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Anatomy of a Mask

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Elias rubbed at his temples, trying to ease the sudden migraine. It was his own fault – he’d known that trying to look into the mind of the nervous young woman in front of him wouldn’t tell him anything, and that it would almost certainly hurt. But he couldn’t resist finding out just what would happen. His curiosity would be the death of him someday, if he didn’t manage to pull off making it the death of everything else first.

What it had felt like was being in a pitch dark room for ten minutes and then looking directly into a strobe light. And for somebody who’s spent the past two hundred years honing the sensitivity of his sight it had, on reflection, perhaps not been the optimal course of action.

“So, Miss Sue… why do you want to work for our institute?”

“I am very interested in the research you do here,” the woman in front of him recited as if from a script. “The Magnus Institute represents the cutting edge of supernatural research and I am excited to be on that edge, helping pull back the veil of the unknown and advancing the knowledge of humankind.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t be applying for a position in our PR department? Never mind,” he added quickly at the flicker of puzzlement that crossed her bland, professional features. “Under normal circumstances, I would tell you that there are currently no archival positions open… however, this is a very impressive resume, and I’m always open to a little expansion in such an important department. Welcome aboard, Miss Sue. Let’s sign the documents and I’ll introduce you to your boss, shall I?”

“Thank you, Mr Bouchard. I look forward to getting to work.”

“Call me Elias, please.” What you look forward to, I suspect, is tracking down whatever secret you’re here to steal from my archives. A small price to pay, I suppose, for the chance that you might try to kill my Archivist. The Institute was well infested with worms already, but it always helped to have a backup. It wasn’t as if Jane Prentiss had ‘dibs’.



---------



“Jon. Do you have a moment?”

“I’m in the middle of a recording.”

“This won’t take long.”

Out of respect for his boss, or at least the concept of having a boss, Jon kept most of the exasperation from his face as he switched the tape recorder off and turned to face Elias. Standing behind him was a young woman whom Jon might describe as… professionally average. She was of average height, white-skinned but not exceptionally pale, and looked about how he’d expect a professional-looking woman in a navy skirted business suit to look. He was hit with the sudden creeping dread that this woman was here to make a statement. She was within her rights to do so, but there was something draining about listening to people drone on about their vague supernatural encounters, and he was already tired from the statement he’d been trying to record. At least, he consoled himself with the thought, she seemed the type to be sensible about it, and not waste his time with mindless flights of fancy.

Although he didn’t know why he bothered making such judgements any more, even to himself. The laptop’s recording software would tell him whether the statement was genuine or not. He was a bit resentful over that; it felt like cheating, to rely on a software glitch instead of proper research.

Jon, this is Mary,” Elias said. “She’ll be joining the Institute as your assistant next Monday.”

Jon stared. He couldn’t help it. After a few seconds he managed to choke out, “I, ah, wasn’t informed that you were hiring any more archival assistants, Elias.”

“You really do need to check your email more often.”

“Still, I would prefer to be informed in advance, outside of email – ”

“You are. That’s why I’m here now; to inform you a week in advance. Since Mary was already in the building, I felt that introductions were in order.”

“Right. Well.” Jon stood up and offered his hand to Mary. “Welcome aboard then, I suppose.”

Thank you. Jon.” She took his hand and flashed him a smile, and Jon got the impression that she wasn’t really looking at him. Or more, that she was very much looking at him, in the way one might look at a painting or a chair, or a diagram that one was trying to understand. Jon often felt like he was being watched in the archives despite the lack of security cameras, but Mary’s gaze was an alarmingly opposite sensation.

H er handshake, too, was strange. Perfectly performed, a textbook firm handshake, but she gripped his hand with spread fingers like she was trying to envelop it and shifted her grip slightly like she was trying to… what, feel as much of his hand as possible? Jon, whose general handshake proclivities worked in the opposite direction, withdrew his own hand as soon as it was polite and managed to avoid instinctively wiping it on his trousers. He felt like it should be sweaty, but Mary’s hand had been quite dry.

“I suppose I’ll see you Monday, then. Is there anything else, Elias?”

“I don’t believe so. Good day, Jon.”

As soon as they left, Jon checked his email. Elias had indeed sent a notification about the new archival assistant… three minutes before appearing at Jon’s door. Not for the first time, Jon wondered if he did things like this on purpose.

-----------------



“Another assistant?” Martin asked, handing Jon his morning cup of tea.

“It seems so.”

“Well, what’s she… what’s she like?”

“Professional.” Jon sipped from his mug. “Thank you for the tea, Martin.”

“No problem. Right. So when does she…?”

“Monday. Do you have work to be getting on with?”

“Yes. Right. I’ll just go and, um… right.”

There was something about Jon, Martin reflected as he left the office, that always made him feel tongue-tied and awkward. Well, if he were being perfectly honest with himself, that wasn’t completely unusual – Martin often felt tongue-tied and awkward around other people; he had ever since he was a kid, and even in school it had… well, anyway, it was worse with his boss. He suspected things would be a lot easier if he could stop stressing out about trying to get Jon to like him. Jon didn’t seem to care if people liked or were impressed by him; why couldn’t Martin be like that?

But that was something for him and his poetry notebook to figure out later. For now: work.

“Martin!” Tim dashed around a corner, nearly barrelling into him.

“Tim! You’re here early.”

“So are you.”

“I… didn’t leave.”

“Oh. Right.” Tim squished a silver worm under one shoe. “You think the new girl knows about the worms? You got the email about the new girl, right?”

“Yes,” Martin said, reminding himself to actually check his email later. “I was just talking about her with Jon actually, and she seems…”

“Like some kind of corporate spy or something? I agree. So I’m thinking – ”

“Spy? What?”

“Come on, Martin. Her name is Mary Sue. Like, they’re not even trying.”

“I’m not familiar with – ”

“MARY SUE, Martin.”

“Okay, so Sue is an unusual surname, but it’s not – ”

“It’s not a surname at all! It’s… you don’t see anything weird about that?”

Martin shook his head, puzzled. “Tim, what are you talking about?”

“Okay so, you know Star Trek, right? Well, there’s this thing where writers…” Was Tim blushing? “Look, it’s not important! Point is, that’s not her real name. She’s a spy.”

“Why would anyone want to spy on the archives of a not-very-prestigious research institute?”

This seemed to stymie Tim for a moment. After a few seconds of deep thought, he said, “Artifact storage! She’s here to steal artifacts.”

“Then why didn’t she get a job in artifact storage? And why would a spy use a name that’s obviously fake? If it’s obviously fake and immediately pegs her as a spy, it’s more likely that it’s real, right?”

“That’s what she wants us to think, I bet.” But Tim was grinning while he said it.

Martin sighed. “Tim, you’re not going to bother this poor girl about her name, are you?”

“Ha! Bother her about her name? Would I do something like that?”

Martin didn’t dignify that with a reply. “Well, maybe it’s a code name for a super secret supernatural worm exterminator,” he said sarcastically. “Maybe she’s some hypercompetent worm-killing government agent who’s going to sweep in here, solve all of our problems for us, and sort this place out.”

“I know you’re joking, but that actually does fit,” Tim said.

Martin resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “I was about to put the kettle on if – ”

“Martin, you’re literally holding a cup of tea right now.”

“Other people might want some! Oh, hi, Sasha. Why are you here so early?”

“I’m having a slight disagreement with my internet service provider.” Sasha flopped down into her chair. “One thing you can say about the Institute, they have fantastic internet.”

“You know,” Tim said, “there’s this fantastic new service where you can pay your phone company money and they’ll give you as much internet as you want! Right there on your phone!”

“Data plans are a scam.”

“How are you the office hacker and the office dinosaur at the same time? Wait – does this mean you haven’t checked your mail since yesterday?”

“Oh, no – did I miss something important?”

“Yeah. You’re gonna love this – ”

Martin made an escape for the break room before he had to listen to Tim talk about Mary Sue again. He was usually happy to listen to Tim’s joking ‘conspiracy theories’ while he wove some tale about how Rosie’s new shoelaces were a secret rebellion against the dress code that was the first shot in an attempted coup against Elias or something, but somehow he didn’t think “Welcome, Government Spy!” was a great attitude to greet a new coworker with. What if she didn’t get the joke?

--------------



“It… it was just a joke, alright? Don’t…”

“A joke!” The woman’s mouth opened wide in what Derek could only think of as an imitation of a smile. She tipped her head back and started… laughing?… semi-robotically, in heaving gasps interspersed with giggles. He would have backed away, if her hand wasn’t gripped vicelike around his wrist.

She stopped laughing, very suddenly. “But I am looking for a good time,” she said earnestly. “Do you know where I can find one?”

“I um, I thought you were someone else,” Derek mumbled, pulling back, hoping she’d get the hint and let him go. But instead, the motion seemed to remind her that she had a hold of him, and she lifted his hand up into the sunlight, studying it. The hand around his wrist… changed, somehow?… like something was moving about under her skin.

“Who did you think I was?”

“My, um… my friend.”

“Who is your friend?”

“It doesn’t… look, I’m sorry, alright? Let me go!”

And she did. Without protest, and with a vaguely puzzled look, as if she’d been unaware that holding onto him had been a problem.

As he turned and bolted down the street, she shouted after him, “Thank you for the joke!”

