you have that?"
"Strathgordon, go southwest on Gordon River Road."
She doesn't nod, doesn't confirm - she leaves. She's gone almost as quietly and quickly as she appeared. Omen waits, ensures she isn't skulking nearby, wonders why he cares, and then unzips his trousers.
Chapter 25: A New Purpose
Chapter Twenty-Five, in which Eliza decides to live again.
Eliza goes to China; China - as expected - says very little.
"Elder Bespoke passed while helping the Arbiters last month," China murmurs in that soft, lovely voice of hers. "He died quite bravely, I am told. I believe we sent a letter to everyone - did you not receive it? Well, in any event," she continues as if she hadn't asked a question, "I am a little bogged down with this bank concept-"
"Bank?" Eliza repeats.
China's smile gets slightly darker. "Of course, dear Eliza. If we want to be truly self-sufficient, if we want to be a real power, then we need our citizens putting into the city, not the mortal banks. Who better to look after the finances of our citizens? Us, or JP Morgan?"
Eliza doesn't let the woman take her attention away from the matter at hand. "What mission were they on?"
"Elder Bespoke and his skeleton friend. What was so important that the Elder had to assist him?"
China looks perplexed, but Eliza knows better. "My dear, I'm not sure what you mean? It was nothing of import. You know how Ghastly was - always annoyed to be behind a desk, always wanting the adventure."
Eliza isn't sure what Ghastly Bespoke China refers to - the one Eliza saw had no passion for sitting behind a desk, no, but he also didn't want a violent life. He was a tailor, for Gods' sake.
"You aren't telling me everything, China."
"I am always hiding things," China smiles sweetly. "Even so, Elder Scorn...there is nothing to tell here. Was that all? Or did you have suggestions for our next council member? I can't promise that I'll accept the suggestions, but you can give them regardless."
Eliza nods, a slight dip, and then turns. She says nothing as she sweeps through the corridors and into her private chambers deep underground amid the remnants of the old Sanctuary.
If Ghastly Bespoke died last month and nothing was said about it other than 'untimely passing,' then something had to be amiss. Abyssinia? Eliza doesn't know why Abyssinia would want anything to do with Bespoke, but she has some idea about Skulduggery. They were lovers, after all. It was before he disappeared - at the time, Eliza assumed Abyssinia killed him and took up with Vile for some extra spice - but the skeleton is still alive, still tormenting people just like his silver-haired ex.
"Why do none of us stay dead?" she asks the unresponsive stone walls. She goes to the landline phone; it's the only device that Eliza knows China hasn't tampered with or tapped.
She dials and waits.
Gruesome Krav answers on the fourth ring.
"I suppose there are ways to move against China Sorrows that don't involve immediate death," she murmurs, waiting. Krav's breath is a bit louder now - excited. "For example, we can bring up some old memories."
"Hard to believe she's Supreme Mage...it might not last if some of these things get mentioned in polite company."
"Impolite company, even," Eliza wistfully says. She's feeling better than she has in a year. Refreshed. Rejuvenated. She opens one of the drawers on her desk, fingers sliding around the key to her shackles. She undoes them, her wrists suddenly unburdened, suddenly light. "We have many things to choose from."
Krav laughs; it sends a chill down Eliza's spine.
Chapter 26: Hell's Heir
Chapter Twenty-Six, in which Dusk meets Alice.
Dusk comes to with his hands shackled, his feet tied with bungee cords, and trussed to a kitchen chair. He's in the middle of the living room; Alice and the Reflection sit across from him on the couch, murmuring. They notice that he's awake before he can hear anything of import.
Alice smiles at him. "Sorry about that - Stephanie got a little carried away."
"Not really," the Reflection replies. "I wasn't about to give him a chance to slit your throat. Or mine, for that matter. I'm not sure what would happen if I got killed. Would I reboot?" it considers the question. "Let's not find out."
"Anyway," Alice interrupts their conversation, remembering herself. "Dusk. It's nice to finally meet you, though I do wish it was under better circumstances. I don't really like getting kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip - it's happened once already, and I'm not about to let it happen again."
Dusk narrows his eyes against the light - he's hoping it looks like he's glowering at her. "What is your point?"
"My point," she continues, leaning forward a bit, "is that I know why you're here, and I know why you want to talk to my sister. I get it - I really do. I think your ideas are good and that Valkyrie might think so, too - at least good enough to talk to China on your behalf. I'm just not too keen on you kidnapping me and then losing your life. And then your family would lose their lives-"
"I have no family."
"You have your vampire brothers and sisters. They're not close to your heart, of course, but vampires protect and avenge their own."
"As you say - and yet you threaten them."
"You threatened them the moment you decided to come here. If you succeeded in taking me, Valkyrie and Skulduggery wouldn't stop at you."
"What. Is. Your. Point?" he bites out.
Alice takes a little breath. "I sort of get why you wanted to kill Valkyrie; it's stupid and childish, but I get it. Caelan killed your lover, then Valkyrie took Caelan before you could. Nevermind that it was in self-defence, that Caelan was about to rip her throat out. Nevermind that you kind of liked her in the beginning. Nevermind all of that. If you ignore the facts then, yes, your revenge plot makes sense."
Dusk waits - what else can he do? If he hadn't taken his serum, he could have broken free in a heartbeat. If he hadn't taken his serum, he wouldn't be lashed to a goddamn chair.
"Why I chose to have Stephanie tie you up so we could talk instead of asking her to kill you," Alice continues, "is because I know you don't want to hurt Valkyrie. Not really."
"I want nothing more."
"But that's not true. You want peace for your people, protection, a purpose - you want what Hrishi wanted."
"Don't say his name," Dusk hisses.
"Do you remember how much Hrishi loved walking through the markets? How he'd buy flowers from the girl on the corner of your street? How he'd hand them out to people passing under your flat?"
"You entered my mind!" Dusk feels panic rise within him. She took his memories. She took them and sorted through them. She looked for the things that would hurt him worse than the Reflection's stick.
"I did, and I'm really sorry about that," Alice says; she sounds sincere. "I don't like it - I usually wear gloves just so I don't accidentally do it. But I needed to make sure you would listen to reason."
"And?" he asks.
"What I found most telling is that you let Valkyrie go in the woods the other night. She thought you could have killed her, but I know you could have. I felt it. You had her - and then you stumbled away."
"Her hell hound blinded me."
"Xena injured you, but not so bad as to make you run," Alice murmurs. "Not while you're in your other form. It was something stronger than your pain. Did she trigger your humanity? Did you think of Hrishi at that moment? How Caelan tossed him against a tree? Broke his bones? Tore-"
"Enough!" Dusk roars, closing his eyes to the memory sweeping up. Goddamn her.
"You didn't kill her. You came to your senses enough to realise that she might still listen to you - but only if you had a bargaining chip. Me. It wouldn't have worked - she would have killed you. But...she will listen to you when I ask her to."
When I ask her to. Dusk narrows his eyes at her again. "Why are you helping me?"
"Because we need your help, too," Alice says as if it's obvious. "Why else?"
"What help could I possibly give a child?"
"The Arbiters keep finding vampires in Australia, and they're all heading south toward the coast. They have sigils carved into them - according to our research, the sigil marks bodies as vessels for the Faceless Ones when they return."
"There is no point using us as hosts," Dusk interrupts. "We are no use to Gods."
"Perhaps vampires can host them for longer than a human can."
Dusk considers it and then growls, "Untie me, child. If you wish me to return to my cage and not destroy-"
"You already took serum or else you'd currently be vamping out," the Reflection says. "We gave you a second dose, as well, so we're fairly confident you won't be destroying anyone apart."
Alice hums confirmation. "And, if you decide to help us, we'll offer you as much serum as you need, for as long as you need."
Dusk narrows his eyes, thinks about denying it, and then realises it's a moot point. "You knew I would agree before I arrived?" he guesses.
"I did," Alice smiles. "Well, I knew it was the most likely result, but the future isn't set in stone."
"Untie me," he repeats.
Alice nods to the Reflection, and the Reflection stands. It releases his bindings, stepping back and reaching for the shock stick on its back. "Don't do anything stupid."
Dusk nods - and then Dusk lunges for Alice.
The Reflection swings the stick toward him, catches his elbow, but he gets his hands around Alice's throat. He presses down, squeezes, but falters when her fingers shove through his hair and press into his temples.
"Sorry," she gasps, and then things go dark.
dark it's so dark
"What are you doing?!" the reflection demands through the darkness voice thick slithering between drips of treacle
"Give me a seco nd!" alice snaps back she's panicking
why is she panicking why cant he move why is everything so goddamn heavy did his spine break it doesnt feel like his spine broke why cant he move if his spine isnt broken
"Alice, just let me kill him!"
"I can fix it!"
"Jesus Christ, he's convulsing!"
"Don't you think I can see that?!" alice shouts between a whispered mantra of "No, no, no."
her voice is so close yet so stifled it feels like theres a screen of cotton between her lips and his ear
And then, so vibrant, so loud: "Dusk? Are you dead-dead?"
Things begin to clear. He can feel her in his mind, can feel her everywhere. She's radiating heat - hot, thick red flames and smoke billowing in his mind, pushing back the shadows.
He can see her, engulfed in those flames. He doesn't want to move, but there's so much warmth radiating from her. More warmth than he's felt since Hrishi died. If he's honest, it's more warmth that he's felt since he died all that time ago.
"H-how are you here?"
"Dusk." It is undeniably Alice, but she is different. Her eyes are pits, deep, unfathomable darkness. When she walks, the fires move with her.
"What are you?" he asks, horrified, amazed.
She reaches out to him. "I'm going to fix you, okay?" Her voice is like a church bell to the believer - pure, ringing just for him - but her touch is hellfire itself.
He recoils - tries to recoil - but her hand follows, gripping his chin, pulling him into the frothing inferno around her majesty.
"Stephanie, whatever you do, don't let Valkyrie see this," he hears through a fog; Alice doesn't speak to him this time, though, and the words are forgotten as soon as they arrive.
Chapter 27: The Talk
Chapter Twenty-Seven, in which Valkyrie has a very personal conversation with Gordon.
Fun fact: I wrote this chapter after rabbit-holing my way through a series of valdug/anti-valdug rants. That drama led to my SO and I dying with giggles, so they suggested I write a chapter about Concerns™ over the pairing.
COVERING MY ASS: This is not at all to be shitty, it's all in good fun. Not that anyone who disagrees with the pairing made it this far into the series. (But if you did...welcome? Thanks for coming along for the ride? But also, like, y u here, bro? But also - you do you, you fine human being!😘)
Valkyrie decides to spend the morning with Gordon, finally setting up the voice-activated programs on his new computer. It isn't a complicated process, but she takes extra time just to enjoy her uncle's prattling.
"How did you meet Skulduggery?" she asks when he finishes retelling the tale of when he met China and swept her off of her feet.
Gordon chuckles, wandering through the room where he chooses to spend his lifeless life. "I wondered when you'd finally ask. A little narcissistic of you, if I'm honest - waiting all this time to get some backstory. One might think you lazy."
Valkyrie shrugs. "I'm hardly the first narcissist in this family." Before he can retort, she presses, "Are you going to answer me, or should I let you get on with making up stories about China?"
Gordon smiles and gives in. "I met Skulduggery completely by accident, as you might assume. He was playing cards in a pub near Glasgow - I was there for a book signing. Glasgow, I mean - I was at the pub for a drink. Anyway, I'd later find out that he was in Glasgow to meet with the Monster Hunters."
"So you, what? Just sat down at his table and started talking to him?" When Valkyrie thinks about it, it does sound like something Gordon would do; it's just a bit anti-climactic, she supposes.
"No, he was the one doing the talking. I sat at the bar, three sheets to the wind -- did I ever tell you that I used to be an alcoholic in my young days?"
"Only a million times."
"And that alcoholism runs in the family?"
"Gordon. You tell me constantly."
"When?" he asks, sounding surprised.
"Literally every time I mention needing a drink, every time Fletcher and I go out, and whenever you find my alcohol stashes. Then you nark to Skulduggery."
"That was once!"
"Only because I've stopped using the study as a refuge," she grumbles. And then she glances at the computer screen, hitting 'accept' on a tab that's been waiting for five minutes.
Gordon sobers. "How are you, Stephanie?"
"Fine - no more than three drinks a week for the past couple of months."
"I meant you. How are you?"
Valkyrie looks up again, a sombre grin coming to her lips. "I don't know. Tired. Cranky. Wanting to pretend nothing exists outside of this house." She clears her throat, taps the software key into the computer, and continues, "Can we go back to stories about Skulduggery? More interesting ones this time."
"Oh, I was hardly finished with that story. It happened like most pub interactions - Skulduggery said something, everyone laughed, and then everyone paid him more and more attention. A lot of them joined his game, lost their money. He kept buying rounds for everyone with the winnings."
"He was a pub favourite, I see."
"You have no idea. So I joined in, sat at his table. We talked, and we played cards. He bought me rounds, and we chatted about my books. Somewhere along the way, I decided to tell him one of your grandfather's old stories. He was interested - he asked questions, inquired about the family. Odd things, but I was drunk and didn't think much about them at the time."
"You have always loved being the centre of attention."
"It's the role I was born for, dear Stephanie. As I was saying - he left the pub before I did; he was very congenial, telling everyone goodnight. I figured I'd never see him again, but there he was - clockwork - every night for the entire week. He always called me over to his table; he'd tell me odd stories, and I'd tell him some of my own."
"When did you find out about him?" Valkyrie asks. She ignores the prompt on the computer, inviting her to continue with the installation wizard.
