-and all his muscles contracted, and his head thumped against the desk as his body curled in on itself, abject agony tearing itself from his throat, filling the room, bouncing off the walls, echoing off the floor, but by the time it reached his own ears he’d fallen silent, unable to breathe, unable to make a sound, the noise of blood and static filling his head, the vague idea of his family at the very boundaries of his mind, being pushed out by this pain, the half-thought concept that this, here, now, was death-
-and he retched as the pain stopped, shocking himself with the speed of the breath he took, and again, and again, air shuddering past his lips and filling his lungs, his muscles relaxing and sitting up like a competent human being, his pen rolled to one side on the desk and the topmost piece of paper he’d been scribbling on a little crumpled, letting the familiar, comforting silence of his own study wash over him and for a split second it was like everything was normal.
Then a floorboard creaked, Serpine took another drag of his cigarette, and Gordon was depressingly reminded that, more than likely, nothing would ever be normal again, not after today.
“This is getting sad, Gordon,” and Serpine stepped across the study, within arms’ reach of the writer, placing two still-gloved fingers of his left hand underneath Gordon’s chin and lifting, and the two met eyes.
“Watching you suffer like this, truly, it is incredibly sad. I’ve always rather respected you, you know,” he paused, stepping backwards, taking another lungful of smoke and gently exhaling towards the ceiling, “you’ve always… impressed me. Your collection of books and artefacts, magnificent. And honestly, the sceptre? I could scarcely believe it. You truly do rival the collections of those such as Sorrows and Stray in their prime. And to have accomplished all this in a short mortal lifetime? Phenomenal.” He tapped the cigarette into the ashtray on Gordon’s desk, rarely used these days. Gordon was considering it rather heavily at the moment, but he didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t interrupt Serpine’s monologue. It was almost like a James Bond film, where the bad guy revealed his entire plan, giving 007 a chance to defeat him with extreme skill.
Unlike Bond, however, Gordon wasn’t going to come out on top here, and he knew it.
“I ask again. Where is the key?” Gordon raised his eyebrows in response, and sighed, praying his voice wouldn’t crack and betray him when he spoke.
“Regardless of whether or not I tell you, you’ll kill me for the sceptre, won’t you? I know you aren’t stupid. I know that you know the previous owner has to be dead. And even aside from the fact you aren’t even certain I’m the owner, you’re after considering letting me live, because I’d tell everyone what you’re doing.” Gordon paused, and took a deep breath. His voice shook slightly when he spoke again.
“So kill me. Kill me, you bastard, because I’m not telling you where the key is.” Serpine hummed a low note for a second, and then tutted, before stubbing out the very last of his cigarette amongst the ashes in the ceramic dish.
“I struggle to know if you’re stupid or brave. You are, unfortunately, correct that there is no way for you to live beyond today. However, your options are whether you die in agony, after several more hours of torture at my leisure, or whether you die mercifully and quickly. And the difference is one piece of information which I’ll find out eventually anyway. Put like that, Gordon, are you sure you wouldn’t rather just tell me?” Gordon snorted sardonically, and glared at Serpine.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Serpine’s expression hardened. He raised his right hand from where it was hooked casually into his belt loop. Gordon tried not to let his face belie the fear that rushed into his throat, filled his mouth with saliva, made wetness begin to pool in his eyes, but he was utterly helpless to what he knew would happen. He saw the purple mist a split second before he felt the pain, and he screamed, smashing his head involuntarily into the desk again as Serpine smiled, a warped thing of anger and malice, and Serpine curled his right hand as he looked upon the man who held the only damn secret stopping him. Again, he relaxed and it permitted Gordon to relax too, sucking in air and coughing as he did so. His cheeks were wet. Serpine ran his left hand across spines of books on the shelves lining the room, skimming over titles, some in languages he hadn’t seen in centuries, gently tracing patterns on some with no words, and he stopped when he reached a shelf with a large gap between some of the central books. There was a photo frame in the space, and Serpine picked it up, looking at the photo. Gordon felt a pang as he watched Serpine’s eyes gloss over the little image of those he loved.