Chapter Text

“It’s a ghost ship, Elias.” Jon hadn’t even sat down after bursting into Elias’ office; he simply paced back and forth, waving the faded statement as if the paper’s existence proved his point.

“I think ‘ghost ship’ is a little fanciful, Jon. I did listen to the recording and yes, while Captain Lukas’ lack of cargo sounds a little strange, you yourself admitted that the ship very definitely exists. Besides, I don’t see how what some shipping company chooses to move around is any of our business. I’m sure that he is simply a smuggler or some such thing.”

“If we could simply clarify – ”

“Where did this sudden interest come from, anyway? Miss Sloane’s report is exactly the sort of thing I’d expect you to dismiss out of hand.”

“Well… yes… I’m sure there is a perfectly normal explanation, perhaps a delusion brought on by the stress of seeing poor Mr Kelly die at sea or some such, but it’s the principle of the thing. If this information is not properly followed up and collated – ”

“Then you will simply have to move onto the next in the enormous room full of disorganised statements that need proper follow up and collation. Such a burden, I’m sure. Preferably one that doesn’t involve Institute donors, hmm?”

“If they are donating to a paranormal research institute, then I am sure they will be more than happy to assist us in our paranormal research.”

Elias leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed at his temples in a vain attempt to alleviate the completely non-supernatural sort of headache that tended to arise with any prolonged contact with Jonathan Sims. “Jon. Do you know how much time I had to spend in meetings apologising to various Lukases after your team’s… enthusiastic… investigation into Evan Lukas’ funeral?”

“Well, I’m sure it – ”

“Five and a half hours, Jon.”

“Ah. Five whole hours? Really?”

“Five and a half! It was exhausting!”

“Yes, I uh, I’d imagine that spending that amount of time – ”

Do you know how hard it is to keep a Lukas in your company for more than three minutes? I had to use every trick in the book, pester so many secretaries; if I hadn’t had so much leverage over Marlena Lukas I definitely wouldn’t have been able to keep them more than an hour. So while I do thank you, Jon, for giving me a reason to beat my personal best, not to mention gain several more thousand dollars’ funding out of several Lukas donors for next year in exchange for me going away, the simple fact is that I’m a bit low on leverage and goodwill over Lukases right now, and it would be highly impolite of me to allow my employees to pester them again so soon after an incident like that. Leave this one be, Jon. Please.”

“… Fine. I won’t send anybody to talk to the captain of the Tundra.”

“Or the crew.”

“Elias – ”

“Or the crew, Jon.”

“… Fine.” The man stalked out of the room like an offended cat, while Elias did his best not to look amused until he was alone.

There was something to be said for having an Archivist who thought he was much better at hiding his thoughts and emotions than he actually was. It made him a lot easier to monitor, at least; being relatively certain of somebody’s state of mind without having to go digging into their mind saved a lot of time and energy. But then, they all started out this way, didn’t they? Even Gertrude had been fairly easy to read for the first year or so, until she started to understand her situation better. Only time would tell if Jon was going to become that… difficult.

P robably nothing to be concerned about. If he did his job correctly, he only needed to keep this up for… a few more years, perhaps? A decade, at most. Two to be safe. He couldn’t predict exactly what the servants of other powers would do, or when, but even the least competent among them would surely be able to leave a mark on Jon during that time. The worms and that Stranger spy, at the very least, should be done with him soon enough.

Monitoring her was going to be exhausting. Elias always made sure to have a little extra energy coming in; the general aura of the Institute kept everyone feeling at least a little bit watched and judged all the time, and few people fear monitoring or judgement in the workplace more than those clinging to a mediocre job in a shrinking industry. The worms helped, leaving those employees ‘in the know’ to wonder exactly where Jane was hiding and if she was watching them, ready to pounce. Still… it might be worth setting something up to give him a little boost, if only so he’d have the energy to keep up with the paperwork while also making sure the newcomer didn’t actually kill his Archivist.

He’d have to think of something.

------------------



Follow-up on that woman being haunted by the ghost of her son,” Sasha announced, barging into Jon’s office and ignoring his annoyed look. She dropped the papers in front of him. “It’s fake.”

Well, yes; I expected as much. Eighty years old, lonely; after such a loss I can imagine – ah, I mean, thank you, Sasha,” he said when she raised an eyebrow. “Out of curiosity, how did you come to the conclusion that she’s mistaken?”

Son’s alive.” She tapped the relevant note in the file. “Changed his name and moved to America. I’ve never heard of anyone being haunted by a ghost of someone still alive, have you?” Also, she added silently, the fact that it’d record to laptop was a clue. Why did nobody ever talk about that? Were they all just supposed to pretend they hadn’t noticed?

“Ah. Excellent work. Thank you. I will update the file and recording appropriately.”

Sasha ran into Martin in the hall.

“He’s not going to tell her, is he?” Martin asked without preamble.

“What?”

“The haunted woman. Is he going to tell her about her son?”

“I don’t know. Ask him. Were you eavesdropping?”

Martin flushed. “No! It’s just, the walls are thin, and I was walking by and I… anyway, if he changed his name and moved away and didn’t tell his mother, then he doesn’t want her to know, right?” Martin followed Sasha down the hall. “So should we tell her? I mean, if he’s hiding from her…”

“I don’t know, Martin. I don’t know whether she wanted to be updated on the situation or not.”

“But then, if she thinks he’s dead and haunting her, maybe she should know, just so she’s not scared? Or… grieving? No, I don’t… I don’t think he should tell her. How did you find him, anyway?”

“Facebook.”

“You found a missing man using a fake name on facebook?”

Yep. Well, not just facebook. I found ‘matching’ photos of our guy on seven different social media accounts and then had to play a bit of Six Degrees through a few websites to confirm if any of them were actually our guy, but he was nice enough to not put photos of himself up on his account, which gave me a massive clue.”

“But… but you just said…”

Friends tagging him in their photos. So I had both the photos and the indication that he didn’t want photos. It was easy.” It hadn’t been. It had taken the better part of a week, some less-than-legal software and two phone calls under an assumed name, which all seemed rather pointless when she already knew the statement wasn’t legitimate, but at some point it had become a matter of personal pride that she couldn’t let go.

“Why do you work here? Why not work for the FBI or something?”

And leave you all alone with Tim? I’m not that cruel.” Also, not American. You watch too many movies, Martin.

You wound me, Sasha,” Tim announced, rounding the corner. “You wound me deeply.”

“Would that I could, after your little prank this morning.”

Puzzlement flickered across Tim’s face. “What?”

“You stuck googly eyes on my laptop, Tim. I opened it up, half-asleep, and found a pair of glow-in-the-dark giant green googly eyes staring at me.”

“Um, no I didn’t.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. “Sure. It wasn’t the known prankster in our group, it was Martin here.”

“I would never!”

“I know, Martin. Or maybe Jon, taking a break from being Mister Professional to dabble in a bit of light pranking?”

“I’m hardly a prankster, Sasha. The occasional joke – ”

“You replaced all the sugar in the tearoom with granulated salt last week,” Martin said.

“One little prank – ”

“You switched all the ink cartridges in my pens to different colours,” Sasha added.

“Okay, two little – ”

“I know it’s you who keeps replacing Jon’s fresh permanent markers with dried-out ones.”

All quality japes! I’d never do something like stick googly eyes to a computer. I mean, where’s the joke there? What’s the message?”

I assume in some follow-up gesture, which I am dreading,” Sasha sighed, pushing her way past the boys. “Why don’t you two pull up a spare desk for our new coworker next week?”

“You’re not going to help?” Tim asked.

“And damage my delicate hands?” Sasha fluttered her recently manicured nails.

“Oooh, the woman card. The suffaregettes would be ashamed of you, Sasha James, shrinking from your right – nay, your duty – to carry a bulky desk up inconveniently steep stairs.”

“We have a service elevator. And it’s nothing to do with being a woman. I am a specialist and must protect my typing hands, whereas you are a brute fit for naught but manual labour. What else are all those fancy muscles for?”

“Martin’s not a brute.”

“I don’t mind helping,” Martin chimed in.

“Martin, hush! You’re weakening our bargaining position!”

As he glanced at Martin, Sasha took the opportunity to vanish down the hall. She really did have a lot of work to get done.

Maybe an extra bit of help around the place wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Chapter Text

The eye problem escalated through the week. No sooner had Sasha forgiven Tim for her laptop than the eyes on the cover of Martin’s novel were covered with gaudy plastic googly ones, thankfully with a glue mild enough not to damage the book. Then, Jon walked into his office to find his own desk, office chair and bookshelf staring at him.

“Where did you even buy googly eyes that big?” Sasha asked as their boss shot Tim a long-suffering look and closed the office door in silence.

“I didn’t! I’m telling you, it’s not me! My jokes are way better than this!”

Nobody believed him at first, but even Sasha had to admit that replacing the eyes of the portrait of Jonah Magnus in the reception hall with giant glittery cartoon eyes was a bit beyond Tim’s usual caliber of prank. And when the HR email went around tersely informing staff that defacing the property of the Institute and coworkers was not acceptable, with a list of examples that made it clear that the problem was interdepartmental, she dropped the issue.

“Oh, so when it’s a few lame eyes in the archives, clearly it’s me wasting everyone’s time, but when it’s something with actually impressive breadth, a building-wide heist of epic proportions, I’m no longer a suspect? Is that it?”