"The fourth night. His facade wasn't that great back then - nothing like now. He used to wear this massive scarf wound around his jaw and neck even through the summers. Quite a sight."
"And, close to the last call, his eyes began drifting off toward his jaw, disappearing into that massive scarf."
Valkyrie's eyes widen and then she snorts, covers her mouth, snorts again. "Oh, God."
"'Oh, God' indeed."
"What did he do?"
"He told me not to be alarmed, and that it happened very frequently."
"Then he got up to leave. I followed him outside - when he turned, I was looking at a bare skull. His facade gave out entirely, and I was...ill-prepared."
"You screamed, didn't you?"
"I did not!" He sounds offended.
"Did you faint?"
"Stephanie Edgley, I resent this line of inquiry."
Valkyrie keeps grinning, but she lets it go. "So, he told you everything?"
"Of course he did. He clicked his fingers and showed me flames, and I...I was thrilled. What I would have given to have magic. Granted, had I been magically inclined, I doubt I would have liked it very much. I was quite pleased with living on the outside of it, hearing the drama without participating directly."
Valkyrie turns her attention to the computer, does her job as the software operator. A question that's bothered her since she met Skulduggery swims through her mind. "Skulduggery took your gun - the one that used to be in that case."
"It was his originally; he gave it to me for safekeeping. He planned on 'becoming a better man', as he said."
Valkyrie's fingers stall on the keys. "He gave you the gun because he wanted to be less violent?"
"That is part of it, yes."
"And when you died, he took it back." The silence thickens between them. "Does that mean he gave up on bettering himself?"
"Or it means that he didn't want the house's 12-year-old heir shooting herself by accident."
Valkyrie snickers, but there's an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Wouldn't that be ironic? His would-be future partner taken out by his own gun before we even met?"
"You met at my funeral."
"Not really - he was there, but we didn't talk or anything."
"You did - he asked you if he could get you anything. You were here in the study, sitting at the desk, making a fine attempt at ruining my chair-arms with your anxious picking. God, the sound of it still haunts me."
Something wriggles in her memories - there's a hint of something like that, something familiar, but she can't recall it. That entire summer is a blur of faint colours and a neverending abyss in her chest. "I don't remember."
"Not surprising," Gordon murmurs. "The only reason I remember is that I, naturally, was trying to spy on the goings-on through the crack under the door."
Valkyrie frowns. "You were spying on me? I might have been crying! Overcome with crippling, embarrassing emotions!"
"You weren't, which was mildly upsetting."
Valkyrie's mind veers off into a direction that she doesn't want, but she can't stop her words. "It's kind of...weird, isn't it? That he knew about me when I was a kid, and now..." She shakes her head for lack of words. "And now we're us."
"Oh, it is bizarre," Gordon confirms. "I think finding out about you two was more startling than seeing someone's eyes float out of their sockets."
"Thanks," Valkyrie winces.
"I wasn't happy when I found out - I was even less pleased that I didn't find out from you. You two were together well before I was alerted. And while I wasn't pleased about it then, and it still unnerves me if I think about it too long-"
"Okay, nevermind, conversation over."
"-I trust you. I know you wouldn't get involved with him unless it meant something."
Valkyrie looks away, embarrassed. "Let's just...talk about something else."
"So, although the age difference is baffling - let alone him being a literal skeleton-"
"We're all skeletons," she tries without actual heat.
"-I know that you wouldn't put yourself through such an eyebrow-raising situation without believing it's right for you."
"At least we didn't start working together when Cassandra Pharos thought we would. Imagine how awkward that would have made this sordid affair."
"When did Cassandra Pharos first See you two working together?"
Valkyrie bites her lower lip, winces, and admits, "Right after your funeral."
Gordon looks horrified.
Valkyrie taps a bit into the computer, clicking to test the device. The words of the song playing through the room pick up on the microphone and begin spilling across the document.
"It's right for me, but I don't...I don't think it's right for him." Valkyrie glances up so that she doesn't see her words flowing across the screen. "Do you think I've ruined his 'good-person' progress?"
Gordon stays quiet for a moment, weighing his words. "He's happier now. He loves you."
Valkyrie licks her dry lips, reading between the lines. "That doesn't automatically mean that I make him better."
"No," Gordon admits. "I guess it doesn't."
Chapter 28: The Island
Chapter Twenty-Eight, in which Terra leads Omen and Fletcher to the rift.
If the Cleavers feel any hostility toward the Warlocks that guide them through the dense thicket of trees, Omen can't tell. Fletcher, on the other hand, is tense, wound tight, expecting a fight at any moment.
Omen hates this - not the Warlock part, but the walking part. The group travelled by truck for as far as they could, then switched to slender, home-hewn boats across Lake Pedder to a forest-covered island, and now they are walking through said-forest.
"How much longer?" Omen asks.
Terra doesn't bother glancing over her shoulder. "Three kilometres."
Omen stifles a groan but casts an imploring look at Fletcher.
Fletcher rolls his eyes and disappears - he flickers in and out of view, disappearing into the distance. It takes three minutes before Fletcher is back at Omen's side. "Alright," he says, looking slightly ill, "I went ahead until my head started buzzing and my magic went weird."
"Then you found the outskirts of our home," Terra informs him.
"Figured. So, I can get about...four of you at a time."
"Teleport. I can teleport us ahead."
Terra doesn't look pleased, but her brother nods his approval. Terra thinks it over a little longer before saying, "Fine."
Omen, Terra, her brother, and one Cleaver go first. They appear in a small clearing that sounds like a beehive. Omen's knees buckle, and he places his hands to his ears, grunting.
It stops quite suddenly; Omen gasps, trying to remember how to breathe. It was mere seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Terra and her brother are already moving ahead - the Cleaver follows as if he wasn't in agonising pain for a few moments.
The rest of them arrive one after another, and Fletcher takes Omen's elbow. "You alright?" he asks, sounding concerned. "It was bad, but you look like you just got stabbed."
Omen nods and stands on his own. "Let's...let's go."
It takes half a kilometre walking through dense underbrush to reach a small cave. The passage is narrow - so very narrow. Omen licks his lips, casting a furtive glance at Fletcher. "I'm not, um. I'm not great with tight spaces."
Fletcher raises his brow at him. "Okay...?"
"I just...I can't fit in there. How can anyone fit in there?"
Fletcher continues looking confused, but then asks, "Wait, what are you looking at?"
"That...the only opening into the cave."
"An illusion," Terra informs them. "We deactivated it, though, so you should be able to see through it."
"What? No, it's just a little space. Tiny. Like...maybe a small bear can get through, but-"
Fletcher grabs his arm and pushes Omen toward the rock. Omen falls through, letting out an unbecoming yelp as he hits the rough ground on the other side of the illusion.
"That deterrent must have scrambled something in your skull," Terra says, not sounding too concerned. "Come now."
Fletcher helps Omen up yet again; his concern is weightier this time. "Once we're where we need to be, I'm taking you to Grouse."
Omen shakes his head, thinks better of it, and then nods. "That's probably, ah." He pauses. "You mean you didn't see it? The illusion?"
"Not when we got that close," Fletcher replies.
"Huh," Omen mumbles to himself.
Another thing he would have missed. God, he's a rubbish Arbiter when he's on his own.
The cave opens up into an extensive underground housing system. It reminds Omen of a mix between a rabbit burrow and those old Pueblo things in Mexico or some such. Omen didn't do well in geography; he's honestly surprised that he was able to remember Pueblo. Or was it Pablo? Escobar? No, that was a person. Adobe? No, that can't be right - that's software.
He runs into Terra's back when she stops. She turns to him, not caring enough to narrow her eyes. "Step away," she says - Omen scurries back. She doesn't dwell on it; she glances through a cordoned-off tunnel. "Through here."
She moves on; her brother breaks free of the group, heading toward what appears to be a bustling market. Omen, Fletcher, and the Cleavers walk single-file, coming to the other end of the cavern much sooner than Omen expects.
"How many of you live here?" Fletcher asks, glancing at the cubicle-like openings in the stone walls.
"A little shy of one-hundred," Terra replies evenly. "Our numbers fall each year."
"There are rumours about a small group in Africa," Omen offers, not sure if it helps at all. "But no one has been able to verify it, so we figured it was just a local urban legend."
If Terra has an opinion, she doesn't voice it.
They continue in silence until the cavern opens into a hidden oasis, lush vegetation and wiry grass scattering through a gleam of sunlight.
Omen feels it - feels the anxious energy in the air, the splitting, confusing, pulsing feeling that echoed through Aranmore Farm. "Oh no," Omen whispers, suddenly realising why Aranmore caused such problems for them.
"A rift," Fletcher says as if he has the same thought. "There's one in Ireland, too."
"Of course there is," Terra says as if he's daft. "There is a fracture in each of the cradles of magic. We've guarded them, generation to generation, for as long as we can remember."
"If one were to open this rift - any of these rifts - we have no idea what would come through the portal," she replies. "Of course we guard them."
"All except Ireland?"
Terra purses her lips, her eyes narrow, and Omen steps back. He nearly runs into Fletcher, but the Teleporter puts up a hand to steady his back and stop him from making a bigger fool of himself.
"So you can't open it because who knows if something's on the other side," Fletcher begins, speaking slowly, trying to understand it all. "And you don't know how to seal it for good. So you guard it. Indefinitely."
Terra inclines her head in acknowledgement.
Omen lets out a slow breath and squares his shoulders, trying to mimic Valkyrie's relaxed but commanding posture. "How long have the vampires been trying to get here?"
"A year, though the intensity has grown recently," Terra replies. "In Africa, about six months. I have no idea about Ireland - as you say, we were driven out centuries ago."
"The fissure - or whatever it is - in Ireland feels like this."
"Less constant," Fletcher adds. "But similar."
Terra's expression morphs and returns to placidity before Omen can understand it. "I see."
"How long has it been acting out do you think?"
"I could not tell you."
"But if it's stronger here, then that means we have more time than you, right?"
"Probably," she replies. "Or it means that whatever is on the other side is massing at our borders more than yours."
"Cool," Omen nods. "Cool cool cool. Okay, so." He stops, swallows, looks at Fletcher, and then breathes, "Cool."
He steps away from the group and calls Valkyrie.
"How is Australia?" she immediately asks. She sounds like she's driving; the song on the radio is tinny across the speaker. "Did you find the source?"
"Yeah, we're standing next to a rift between dimensions," Omen sighs. "Whatever's on the other side of it is calling the vampires here."
Valkyrie is quiet for a moment. There's a brush of static, and then Valkyrie's voice, far-off, says, "Have a good day." A car door slams on her end, and then she's back. The radio turns off, and Valkyrie's voice is suddenly sombre. "They are marked to host the Faceless Ones."
Omen swallows; his throat is so thick. "You, um. You think-" he breaks himself off. "The rift here, it, ah. It feels like Aranmore. The pulsing. This one's more consistent, though, so we might have more time in Ireland."
"More time or not, if it's the Faceless Ones, only one breach is needed." Valkyrie is very quiet for a very long time. Finally, "I just dropped Alice off at school - I'll go see China, and we'll figure something out. Come home and meet me at the house; I'll try to reach Skulduggery."
"Right," Omen says. "Right, we'll...we'll see you there." The line goes dead in his hand. Omen looks at Fletcher and offers him an awkward smile. "Arbiter meeting at Grimwood."
"I'm not an Arbiter," Fletcher protests weakly. He practically is, even if not in title.
Terra sighs and says, "We are raising our barrier again; your Cleavers are welcome to stay here while you're away. As for you - call me before you pop back in unless you want your minds shredded."
"We can't just leave the Cleavers here," Fletcher harshly tries to whisper.
Terra snorts as if he said something amusing. "If this rift opens - and I suspect it will - then we need as many able bodies as we can get. No harm will come to them so long as they do not act against us."
Fletcher bites his tongue and raises an eyebrow at Omen. Waiting for orders. Omen's orders. Omen pales and flicks through his phone. "The Cleavers stay. Terra, what's your number?"
Chapter 29: Unexpected Guest
Chapter Twenty-Nine, in which Carol surprises Valkyrie at Grimwood.
Valkyrie's brain buzzes while she drives home. She used to have a cigarette before each meeting with China - recently, she's taken up the habit of chain-smoking after meeting with the Supreme Mage.
Valkyrie's on cigarette number five when she pulls through the Grimwood gate. She slams the car to a halt when she sees a strange vehicle in the drive. "Shit," she whispers to herself, smashing her cigarette out and reaching for the body spray in her glove compartment. It's cheap and strong-smelling, perfect for covering cigarette smoke. She spritzes above her hair and shoulders, then sprays the passenger side for good measure.
She keeps the window down, hopefully airing out the noxious scent of overpowering vanilla. She forces a smile when Carol comes out to stand beside her car, needlessly waving.
"I was in the area," Carol lies because it can only be a lie. "I thought I'd just pop in."
"So I see," Valkyrie calls, shutting off the car and getting out. She stands still for a moment, letting the wind further air her out, and then goes to Carol. "What's up?"
"Oh, I just thought I'd come in and see your gym," she says even though she's in a knee-length skirt and kitten heels.
"Sure," Valkyrie says with a lopsided grin she hopes looks happier than pained. "Hold on, let me just make sure the place is clean-"
"Oh, that's fine, really, I don't mind a mess-"
But Valkyrie is moving, tossing the door open, disappearing on the other side. "Guys?" she calls, praying to God that they're here and that they don't teleport into her home while Carol stands nearby.
"Hey!" she hears a harsh whisper from the living room. Fletcher peeks around the corner. "There's some weird girl on your porch. She keeps practising what she's going to say to you, and it's weird."