“And this is the Edgleys, I suppose? You’re the only unmarried brother, I seem to recall. Tell me,” Serpine said, placing the photo down on the desk in front of Gordon, “who is who?” Gordon looked up at him, and felt he was sick of Serpine hovering above him, so he stood up, pushing his chair backwards and ignoring the slight swimming of his vision from the lingering effect of that red right hand. Serpine quirked an eyebrow, but said nothing, as Gordon walked to a large, floor-mounted globe next to the desk. He ran his hand around the equator and there was a soft click, and the top half of the globe opened to reveal a small shelf of liquor and several glasses of various types. He moved two short tumblers and a bottle of Dead Rabbit whiskey to the front. As he poured, he didn’t measure, simply eyeballed the amount he put in each of the two glasses and replaced the whiskey, put the two drinks on his desk, and closed the globe with another soft click. He turned his attention back to Serpine, and motioned for him to take one of the glasses. Serpine nodded, and in return, tugged his carton of cigarettes from his coat pocket, flicked it open, and proffered it to Gordon. Gordon declined, and sat back in his desk chair, feeling a little calmer, more in charge of the situation. He took a small sip of his drink and gazed down at the photograph as he heard Serpine’s lighter click somewhere at his side.
“The Edgleys, yes. My two brothers and their families. I’m sure you will understand me not giving their names.” Serpine smiled, a hint of malice in it.
“But of course,” he replied, shifting his newly-lit cigarette to be held between his middle and ring finger before lifting his whiskey to his lips. “A curiosity of mine, Gordon. Why do you continue to be addressed by Gordon, even though you have taken a name?” Gordon shrugged, still looking at the photo. It was from last Christmas, and he was stood in the middle with a hand on Stephanie’s shoulder. Her Christmas jumper had a grumpy elf on it. Melissa had earrings shaped like fluffy Christmas trees and was smiling beautifully, and Desmond was unusually in matching socks (but only because they were Christmas-themed). Beryl and Fergus were holding hands, and Gordon knew they’d had rather a sweet moment before he’d fetched them so the photo could be taken (since he’d interrupted it). Carol and Crystal both looked quite smug - their parents had said they could each have a small glass of wine with the evening’s supper. He grew a little concerned he was going to cry again, but tried his best to steel himself and instead lifted the picture and held it out to Serpine. Serpine acquiesced, taking the frame and putting it back on the shelf he’d gotten it from.
“Gordon is my name. I’ve never really understood why sorcerers believe that your given name isn’t yours, just because someone else gave it to you. When someone buys you a gift, it becomes your possession, doesn’t it? Yes, I have a taken name because of the rules of the magic, but I don’t see the need to use it.” He retrieved his pen that had rolled across the desk and come to rest against a stack of papers, and straightened the piece of paper he’d crumpled when he’d hit against the desk. He rolled the pen between his fingers.
“An interesting view. Perhaps,” Serpine replied, “it is different for those of us born into the magical community. Or hundreds of years ago. Or a combination of the two!” Serpine took another sip of his whiskey, seemingly idle, so Gordon was not expecting it at all when he was suddenly in agony once more, screaming, dropping the pen, his muscles seizing and hitting against the desk once more, narrowly missing his own glass as he did. But this one was worse, and Serpine kept it going for much longer, and Gordon felt like his heart was going to collapse in on itself, and he started to feel so, so cold, and then he was free and could breathe and see again. More tears had escaped him this time, and without noticing he’d managed to cut his own palm with the nail on his index finger from how tightly he’d clenched his fist. He took a tissue from the box on the far side of the desk, his hand shaking, and blotted the drops of blood as Serpine watched.
“Have you changed your mind?” Serpine asked, draining the last of his whiskey and putting the glass down on the desk.
“Skulduggery Pleasant will know you’re involved.” Serpine barked a laugh.
“And Eachan will ignore him like he has done for the last seventy years. Do you know, Gordon, who the last man I had for dinner was? Bliss. You have, unfortunately, gotten caught up in the ugly side of my life, but all of the sorcerers with influence, including the Council’s, view of me is rather favourable indeed.” Gordon took a sip of whiskey, trying to curb his trembling.
“You know he’ll eventually snap and ignore their warnings. He’ll come after you.” Serpine sighed.
“Do you know, almost everyone who has been annoyed with me since the war ends up using Skulduggery Pleasant as a threat? And I’ve never been able to understand why. Why ought I view him as a threat? I killed him. Surely he should feel threatened by me.”
“Because you know what he’ll be like when he gets you.”
“Which is why I won’t let him.” Serpine’s voice turned dark. “The key, Edgley. Now.”