“Do you know what a heist is?” Sasha asked.

“Surely you don’t want to be a suspect?” Martin asked.

That’s not the point! I’m just saying, apparently to you guys the lameness of a joke is a point of suspicion against me, but competence means it isn’t me, and I find that personally insulting.”

Sasha backed away warily. “I know that look. You’re not going to – ?”

“I’m going to find whoever’s doing this,” Tim announced. “They think they can out-prank me? They think that the cheap trick of bringing other departments into the mix means it’s a quality prank? Ha! Artless. We’ll see about this.” He flounced off.

“Should we be worried about this?” Martin asked Sasha.

She shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll get bored soon enough.”

“But what if he doesn’t?”

“Then I guess we just have to hope he’s seeking this guy out as a rival, and not a partner in crime. Can you imagine two Tims joining forces?”

“A rival would be worse, I think. Can you imagine two Tims trying to outdo each other?”

She shuddered. “Good point. Well, I’m sure it won’t come to that. This will probably die down pretty quickly.”

It did not die down pretty quickly.

On Thursday, the HR emails were replaced by an email directly from Elias, simply stating that the “eyebombing” of the Institute was to cease immediately and no more would be said about it, but that any further googly eyes would result in severe disciplinary action. “I am always one to appreciate a joke,” he wrote, to the silent disbelief of all readers, “but we must be protective of the belongings of our coworkers, and their right to work in a professional environment.”

The rate of proliferation of googly eyes decreased after that. But they were still there, showing up in odd places.

It’s kind of a relief, to be honest,” Martin confessed, carefully picking eyes off his keyboard. “A nice change from finding worms, you know?”

“I’d agree with you if we weren’t also finding worms,” Sasha remarked wryly, squishing one underfoot.

A ll in all, Mary showing up at exactly one minute to nine on Monday morning with a placid expression and a business suit was a breath of normalcy.

“So you’re the new girl!” Tim crowed, greeting her with a warm handshake. “I’m Tim. That’s Sasha, and Martin over there.”

“Pleased to meet you, Tim, Sasha, and Martin. My name is Mary.”

“Bossman is in the office, if you want to meet him.”

“We have already met. Is it appropriate for me to greet him?”

“I wouldn’t. He’s nice enough underneath but he gets a bit grumpy if you interrupt him while he’s working.”

“I’ll get you set up,” Martin offered. “Help you understand how to log into the computer system, all that.”

“Thank you, Martin.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Tim said, trailing after the pair as they headed for the recently installed desk, “Mary Sue. That’s your name?”

“Yes.”

“Like, your actual, given name?”

“I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean,” she snapped.

Tim laughed. “The new girl’s got jokes! Perfect!”

Martin pointedly ignored this and waited for Tim to drift away before helping Mary to log on. “So, are you new to London?”

She seemed puzzled by the question, but didn’t take long to answer. “I’m new everywhere.”

“I feel that way sometimes, too. Don’t worry, though, you’ll settle in here pretty quickly. The archives can be a bit… but everyone’s actually really nice, so long as you don’t get in their way.”

“Why does this computer have eyes?”

“Oh. We’ve got a bit of a prankster running about. It’s starting to get out of hand, honestly. I heard from Rosie that they found googly eyes on the Bone Chair in artefact storage yesterday! I mean, sneaking around in restricted areas like the archives without supervision is… not great… and that’s definitely worth disciplinary action alone, but at least it’s harmless. Artefact storage is dangerous! What if they had’ve sat in the chair, huh? Can you imagine?! Uh, no, I… I suppose you can’t.” Martin took in Mary’s look of polite confusion, and flushed. “The thing with artefact storage is, uh… have you worked in research before?”

“No.”

“Oh. Hmm. Fresh out of college, then?”

“Yes!” Mary smiled brightly. “I was in college very recently. It was very interesting.”

“Right, right. And now you’re here. So do you, um… believe… in the supernatural?”

Which one?”

Uh… I, I don’t… well. That’s how you log into the system.”

“Thank you, Martin.”

Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Okay, Martin.”

Right.” Martin retreated, watching Mary peel a plastic googly eye from her computer and examine it.

She seemed… friendly enough.

--------------------



Drinks,” Tim announced, bursting into Jon’s office and sitting on his desk. “Tonight. You’re not busy tonight, are you?”

Jon sighed and closed the file in front of him before Tim’s carelessness could wrinkle it . “And if I was?”

“Then I’m sure it’s nothing so important as office harmony. We want New Girl to feel included, right? So, drinks. It’s your duty as our boss.”

“She might feel more included if you actually used her name.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“How, uh… how is she? As a worker.”

Tim shrugged. “Fine, I think? She’s been typing a lot, anyway. Martin made her a cup of tea and she drank it.”

“Good?”

No, like, as soon as he brought it to her. Piping hot, sculled the whole thing, didn’t look like it hurt her at all. Can’t wait to see what alcohol she drinks.”

“I’m afraid I really don’t think it’s appropriate for me to go – ”

“Workplace cohesion, boss. I promise she won’t even notice that you’re a total lightweight.”

Jon flushed. “How would you even know what my alcohol tolerance was like? I’ve only ever maintained a professional two beers – ”

“Because more would put you under the table, I bet. Also, not true. I was at the Christmas party of ‘13, you know.”

Jon’s cheeks reddened further. “That was a long time ago.”

“Three years ain’t that long, boss. You may not remember that night, and I’m sure nobody else does either, but I do.” He leaned close to whisper, “I know that you know all the words to Caramelldansen.”

“Tim!”

“Do you even speak Swedish?”

“No, I – ”

“Then that’s doubly impressive! Nailing lyrics in an unknown language while that drunk? I always knew I respected you for a reason, boss.”

“How would you know I nailed the lyrics if you don’t also know them, hmm?”

Tim raised his hands. “Okay, fine. You caught me. We’re both guilty. It can be our dirty little secret. Seal the pact with drinks with the others tonight?”

“If I agree, will you leave me alone to work?”

“Of course! I’m not unreasonable.”

“Then leave.”

Tim did, grinning at the feigned venom in Jon’s voice. If it wasn’t for him, Jon would probably never leave his apartment except to go to the office. Not to mention Martin, who was happy enough making friendly small talk and keeping up with the chatter in other departments but way too shy to actually join in group activities without at least some ribbing. What a cold and awkward place the Magnus Institute would be without Tim’s good humour.

Sometimes, he felt like the only one holding this goddamned place together.

--------------



An entire book of faces?” Mary breathed.

“Yeah.” Sasha leaned over her shoulder to type. “I’ll help you get set up.”

“And they are free? All of them?”

“Yeah, Facebook’s completely free. It does gather and sell your data, though. And show you a lot of ads. So I guess it depends on how much you care about your privacy? But there are ways around that.”

“Privacy?”

“Yeah. If there’s stuff you don’t want everyone to know?”

Mary looked puzzled at this. She glanced at the smiling woman on the motivational poster on the wall, her clear blue eyes blessedly unmarred by plastic googly ones, and then at Sasha, cocking her head. But before she could say anything, Sasha said, “Hang on, have you seriously never heard of Facebook? How ?”

“I have been very focused on my studies,” Mary said.

“Uh… right.” That made even less sense. People in college had Facebook. It was crucial to wasting time with meaningless nonsense to avoid studying. But she didn’t want to grill her new coworker on her first day, so she let the issue drop. “So you can put your name in here, but a lot of people like to use a fake one. It has to sound real, or Facebook will pull you up on it. This information, where you went to school and live and work and stuff, is all optional. They know where you are, though, because they track where you log in. And you can put a picture of your face here.”

“This cat has a Facebook?”

“No, that’s just someone with a pet cat who used their pic instead. Grumpy looking thing, isn’t he? Interesting eyes.”

“Heterochromia.”

“Uh, right. Some people don’t use their actual face; you can put a pet or something else if you want. When you’ve got that all set up, I’ll show you how to ‘friend’ people.”

I will have… friends?”

“Yeah. That’s the main function of Facebook.”

“I can just choose friends? From all of these faces?”

“Well, they have to accept your friend request. It’s best to only friend people you know, or are interested in for some reason.”

Mary nodded solemnly. “It’s important to know and be interested in your friends.”

“Um. Yeah. Let me know when you’re ready for the next part.”

“Thank you, Sasha.”

Sasha headed back to her own desk while Mary filled in her Facebook page with the focus and seriousness of somebody filling in a tax form. There was, she reflected, something a little off about their new colleague.

First day nerves, probably. Surely nothing important.

Chapter Text

Jon was, in his opinion, being quite reasonable. He had high expectations for his team, but never asked more from them than they could give; he was always careful to spread the work out and show that it was appreciated; he’d even agreed to this little drink night. So he was blindsided by Tim’s baffling choice to utterly betray him in such a horrible manner. What had he done to deserve something like this? What had he done to offend Tim so badly?

“You knew this,” he muttered to Tim accusatorily as they approached the bar. “You knew that it would be karaoke night here.”

“An honest mix-up, I swear,” Tim said in a tone that very much suggested that it wasn’t.

Jon opened his mouth to suggest going somewhere else, but the girls were already filing inside. Reluctantly, he followed with Tim and Martin. He supposed that he could listen to some amateur caterwauling while politely sitting through this engagement. It wasn’t as if anybody would expect him to sing.