"I obviously know that; I just walked past her," Valkyrie replies, stepping closer. "She's going to come in for a bit, so I need you guys to act like normal people while she's here. Keep Gordon out of sight -- watch for Skulduggery, too; for the love of God, please make sure he's wearing a facade when he shows up." She pauses. "A hot one."
"Oh, dear God," Fletcher groans.
Omen, looking awkward, heads toward the kitchen. "I'm, um. I'm going to make a sandwich."
"Me too," Fletcher nods. "Well, he'll make the sandwiches and I'll watch."
Valkyrie shoos them away and returns to the door, swinging it open with the same forced smile. "Sorry, I have a couple of friends staying over for the week - had to make sure they weren't wandering around naked."
"Oh!" Carol chirps, looking intrigued. "Can I meet them? You always have the strangest friends. Like Gordon, I suppose. Mum and Dad used to rant about his friends."
"Gordon and I like collecting oddities," she replies as truthfully as she can. "Come on in. Omen's making lunch - do you want a sandwich?"
"Omen?" Carol repeats.
"Yep - a lot of my friends had hippie parents." They cross into the kitchen where Fletcher is at the bar, flipping through a magazine. Omen is very focused on his condiment choices. "Omen, Fletch, this is my cousin Carol. Carol - Omen and Fletcher."
Carol looks a bit pale, and then she seems extremely flushed. "Oh. Hi there."
"Hey," Fletcher grins.
Valkyrie rolls her eyes at him and takes Carol's arm. "I'll show you around the gym."
Carol looks hesitant to leave the kitchen now that she knows Fletcher exists. Valkyrie manages to bring her along, though, and once they're in the gym, the door closed, Carol looks sheepish.
"I'm not here to look at the gym."
"Yeah, I figured. What's up?"
Carol bites her lower lip and looks away from Valkyrie. "I know we don't really know each other or anything, but you were nice to me at the kilo, and I just thought. I thought that maybe I could talk to you. About what's going on."
Valkyrie sits on the weight bench. "Go for it."
Carol shifts in her shoes. "I think Crystal is living a double life."
"A double life?" Valkyrie repeats.
"She's working all the time - and really weird hours. She barely talks to any of us, but I'll walk into a room, and she'll be on the phone whispering to someone. She'll hang up and immediately pretend like she wasn't just whisper-shouting at someone."
Valkyrie shakes her head a little. "I don't know. She just got out of a relationship. Maybe she's talking to a therapist? Or maybe she's talking to her ex? It happens," she says quickly. "Hell, Tanith and I had a blow-up toward the end, but that didn't stop us from slipping up here and there. It's really hard to cut someone off when you've been together for a while."
Carol swallows and nods, but she doesn't seem convinced. "Yeah. Yeah, I know, I just. I want my sister back, I guess." She shakes her head and then forces a smile. "So, I actually have something more fun to talk to you about."
Valkyrie doesn't like the sound of this, but she bites. "Oh?"
"Abby Daye's birthday party is coming up." Valkyrie's heart stops. "She wants you to be there."
Valkyrie isn't sure if she's ever gone stiller in her life. She has, she remembers - seeing Abyssinia with her little sister, seeing Abyssinia use Alice's true name against her. But this is its own kind of torture. "I...I'm sorry?"
Carol bites her lower lip. "I know, I know, she said some awful stuff about you back then, but she and I were talking last night-"
"Since when are you friends with Abby Daye?"
"Since last year when we went thirds on her fiance's flat," Carol murmurs, seeming confused. "I thought you'd be happy."
"I'd be happy?" Valkyrie repeats. Her throat is dry; she desperately wants water.
"Well, yeah. After all of that stuff she said? You turning into a demon and attacking her? She wants to apologise. I thought it'd be, like, closure or something."
Closure does sound nice. But. "I'll...I'll think about it," Valkyrie nods, looking at the mat beneath Carol's feet. "Sure, yeah. I'll maybe come."
Carol's smile splits her face. "Good! I'll send you the details once I solidify them with Abby." Carol glances toward the door, and then her voice drops slightly. "So, that guy out there - Fletcher. How old is he?"
"Ah...29? 30? Somewhere in there."
"And is he...?"
Valkyrie winces. "Yes, he's single."
"Really?" Carol asks, looking stunned. "He's actually...single?"
"As far as I know - I don't really ask him about that stuff."
Carol's face flushes. "You're not exes, are you?"
Valkyrie can't hide her horror. "No! God, no. He's an idiot."
Carol squares her shoulders a little. "I think I'd like a sandwich."
Valkyrie lets out a short chuckle and gets to her feet, walking her cousin back to the kitchen.
Chapter 30: Sauvegarde
Chapter Thirty, in which Leviathan finds his new purpose.
When Melancholia is sure no one else is in the hallway, she leaves her room and locks it behind her. The latch won't hold against someone intent on entering, but it can at least keep the monster inside the room away from her for a while.
When she enters the basement, Leviathan comes to her, looking alarmed. "Where is Vaurien?"
"In my room. I can't handle him anymore. He's possibly the most annoying person I've ever met. Did I mention that he introduced himself as the Zombie King? And the smell of him -- Leviathan, I trust your judgement, but that thing is..." she shudders. "It's revolting."
He doesn't disagree, but he does murmur, "Please bring him with you at all times. If something happens to you..."
Melancholia looks away from him, clearing her throat to keep herself from melting under his gaze. "Are you finished with Gerald?"
Leviathan's smile is boyish. "I believe so. Gerald?" he calls.
The man walks forward; what begins as a timid shuffle becomes almost gleeful. "You are Melancholia!" he proclaims.
"You are also my master."
Melancholia glances at Leviathan, sceptical. "He is a zombie?"
"Yes - he died, and then I brought back with a donated soul and a sliver of my own." He looks at Gerald in the way a proud parent might.
Melancholia walks around the man, analysing. "He won't degenerate?"
"Can you bring Scapegrace back to some semblance of normalcy?"
Leviathan looks hesitant. "Perhaps. I'm no miracle worker-" and then he pauses, considers the ceiling for a moment. "Unless I am. Unless I can fragment pieces of my power, little slivers, and recreate anything." He looks manic at the prospect, at the thought of what he can learn. "I could make an army of the undead - regenerating, never falling..."
"It's impossible," he whispers, voice speeding up. His accent is almost too strong to understand now. "It's impossible, but maybe it isn't. Gerald here should be impossible. No one should be able to do this - no one. But I can; I can make an army for us. Eternal protection."
"From who?" Melancholia breathes, caught up in his excitement. "The Necromancers?"
"From them," he agrees. "From everyone. We can be whoever we wish. We can reshape the Temples. We can find the truth about life, Melancholia. You and me."
Melancholia can't help the smile, the adoration. This...this is her Death Bringer; Not the Death Bringer who Wreath wants, not who Virulent wants. This. Him.
Melancholia grabs the front of Leviathan's robes and pulls him down to her, pressing her lips to his.
Chapter 31: Prototype
Chapter Thirty-One, in which China has a surprise - and an answer - for the Arbiters.
Tipstaff smiles when he sees Valkyrie and her entourage. "Arbiters; Mr Renn," he greets. "The Supreme Mage would like to see you in the medical wing. If you'll follow me?"
"Is she alright?" Omen asks.
"She is in superb health," Tipstaff assures him, and then quickly leads them through the halls in his expensive, luxurious shoes.
China Sorrows waits for them at the door to the medical wing, her smile effortless. "Valkyrie," she greets, ignoring Omen and Fletcher. She strides forward, pushing Valkyrie's hair over her shoulders. "You have such a lovely face; I'll never understand why you let your hair hide it."
"Why are you trying to butter me up?" Valkyrie asks, immediately on guard.
China's smile widens. "I've been found out. Is Skulduggery coming?"
"No. I haven't been able to reach him."
"Good," China says, surprising Valkyrie. The most beautiful woman in the world spreads her fingers, murmuring, "I have a plan for our rift issues. There is a prototype; we think it can open - and then properly close - a portal, shutting off the tear."
Valkyrie's brows raise. "It's that simple?"
"It hasn't been tested," China continues. "However, its creator seems to think it is scientifically and magically sound."
"Its creator?" Fletcher repeats.
China takes a moment. "Valkyrie, you will no doubt have feelings about this development-" Valkyrie winces; it's never good when prefaced like that, "-but I don't doubt that you're enough of a professional to keep your temper."
Valkyrie's shoulder blades bunch together. "I already hate this."
"We're all on the same side now," China reminds her; China sweeps the door open, and they all pass through. When they're securely inside, the door closed, China crosses to the first surgical suite and taps on the glass.
The device's creator ducks through the doorway and Valkyrie feels the sudden, overwhelming urge to hit something.
Dr Nye grins with its broken, thread-filled mouth. "Well then," it rattles in its too-high, breathy voice, "it is always nice to see you, Ms Cain."
"China, no," Valkyrie says, but China waves her off.
"Nye has been working here for months, and I have had no complaints or issues."
"He's been -- Jesus," Valkyrie groans, turning, running a hand over her face. She makes quite the show of staring at the ceiling, steadying her breathing, and then resuming her place. "Tell me the plan."
"It is quite simple," Dr Nye trills. "My device, in theory, will open the breach, creating a portal. If something has found our frequency, if you will, and is attempting to break through, it will have five seconds to do so. Your job will be to keep whatever is in there from getting out here."
"That's not going to happen," Omen interjects. "We think they're the Faceless Ones."
Nye doesn't look concerned. "And?"
"And...we don't have any God killers," Omen presses.
"There aren't any God killers," Fletcher mumbles. "Someone would have found something by now."
"I did not say you need to kill it," Nye continues, becoming agitated at the speed of things. "Merely keep it from crossing."
"Five seconds isn't very long," Omen concedes, chewing his lower lip. "I mean, I'm sure we could figure something out. If all of us attack it, set up some charms and wards, all of that...then we should be able to buy ourselves five seconds."
"In theory," Valkyrie mumbles. "How sure are you that this device will work?"
"Ninety-seven point oh-eight per cent," Nye replies. "Please consider, Arbiters - if the device can open the rift, then it can also close it. If it cannot open the rift, then I will make adjustments, and we will try again. There is no harm in a false-start."
Its voice is grating through Valkyrie's skull. "Fine," she says.
"I have more good news," China says, and this time she actually looks pleased. "A squad of Cleavers finished rounding up the prisoners who escaped from Hammer Lane Gaol. You remember that breakout, yes?"
Valkyrie winces. "Yeah, I remember something about that."
"If you will remember, one of those convicts was a shunter."
Fletcher rights himself, suddenly interested. "You re-captured Nadir? How?"
"Wait," Valkyrie interrupts. "If we have Nadir, we can open the rift somewhere else, right? A different frequency? Maybe one of those spots that Nadir used to drop his bodies?"
China's smile is blinding, brilliant, and it makes Valkyrie's heart skip a beat. "Precisely. Faceless Ones or not, if all goes well, they are not getting to us."
"Oh thank God," Omen sighs, sounding as relieved as Valkyrie feels. "I know I acted like I wasn't scared about that-"
"You did?" Fletcher asks. "You sounded pretty freaked."
Omen looks slightly hurt. "I faked it so well."
"You did not," Valkyrie apologetically smiles. "You really, really did not."
Omen's eyes go to Nye, pass by it, and then implore China. China looks on, unimpressed. "Do you all ever stop talking?" she asks.
"Not really," Valkyrie admits. "It's part of our charm."
China raises a brow but lets it go. "Find Skulduggery - I want him there when it happens." And then she's sweeping away in her elegant ensemble, leaving the three in silence while Nye scuttles into another room.
Chapter 32: The Whispering (II)
Chapter Thirty-Two, in which the group makes plans.
Has anyone heard from Skulduggery? I can't reach him
Not since a few days ago when he posted
Why, what's happening?
Tasmania. We have a device that might be able to open the rift
And also Dr Nye is a part of this now, so that's really fun
Can I kill it once we're finished?
You can try, but it's evidently bringing a bodyguard
Well I'll kill them, too
When do we leave?
Once we can find Skulduggery
Does no one know where he is?
The last I heard, it was Germany
But that was three days ago
Tanith, when are you back?
Handing the creeps off to the Sanctuary as we speak
So much paperwork. Why do Arbiters need to do paperwork?
I know, right
Never, how are you and Sanguine getting on?
I've threatened him enough that he stays quiet for the most part
I haven't seen Melancholia or Leviathan
And there doesn't seem to be anything strange happening
Except, you know...all the weirdos skulkingaround
Do you ever wonder why Necromancers skulk all the time?
I have some thoughts
Keep an eye out
And Tan, get here when you can
Omen, you too
Fletch, we'll need you to ferry people in and out
Other than that, we're playing fast and loose
Wow, big words
I could show you something else big
THAT'S MORE THAN ENOUGH
You were my ~teacher~
Well I wasn't talking to you
Now I have a third name added to my kill list
I love our banter
The 'will they won't they' stuff
You definitely will not
Okay, so, not to interrupt whatever this is...
But I'm on my way to Grimwood
Do I need to bring anything?
And bring Skulduggery if you happen upon him somewhere along the way
I'm going to keep trying his mobile, but we might need to accept we're doing this on our own if he doesn't show up in the next couple of days
We'll be fine without him
I'd rather not find out of that's true
I have a class, but I'll be by in a couple of hours
If you all would let me get back to this stupid report, I'd get there sooner
At this rate, I'll be lucky if I make it out of this office in a year
Anything else pressing, or can we let Tanith get back to work and Omen get back to getting lunch?
What do you want for lunch?