Gordon snorted. Serpine’s eyes narrowed and he raised his hand, and this time Gordon wailed before he screamed and lapsed into silence. He shook with the pain, with the spreading coldness, and his thoughts were too much and floating away at the same time. After ten seconds, Serpine stopped, and Gordon tried to take a breath, but he was only halfway through refilling his lungs when the pain started again, and he wished for it to end, for it to be over, his mind screamed at him to beg Serpine for it to stop, and for a dumb moment he perhaps thought Serpine had read his mind, but he then he managed to clear his fuzzy brain and realised Serpine was simply letting him breathe. Because, of course-
“It’s no fun if you die of your own volition, Edgley, even if it is indirectly me. I will choose your death and it will be agonising. The last thing you will know is that pain, and the idea,” Serpine stepped closer and pushed his gloved hand against Gordon’s throat, pushing his head back, “that you died like a dog at another man’s whim. And that experience will be pointless, because I will get the key anyway! ” He was snarling by the end of his sentence, pushing against Gordon’s windpipe, making his breaths wheeze as he took them. He said nothing.
Serpine made a noise of frustration and the pain, the absolute agony, started again, but Gordon was pinned upright in his chair this time by Serpine’s left hand. He was only vaguely aware of anything beyond the pain, but he did know he was shaking, his muscles fighting against this restriction in curling up. He could swear he heard Serpine, the psycho, laugh. When the pain disappeared, he retched, his throat spasming under the gloved hand, and Serpine pushed harder in response, choking Gordon harder. The choking was no longer a threat, it was causing actual restriction in Gordon’s breath. He wanted it to stop. The pain from his other hand was enough. An idea popped into his head, although it wouldn’t be pleasant.
He pushed himself forward as hard as he could, pain shooting across his neck and he crushed himself against Serpine’s hand. Serpine looked confused for a second, and then pulled away from Gordon like he’d been burnt. Gordon smiled slightly and raised a hand to his throat, rubbing it gently. He was right - Serpine wanted the Gardaí to see this as a natural death. There could be no evidence. So, maybe, he thought, this could be stopped - Serpine wouldn’t learn the key wasn’t here until the house had been completely trashed for it, and he wouldn’t have someone do that until his body had been taken by his family. There was time. And if he’d managed to come to this conclusion, he was sure Skulduggery would. He was a detective, after all. He felt a little better now. Looking up at Serpine, he could see the anger written on the sorcerer’s face. Gordon had, essentially, called his bluff.
“You really do think you’re clever, don’t you? A mortal who’s managed to get so much knowledge about all of this. A mortal who’s met the council, friends with the Dead Men, with the Sceptre of the Ancients . A pathetic little mortal who’s convinced so many that he can be left with all this, who doesn’t need to be persuaded it was all fictional, just something made up for your books.” Serpine raised his right hand, and Gordon screamed, but Serpine raised his voice, anger clear in his tone.
“Do you regret it? Do you wish you’d thought it was a fairy story? You’re going to die, all because you couldn’t stop living such an exciting, special life. You deserve to die.” He lowered his hand, and Gordon gasped, a sob escaping him, a few tears dropping to his lap. Serpine’s voice was much quieter now, barely more than a whisper.
“It matters not. My Gods would have you killed anyway, in the end. Give me the key.” Gordon focused on his breathing, calming himself, stemming the tears. His voice was weaker.
“No.” This time, instead of the red right hand, the first pain Gordon felt was Serpine unexpectedly backhanding him across the face, hard, and it shook his brain. Serpine was rapidly losing his composure, and it was showing. Gordon wondered what he had been like in the war.
“Then agony it is,” came Serpine’s growl, and the agony did indeed start again.
The pattern continued for a while, exactly how long Gordon couldn’t pinpoint, but since Serpine had chain-smoked his way through an entire packet of cigarettes judging by the smell of the study, it had to have been rather a while. He’d experience the pain of the red right hand, perhaps for five seconds, perhaps for thirty, and it would stop, and he’d breathe once or twice or thrice before it happened again and again and again. At some point in his pain, he’d pushed his chair back far enough that he’d fallen to the floor when he’d curled with the next bought of burning agony. He’d not been able to get up, and while it was somewhat humiliating, he managed to find a slight relief in the gaps simply from the fact he was lying down. When it seemed to stop, when Serpine seemed to have no intent of raising his hand again right this second, he stretched out slightly, easing the cramping blossoming in the arm that had been trapped underneath him, and after a minute he pushed himself up, careful not to hit his head on the desk.