The pub was poorly lit and more crowded than Jon would’ve expected for a Monday night, but the group were able to find a quiet corner table where a large display advertising the beer specials partly muffled the sounds of a 40-ish-year-old woman with pink hair badly singing along to Shania Twain. Jon stared into a beer and wondered why he was here, again.

“So, uh, how do you like the Institute, Mary?” Martin asked.

“She’s been here one day,” Tim pointed out. “She can’t have the full scope of how awesome we are yet.”

“Oh, one day is plenty to see everything about you, Tim,” Jon said.

“You guys hear that? He called me shallow. That’s workplace harrassment, that is. Also hurtful.” Tim put on the world’s fakest pout. “You wound me.”

“Oh, how terrible of me. I suppose the honourable thing for me to do is leave you to your fun.”

“Nice try! The honourable thing to do is have a beer with me.”

“Of course it is.”

Mary’s face, which had been screwed up in concentration, cleared. “I think that the institute contains a lot of information,” she said. “I think that it is impressive that such information can be understood when there is so much of it, in such a chaotic form.”

“Believe me, the ‘chaotic form’ is something I’d very much like to rectify,” Jon said drily. “My predecessor did not know how to organise an archive. At this rate I’ll be hard pressed to have it in a decent state before I retire, and my successor will probably blame me.”

Did Sasha’s lips thin when he said that? No. Sasha had no reason to be annoyed at him. Unless she was defensive of Gertrude, for some reason?

“Your predecessor,” Mary said. “Gertrude Robinson.”

“Wait, you knew Gertrude?” Martin asked. “Somehow?”

“No.” Mary stared at his still-curious expression for a few seconds, seemed to realise that more information was required, and said, “I knew people who knew her.”

Oh, no. This girl had connections with the Insitute, and he’d offended one of them. Great; he’d had a new assistant less than a day and already alienated her. Jon cleared his throat. “What did they, uh, think of her?”

“That she was very skilled and one to watch out for, but that she was not very much of an Archivist.”

Jon relaxed a little and barked a laugh. “I’m sure she was lovely, but they’re right about that last point. Have you seen our filing system?”

“Stage is free,” Tim announced, draining his beer in one gulp. “Jon – ”

No.”

"One song!"

"Over my dead body, Tim."

“You’re no fun. Sasha?”

“I’m not singing a duet with you, Tim.”

“Martin will.”

Martin flushed. “I, um, actually, with all these people around I…”

“Looks like we’re up, Mary,” he said, reaching for Mary’s hand.

Sasha butted his hand away. “Oh, no. You won’t take advantage of her naievete like that. Mary, Tim is a truly awful singer. I would not recommend it.”

“I prefer to think of myself as an enthusiastic singer.”

“And parents of vandals prefer to think of their children as lovable scamps, but that doesn’t stop your voice from being a menace to society,” Jon remarked drily.

“Did you have your sense of fun, like… removed? Is there a physical operation for that?”

“There isn’t,” Mary put in helpfully, throwing back her beer just like Tim had.

“You’re all going to regret not coming up there with me,” Tim declared as he headed for the stage.

Jon sipped his beer and stared at the table. “I regret everything else about this,” he muttered. “What’s new?”

----------------------



He regretted the next morning more.

Tim had talked him into three beers, which really shouldn’t have been the kind of problem it was presenting him with, and Jon was determined not to let on about his headache and invite further teasing about being a lightweight. Said headache wasn’t improved overmuch by the man in front of him babbling about an anatomy class full of strange, inhuman students, and the apple full of human teeth that he presented as ‘proof’ only intensified Jon’s nausea. Fortunately the assistants were all out to Lunch, so as Dr Elliott left Jon’s office he had the time to throw back some painkillers and just… be quiet… for a minute.

Group cohesion had been achieved. Mary had been properly welcomed. Now, hopefully, it would be a long time before he’d have to go out and…

And what? Spend a couple of hours drinking with friends? Oh, the horror.

When had he become like this?

Jon rested his head on his desk and tried to think. He’d never been a party animal, but he vaguely recalled a time when things weren’t this… stressful. When it didn’t seem so important to be professional and distant. It was the archive job, that’s what it was; becoming Tim’s boss, having to e on top of things, be professional, show he was competent. It had been, what, six-ish months? He’d expected to have found some sort of rhythm by now, but things… never settled down. If the others would relax, then maybe he…

But they were pretty relaxed, weren’t they? At least they appeared that way. But Jon always felt like he was being monitored, evaluated, judged. Even here, alone in his office, he felt like someone were watching his weakness – his choice to drink, his inability to tolerate any decent amount of alcohol, his indecency to come in with a mild hangover. His lack of professionalism.

He looked up at the pair of googly eyes staring at him from a box of files on the shelf.

“I really need to talk to Elias about getting better locks down here or something,” he muttered as he got up to remove them. He didn’t expect such a request to be taken seriously, of course; it was the archives, what were people going to steal in the archives? But he and his assistants left personal belongings down here, and accessed their computers and soforth down here, so if somebody was breaking in and putting googly eyes on things… well. Jon supposed he’d have to make sure he logged out of all of his accounts whenever he left the office.

And warn the assistants to do the same, when they all got back to the office.

----------------



Tim didn’t usually eat with the other archival assistants, but he didn’t object when Mary followed him out of the office and down the street. She didn’t say anything, but maybe she was new in town and wasn’t sure where the best food was?

“I was going to grab noodles from this place around the corner. You like Thai food?”

“Okay.”

“How hot do you like it? I warn you, this place can go a bit crazy with the spices.”

Mary glanced up at the lightly drizzling sky, crossing her arms against the chill wind. “Very hot.”

“You sure? Because these people’s ‘very hot’ and your ‘very hot’ might…” eh, who was he? The Scoville police? “Right.”

---------------



Sasha sat in the corner of the coffee shop, laptop balanced on her knees, and typed.

She never thought of this sort of thing as snooping, not really. Sure, in theory, someone bad could do what she did and use it for bad purposes, but she wasn’t going to do anything awful with the information she found. Just because her coworkers’ histories, locations and basic identity information was so easy to find didn’t mean that she, personally, was going to do anything other than look, so there was no reason for them to be worried, and it’s not like she did a thorough profile on her coworkers or anything. She only looked up stuff if she wanted to know it.

And she wanted to know about Mary Sue. Because the idea of somebody not having Facebook in this day and age? Perfectly understandable. Sasha herself wouldn’t have one, except that not having one made people think you were weird. But the idea of someone not knowing about Facebook in this day and age? That was odd. That was very, very odd.

Within thirty seconds, she saw what Tim had meant about the name being weird. There were hundreds of accounts on various social media under the name “Mary Sue” and most of them seemed to be some kind of writers’ joke. Sasha dimly recalled that Tim used to work in publishing before joining the Institute. Maybe that’s why he’d picked up on it. Finding the real Mary Sue – the specific real Mary Sue, there might be several real ones – was going to be difficult, if she was there at all. But she had to be there somewhere. Everyone had an internet presence.

Unless she used a fake name online; then finding her would be harder, especially when she had such an average face. Come to think of it, Sasha couldn’t even recall her face; that’s how much it lacked unusual characteristics. What was Mary’s eye colour again? Was her nose big or small? She wore her hair in a… bun or ponytail or something, and its colour was… light brown? Dark blonde? Might have been a bit red, come to think of it. She had hair, Sasha was sure.

If she was too generic for Sasha to clearly picture, the image recognition software was going to have a field day. At this rate, Sasha might be reduced to an unthinkably basic and crude move.

She might have to ask Mary about her internet presence, because she couldn’t find the information herself.

Sasha hated having to stop and ask for directions.

--------------



Martin fished his neatly wrapped sandwich out of the break room fridge, brushed the pair of googly eyes off the top, and sat down to eat. Tricia (from accounting) put a cupcake in front of him on her way to the kettle.

“Uh, what’s…?”

“It’s from Greg. He says thanks for the advice with the leg thing.”

“Oh! It’s really nothing.”

“Yeah, well, the burn’s healing great now. Also, I think Natalie worked out that you were her Secret Santa for the Christmas in July thing, so – ”

“Oh god, who told her? Those things are supposed to stay secret!”

“Nobody told her. You went three times the gift cost limit, like you do every time.”

“Yeah well, I was only going to get her one ceramic lizard, since she likes lizards so much? And it fit into the budget perfectly. But then I didn’t want it to be lonely – I mean, it’s ceramic, obviously, but I didn’t want her to look at it and think it looked lonely – and I couldn’t decide on which one she’d like the most, so – ”

“Yeah, well, expect some kind of repayment gift from her, I guess.”

“No; I think we’re fine. She won’t want me to know she figured out it was me.”

“That’s what you said about Richard last December.”

“Hey, you got a lot of free cake out of that!”

“As did the entire office. God, I think I’m still on a sugar high.”

“Well. Please thank Greg for this cake for me.”

“Will do.”

-----------------



Tim shovelled noodles into his mouth and then stopped, suddenly self-conscious under Mary’s stare. But she didn’t look judgemental; she was staring, he noticed, at the chopsticks in his hand, carefully lining hers up in her own.

“I can grab you a fork if you want,” Tim offered, but she was already digging them into her own noodles. (She’d ordered the hottest thing on the menu, through what sounded like a bit of a misunderstanding to Tim, but he didn’t want to jump in in case he was wrong and became That Patronising Arsehole From Work.) She got the noodles halfway to her mouth when one of the sticks slid out of her hand at a strange angle, dropping them.