It's a trap
That is a massive trap
Okay, I'm ignoring you all now
Call me if you need something xx
Wait, what do I get then?
Tanith, what do I get her?
You've known me a year and you can't figure something out?
Well I thought I could, and then Tanith got in my head
I'm off to a shower, so I'm ignoring you all
Call me if you need something
Sorry, Omen. I guess today is your day to shine or die
No pressure, bud
I hate you
Be safe with the creep, though
Weirdly, he's scared of being shocked into submission, so I'm sure it will be fine
It sounds like things have been happening
Where are you?
Fletcher, I assume you can pick me up when you finish your class?
Hell yes I can
One of my favourite restaurants is in Paternoster
I'm a little upset that I can't try whatever food you're talking about
I can bring you some
You are the best
Alright, my turn to ignore all of you
Call me blah-blah you know the deal
I'm not ignoring you all, but I do need to figure out what to get Val for lunch, so
That sounds like a trap.
Food is Valkyrie's sole passion in this world.
That isn't making me feel any less anxious
What do I get her?
She never says no to pizza
We had pizza last night
She never says no to pizza, Omen. Take this as the blessing it is.
She can get cranky if she's presented with something she doesn't want.
She glared for ten minutes when I brought salads for dinner last week
Exactly. Not to ignore you all, but I am ignoring you all now.
Same. Omen, don't fuck this up
You're all so mean
Chapter 33: A Little Fun
Chapter Thirty-Three. The Night Before.
When Fletcher and Skulduggery arrive at Grimwood, the house is alight with music. Usually this development means Alice is around - in the kitchen bobbing her head while she does her homework, dancing with Valkyrie, or roughhousing with Xena in the living room. Instead, they round the corner to find the great room's lamps dimmed with scarves - as well as Valkyrie and Tanith bouncing together, shouting the lyrics to the song.
Omen, on the other hand, looks slightly uncomfortable. He shuffles half-heartedly, forcing an awkward smile that looks painful. "Skulduggery!" he calls, relieved, coming over.
Fletcher moves toward the women; before Valkyrie can so much as greet Skulduggery, Fletcher grabs her hand and spins her around, pulling her back into a dance.
"Having a nice time?" Skulduggery asks. He knows the answer - the group doesn't see one another enough. When they do, when they can all finally come together to have some fun, it's for one of two reasons.
They are coming home from an altercation where they - somehow - didn't die, or they are heading into one where they might.
"Yeah, it's been good. Lots of dancing, though. Cardio and I aren't really on the best terms right now. But yeah, it's cool."
"That's good to hear. This song, however, is not."
"Yeah," Omen clumsily laughs, running a hand over the back of his neck. "Valkyrie's played it three times in a row."
"Have they been bouncing the entire time?"
"Not the entire time. Sometimes they shimmy." Skulduggery says nothing to that, which only makes Omen's face flame. "Not that -- oh God, not that I'm watching Valkyrie dance or anything. I mean -- she's not-"
"Omen, you are making a fool of yourself," Skulduggery alerts him.
Another uncomfortable chuckle. "Ah. Sorry. I'm ah...going to get something to drink. Do you want anything?" A pause, then a wince. "Sorry, no, you don't... I'm going to go now." He turns and quickly walks out, the back of his neck an alarming crimson.
The song changes - Skulduggery isn't a fan of this one, either, but the new vocals are oddly hypnotic. So are Valkyrie's eyes when she breaks free from Fletcher, gliding into Skulduggery's arms. "Hi there."
"Hello. You're looking flushed."
"I'm a bit warm," she admits; her chest rises and falls like it does when she's had a good warmup before sparring. She thrums like a livewire - a controlled, anxious energy that lights her eyes from behind. Slightly manic, tinged with her other side.
"Darquesse says hello," Skulduggery murmurs.
Valkyrie grins and steps closer, looping her arms around his cervical spine, smoothing across his collar. "She's having fun."
"Well, we shouldn't interrupt her fun," Skulduggery replies, his hands sliding to her waist, pulling her in closer. Their movements are slow, entirely at odds with the song, but Valkyrie doesn't seem to mind. She hums, but not to the song playing. It's a strange, wavering note that buzzes against his teeth when she kisses him.
Her little fingers slip under his collar, sliding between vertebrae, playfully caressing. Flirty. Seductive. A little flash of Darquesse peeks behind her corneas, blooms of whiteness.
Lord Vile stirs, and it nearly makes Skulduggery weak in the knees. "Valkyrie," he softly warns. "There are people present."
Valkyrie bites her lower lip. She's close to his height as it is, so when she goes up on her toes, her lips brush his cheekbone. She murmurs the lyrics against the bone.
He wishes he could feel her breath on his skull. He wishes he didn't need to rely on Vile for more complicated tactile sensations.
He wishes a lot of things, he supposes.
Valkyrie pulls herself free and gives him another grin. She turns on her heel, announcing, "I'm getting a drink! Who wants something?"
"I'll take a beer!" Tanith calls; she's begun to dance with a heavily-flushed Omen - much to Fletcher's dismay.
Valkyrie sidles into the kitchen; Skulduggery waits an acceptable amount of time, steeling himself for what is no-doubt a trap, and follows.
To his surprise, Valkyrie isn't waiting to pounce - she has a cap-less beer on the bar, and she is pouring a mixed drink for herself. She glances up, the barest of eye-flicks, and then murmurs, "It's only my second."
"I wasn't going to chastise you."
Valkyrie quirks a brow, recapping the bottle of whiskey and setting it aside. "You've thrown out hundreds of euros worth of my alcohol, skeleton."
"True. Even so, today isn't one of those days."
Valkyrie's smile falters a little. "You think tomorrow won't go to plan."
"I've been to war, Valkyrie - expecting anything can be deadly."
Valkyrie nods, grabbing the whiskey bottle and doubling the alcohol ratio. "In that case, I say we get wasted - those of us with innards - and then fuck."
"All of us?" he laughs, unable to help himself.
"I didn't mean that," she grins. "I mean, I didn't not mean that, but I'd rather not have Fletcher near me or Tanith if I'm honest." She thinks about it and then winces. " And I think Omen might be too young for me. He's practically a baby." Her cheeks guiltily flush; her eyes don't meet Skulduggery's gaze. She clears her throat. "I just meant...he's our mentee-" and then her blush overtakes her face.
"I am getting the impression that something is bothering you. Something involving age?"
Valkyrie remains frozen for a few moments and then shakes her head. "No, I'm not bothered. Gordon just said something about it - us. Got in my head, I guess. I'm not bothered, though. Just...something. I don't know."
"Hellooo?" Tanith's voice comes from the hallway. "Can I come in or will I regret it immediately?"
"We're just talking!" Valkyrie replies, relieved at Tanith's interruption.
Tanith comes in, looking wary, and then relaxes. "You were taking forever, so we flipped a coin to see who would investigate. Omen claimed he already walked in on you two, so he got to sit out of this one."
"We were dressed then, too," Valkyrie complains. "You act like we're constantly fucking. You and I fucked way more." And then she flushes again, gulping at her drink.
Skulduggery tilts his head; Tanith's grin widens. If Skulduggery didn't know better, he'd think her chest puffed a bit. "Well, that was too much information, but I'll take the ego-stroke." Tanith moves toward the counter; Valkyrie tenses slightly, but Tanith merely grabs her beer. "Be good," she warns them, grins at Valkyrie again, and then departs.
"That was interesting," Skulduggery begins. He really tries to keep the smile from his voice, but it is a losing battle.
"Don't start," Valkyrie grumbles.
"We were just talking about an orgy-"
There's the flush again. "Jesus, Skulduggery."
"-and you nixed two of the three people in the living room."
Valkyrie closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. "I am really tipsy, bordering on drunk, so I can't be held accountable for what I say."
"They say that people are the most honest when drunk."
"Who says that?"
Valkyrie glowers, finishes her drink, and reaches for the bottle. She seems to think better of it, though, and pushes it away again. Her glower fades; a thought catches in her brain, holding her. "Wait. The orgy conversation."
"Three people isn't an orgy."
"That's not what I-" she breaks off, shakes her head. "Have you ever been in one?"
"Three, actually. And, since I know your follow-up question - two of them were post-death."
Valkyrie eyes go so full they might pop. "Really?"
"Why so surprised? I've led a fascinating life."
"Huh." Valkyrie tilts her head, thinking about it. "I haven't been in an orgy before. I had the opportunity, but Sanguine was in the mix, so. No."
"And Tanith, I assume?"
"Thinking about it again, you didn't seem very pleased that Tanith and Sanguine were off together last year. Am I sensing a bit of possessiveness, Ms Cain?"
Valkyrie opens her mouth, closes it, and then glares. "You're messing. You're torturing me for a laugh."
"You're amusing while flustered."
The glare shifts to a reluctant grin. "You're such a goon."
"You love me for it."
"Yes, we've covered that - I'm very self-destructive." She pushes away from the counter, leaving her empty glass. "Come on - evidently people think we can't control ourselves while together, so I suppose we should control ourselves."
Skulduggery follows her toward the great room, but Valkyrie can't help herself. She stops, turning to him and kissing his teeth. "I might be a little possessive, yes."
"You still love her."
It isn't a question, but Valkyrie nods anyway. "I don't think it's possible to stop."
Skulduggery runs a hand down her arm, linking her slender fingers in his gloved phalanges. He thinks of his wife - the little shards that aren't a hazy blur. He thinks of Abyssinia back before things got so terrible. "I understand."
"I know." She kisses him again and then grins. "Well, now that I know you've been in an orgy, I guess you owe me one at some point."
"Hmm. So long as I have veto power over those involved. For example - never Fletcher."
"That is more than acceptable," she murmurs, squeezing his fingers. "Don't let it go to your head, but you're a pretty cool partner-in-crime."
"And, while I'm drunk and can't be held accountable for what I say," she continues softly, "I don't think I'll ever stop loving you, either."
Skulduggery presses his teeth to her forehead. "Naturally."
Chapter 34: Successful Plans
Chapter Thirty-Four. The Day.
"Can you go upstairs and talk to your sister?" Melissa Edgley asks her when she brings Xena through the front door. "I know you're in a hurry to save the world-"
"It's nothing," Valkyrie lies because that's the only way she can keep her smile. "We might be gone for a week is all. What's wrong with Alice?"
"I don't know," Melissa grumbles. "She's been in her room for days, says she's ill. She looks fine - a little peaky, I suppose." She shrugs. "She's getting older - she's pulling away. I'm sure it's nothing, but...could you talk to her?"
"Sure," Valkyrie says, stepping around Xena's wiggling body to go upstairs. She pauses outside the door, sure she hears a man's voice, and then knocks. "Alice?"
Silence. And then a flurry of motion. Alice's head peeks out of the cracked door; she's flushed. "Oh, hey."
Valkyrie narrows her eyes. "What's going on?"
"Nothing!" Alice insists. "It's nothing - I'm just under the weather and overwhelmed with this magical theory class. I might be too stressed to go back to school until next week."
Alice looks guilty. "It's not -- it's not anything bad."
"Do you have someone else in there?"
Alice groans, opening the door and stepping aside. Her room is empty. Valkyrie thinks about checking under the bed and in the bureau, but she refrains.
"I was listening to a podcast."
"Oh? About what?"
"Yeah. It's pretty cool."
"Tell me one archetecture term."
Valkyrie scrunches her nose. "Fine, lie to me, but don't be shitty to Mum and Dad. And don't have boys in here," she adds, trying to be firm, trying to ignore the fact that she sneaked Dennis Reed into her bedroom once when she was fourteen.
Fourteen is a far cry from eleven, though.
"I don't have boys hidden away in my room," Alice scrunches her nose up. "Who has time for that?"
Valkyrie glances into the room again - it's clean and doesn't show any signs of nefarious actions. "Alright. We're all off to Australia for a bit; be good."
Alice nods and doesn't ask what's happening with Australia. That is odd enough for Valkyrie to know something is going on, but Alice's smile is genuine. "Be safe." She hugs Valkyrie tightly, kisses her cheek, and then shuts the door on her sister.
Valkyrie shakes her head and walks downstairs. Her mother sits on the couch, Xena sprawling over her lap. Melissa grins helplessly. "She's too big to be a lapdog, Steph."
"True, but that doesn't stop her." Valkyrie kisses the top of Xena's head, ruffling her scruff, and then says, "Alice seems okay - distracted. She says she's having problems in one of her classes. Maybe let her stay home until I get back - it's not like the headmaster is going to expel China Sorrows' favourite Arbiter's sister."
"Ah, the perks of privilege," her mother sighs.
"Exactly." She kisses her mum's cheek and says, "Skulduggery is waiting outside. I'll see you in a week at most." A lie. Oh God that might be a lie. What if it's a lie?
"Alright," Melissa sighs. She looks worried, but not overly so; she always seems worried anytime Valkyrie goes out of the country. "Don't do anything stupid."
"No stupider than usual," she assures her, turning for the front door. She pauses, can't help herself. "I love you guys."
Melissa's worry doubles. "We love you, too, sweetheart. Is something..." she breaks off and then shakes her head, forcing a weak smile. "Keep yourself in one piece. Your father will have to tear Skulduggery apart if you lose another finger." Valkyrie wiggles her maimed fingers and Melissa laughs. "Love you, Steph."
"Love you too, Mum."
Valkyrie makes it to the Bentley, buckling her seat before the tears start. Skulduggery says nothing, but his hand slides to hers, squeezing reassuringly. "Everything will go to plan."
"No, it won't," Valkyrie whispers.
"No, it probably won't," he admits.
It is all going to plan.