To his surprise, by the time Gordon was standing and his vision refocused on the world around him, Serpine was not in the room. For a second, he naïevely hoped that the man may have left altogether, but he quickly came to his senses and supposed Serpine was probably looking around the house, seeing if anything caught his interest as the possible hiding place of the key. Shakily, Gordon settled himself back into his chair, and drank the few sips of whiskey left in his glass, thankful that at least for now, Serpine was inflicting no more pain upon him. He wondered if he should try and escape, but he knew from the car he’d seen outside that Serpine had been driven here by someone and likely still had people watching Grimwood. The nearest landline was downstairs - he didn’t want to hear it while he was upstairs writing - which Serpine would either find him going to or worse, find him mid-call and learn who he had asked for help. His mobile phone was in his bedroom, and he thought the same about Serpine catching him. It would also, he thought, make him look less nonchalant about the situation, which he was trying his best to be. He’d left preparations for this situation with Fedgewick. Skulduggery would do something about it, even if it was post-mortem for the both of them. And Gordon really didn’t fancy managing to escape and spending the rest of his life having to hide from Serpine, abandoning his mortal family.
He almost laughed to himself. He’d not noticed he did that, but he’d done it before. Call Des, Fergus, all of them, his ‘mortal’ family, despite being mortal himself. The others did it too: Skulduggery, Ghastly, they always referenced his mortal family, and even the time he’d met Meritorious, the Grand Mage had inquired as to his mortal family. He supposed it was because he was living in a sort of limbo between magic and mortal, just as Serpine had said earlier, but he regarded it in a more positive light. That’s also, he supposed, what his books were: stories of magic, of people from Tanith Low to Mevolent, all adjusted for a mortal palate. The gap between, appreciated on both sides. Friends with his brothers (one of them, at least) and their wives (one of them, at least) and his nieces (one of them, at least), friends with Finbar and Dexter and Cassandra. A crush on China, a crush on Melissa (and neither of them had ended up marrying him). Books on his shelves by Mary Shelley and Stephen King, books on others by Gracious O’Callahan and Donegan Bane. A happy limbo, if there was such a thing. It was going to end today, though.
So why simply sit and wait for Serpine to return? Why let his last acts in his existence be overwhelmed with fear? Why let a man who couldn’t even get one piece of information out of a pathetic mortal control that? A renewed resolve washed over him, and he shuffled his chair back closer to his desk. He stood for a minute to open the window, to get Serpine’s smoke out of the room. He found his pen under his desk with his foot and picked it up, he smoothed the page of notes he’d been writing, and resumed them, adding words, crossing them out, forming a sentence and reshuffling it. After a few minutes, he was happy with it, so he reached across his desk and lifted his typewriter gently, moving it towards him. Gordon loved his typewriter - it was an old but well-maintained model, an authentic replacement key once found for him by China Sorrows, with a recently-replaced ribbon for this final section of his manuscript. Darkness was due to be submitted soon, and he had adored writing it, and he had been rather sad it was coming to an end. His life was currently taking precedence on the scale of ‘things he didn’t want to finish’, but it didn’t mean he didn’t mourn for this novel, and indeed the others he had ideas for. He put some paper in and began to type, occasionally looking at his notes, well-practiced hands rarely hitting the wrong key, and it became more and more fluid as he went on. The pit in his stomach, the fear and the dread, was being covered, although he felt a pang every now and then as he wrote a word, thinking how he’d never secretly slip Stephanie a copy when her parents came for dinner, how he’d never get to hear Skulduggery guessing which bits of which anecdotes had been slotted in where. He paid no mind if he occasionally heard a door being opened and closed, if he heard a creaking stair, if he heard Serpine cough. He tuned it all out and wrote, especially dismissing any footsteps, and that’s why he didn’t notice when Serpine appeared in the open study door. If he had done, he’d have perhaps thought that he’d expected another conversation before it came to this. Perhaps more torture.
As it was, Gordon Edgley’s sudden death came as a shock to everyone - not least himself. One moment he was in his study, seven words into the twenty-fifth sentence of the final chapter of his new book And The Darkness Rained Upon Them , and the next he was dead. A tragic loss , his mind echoed numbly as he slipped away.