“I can never remember how the hands work,” she said apologetically as he helped her line them up properly between her fingers. The second time, she got them working, and Tim reached for the yoghurt he’d ordered after seeing her order, in case she needed it. But she put the noodles in her mouth and chewed with no change in facial expression, as if she was eating plain rice.

Tim remembered the previous day, when she’d drank an entire cup of boiling hot tea without seeming to notice. “Holy shit,” he whispered to himself.

This called for some experimentation.

--------------------



Using the age and brief history details that Sasha had gleaned from Mary’s facebook account and CV didn’t really narrow down the search. They could be fake, as could her name – the Magnus Institute obviously didn’t check such things, or Martin never would’ve gotten through – but whether something was fake mattered less than whether it was consistent across accounts. Sasha narrowed the search appropriately, picked through twelve Mary Sues across multiple forums and social media accounts, looked at the list of two-hundred-odd accounts to go, and decided she didn’t care enough.

The girl hadn’t heard of Facebook; that’s why she was here. How likely was she to have an Instagram? Even if she did, what would finding it actually tell Sasha? It would be a relief to find that she had an online presence – the idea of not being able to find someone online gave Sasha the heebie-jeebies – but honestly, that would be even weirder at this point. The idea that someone who hadn’t heard of something so basic and universal as Facebook, had dropped out of nowhere like this, who couldn’t seem to give straight answers on the most basic information about themselves, and who seemed confused by even the most basic human…

Oh.

Oh.

Sasha knew what the problem with Mary was.

And she had to warn the others, before they did something stupid.

Chapter Text

Sasha cornered Martin and Tim in back of the archives, between two ancient stacks of boxes held upright more by ancient habits than any integrity to the boxes or the way they’d been stacked. “I’ve figured out what’s up with Mary,” she whispered.

Martin swallowed. “I really don’t think we should be gossiping about – ”

She grew up in a cult.”

The boys stared.

Think about it. Her knowledge is so specific and weird and incomplete. She won’t give a straight answer about her past. And yesterday, she didn’t know what facebook was. She must have had the most sheltered childhood ever, and now she’s out here – ”

That seems like a bit of a radical conclusion,” Martin said. “Everyone in this place is a bit, well, strange.”

I’m normal,” Tim said.

What’s in that box you’re holding?”

I made muffins with different kinds of chilli peppers. Can’t get ghost peppers on short notice but I made do. You don’t want them. It’s not important. Sasha’s right; that explains why she’s using a fake name! She’s on the run or something!”

I don’t think Elias would hire her under a fake name,” Martin said doubtfully. “Isn’t that illegal? For… for tax, or whatever?”

She ran away from her creepy cult family,” Tim continued, “and found herself in London, put herself through college and now she’s here, relying on us to help her through this difficult world.”

She’s doomed, then,” Martin said.

Sasha shook her head. “Don’t… I just wanted to tell you guys so you wouldn’t be all weird with her,” she said. “About her not knowing stuff, or doing stuff strangely.”

You thought that putting this in his head would make him less weird with her?” Martin asked.

Hey,” Tim said, “if she’s on the run from some evil cult – ”

I’m sure she’s not on the run,” Martin sighed.

She might be!”

You’re both blowing this way out of proportion.”

I’m just saying, she’s Team Archive now, and we don’t leave anyone behind. Caring and sensible are our middle names.”

Calm and sensible? Why did you make those muffins, Tim?”

That’s… not important.”

------------------



Here are Dennis Carter’s hospital records, Jon.” Mary slid a printout across the desk.

Jon gave them a glance. “Thank you, Mar – ” He stopped, and looked harder. “Hang on. These are… exceptionally complete.”

They are the full records that the hospital has on him.”

How did you get these?”

I asked.”

You… asked.”

Yes. I told them I was having trouble logging in to the hospital computer and I asked for help. And they helped me.”

Jon just looked at his assistant for a long moment. He wasn’t stupid; he knew that Tim and Sasha and even, on occasion, Martin resorted to… slightly shady practices to track down information. It was necessary, with their shoestring budget and the lack of respect for what should be a highly prestigious organisation, to occasionally fudge the truth about who had sent you, or hop a fence that you perhaps didn’t have permission to cross, but he was sure that they’d never committed proper crimes, like impersonating hospital staff to hack into private hospital records as Mary seemed to be implying.

Well… pretty sure.

Sort of.

Mary, the… the hospital… you do understand how patient privacy works, right?”

No.” She cocked her head quizzically. “How does patient privacy work right?”

Well, uh…” Jon didn’t actually know much about doctor-patient confidentiality laws. He was certain that however Mary had obtained the pages in front of him contravened them in a nontrivial way, but he didn’t know the specifics. “You can’t just go into a hospital and obtain patient records.”

I will remember that. Jon, you asked me to determine the extent of Dennis Carter’s injuries as of October the twenty fifth two thousand and eleven. That was too long ago for physically analysing his body to give me the answers. If you ask similar things of me in the future, how should I get the information?”

Well, you could… you could talk to the hospital, but not by just…” Jon gave up. “Did anybody recognise you there? Did you give them your name? Do you think they’d know you if they saw you again? Just in case it… comes up.”

No.”

Okay. Um… look, Sasha knows about this sort of thing. Next time you want hospital records, talk to her first, okay?”

Okay.”

J on started to flip through the hospital records, but after about thirty seconds, Mary was still there, silently watching him.

Do you need anything, Mary?”

No.”

Ah, okay then. Could you, uh… go and see if the others need help? And thank you for these records.”

You are welcome. Okay.” She left.

Jon went back to looking through the records. If these injury reports were correct, Mr Carter’s story had been… exaggerated. Well, he’d already known it wasn’t a real encounter when it recorded to laptop, so he really shouldn’t be disappointed. And flipping through the hospital records made him feel dirty, like the police were watching him and were about to burst into the office and arrest him as an accessory to whatever the hell Mary had done to get them. He read the whole thing thoroughly anyway, from the childhood stay in intensive care to the deep lacerations found on his back and arms in 2011, building a map of the man’s life, or at least the painful parts of it that required medical attention.

He should destroy this, probably. He certainly shouldn’t put it in the file with the statement, where researchers might find it and question where he’d gotten it.

He should destroy it.

Maybe later, though. There might still be useful information in there, and since the crime was already committed… he read through it again, before locking it carefully in his desk drawer. There was no sense in hurrying to destroy perfectly good information.

------------------------



Hey Mary. Do you want a muffin?”

Mary considered this question carefully. “No,” she said.

You, uh… don’t want one?”

I wasn’t thinking about wanting or not wanting muffins.”

Tim tried again. “You can have one of these muffins.”

Oh. Thank you, Tim.” She reached for a muffin.

Just then, Martin burst in. “Mary! Don’t – ”

It was too late. Mary was already chewing a mouthful of muffin. She smiled brightly at Martin, went to open her mouth, remembered to swallow, and tried again. “Hello Martin. Jon asked me to see if you guys need any help.”

I’m, uh, fine, but… uh, how’s the… muffin?” Martin asked.

It is good.”

It is?”

Yes. Thank you, Tim.” Mary walked out of the room. Martin stared after her.

Amazing, isn’t it?” Tim asked, grinning.

When you said you put chilli peppers in them, did you mean mild ones? Just to give them a bit of a kick? Because that doesn’t sound like you.”

Tim broke a piece off a muffin and handed it to Martin, who nibbled it experimentally and immediately choked, face flushed.

Ha, yeah, that’s about it.”

And she just – ”

I know!”

Huh. Well, some people do like spicy food.”

She should at least be surprised to be given such a hot muffin.”

Well, maybe she doesn’t know what muffins are supposed to taste like? If Sasha’s right about her origins.”

Hmm. Maybe.”

--------------



E lias didn’t have to use any special gifts to hear Sasha storming down the hall towards his office. He sighed and carefully filed away the form he’d been inspecting as she burst in and dumped a pair of googly eyes, cheap and inoffensively tiny, on his desk.

They were in my desk drawer, Elias!”

Is this a confession?”

What? No! My locked desk drawer, where I keep personal items, just… staring back at me when I opened it like some smug offense against privacy!”

Ah, yes,” Elias said drily. “How terrible it must be to have a coworker who doesn’t respect privacy. I know Jon never wanted to make any official complaint over you hacking his computer, but – ”

Sasha flushed. “That’s different. Look. This prankster getting into secure areas is one thing, but going into locked drawers, going through our personal stuff? That’s going way too far. Why is this still happening?”

If you have any idea how to catch this prankster then I would love to hear it.”

You have security cameras!”

Not in the archives.”

They show who goes down to the archives! And they definitely cover other areas of the building that I know have been pranked.”

Perhaps so, but our perpetrator has been very good at staying out of their way. Also, and please keep this to yourself, a lot of our security footage is… well. File corruption is extremely common in monitoring equipment here.”

What? Why?”

I’d like an answer as much as you. I’m given to assume it’s probably due to something in artefact storage, although who knows what. But any footage that might be useful is scrambled, so – ”

So let me look at it. Maybe I can clean it up.”

You’re not authorised to – ”

Then make me authorised! This has gone too far, Elias!”