Skulduggery and Valkyrie stand near the rift, both watching and trying to ignore the spindly Crenga hastening about with his device. The Crenga's bodyguard - a woman, covered head-to-foot in formfitting white with a helmet obscuring her face - stands at attention beside the portal. Her orders are simple, Nye assured them. Protect Dr Nye. Nothing else.
"She's a good listener," Nye told them with a little laugh that made Valkyrie wince.
Nadir sits, his magic bound, surrounded by Cleavers. He glowers at Valkyrie and Skulduggery - he might be remembering how they let Abyssinia have her torturous ways with him not so long ago. His snarls with his lipless, unclosing mouth. His gouged cheek isn't red and weeping anymore, but the bundle of scar tissue is terrible in its own way.
"How is it going with Caisson?" Valkyrie asks Skulduggery, biting into an apple Fletcher left for her, glancing at the time on her phone. Almost 00:00 local time - Omen, Tanith and Fletcher will be by soon. The Warlocks will drop the barrier, the Arbiters will arrive, and they will all defend the portal.
Skulduggery doesn't answer for a while. "I have no idea where he is. Every time I find a tip, a person who thinks they saw someone of his description, I arrive, and the person doesn't know what I'm talking about."
"Perhaps. Or lies. Rumours that come from someone looking out their bedroom window half-asleep."
"Abyssinia could enter others' minds," Valkyrie murmurs. "Swirl things all around. Maybe when she sacrificed herself for him..."
"True," Skulduggery replies. "But if Caisson went after them, I doubt they would be living with addled memories. I assume they'd be dead."
Valkyrie finishes as much of the apple as she cares to, tossing the core into a small waste bin they made out of canvas bags slung around a squat bramble. Licking her fingers free from the sticky remnants, she murmurs, "Well, once we get all of these rifts closed, we can focus on him fulltime. You and me."
Skulduggery glances at her. "You are the best agent we have - I need you on other things."
Valkyrie tries to pretend that the words don't sting a bit. She isn't sure why he's so damned reticent to have her help. It isn't like him. "Maybe we should rotate out," she says, chin high. "You've been at it for a while now with nothing to show for it. Maybe our best agent should look into it for a bit."
Skulduggery chuckles and Valkyrie smiles, glad she hid her hurt.
Movement draws her gaze past Skulduggery. A Cleaver has broken away from the full circle around Nadir. Nadir turns his attention to the change, as well, and he looks nervous. "H-hey!" he calls wetly, the words fumbling through his destroyed mouth. "Hey, I think one of your greys is breaking rank!"
Valkyrie and Skulduggery get to their feet. "What the hell?" Valkyrie calls to the Cleaver. "Return to your station!"
But the Cleaver ignores her. The Cleaver grabs Nadir's head, looks as if he's close to popping it off, and then he seizes. Another Cleaver's sickle swipes cleanly across the man's back, slicing him down. Valkyrie and Skulduggery make it inside the ring of greys before his body completely crumples. "What the fuck?" Valkyrie hisses, tearing the helmet off.
He looks like any man - like any man she sees on the street. It's a familiar thing, his face. Familiar and yet not.
"Do you recognise him?" Skulduggery asks one of the Cleavers nearby. There is no answer, no sign that they know a thing. Skulduggery curses and pulls his phone from his pocket, dialling and placing it to his ear. "I need to speak to the Supreme Mage."
He walks away, pacing; he's agitated - they're all agitated now. Valkyrie turns her attention to Dr Nye. "Is this rift-thing able to make people go crazy?"
"Doubtful," it replies breathily, not looking up from where it is running a finger across runes etched on the small box. "The Warlocks practice dark magics, but they would not be immune to this if it were."
Valkyrie sighs, glancing around at the Cleavers. "Two more metres back, please," she requests in spite of Nye's assurances. They fall into place, spaced further out, giving her room. "How much longer?"
"I am almost finished, Arbiter."
Valkyrie turns her attention to Nadir. "Well?"
"Well what?" he asks, eyes wide and glassy.
"Are you planning on cooperating?"
His smile is horrible, far-off. "Why wouldn't I? Your Supreme Mage agreed to hook me up to that machine again, let me carry out my sentence there, asleep."
Valkyrie hates that China agreed to it, but she gets it. Either that or three rifts - perhaps more - remain unstable. "Good, because if you fuck this up and we all live, Skulduggery and I won't kill you. We'll drag you right back to Hammer Lane and let you sit in a goddamn cell until you rot away."
Nadir doesn't answer - he looks over her shoulder, toward the rift and through it.
Valkyrie steps away from him just as the Crenga stands. "And here we are!" it announces, rubbing its impossibly long hands together. "Mr Nadir, if you wouldn't mind coming a bit closer. What are you doing, you idiot?" he snaps when Nadir inexplicably grabs the fallen, bloody Cleaver and tries dragging it along with him. Nadir fumbles with the body and then drops it, brow furrowing. He shuffles closer to Nye, the white-clad bodyguard, and the device. "There's a good boy. Arbiters - are your others on their way?"
Valkyrie rechecks the time. Five minutes. "They'll be here soon," she says. She thinks about asking Terra to drop the field, calling them, and telling them to come over now. But she looks over toward Skulduggery and makes a selfish choice.
She walks toward him. His sockets turn to her, and he grumbles, "I'm on hold. Me. On hold."
Valkyrie takes the phone, disconnects the call, and says, "We're ready."
"Did you call the others?"
She shakes her head. "Not yet." She knows eyes are on them. She knows their relationship is somewhat frowned upon by most. But she presses a kiss to his teeth and rests her head against his bony shoulder. "Everything's going to plan."
"So it is." His arms slide around her waist, and he murmurs, "Call the others. We should end this now." But he doesn't release her; he keeps her tucked against him, her lips against his jaw.
When she finally pulls back, she offers him a smile. She hopes it's convincing. "Well, let's get this-" but she pauses, eyes widening when Darquesse swims up, panicking. She rarely panics.
"The Cleaver!" Darquesse shouts; the yell comes through Valkyrie's mouth, rattling everyone around them, making wide, surprised eyes turn her direction.
Darquesse took that niggling suspicious and, unlike Valkyrie, followed it. Now the Cleaver's face makes sense - now Valkyrie understands why he seems so familiar.
It's Kimber's Sensitive - the one they were never able to track down. The one who got away from Darquesse's gore-fest in their hideout.
Valkyrie begins to run, her blood so cold that it seems to slow her limbs. "Kill him!" she shouts.
Nadir click his shackles open with the keys from Kreeg's belt, gasping at the flood of power.
"What are you doing?!" Nye's screech fills the open space. The Cleavers are bounding into action; Valkyrie is nearly there, a shadow lancing out toward the man, when Nadir lunges for the device.
"Kill him!" Valkyrie roars again, but the Cleavers are too late. Valkyrie is too late.
Five seconds last forever.
One second. Valkyrie sees Nye toss Nadir aside, toward the oncoming Cleavers, and fall onto the ground, fingers tapping across the device.
Two seconds. The white-clad woman moves to block the Crenga; her stance is loose and unconcerned. Her hands balance on a pair of slender dagger hilts at her waist, but she doesn't pull them.
Three seconds. The Cleavers move for Nadir but stop when the first shape ripples through the unprotected portal.
Four seconds. A pop makes Valkyrie's ears ring. Her breath goes from her lungs when her eyes find the thing. It shifts, incomprehensible. It brings her eyes in, sucking at her vision, making everything swim and bottom out.
Five seconds. The portal closes.
Nothing makes sense.
Her body is so cold, but her skin burns like flames, her entire mass trying to tear itself apart, warring sides retreating, flesh rending. She's crying or bleeding, she can't tell, but there is a flood of wetness sliding across her face.
She wants to dig her fingers into her eyes just to make it stop. Just to end it. She can't move. She can't move, and it's coming right at her. Everything dies in its wake. The patches of wiry grass sticking up through the muddy rocks wither. She can't see feet, but it makes a noise as it glides her direction. A scraping noise. Nails across a chalkboard.
She can't see it anymore, but it's there. It's overwhelming and hovering over her, running through her, icicles slicing inside her veins.
Her ears ring, sharp tinnitus splitting her head into pieces, tearing her from within. Her eyes flutter. What's happening to her face? Her face is so numb. Her fingers...she can't feel them.
She can hear Darquesse, though, and Darquesse snarls while she tries to claw a path away from the flames inside Valkyrie's body.
It comes closer, impossibly fast, shifting and coiling through the air. She can feel its interest in her. She can feel its curiosity.
But then it freezes and is gone, drawn away to the Warlock tossing golden, glistening energy at it.
Terra, the one marked as an offering.
Everything moves so slowly. Terra's body buckles, seemingly out of nowhere, and then the Faceless One is Terra. The face melts, her eyes sizzle, and her body sags. Jolts. Adjusts.
Runs for Valkyrie.
Chapter 35: Countermeasures
Chapter Thirty-Five. The minutes.
When Omen, Tanith, and Fletcher arrive at the rift site, it's to the sound of screams.
"What-" Fletcher begins, his eyes sliding around them.
Something crashes into them, sending them all to the ground. It's slender and bony in spite of its force. "Keep your eyes down!"
"What's going on?" Fletcher demands.
"A Faceless One breached the rift - Nadir betrayed us."
"What happened?! How?" Tanith grunts, trying to struggle out from beneath him.
"Don't look at it," Skulduggery continues as if he hasn't heard her question. "Fletcher - get Valkyrie. Twenty passes ahead of you. Keep your eyes down and get back. Go."
Fletcher looks across the ground until he sees Valkyrie's boots. She's standing so still. He focuses, teleports, grabs her elbow, and returns to the others.
Something barrels after them; Fletcher shouts, teleports them away, watching the thing that was Terra barrel into the space they just occupied. The Cleavers and a handful of Warlocks have surrounded the thing, but their numbers fall with each twitch of the Faceless One's hand.
"Oh God," Omen whispers, horrified.
Tanith pushes Fletcher away from Valkyrie and grabs her face, holding it between her hands. "Val, come on," she whispers. "Focus. Look at me, okay? Blink for me? Bunny, you need to blink."
Valkyrie's eyes don't move. Her lower lip trembles, but her eyes don't flicker, don't focus. Tanith swallows before letting out a grunt of displeasure. She doesn't plead anymore - she slams her fist into Valkyrie's jaw.
The dark-haired woman falls, blinking, looking terrified and lost. "Where...where is it?" she asks; her voice breaks through each syllable. "Skulduggery...Skulduggery's there a..."
"Get her out of here," Skulduggery orders Fletcher. "Tanith, I need you with me." And then he's running toward the shouts, toward the carnage.
"No." Valkyrie insists, her gaze focusing with each forceful blink she makes. She gets to her feet, using Fletcher's hoodie to pull herself up and then pushes him away from her.
"Valkyrie-" Tanith tries, torn between following Skulduggery and helping her best friend.
Valkyrie vehemently shakes her head, wobbles, and then runs trembling hands over her face. She isn't crying, but her face is wet with spent tears. Valkyrie pulls her hair into a ponytail, missing a handful of strands that slither around her right ear. "All of you get back - I don't know if I can stop her once I let her out."
And then she takes the ring from her necklace, the one that China made for her, and slips it onto her right forefinger.
"Valkyrie-" Omen tries.
"Get all of them out of here!" she orders Fletcher, and her eyes flood with brightness. She shoves Omen into Fletcher and turns away from them. Fletcher grabs Tanith and Omen before teleporting to Skulduggery - who was tossed out of the fight as if he were no more than an annoying fly.
"No-" Skulduggery starts to say when Fletcher reaches for him.
Fletcher's hand curls around his upper arm; they disappear into the darkness outside of the cave.
Skulduggery tries to deck Fletcher when they arrive, but Fletcher ducks, expecting it. "Take me back," Skulduggery orders.
"Not going to happen," Fletcher replies.
"Fletcher!" Tanith practically shouts in his ear. "If Darquesse can't handle this, we need to! That thing can't make it out of here or else the entire world-"
"She told me to get you guys out, so I got you guys out," he replies. And then he disappears.
"Did he...did he just go back?" Omen asks, voice choked.
"Bloody teleporters," Tanith snaps and begins running toward the entrance of the Warlock's home. Skulduggery grabs her waist, and they rocket ahead, propelled by a gust of wind. Omen shouts and stumbles after.
Chapter 36: Them
Chapter Thirty-Six. The seconds.
Darquesse finds the Cleavers in shreds - only one of the Warlocks is still standing, running, trying to call for any able-bodied reinforcement she can. She tugs Nye along, shoving him toward a crevice in the rock as a hiding place.
Even Nye's bodyguard is on the ground, all of her limbs torn back and laying in crumpled pieces around her torso.
Darquesse blinks at the carnage and then smiles. She flexes her fingers, feeling the power surging through her. It's chaotic, moreso than usual, China's ring boosting everything. That pebble of darkness deep down - the one Darquesse can't access, the one Valkyrie manipulates - thrums closer to the surface.
Darquesse can feel it now, sharpening, preparing for a fight. It takes on a slight edge, the tip of a blade under her skin. She reaches for it, tries to curl it in on itself, to cycle it as Valkyrie does - and nothing happens.
The thing that was once Terra strides toward her. It swings, its aim true; Darquesse lets it connect - just to feel it, just to know how hard it can hit with that human fist.
The answer, she is upset to discover, is 'very, very hard.' Darquesse slams into the ground, her mind rattling. There are flashes of images - of the Faceless One without a body - that chime behind her lids. The pop, the little burst of interest, of its attention.
Darquesse's heart quickens. She's scared. Jesus fucking Christ, she's scared. The thing inside her expands, coils, wraps, squeezes her insides.
Darquesse spits blood from her mouth - a tooth dislodged, but she tongues it into place and wills it to heal. The crack in her jaw mends, and she gets to her feet without a single falter.
The Faceless One steps toward her, deflecting a kick; it takes Darquesse's leg in its hands, twisting at the ankle and snapping her knee. It tosses her back while she howls in pain, while she struggles to focus enough to heal herself. It stalks toward her, bends down, connects an elbow with her nose and shatters it. A hand curves around her neck and holds her there. It stares - Darquesse can feel it even without its eyes.
And then the hand leaves her throat; the fingers caress her cheekbone.
Valkyrie screams inside of her, and Darquesse shakes free from the fear clogging her body, the cold iciness coating her organs. She snaps the thing's wrist, kicks a knee out from under it, and sidles away. She lands on its belly before it can recover. She drops an elbow into its blank face. She keeps slamming down, over and over, watching the skin split, spill blood, cover her breeches.
And then she's in the air, her back arching, agony coursing through her. She screams - she can't help it. It might be more in shock than pain, but the pain starts soon enough.
The nerve endings in her body sing - her pulse ricochets through her, ripping around, threatening to burst her chest from the inside. She can feel her skin sizzle and then grow cold, so cold, as the bottomless dark pit inside of her yawns open a little more.
She topples to the ground, gasping, and sees Fletcher. He manages to hit the Faceless One with a Cleaver's discarded scythe, but the Faceless One throws him away; Fletcher's head dashes into the far wall. He doesn't get up.
Valkyrie surges forward, spurring Darquesse on. They're on their feet, barrelling into the Faceless One. They rip their hands into Terra's blank face, digging into the brain, tearing it around, tossing a fistful on the ground and yelling into the gaping hole.
There is nothing but rage from Valkyrie. Darquesse is unused to Valkyrie's rage.
The Faceless One uses the last of its energy to wrench her with its arms, entrails bursting up and through the hole in its face. Intestines wrap around her neck and vice, snapping something.
Darquesse's vision goes black for a single moment, but in that single moment, the Faceless One tosses her away from it.
She hears the pop while she gags on the blood in her mouth. It's left the host. It's right behind her - she can feel the heat of it, the iciness in her veins.
But she isn't scared because Valkyrie isn't scared. They are calm, and they are ready. When the Faceless One is in another body - that one remaining Warlock's screams shift to gagging - Darquesse gets to her feet. She turns, watches the eyes melt, the skin sag. It's horrifying and breathtaking at the same moment.
"Arbiter!" Nye shrieks from the rift. "The device is ready! Lure it close, and I will open the portal!"
Darquesse takes a few steps backwards, toward the rift. The Faceless One approaches, and Darquesse whips a shadow from her ring, sliding it out, hooking the Faceless One around the waist and tugging.
It stumbles, but only for a moment. And then it is coming, faster now, loping toward her.
Darquesse growls, twisting out of the way, knee swinging up and around to connect with the Faceless One's abdomen, bending it over her knee and hurling her elbow into its spine. Her shadows tighten like a row of spines along her forearm, a jagged edge protecting her elbow and spearing the Faceless One.
She tosses it toward the rift. Ten metres - she only has to get it ten metres. Easy.
Darquesse hears Tanith's yell, trying to pull the Faceless One's attention away from Darquesse. Darquesse hisses when the tactic works - another shadow loops out, attempting to impale the body. The Faceless One veers away, spins, dives, and Tanith is on the ground, rolling away from it.
Skulduggery goes in, sending air into the being's chest. The wind does nothing. A fireball harmlessly passes around it.
The Faceless One flicks a hand, careless, already turning its attention back to Tanith. Skulduggery shrieks, shaking Valkyrie inside Darquesse's mind, making her quake and rage and nearly break free.
The Faceless One keeps flicking its hand even as it lowers to Tanith, vices her neck, inspects her. Skulduggery's bones begin to pull away from one another, each wrist-flick yanking another free. It starts at his metatarsus and begins to work upward.
Darquesse sends a wave of shadow into the Faceless One, rocking it slightly, and the Faceless One hurls its hand toward her. It sends her across the ground, rocks tearing her face as she slides.
She struggles to her feet, willing the skin to close up, pushing the debris from her forehead. She runs, shadows spilling beneath her feet, hastening her wake.
She doesn't need to save Tanith, though - Tanith slices the Faceless One's left hand off when Darquesse arrives. She slides another cut along the belly, feinting her way inside of its defences.
"Toward the portal!" Darquesse shouts, and Tanith grunts, spins, tries to change the direction of the fight. She earns an open-handed slap to the face that sends her into Dr Nye, propelling them away from the device, tumbling over one another.
It's playing with them.
Darquesse launches herself at the Faceless One, slamming her cheek into its shoulderblade as she takes it to the ground. It jabs an elbow back, catching Darquesse in the perfect place between her breeches and jacket. The sweet-spot sends Darquesse backwards, spilling off and away, trying to remember how to breathe.
Panicking. Why is she panicking?
Valkyrie growls; Darquesse feels the ring on her index finger, feels Valkyrie feeding it, looping it, using something Darquesse doesn't understand. The pebble of darkness. Something that makes no sense, that has no definite shape or feel.
Valkyrie reels the power in and cycles it through them, howling with pain as she does.
Darquesse doesn't realise that she's screaming, too, until the noise rattles her throat hoarse. The Faceless One is crawling at her, reaching for her with its one remaining hand.
Tanith is there, and Tanith is tossing the Faceless One's severed leg aside, her hair matted and face bruised with blood. The Faceless One doesn't seem to care much until Tanith plunges the sword into its back. Then it howls, mouthless and overwhelming loud, twists, and grabs Tanith's sword.
The thing melts under its hand. Tanith stumbles, eyes wide, finally unsure of herself. That one moment of weakness is all it takes - the Faceless One takes her arm and yanks it, twists, tears.
Tanith's wails echo through the cavern as the arm separates as easily as knife sliding through butter. Tanith spins at the force, falls to the ground, unable to mask her hysterics.
It turns to Darquesse. It tilts its featureless head at her. It reaches again, but it doesn't attack.
"Arbiter!" Nye shrieks.
It isn't killing us on purpose, Valkyrie says, ignoring the Crenga.
Valkyrie's voice coils, darker than usual, hatred filling her words. Then we have the upper hand. Make it hurt, will you?
Darquesse grins, surprised and oddly excited by it. "Well, well. Where has this Valkyrie Cain been all of our lives?"
She stands and grabs the arm reaching toward her; she wrenches it, tossing the body as far as she can - which turns out to be rather far. It sails through the rift and beyond, too far, and Nye yells for her to stop playing around.
Darquesse stalks to it; it is crawling to a Cleaver who sputters on the ground, clawing at his neck. "Nope," Darquesse says, grabbing the Faceless One's neck and snapping it. "No host hopping."
"The count of five!" Nye yells, "And then I open the gate!"
She hurls the body toward the portal, stumbles a little, and watches it skid within the gravitational pull of the soon-to-form portal.
One second. The Cleaver behind her, no longer suffering from his wounds, gets to his feet. The Faceless One grabs Darquesse by the hair, shoving her after the previously spent host.
Two seconds. She screams, stumbles, falls, and grabs at the ground. She manages to drag herself back with the Faceless One's boot.
Three seconds. It kicks her off, but Darquesse uses her momentum to slide a bit further to the side, beyond its immediate reach.
Four seconds. She kicks its knee, uses a shadow to trip its ankles up, to send it teetering.
The gateway opens.
One second. More things begin to shimmer in the portal's surface - unknowable things, things that make Darquesse's ears pop and her eyes burn.
Two seconds. "No!" she shouts even though she doesn't know why. More are coming closer, shapes with no shape, colours with no colour.
Three seconds. Darquesse is out of time. They don't have two more seconds for the entrance to close on its own.
She closes her eyes and reaches for that darkness Valkyrie is feeding into her, that little knife edge that slowly exposes each time the power cycles.
She supernovas. She screams at the pain of it, at the heat bursting through her, eviscerating her insides almost faster than she can heal.
Valkyrie laughs somewhere in the background - a horrified, high, pitchy noise that makes Darquesse's grip slacken on their reins.
Chapter 37: Gasp
Chapter Thirty-Seven. The after.
Valkyrie comes to with Fletcher looking down on her, his right eye sealed, dried blood caked around his forehead and profile. "Hey!" he says, so loud it's almost like a shout. "Hey, are you - can you feel anything?"
"Why wouldn't I be able to feel anything?" Valkyrie wants to ask, but she's having trouble breathing. She gurgles something and then coughs, the pain enough to make her blackout for a few moments.
She comes to, trying not to choke on her own tongue.
"I need to teleport you, okay?" Fletcher asks, trying to comfort her while not touching her. "Hold on - Grouse can take care of this."
"Take care of what?" she tries to ask, but she blacks out instead.
Chapter 38: Peachy
Chapter Thirty-Eight, in which Valkyrie realises something is amiss.
Shattered ribs. Punctured lungs. Ruptured spleen. Broken spine. Darquesse did her best to heal them before she lost control, but Valkyrie didn't make it out unscathed.
Valkyrie listens to the list of her ailments without so much as a care in the world. She was allowed two leaves for her pain, but she slipped five from Clarabelle without the girl noticing. Her lungs and spleen, luckily, were eased before Valkyrie regained consciousness. Her ribs will take an entire day, according to Grouse. Her spine, a bit longer than that.
But the pain is dull, she can move her arms again, the drugs are rather lovely, and she is getting unending ice cream from Clarabelle.
Tanith, to her credit, took losing an arm like a champ. Granted she did have it reattached - and is pretending like nothing ever happened - but Valkyrie is still amazed that Tanith remained conscious the entire time.
Skulduggery, on the other hand, was not allowed inside the clinic. Fletcher took him to the Sanctuary for his medical emergency of being in seven pieces.
"He is not welcome here," Grouse said when Valkyrie complained. "I told him that if you came in here half-dead, I would strike him down myself. And now it has happened and I, for one, am glad it's the last I will see him."
"Kenspeckle," she moans, looking at the ceiling. "You can treat whoever you want, but at least let him come visit me."
"Absolutely not. He can wait two more days to risk your life."
"Visiting me isn't risking my life."
"Two days, Ms Cain. Two days of bed rest and no escapades. I mean it!" He softens and adds, "Clarabelle will be by to get the tub ready for your soak."
Valkyrie smiles and waits for Grouse to leave the room before she reaches for her phone, remembers that it was a casualty of the explosion, and her fingers falter.
She doesn't remember the pain. She doesn't remember much of anything, really...
Other than a fantastic, overwhelming sense of love for the Faceless One at that moment. It felt like coming home when she tore It apart. It felt like coming home when she shredded the reaching Gods to pieces, the Cleaver's body leaving nothing behind aside from an arm when the portal closed on it.
Valkyrie smiles at that. She leans back into the pillows and looks at the ceiling. She tilts her head from side to side, analysing, painting shadows across it in her mind, recalling the shapeless shapes, the colourless colours.
She reaches a finger up, tracing the improbabilities of how it looks in her mind. She bites her lower lip and smiles, chuckling, and tilts her head again.
There are Gods.
They are terrible.
They are awe-inspiring.
Valkyrie stares at the memory cast onto the blank canvas of the ceiling. She smiles to herself, reaches for another ill-gotten leaf under her pillow, and begins to hum a lovely little tune she's never heard but always known.
She isn't sure how long it takes before Tanith interrupts her, bustling in with a bag of submarine sandwiches and a large soda to split. "Hey, I got you turkey." She pauses, putting the bag on Valkyrie's lap, peering at her. "Are you alright? I mean, aside from all that's wrong."
"Sure," Valkyrie laughs, finding it genuinely amusing. "I mean, why not? I'm alive, we're all alive, we saved the world from a Faceless One, and all I have to deal with is some broken stuff."
Tanith pulls the bedside chair closer and sits, placing the soda on the side table between them. "Val."
"You saved me, you know."
Tanith swallows and looks away from her. It takes her a moment, but eventually her voice comes out. "You saw it."
"Point-blank," Valkyrie confirms, pulling the sandwiches out of the bag and handing Tanith the one with roast.
Valkyrie meets Tanith's eyes, thinks about telling her the truth, and then snorts. "Everything's fine thanks to you and China's weird ring." She looks down at the thing; her Necromancer ring exploded during the last-ditch effort - China's ring did not.
"You should probably thank her for that."
"Oh, I will." Valkyrie takes a few bites, washes them down with some of the soda, and then clears her throat. "It didn't want to kill me. The Faceless One, I mean. It wasn't going to take me over or kill me; It seemed...curious."
"I noticed, right before it tore my arm off."
Valkyrie winces. "I can't believe you stayed conscious."
"Yes, well, endorphins and adrenaline have a nice response time when your limb gets ripped from your body."
"Good to know," Valkyrie murmurs. It still flickers behind her eyes, in the corner of her mind, shifting and colliding, refracting. "How is everyone else?"
"Fletcher already left the clinic - off to his spot in Mexico for a weekend on the beach. Skulduggery is probably home by now, Nye is putting his weird bodyguard back together, and Omen is still very, very upset with all of us."
"Skulduggery and I left him outside when we came back for you."
Valkyrie smirks. "You got to fly, didn't you?"
"I did," Tanith whispers breathlessly, eyes widening, delighted. She leans forward, sounding conspiratorial. "It was amazing. I knew it would be, but hell. I was scared and mad and everything, but for a brief second it was like..."
"Bliss," Valkyrie offers.
"Yes," she sighs, almost dreamily.