It’s being handled, Sasha. I can promise you that when we find the culprit, the consequences will be dire. Until then, please try to be patient and carry on as normal.”

While some creep goes through my stuff?! I don’t think so! Elias, I can’t work somewhere where I have to keep looking over my shoulder like this! Find the culprit fast, or I’ll… I’ll…”

You’ll what, exactly?”

I just… I can’t work like this! Fix it!” She stormed out of the office. Once she was well and truly gone, Elias picked up the two googly eyes on the desk and dropped them into his top drawer with all the others.

It helped when employees brought them back to him like this, but if he kept this little scheme up much longer, he was going to have to order more.

--------------



Sasha had mostly calmed down by the time she reached the break room. The idea that some stranger had gone through her drawers was… well. She always felt a bit nervous, working at the Institute, like she was always being watched, like she’d look up from her computer and see someone there just staring at her. She knew it was irrational, probably some psychological holdover from working in artefact storage – nobody left that place quite the same as they’d gone in. Too much chance of dangerous surprises, too many unknown terrors, even the psychological pressure of the testing… she’d been on shift for writing in the memory book for four days and still didn’t remember most of the month that preceded it. Anyway. She’d come to terms with the fact that she was a little bit paranoid, that the sense of irrational observation and general aura of dreaded malevolence was a figment of her mind that she simply had to live with. But sometimes, something like this happened that just… well. She’d get a hold of herself soon enough.

It wasn’t like there was anything particularly personal in that desk. It had just been a bit of a shock, to find that someone would go that far.

Hey, Sasha!”

Sasha looked up and smiled. “Penni! How have you been?”

Well, artefact storage, you know. You? Archives treating you well?”

Absolutely. Sorting boxes of old paper is fascinating.”

Hey, you know about computers, right?”

A bit? If you’ve got an IT problem, though – ”

Oh, no, no; I don’t… this isn’t something that IT would want to know about.” Penni moved closer, lowered her voice. “We just need some… computer advice?”

Oh. About what?”

That damn google eye bandit got into artefact storage again, put eyes on the Carthage Bracers.”

They’re supposed to be locked away!”

They were! What if he had’ve put them on, huh?! Anyway, since security don’t seem to be doing anything, we’re… taking some initiative. Only our plan has computers involved, and…”

Say no more. I mean, do say more, but not here. I’m in.”

Chapter Text

So would it work?” Penni asked.

Yes. It’d be easy. I’m just… well, the privacy issue…”

Compared to all this?! This is dangerous, Sasha! Anyway, there is no privacy issue; it’s totally voluntary. We’re not going to track anyone against their will. But people who want to clear their names… can you, like, code something to do that?”

I’m not a programmer. But that doesn’t matter; I can think of half a dozen apps that already do exactly what you want and most of them are free. I’ll find you the best one, if you like.”

And so the Magnus Archive staff started tracking themselves. Not many; most of them thought the project was stupid, but Penni and her friends managed to convince a couple of dozen staff to download an app that would track their phones and tell everyone that they were definitely not in certain areas that had been google-eyed, slowly wearing down the long list of potential suspects.

Sasha didn’t mention how easy the system was to dodge. The prankster could simply leave their phone at their desk for an hour, google-eye something on the opposite end of the institute, and bam! Cleared. It also didn’t account for the possibility that multiple people were working together on these pranks, which was very likely; she didn’t see how one person could sneak into so many restricted areas without getting caught. But if doing something made people feel better…

She brought her own padlock from home to put on her desk drawer.

--------------------------



Now, I’m a real fan of the herbals, although these ones are actually infusions, not teas. I do have some herbals with tea in them, but if you want to avoid caffeine and don’t trust the reliability of decaf, infusions are the way to go. Here, try the blackberry and mint, it’s my favourite.” Martin slid a tiny cup of boiling hot tea across the table to Mary, who drank it, showing no sign of discomfort.

This one is the favourite?”

Well, it’s my favourite, yeah.”

So blackberry and mint tastes better than lavender.”

I think so! I also like the chamomile, but not as much.” He slid another tiny cup along the table, which she drank.

Does chamomile taste better than lavender?”

I like the chamomile a bit more, yes. But everything in this selection has something to offer!”

Martin.” Tim leaned on the doorframe. “What are you doing?”

I’m introducing Mary to the world of tea.”

Jesus Christ.”

The blackberry and mint tastes the best,” Mary said solemnly.

Oh, you think so too? Great!

--------------



It just gets to me, you know?” Sasha swigged back her beer and thunked the empty glass on the table. “I mean, this prank is really getting out of hand. Elias had promised immediate termination when the culprit’s caught, but that hasn’t stopped them! I just can’t figure out why they’re investing so much in something so stupid.”

She was out drinking with Mary. Sasha wasn’t one to go out drinking all that often, and certainly not in a group of less than three or four, but she was pretty sure that Mary didn’t have friends outside the office. Mary swigged back her own beer, thunked the glass down, and said, “It is strange. The eyes are watching all the time anyway, so why make them plastic? A warning, perhaps?”

What do you mean, they’re watching all the time? What eyes?”

Of the Ceaseless Watcher,” she said in the tone of somebody explaining the obvious. “It who sees all and comprehends none. The Watcher’s servants do not usually bother with masks, so what is the purpose here?” She looked contemplatively at her own reflection in her glass. “A peace offering or a threat? Perhaps there is no purpose.”

Sasha opened her mouth to inquire further, then reminded herself of Mary’s situation. If the girl was from some weird cult community, then she probably had a lot of weird religious beliefs. That’s how those places worked, right?

Mary,” she said gently, “you’re safe. Nobody’s watching you here.”

Probably not in here,” Mary agreed. “There would not be much to see.”

Mary, are you… in trouble? Do you need help?”

Mary considered this question for several seconds. “No. Yes.”

I don’t understand.”

No, I am not in trouble. Yes, I need help. I need to understand.”

Understand what?”

Why are we here?”

In… in this bar, you mean? Haven’t you ever gone drinking with a friend?” Sasha cursed herself silently as soon as she said the words – Mary probably hadn’t. But then, she’d been to college, right? She would’ve done this stuff then, wouldn’t she?

But the drinking part wasn’t what seemed to catch with Mary. She sat still for awhile, her face a picture of intense focus, before seeming to reach a decision. “A friend. Mary will have a friend.”

Sasha couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m sure the rest of the archive staff want to be your friend, too. Even Jon, much of a grump as he is about showing it. Haven’t you had friends before?”

I had friends in college. We would study together.”

Right!”

They were like me. Not like you.”

“… Ah. Are they, um, okay?”

I think so. I haven’t talked to them recently. I don’t know who they are now.”

Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Sasha tried to imagine it; leaving everything you’d ever known, leaving everyone you’d ever known behind… “Were you close?”

Yes. We were in the same place very frequently.”

You… grew up together?”

We became people together,” Mary agreed.

You must miss them terribly.”

Mary shrugged. “I will see them again at the end of understanding. And perhaps one of them will be Mary.”

End of understanding? Perhaps best not to ask. Whatever weird cult religion Mary had been raised in, Sasha didn’t want any part of it.

It p robably wasn’t important, anyway.

---------------



That particular shade of green tie is a little… much for the workplace, don’t you think, Rosie? We do have a clear policy on appropriate attire. Let’s see that it doesn’t happen again, hmm?”

Yes, sir.”

Very good. Ah, I see you have an updated sign-in system.”

Security approved it yesterday, because of… recent events.”

Our wayward prankster, yes. We really cannot have unauthorised people sneaking into such a dangerous place, can we? Well, I imagine this whole situation has security and the artefact storage teams, at least, keeping a much closer eye on the people around them. Better vigilance than disaster, hmm?” Elias finished signing in and absent-mindedly crushed a silvery worm underfoot. “And it seems that the worms are starting to show up in these halls, too. I really must try to find a better exterminator. Good day, Rosie.”

The new table was in one of the lower security storage areas, presumably because whoever had catalogued and stored it had no idea what it contained. Elias could see the thing squirming around under there, lost in the fractal maze, waiting for a human mind to find it and drag it out so that it could consume their life. He wondered if perhaps he should warn the staff to put a sheet over it?

No. Much as he was starting to feel like he was running a halfway house for wayward Strangers, he couldn’t resist the temptation to see this through. He simply had to know what they were trying to do, and he couldn’t figure that out if he stopped them too soon. Besides, it was probably something to do with the Unknowing, and since Mary seemed to be dragging her feet on cutting up his Archivist, that was probably the best place to get Jon properly marked.

Besides, he wasn’t in the habit of telling the artifact storage staff how to manage their inventory. If they were improperly cautious, that was their problem.

Chapter Text

Ah. Martin.”

You wanted to see me?” At eight in the morning, for some reason? Hardly anyone is even here yet.

Yes. Do come in.” Elias took a sip of his coffee and gestured to the seat across from his desk, which Martin nervously took. He didn’t say anything, just watched Martin in silence.

I, um, like your tie,”Martin said awkwardly. “Very… nice shade of green.”

It is quite striking, isn’t it? I saw Rosie on the front desk wearing this exact shade and I couldn’t help thinking, that really is a lovely green. So I purchased one for myself. Hopefully she doesn’t think I’ve, ah, ‘stolen her look’.”