Tanith's phone buzzes in her pocket; she grumbles, reaching around with her newly-healed arm. She winces a little at the motion but manages to grab the device without any serious issues. She glances at the display, makes a face, and hands it to Valkyrie. "For you."
Valkyrie sees Skulduggery's name and accepts the call faster than she will admit. Tanith makes an amused noise and gets to her feet, taking her sandwich with her as she walks down the hallway.
"Hi," she says, not sure what else to say. So much has happened since they last saw one another. So much she can't explain - even to herself. So much she can never tell him, can never articulate.
"Hello," Skulduggery says. "Do me a favour and come open this door for me. Grouse seems to think he can keep me out."
"He can for the moment," Valkyrie says, trying to make her voice sound normal, like it isn't shaking now that she can hear him, talk to him. "My spine was broken."
"And is it still broken?"
"A little, yes."
"I'm sure you can open a door, though."
"Skulduggery. I'm paralysed waist-down. Besides, Kenspeckle will just toss you out again."
"Then what good are you, Miss Cain?" he teases. His voice is gentle. "I assume you will be back in time for Sunday dinner? Or shall I come up with a lie for your parents?"
"I'll be out Friday at the latest," she assures him. And then, merely as a tactic to hear his snark, "Glad to hear that Synechdoche was able to put that fragile little body of yours back together."
"Says the woman whose spine is brittler than a dead leaf."
"Says the man whose spine got ripped from the rest of his body," she retorts, actually smiling this time. She sits in the silence, enjoying it, enjoying him being here without being able to see how wrong her eyes must be.
She starts to hum the tune, catches herself, and says, "Clarabelle is going to be in any minute to prep my soak, so I should go. Stay out of trouble."
"For you, my dear, I will try."
Chapter 39: Tension
Chapter Thirty-Nine, in which Alice comes clean(ish) with Valkyrie, and Valkyrie rethinks letting the Reflection remain.
Alice waits for Valkyrie in the Edgley's living room, Xena sprawled out on the rug, legs in the air, belly-up to the sun streaming in through the windows.
When Valkyrie comes in, she's smiling. She's also wearing her facade, the smooth skin showing no sign of the y-incision under her low-cut tunic. Alice immediately stills, confused. Valkyrie never wears the facade unless she's planning on being in mortal company for an extended period.
"Hi," Valkyrie says, ducking to kiss her cheek and then dropping to the floor when Xena excitedly squirms toward her. "Hey, hey, sit. Good lord, she acts like no one pays attention to her around here."
When Alice doesn't say anything, Valkyrie's dark eyes turn to her false ones. "What's going on?"
"You're wearing your facade."
"Yep - felt like getting some sun in the dog park without getting stares."
"Not because you're covered in battle wounds?"
Valkyrie chuckles and drops her facade. There isn't any damage that Alice can see, which is surprising.
"So...everything went okay?"
"Yeah - no problem," Valkyrie smiles. She looks sincere, but her eyes betray her. They're different now. Unsettled. "What about here?"
Alice sucks her cheeks in, holding her breath, trying to decide how to tell Valkyrie.
"Seriously, what's going on?" Valkyrie presses, raising her facade again and lowering herself to the couch. Xena's tail won't quit while she pushes her way between Valkyrie's knees, long snout balancing on her thigh so that she can lick Valkyrie's hand.
There's a ring that Alice doesn't recognise on Valkyrie's forefinger. Her Necromancer ring is off, leaving a pale strip of skin in its wake.
Alice takes a deep breath and says, "I need to tell you something, but I need you not to lose your mind, okay?"
Valkyrie's brows tighten. "What did you do?"
Alice looks away, and then definitely back. "Don't move, don't say anything, just...sit here, okay?" Alice ensures that Valkyrie isn't moving before murmuring, "Dusk came to the house."
Valkyrie is on her feet; Xena yelps, falling back, instantly on guard.
"He wasn't here to hurt me!" Alice insists. "He came to ask me to talk to you for him."
Valkyrie shakes her head. "Jesus, Alice -- where was the Reflection?"
"She subdued him for me, and then we ensured he wasn't here to hurt me. She protected me, okay? That doesn't matter, though. I got into his head," Alice continues through Valkyrie's tense posture, her clenched fists. "I made sure he was telling the truth, but..."
"I kind of...scrambled things," Alice says, voice lowering. "I broke him."
Valkyrie's posture releases; she looks worried, suddenly sympathetic. "You killed him?"
"No," Alice insists. "No, he's not dead, he's just..." she hesitates, eyes darting to the side then returning to Valkyrie. "He's working for me now."
Valkyrie stills, her muscles visibly tightening. "What?"
Alice's tongue flicks out, wetting her lips. "He sort of...he kind of thinks I'm his messiah."
"Messiah. His reason to keep living."
Valkyrie blinks, seemingly unsure how to process this. "And he's...he's where right now?"
"In the woods outside of Grimwood."
"I couldn't keep him here once Xena was in the house!" Alice hotly replies. "I gave him tons of serum-"
"Where did you get serum?!"
Alice freezes for a moment, and then she flushes. "I...may have taken some from Grouse when I asked you to take me there for more leaves."
"How many is some?!"
"...Five boxes of syringes."
"It's not like it's much - they all fit in my backpack without either of you noticing!"
Valkyrie fumes, biting her lip, looking at the ceiling for patience. "Alright. So. You Saw this happening, prepared for it, and chose not to tell me."
"You would have killed him, and he wasn't here for anything like that. He just wants to talk to you - to ask for your help."
"My help?" Valkyrie laughs, a disbelieving sound. "Jesus."
"Alright, fine. Let's move on. Your new vampire apostle-"
"I prefer to call him henchman."
"Your new hench-pire is living in the woods outside of my house?"
"Just until you tell me a better spot to put a vampire who doesn't want to hurt anyone."
"Cages, Alice! Massive, massive cages! Bolted, time-locked cages! I don't know where he can get one -- hell, his own brethren will cast him out if they find out he's worshipping an eleven-year-old."
"Henchperson-ing for an eleven-year-old."
"Nevermind that you're also the sister of the Arbiter who threatened their den leader."
"Dens are for werewolves, aren't they?"
Valkyrie closes her eyes and then rubs her forehead. Alice watches as her sister's fingers trace a strange pattern over her temple. She hums a little tune, one long note that wavers and changes - and then she lets out a gentle sigh. "Right," she murmurs. "Alright; I know a place. But I need your assurance that he isn't going to do anything to fuck stuff up for us."
"No, he's loyal."
"And my family and friends. He knows I won't tolerate anything less." Alice smiles when she realises her tone has gone harder than it should have. "Where do I send him?"
Valkyrie thinks about it. "I can't tell Skulduggery about this yet -- Jesus, he's going to kill me for this." She pauses before breathing, "I have an idea, though. Tell Dusk to wait outside of the wards until I can schedule this new home for him."
Alice nods, closing her eyes and concentrating. She sends thoughts toward him, feeling her way along the little thread that connects them. And then she opens her eyes. "He understands."
She pretends Valkyrie isn't looking at her with something Alice has never seen before. "Right...I need to talk to Anton first."
"One of Skulduggery's old friends; I'm sure you'll meet him later if your disciple-"
"-is staying at his hotel." Valkyrie then gets to her feet and heads for the stairs.
Alice groans and follows; part of her thought Valkyrie would let it go.
"Hello, Valkyrie," Stephanie greets when the dark-haired woman pushes through the bedroom door. Alice stands in the doorway while Valkyrie opens the wardrobe. "Would you like to coordinate our memories?"
Stephanie tilts her head. "I assume our deal is still active? You aren't planning on locking me away?"
Alice watches Valkyrie's jaw clench. "Get. In. The. Mirror."
"Not unless you give me assurances."
Alice thinks Valkyrie might attack Stephanie, but she doesn't. "I need to see what happened while I was gone. I'm not locking you inside unless you keep being a bitch, so - get in."
Stephanie sets her laptop aside, sliding off of the bed and stepping toward the mirror. The pair strip, an odd thing to witness, and the Reflection returns to the mirror.
Valkyrie jolts, closes her eyes. Alice watches her sort through the memories warring within her, sliding them into place, and then Valkyrie's eyes flutter open.
She taps the glass and the women redress.
"You're glitching again."
"You haven't glitched for a long time. Part of me wonders if you're somehow doing it on purpose."
"Of course not. I wouldn't hide anything from you -- nothing that involves Alice, anyway."
Valkyrie's eyes narrow, but she doesn't respond. She slams the wardrobe closed; Stephanie winces. Alice half-expects the mirror to shatter, but it doesn't.
"Get it together," she snaps. "And if you glitch again when Alice is around, I will end you."
Stephanie sweetly smiles. "Of course." She pauses, her smile widening. "How is your spine feeling, by the way?"
Valkyrie strikes her, an open-handed hit that sends the Reflection bouncing off of the wall. Alice shouts at them, more of a noise than a word, and Valkyrie turns, pushing past Alice and through the door.
"What the hell?!" Alice demands, following Valkyrie down the steps. "I already told you she protected me! Nothing bad happened."
Valkyrie grabs Xena's bag of toys and food. "She's hiding things from me."
"Well, you both hide things from me all the time, and I'm just as much in this as you," she shouts. Her fingers are trembling. "You keep acting like I'm some helpless thing that needs protecting!"
"Because you are!" she returns. "You're eleven, Alice! You barely know self-defence. You don't know any damaging magic at all."
"And I've already been kidnapped, tortured, forced to kill, forced to see my friends die in futures that may or may not come true-" she breaks off, overwhelmed. God, she wishes she could cry. "You can't keep me out of this."
"Watch me," Valkyrie retorts, slapping her thigh to call Xena out of the house.
Chapter 40: From, and To, and Why
Chapter Forty, in which Valkyrie unravels.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Valkyrie turns to the side, analysing the skin along her flank. It's smooth, clean, glowing with a healthy sheen from the sun.
And then she presses her fingers to the small tattoos on her collarbone and lets out a soft breath.
The false skin flows away; the husk left behind is pale, sallow, dipping in, clinging to deflating muscle. Everything looks wrong. Valkyrie feels along her arms and sees her fingers sink into flesh in spite of the tissue below. She sees her hair falling out, her skin melting, shifting, putrifying.
She's already dead. She was dead from the moment It touched her cheek, caressed her flesh like a warm invitation, an embrace.
Valkyrie lets out a choked breath and turns, taking in the y-incision. How the skin around it is almost the same muted mauve colour. She continues turning, analysing the bite from that selkie boy so long ago - gaping open, rotten. And then her tattoo, the once precision-perfect spirals sagging along the waxy skin.
Valkyrie tries to think of the tune, but all she can hear in her ears is the way Darquesse's rattled, scared-for-the-first-time breath stirred something within Valkyrie. How the dark kernel bloomed. How it heightened her, made her forget all the rest, all of the bullshit.
There had just been her. Her, a trickle of amusement, and those she wanted to kill.
Valkyrie hears a noise - a long, low whine - and then realises it's coming from her mouth. She clamps her lips closed, but the sound keeps trying to escape. Her chest rises and falls, only making the skin slough more, sliding down her ribs.
Valkyrie raises the facade, the false skin hiding all of it from view. She catches the tune, desperately hums it to herself, and rakes her hands through the full head of glorious hair.
The song composes her, as does the sight of her healthy skin. She tilts her head, watches her hair slide over her shoulder. She looks perfect.
Valkyrie dresses and leaves Skulduggery's bathroom - her bathroom, really, seeing as he never uses it - and gives a low whistle for Xena. The German Shepard hops up from her bed, wagging excitedly when Valkyrie grabs her harness and leash.
"Alright, girl," she murmurs against the dog's chest as she guides the straps up Xena's legs. "Fast and effortless, got it? Number seven on the pacing scale. Up and down the road until we feel like we can't walk, yeah?" she says, voice cooing. Xena's tail picks up its ferocity.
Valkyrie glances at Skulduggery. He's still meditating, still lost within himself. She tries to smile at him just in case he's faking - he's done it before just to startle her - but she can't manage it.
So she puts her earbuds in, the sound of pure white noise lulling her brain, and she opens the door.
They wrack up two kilometres before the images get too much to bear.
She keeps seeing Them on the edge of her vision, ghosting along the treeline, stalking her. Hunting her.
She's a beacon of her own now.
They aren't there when she glances. Xena senses nothing. Xena runs on, unbothered, so Valkyrie runs on, too.
Until she can't.
Valkyrie comes to a stop so suddenly that Xena yelps and falls onto her haunches, yanked backwards, and scrapes through the grass. But Valkyrie doesn't hear her cry of startlement; all she hears is the white noise. Nothing but white noise.
And then nothing at all.
Her vision swims; it tunnels, seeing shapes-that-aren't-shapes through the gloom. It's nothing. It's nothing. It's nothing-
And then she smiles. She takes a deep breath of pre-dawn air. She yells the tune toward the empty trees.
Pain blooms through Valkyrie's leg; she shouts, falling to her knees and grabbing her thigh. The left bud fell out of her ear in the process, so she can hear Xena's worried whines, can see the fur standing on end along her spine.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, holding the bleeding bite, tears coming to her eyes. "I'm so sorry." She pulls one hand from her leg, motioning Xena, and the dog comes to her. Xena licks her face; her breath smells like blood.
Valkyrie buries her face into Xena's neck, letting her tears mat the sharp hairs along her scruff.
You look a mess, Darquesse murmurs, but the heat is missing from her voice.
Valkyrie wetly chuckles, pressing her face into Xena's scruff. "I'm sure I do."
You should probably get off of the road before someone runs you over.
"The only things down this lane are two funeral homes and a skeleton's house. Who the hell is going to run me over?"