I’m… sure she won’t,” Martin stammered. “I’ve never seen her wear that colour, so she can’t be…”

Yes, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her wear it again since that day, either. Perhaps she decided it didn’t suit her? Probably for the best. Anyway, Martin, the reason I wanted to see you was – ” Elias was cut off by the grating sound of dial-up internet. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, irritation flashing across his features. “Sorry, Martin, I have to take this. One moment, please.” He left the office, talking into the phone. “Bouchard here. This really isn’t a good time.”

T he call wasn’t long. Martin sat awkwardly alone in Elias’ office for about ninety seconds before the man strode back in, tucking his phone inside his jacket with a scowl. “Where were we? Ah, right.” He sat down and regarded Martin with a long look. The silence stretched uncomfortably, and Martin desperately tried to think of something to say.

I wanted to talk to you,” Elias eventually said (to Martin’s great relief), “to talk about this decorative plastic eye issue.”

Right?”

I’m given to understand that the problem first arose in the archives?”

Um, maybe? I don’t really know. If seemed to spread pretty fast.”

It did indeed, didn’t it?” Elias sipped his tea again. As he put the mug down, Martin noticed something that made his heart leap into his throat.

Two googly eyes stared back at him from Elias’ mug.

I’m going to cut to the chase here, Martin. I have reason to believe that somebody in the archives is responsible for this little prank.”

That’s not possible,” Martin managed to choke out, unable to stop staring at the mug. Did Elias know they were there? No; he would’ve removed them. But it was still so early, most people weren’t in yet. Surely nobody had been in Elias’ office except Elias and… well, Martin.

Oh god. If Elias saw them, he was going to blame Martin.

Really?” Elias replied, apparently not noticing Martin’s distress. “Tim has been known to pull these sorts of… diversions.”

Not like this! Tim might have the occasional joke, but he wouldn’t take it nearly this far.”

I suppose you’re right. This sort of thoroughness is more Sasha’s area, isn’t it? She can get quite single-minded.”

You think Sasha would waste her time putting eyes on everything? Nobody in the archives would do this. Not Tim, not Sasha, it started before Mary got here, and Jon definitely doesn’t have the patience for ‘silly nonsense’ like this.”

Very true. And despite the late hours Jon tends to keep, a lot of these pranks are taking place when they would all, presumably, be at home.” Elias raised his begoogled cup for another sip, then put it down and stared pointedly at Martin. “How are you finding staying in the archives? It can’t be comfortable long term, especially with the presence of the worms that we can’t seem to get rid of.”

M artin flushed. “You can’t really think that I would – ”

You’ve made some pretty compelling arguments on your coworkers’ behalf. Unless you do think it was one of them? The archive staff are my primary suspects right now, and you’re not above a little practical joke yourself, I believe. I recall hearing something about letting a dog loose in the archives?”

I didn’t… it was raining, and the dog needed somewhere sheltered for about ten minutes! I didn’t let it loose anywhere; I had it with me! And I’m definitely not putting eyes on – ”

Alright. Alright. Just keep an eye on your coworkers for me, will you? As soon as I have enough evidence, I’ll have no choice but to fire whoever is doing this. So it would be best if the issue mysteriously stopped before anything like that has to happen, don’t you think?”

Martin nodded. There really wasn’t any other suitable answer to give.

Excellent. Have a good day, Martin.”

That was his cue to leave, he supposed. He did so, quickly.

Maybe he should get that tracker on his phone that some of the staff were using. He didn’t like the idea of being monitor e d whe r ever he went, but if that’s what it took to clear his name…

And he should definitely keep a closer eye on Tim and Sasha. In case he was wrong about their innocence. If he was, he had to find them out and convince them to stop before Elias got hold of them.

It’s what any good friend would do.

--------------------



You know what I don’t get about this place?” Sasha asked as Mary handed her another file from the box. “How much research we do.”

It is a research institute.”

Yeah, but this is the archive. Hold for the test.” She tapped the space bar on her computer and read aloud, “Statement of Kimberly Parker, concerning a tree that appeared in her backyard; original statement given April 4th 1999. Statement begins:

So the thing you have to understand is, I’ve lived in the same house when I was six. I know that backyard like the back of my hand.”

Sasha stopped the recording, played it back, and nodded. “Clear recording on the laptop. Red sticker, Mary. Anyway, this is an archive, not a research department. All the research was already done upstairs. Our job is to reference and catalogue, but we seem to spent half our time doing follow-up to replace missing data or, more bafflingly, data that wasn’t collected at all. If only for the integrity of the archive, we really shouldn’t – oh, was that the last statement?”

I’ll get another box,” Mary said.

I’ll come with you. They’re heavy, and if I sit at this computer any longer without moving I’m going to turn into a statue. Figure of speech,” she added quickly at Mary’s confused expression.

A s the pair wandered between the shelves stacked high with dusty boxes, Sasha wondered, not for the first time, why Gertrude had let the place get in this state in the first place. Sasha hadn’t exactly known Gertrude, but on the couple of occasions they’d met she’d seemed shrewd, practical, and the sort of person who would be generally committed to doing a good job – the kind of person that Sasha hoped to grow into one day, although she hoped to be a bit less of a bitch. Hatever the hell had happened down here made no sense, unless Getrude had been playing some other kind of game. A corporate spy, perhaps? Or using the archives as a… a front for something? No. She’d been there far too long to be a corporate spy, and you couldn’t launder money or anything via organising old statements.

Ah well. It was their mess to sort out, now.

Why are we sorting the statements based on how they record?” Mary asked, breaking her out of her reverie.

Because I’m sick of pretending that doesn’t matter. There’s something about the ones that distort digital recording; everyone has to have noticed. The rest of these are probably nothing, but that handful is important, and sitting around going ‘ooh, that’s interesting, let’s ignore it and not prioritise based on these obvious and easily determined markers’ is just… messing around. At some point, Jon’s going to get his head out of his… I mean, he’s going to start prioritising the proper cases, if he’s going to treat us as a research department instead of an archival staff, so it makes sense to start sorting the wheat from the chaff while we have free time rather than wait for him to get on board.”

Why not suggest this to Jon?”

I don’t…” Sasha shrugged. How was she supposed to explain the nagging, tense feeling of being watched? The creeping suspicion that everything she did was monitored, that she had to be careful of what she said or did here or… someone… might take notice? She knew it was a holdover from working in artefact storage, where some of the items could use your words and actions against you; she knew that feeling that way in a room of paper files was irrational. But she still felt it. She still didn’t want to be too… proactive. Not with Jon, anyway. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, sometimes, although she wasn’t sure why; he seemed nice enough. He probably reminded her of someone or something from working down there.

Sometimes I don’t know why I’m still working here, to be honest,” she confessed. “I’ve had other job offers that have a lot more room for advancement. They should be better. But I can never quite bring myself to leave this place, dumb office pranks aside.” As soon as she said it, Sasha felt terrible; Mary had left everything she’d known, and that had to be a lot harder than Sasha’s petty office complaints and career decisions. ‘I mean, uh… well.” She shrugged again. “I’m sure that Jon will either focus on being an archivist or a researcher at some point, and we’ll either start filing these things properly or prioritising our research properly. It probably doesn’t matter in the long run. A paycheck’s a paycheck, right?”

A paycheck is a paycheck,” Mary agreed. “Except that money is not real.”

Sasha laughed. “You know, sometimes I don’t think anything is. Ugh, look at the time already… we should probably actually start our lunch before Tim finishes with his. I need to go talk to Jon real quick; we’ll finish this up later, okay?”

Okay.”

Sasha approached Jon’s office just in time to hear a series of loud crashes and a shout of surprise. She rushed in to a pile of collapsed shelves, paper and tapes everywhere.

Alright?” she asked.

Yeah.” Jon glared distastefully at the mess. “A… spider.”

A spider?”

Yeah. I tried to kill it… the shelf collapsed.”

I swear, these cheap shelves… did you get it?”

I think so. Nasty, bulbous looking thing.”

Sasha chuckled. “Well, I won’t tell Martin.”

Oh, god. I don’t think I could stand another lecture on their importance to the ecosystem.”

But Sasha was no longer listening. There was something odd about the wall that the shelf had pulled out of; the wood was soft and torn around the bolt holes. “Look.” She pointed at one of the holes.

Jon shrugged. “ It got dented when the shelf collapsed, I guess.”

No. It goes through.” She poked at it. “I thought this was an exterior wall?”

It should be.”

She tore at it. Soft and damp, the wall pulled apart easily. “I think it’s just plasterboard.”

Jon joined her. He was stronger, so she stood back and let him pull. “Do you see anything?” She could hear something behind the wall, something wriggling and squishy. Something very, very wrong.

No, I don’t think so,” Jon said, peering closer. “It…”

And then they both saw, at once, the mass of wriggling worms that started pressing against the wall, pouring through the hole into the room.

Sasha, run!”

Chapter Text

Sasha tiptoed through artefact storage. She’d long since stopped panicking – or at least, she’d stopped the trembling, hyperventilating stage of panicking, and was now in the calm, icy fog on the other side, where the edges of everything seemed too sharp and small noises seemed too clear.

She had a mission, and that was all that mattered. Get to the fire suppression system and activate it. Don’t waste time trying to find Elias; don’t think about Tim i n the worm-filled archivist’s office; don’t wonder if Jon and Martin were still safe in the storage room; don’t wonder if Mary had gotten away. Everything came down to the fire suppression system.