Not sure. Me, if I had the choice. But, I don't, so.
Valkyrie laughs, can't stop laughing, squeezing Xena tightly. She huddles there with her dog, giggling at the voice in her head, overcome. "You couldn't even if you were separate from me," Valkyrie breathes into the wind, "because I'm already dead."
"All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why." James Thurber
Chapter 41: Pretty Corpses
Chapter Forty-One, in which Valkyrie tries to decipher the real from the imagined.
When Valkyrie returns to the house, Skulduggery is in the kitchen. "Hey," she says. She smiles - she's pretty sure it's genuine seeing as Darquesse's words are still rattling around in her brain. Now they're to the tune; now they're both accurate, calming, and amusing.
"You were gone for a while," he observes.
"How long have you been up?"
"An hour or so. I put a pizza in the oven, but that was an hour or so ago, so it might be a bit...done."
Valkyrie stares for a moment, and then she grins. The grin turns into a laugh that she can't stop. She lets Xena free from her harness, dropping to her knees to guide the straps down her front legs. "You would burn your house down via pizza just because I went for a long run?"
"It would prove a point. I'm not sure what point, but I assume it would prove something." He opens the oven, glances inside, and then tuts. "Well, it seems I forgot to turn the stove on. Your pizza is not done. Not in the slightest."
Valkyrie snorts and ruffles Xena's head as she passes. She goes to bump Skulduggery out of her way and turn the oven on, but Skulduggery reaches out, hand on her abdomen, stopping her. "What?" she asks, confused. And then she looks down.
Her leggings are torn and bloody with Xena's teeth prints. She'd forgotten. How had she forgotten? She can't feel anything even though there's so much blood - dear Jesus, how hard did Xena bite her?
"Oh, God," Valkyrie whispers and stumbles back, reaching down for the wound before recoiling from it. "Oh shit, I didn't know it was this bad."
"What happened?" Skulduggery asks, voice calm as he moves away from her and toward the bathroom. She hears him tossing things around, trying to find the first-aid kit he'd bought for this type of situation.
Well. Not this exact type of situation.
Valkyrie giggles, covering her face with one of her hands. She bites her palm to keep herself from running away from everything.
When Skulduggery returns, he pulls her leggings down and sits her on the counter, her leg under a trickle of cool water. "Facade down, please - then tell me what happened."
"I can patch myself, you know," she argues.
Valkyrie swallows. "I...got a little spooked on the run. I got confused, thought some shadows were following me. It's...I'm just spooked. It's not weird to be weird after what we went through."
"It is not," he agrees. He cleans the skin and the wound, working carefully and slowly. After a few minutes of Valkyrie's tinnitus and the tune rolling around her head, Skulduggery murmurs, "You saw one."
"And you know the rumour about those who have laid eyes on the Faceless Ones?"
Skulduggery hands the needle to Valkyrie along with medical floss. Valkyrie threads it, giving it back. It's impossible for her to fight him, to bullshit him. "They become gibbering messes, yes."
"You, I can attest to, are nothing close to those rumours."
"So the rumours are false."
Skulduggery glances at her before returning to his work, sterilising the needle. "You really do need to remove the facade now."
"I'd rather keep it."
Skulduggery tilts his head and Valkyrie swallows. His hands go to her collar, but he doesn't move without her permission. She nods, and his leather-covered phalanges glide across the bone.
Valkyrie looks at her thigh in horror. It's oozing, the blood dark and clotting, half-congealed.
"Ready?" Skulduggery asks.
She isn't. Oh, God, she isn't. "Yes," she whispers.
The needle slides into her flesh, and she winces, watching the skin tear around, sliding into place and splitting away in others. Valkyrie leans back on her hands and looks at the ceiling. She sees the shadows shifting around her peripheral. She wants to ask Skulduggery to turn another light on - turn all of the lights on - but she keeps calm. She focuses on her breathing.
"You feel no different?" he asks while he works. He says nothing about her skin, about the wound that keeps getting bigger the longer he tries to patch it.
"Everything feels different," she says. "Everything and nothing."
"You are still in shock."
"I know," she says even though she doesn't think this is shock.
"You got spooked on your run, you say?"
"Yeah," Valkyrie whispers. "I thought I saw one of Them. I accidentally tugged Xena off her feet and things got...chaotic." It's almost the truth. Close enough. "She didn't mean to."
"Of course," Skulduggery hums. "She would only bite you if it was required."
Valkyrie tries to ignore how thin her hand looks, how bony. She reaches out and touches the back of Skulduggery's head, her pallid skin easing across his smooth dome. He stills for a moment but doesn't look up, choosing to refocus on his work.
After the last stitch, the moment the needle is tossed in the trash, Valkyrie reaches out to Skulduggery. He comes to her, and she cradles his skull; it tucks under her chin and against her sinking sternum. Skulduggery gently rises up, but he does so slowly. Valkyrie's hands slide down his starched shirt, resting against the filled-out abdomen.
"Can you...can you tell me the truth?" she asks, voice shaking.
"I will never lie to you."
She licks her dry lips, looks past his shoulder, and then whispers, "Do I look the same?"
Skulduggery doesn't ask her what she means. He doesn't answer the question automatically or without thought. He steps back from her, giving her room. She slides her shirt off, tossing it aside. She unhooks her bra. She slides off of the counter, slowly stepping out of her panties.
She stands there, and Skulduggery watches her. "Turn," he says after a moment. She does. "Turn," he requests again. When she does, he moves toward her. He stops a foot away and regards her face. He touches her jaw and tilts her head to the sides. He runs his hands through her hair and cradles her nape.
"You look scared," he murmurs. "Your eyes are wider than usual - darker, as well. The pupils enlarged more than this lighting calls for. Jagged, almost. This could all be due to shock from the past week."
"What if it isn't shock?"
Skulduggery pulls his gloves off, tossing them on the countertop; his bared bones slide across her face, down her neck, settling at the divot below her throat. "Your colour is good. I don't see any additional scars I wasn't aware of. Grouse did a wonderful job."
Valkyrie's eyes close, and she lets out a sigh.
You're halfway to gibbering, Darquesse murmurs.
"I know," she says aloud. Skulduggery doesn't find this an odd response, so Valkyrie doesn't worry about it.
Do you think people know that they've gone mad when they do? Darquesse muses.
Skulduggery's arms move around her waist. He holds her to him; she wills herself to cry, wills herself to do something besides stare vacantly over his shoulder, mind filled with buzzing bees and unfathomable colours.
"Are you cold?" he asks.
"No," she says because dead things don't feel the cold; Skulduggery told her that their first night together.
"I'm in shock." She doesn't know if it's true, but it's the simplest way to avert his concern. "Hey," she says, a crooked, exhausted smile tugging the left side of her lips, "remember Abby Daye?" Skulduggery pulls away, regarding her, and she continues, "She wants me to come to her birthday party so she can apologise. I could use a handsome date who's good with small talk. You with me?"
Skulduggery chuckles, pressing his teeth to her temple. "Until the end."
Chapter 42: Work Emergency
Chapter Forty-Two, in which Abby Daye's birthday party is not what Valkyrie or Skulduggery expect.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Valkyrie takes a deep breath and pushes a leaf into her mouth, chewing, then swallowing some water to get the taste out. "Okay," she says.
"Everything-ache," she replies. "To recap - we go in, we mingle. I have an awkward and not-at-all-fun chat with the girl I paralysed-"
Valkyrie doesn't respond to that. "And then we pretend we have an emergency. Easy." She opens the passenger door of the Bentley and retrieves the present from the boot - an obnoxiously expensive array of Parisian wines.
Skulduggery places a comforting hand on the back of her elbow before taking the box from her. His eyes are a pale grey and look gorgeous against the tanned glow of his skin. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"I faced down a world-ending God last week. I can handle this."
They don't even have the chance to breathe - metaphorically, in Skulduggery's case - before the door to the closest flat opens and Carol calls, "Steph!" She freezes when she takes in the sight of Skulduggery. Valkyrie wonders if Carol would spare a single glance at Fletcher if this facade was nearby. "Wow. I mean...um. Is this your boyfriend?"
"It is. Carol, this is Skulduggery Pleasant. Skulduggery, this-"
"S -- wait, you were that man at Gordon's Will reading! How...how do you look so young?"
"I was a very tall child," Skulduggery replies. "And I enjoyed overcoats and large scarves. Puberty solves all late-blooming fashion mistakes."
Valkyrie bites down on her lower lip and tries to keep from laughing. "I had a similar reaction when we met. Re-met, I guess, but I didn't remember him from back then."
"Right," Carol says, eyebrows furrowing. She doesn't look entirely convinced, but it doesn't matter.
Abby Daye comes to the door. She smiles up at Valkyrie, no sense of animosity or hatred on her face. She looks downright welcoming. "Stephanie Edgley! My God, you don't look a day over eighteen!"
Valkyrie is surprised to find that the little bloom of darkness flares a bit, coating her churning insides, calming her. She grins, crosses the space between them, and leans down to hug the woman whose childhood she ruined. "I'm so glad you wanted to see me," she lies. It sounds so real. It seems so convincing. "I've thought about everything so often - I've wanted to call-" lies "so many times, but I just...I guess I was worried I'd bring up bad memories." Liar.
When she pulls back, Abby looks stunned. The expression wipes itself away after a moment, though, and she beams. "Stephanie...I should have apologised so long ago. We were such good friends."
"Best friends." Lie. Dear God, what a lie.
Abby glows. "It's so good to see you."
A car pulls up behind them, and Abby's smile somehow brightens tenfold. "Kenny!" she calls, unable to wait for the man to finish walking their way. "Kenny, this is Stephanie and -- oh God, how embarrassing! I didn't catch your name."
Skulduggery has gone very still beside Valkyrie, so she rushes out, "Oh, God, if I didn't have my head attached. This is my boyfriend, Skulduggery Pleasant."
"What an interesting name," Abby says. The man is bustling up with bags of ice and Abby begins, a little softer, "Kenny, this is Stephanie, the girl I told you about. And this is her boyfriend -- Skulduggery, right?"
"Exactly." Skulduggery's smile doesn't reach his eyes. "Skulduggery Pleasant. It's a pleasure to meet you, Kenny."
"What an interesting name!" Kenny proclaims, but his lips tilt up a bit at the corners. "I've run into some people with oddball names recently. Are you all coming up from the sewers?" he tries to joke, but only Abby laughs.
"Thankfully, no - I have a house and everything." Skulduggery takes Valkyrie's elbow. "I forgot something in the car; go on in without me."
Valkyrie raises a brow but nods, taking the large and heavy present from under his arm. "Sure."
Abby leads them inside; Kenny is overly cheerful and overly chatty - Valkyrie hates overly cheerful and overly chatty.
"So, how did you two meet?" Kenny asks when he takes her to the table for presents. The music is loud, so he leans in closer than Valkyrie likes. He smells good - redwood or something like that.
"We're detectives," she smiles, hoping Abby shows up with their drinks soon. "We met when our cases intersected. After that, we never really stopped working together."
"What kind of case was it?"
"My case was a theft - his was a murder."
"Damn, that sounds exciting! How did you decide to go into law enforcement? Carol seemed to think you were working your way toward a veterinary degree."
Valkyrie tries not to roll her goddamn eyes. That fucking Reflection and her obsession with being a vet. A noble goal, yes, but it's annoying that it somehow became Valkyrie's personality in the post-high-school mortal world.
"It just happened."
Kenny opens his mouth for another question, but a hand wraps around Valkyrie's upper arm; Skulduggery's voice purrs against her ear, "There's an emergency." He offers Kenny an apologetic smile, but his tone is dark, urgent. "We are so sorry; something came up with work. Criminals never take a day off, you know."
And then he's guiding her out of the house and rushing her into the car.
"What happened? Did Caisson-"
"No," he replies, his tone hard. "What happened is that the man Abby Daye is marrying knows about Roarhaven. Knew about Roarhaven. He had a visit with our 'community outreach' three years ago, but evidently their persuasions didn't take. His involvement with Ms Daye is too large a coincidence. Especially when Ms Daye suddenly extends an olive branch to someone she thinks harmed her."
"Magically harmed her," Valkyrie groans, sinking into her seat. "And we walked right in."
"We did," Skulduggery murmurs. "Not to worry - Geoffery Scrutinous in on his way. He will convince Mr Dunne that he got a bit silly with alcohol and nothing out of the ordinary has happened or will happen."
"Is that going to work this time?"
"It will have to if he doesn't want his brain altered, his life taken away and replaced with something else. Lucky for us, your cousin is in close quarters with the both of them. Perhaps a few drop-ins will tell us more."
Valkyrie stays quiet until they are out of Haggard. "Remember the resort in Jamaica?"
"Remember how bored we got? How much we hated it?"
"I do, yes."
"I kind of wish I could enjoy boredom. It might keep me out of trouble."
Skulduggery's hand finds hers, squeezes it. "You were born for trouble, Valkyrie. Trouble, destruction, and mayhem."
Valkyrie looks at him out of the corner of her eye. The shadows swirling around the edges of her vision make his waxy skin look like it's melting.
"Yeah," she says, not remembering what he said and not caring. "Yeah, you're right."
Aaaaand scene! We're done with instalment 5 of the Fractured Crown series. Part 6 (When the Levee Breaks) will be up on October 15th. It will be a small spin-off, like Doves and Ravens, but this one will focus on Leviathan and Melancholia in Louisiana. We'll also have Never, Sanguine, and Valkyrie as supporting cast members.
♥ I hope you enjoyed Gods and Monsters! Lots of love to all of you - see you in October! ♥