And, of course, getting safely through artefact storage.

Even after all that time working down there, she still got lost so easily in the mazes of shelves and boxes, but as soon as she glimpsed the old wooden table networked with lines she knew exactly where she was. She was here, at the table… in the lines… and she was good at mazes…

With effort, she tore her eyes away from the lines. What was she…? Fire system. Fire system. Everyone needed her to find the fire suppression system.

As she turned, something moved in the corner of her eye.

Hello?” she called.

No answer. But someone was there. Someone that wasn’t made of worms.

Hello? I see you! Show yourself!”

It moved .

Except it… didn’t really. It was in one place, then another, closer, very close, raising something that might or might not have been an arm –

And something barrelled into it, it was gone, a shelf a good twenty feet away collapsed –

And someone screamed.

Mary?! Where – ”

Run!” The person that came charging out from under the shelf was Mary, although harder to recognise under the blood, with claw marks slicing her face open to the bone. Sasha would’ve panicked anew if there’d been time, but there wasn’t; Mary grabbed her arm with a hand that felt wrong (broken?) and charged forward on what seemed like too-long legs, practically dragging Sasha out of artefact storage. They slammed the door behind themselves and Sasha leaned against it, gasping.

Did I do it correctly?” Mary asked, her voice uncertain.

Do… do what?” Sasha braced herself for what she’d see and looked up to Mary’s face in the brighter light of the corridor, but panic must have distorted her perceptions in artefact storage because Mary didn’t look injured. Just covered in blood. Her arm clicked in a gruesome way as she rubbed at it, so maybe she had dislocated something? But she didn’t look like she was in pain.

Friends,” she said. “It was going to hurt you. We’re friends… I…”

You saved me,” Sasha assured her, although she wasn’t entirely sure how, or from what. “Thanks. We need to go; we have to turn on the fire suppression system and save everyone else.”

Mary nodded and followed Sasha down the corridor. Sasha could’ve sworn she heard her mutter to herself, “We will save them, because that is what friends do.”

--------------



Elias saved them, in the end.

In Tim’s opinion, he could’ve been a bit quicker about it – if he had’ve figured out the fire system, say, sixty seconds earlier, Tim and Jon would have had a lot less pain and injury to deal with – but somehow, everyone had scraped through the experience alive. Except Prentiss, of course. And Martin had even found an old corpse, so that was… exciting, in its own way.

Hopefully, the police would be finished with all that by the time Tim’s medical leave was up.

“‘Oh, hey Tim, why don’t you move down to the archives with me, it’ll be a nice relaxing job,’” Tim muttered mockingly under his breath as he surfed Netflix. “‘Far less stressful than research.’ Well that worked out great, didn’t it.” Nobody had said anything about flesh-eating fucking worms. He should quit. Go back to publishing.

He wasn’t going to.

Maybe Elias would let him transfer back into research, out of that worm-infested basement, but… he couldn’t leave the institute. If he had any chance of avenging Danny, he needed to know where that circus was, where that fucking clown was. He needed to know how to kill it.

And for that, he needed the Magnus Institute’s library. For all the junk in there, they did have some good texts on circuses, and even better ones on Smirke’s architecture. He needed more time to keep digging. And without any other credentials relevant enough to get him in the door, that meant he needed to keep working there. Worms and all.

In fact, this was even better, in some ways. Because now they knew about the tunnels. The tunnels that had to be from the old prison, somehow, even though the prison had been destroyed and the plans had certainly shown no tunnels, but Smirke architecture was Smirke architecture. Yeah.

He’d heal up and go back to work. He’d learn everything he could about what happened to his brother. And then he could quit, go on his Roaring Rampage of Revenge, and… back to publishing, probably?

Man, he was going to be so out of touch in the industry. He hoped he could catch up.

----------------------------



Tim and Jon aren’t answering my texts,” Martin fretted, unwrapping his sandwich. “Do you think they’re okay?”

“They’re probably grumpy because they got eaten by worms,” Sasha pointed out. “I’d give them space, if I were you.”

“But what if they need something?”

“Then I’m sure they’ll call us.”

“But are we sure they know they can call us? Like, they know we’re here to help, right?”

“Of course they know,” Mary said firmly. “They know that we’re friends.”

“Do you think they’ll be alright, though? I mean, is it rude for me to suggest therapy, or…?”

I think we all probably need therapy at this point,” Sasha said.

“Are you going to get some?”

“Ha! No.” Where would she even begin explaining anything to a professional? Even if she could find one that would believe her?

“I mean, I don’t…” Martin swallowed. “Being in my flat, with the worms outside, was terrifying enough. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. But they actually had them, like, inside them, eating them… and I know you had one too, with that Michael thing, but they had to think they were going to die right then. Die or be living hives for Jane’s – ”

“Stop!” Sasha snapped. Then she forced herself to calm down. “Yeah. They’re probably not in a good place right now. But neither are we, really, are we?”

“Nothing like that happened to us.”

You got lost in a series of secret worm-infested tunnels and found a corpse. And we were in artefact storage when…” Sasha shrugged and picked at her salad.

“What… what actually happened to you two, in there?”

“I’m not sure,” Sasha admitted. “What did happen, Mary?”

“Hard to say. It was very confusing.”

“You were hurt pretty bad.”

“No, just a bit of a cut on the head. The doctors said I was fine.”

“There was blood everywhere.”

“Head wounds often bleed a lot due to the high capillary density over the skull!”

“And your arm…?”

Mary looked at her arms, frowning. “Is there something wrong with it? Which one?”

“No, I just… I’m a bit muddled over the whole thing, I think.”

“Well, at least… at least Prentiss is gone,” Martin said. “Now, maybe things can get back to normal? After Jon and Tim get back, I mean.”

“Yeah.” Sasha shot a glare at the googly eyes stuck to the door that she hadn’t summoned the energy to get up and remove. “Normal.”

“How long have those eyes been up there?” Martin asked.

“I don’t know. At least since yesterday?”

“But were they there before that?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters! If they only went up yesterday, Tim couldn’t have put them there. Which is good news.”

“Didn’t we agree Tim didn’t do this ages ago?”

“Yeah, but… well, Elias thinks it’s definitely someone working in the archives, so – ”

Sasha barked a laugh. “Is that what he told you? Because yesterday Penni came to me asking about ways to make sure people didn’t just leave their phones at their desks to go prank people. She said that Elias told her it was someone in artefact storage.”

“Oh. You think he’s doing this to all the departments?”

“Makes sense, if he wants us to find the prankster for him.”

“Only if he wants to make the working environment even more tense!”

“They were put there on Thursday,” Mary said.

“And you didn’t take them down?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t interfere with the Watcher’s eyes in this place. It would be rude.”

Sasha and Martin exchanged a glance. Cult, Sasha mouthed.

“What are the Watcher’s eyes?”

“Most of them here, I think.”

“Most of the… eyes here? Like, the googly ones?”

“And the others.”

Sasha raised a brow at Martin. Like she had, he seemed to decide not to pursue the issue. Instead, he said, “So uh, how are you holding up with all this, Mary? I mean, you’ve been here what, a month or so, and we’ve already found mysterious tunnels and been attacked by worms. It’s probably… not what you were expecting, right?”

“No. I wasn’t expecting anything.”

“And… now?”

“Now I know to expect mysterious tunnels and worms.”

“Oh. Hopefully not. I uh, I don’t think we’ll see the worms again.” He shuddered. “I hope we don’t.”

“Me too,” Mary said. “We’re friends, so I don’t want the worms to eat you when you sleep.”

“Oh, he doesn’t live in the archives,” Sasha jumped in. “He was just staying here because the worms were stalking him at his flat. Now he’s… Martin, are you still sleeping here?”

“I just don’t want to go home yet, okay?” he snapped. “It’s been… it’s only been a couple of days, and every time I go back to my apartment I don’t want to close the door because I just feel like she’s going to trap me in there.”

“Okay, okay.” Sasha raised her hands. “So you could… move?”

“I am. But my lease has another two months on it and I can’t afford to rent two places at once. So I’m just going to have to… spend a few more days getting myself together, and then… deal with it, I suppose.”

“You can’t go to your house?” Mary asked.

“It’s complicated.”

“Then you can come to my house. There are no worms there.”

Martin looked surprised. “Oh, no; I don’t want to impose on – ”

“My friends and I lived together before. There was no imposing.” She frowned. “Is that wrong?”

“No! No, I… okay. Thank you, Mary. I’ll… I promise to be out of your hair as soon as possible.”

Her frown deepened, and she reached up to touch her hair.

Sasha rolled her eyes. At least the archives were never boring.

Chapter Text

Martin hadn’t entirely believed Sasha’s cult theory, but as soon as Mary waved him into her house, he was certain that she was correct.

He house was too large for one person, with an overgrown garden and dusty halls. Everything about it screamed ‘abandoned’, which Martin politely ignored; she’d probably rented the cheapest home of its size she could find and hadn’t gotten round to cleaning up, yet.

She had remarkably few possessions. He stepped into a lounge room with no furniture except for a single unplugged television, large rug (the kind that look like a bearskin with the head still attached), and several photos staring down at him from the walls, mostly artfully overexposed close-ups of people smiling down at him with bland eyes, all as unremarkably stock-photo-esque as Mary’s own face but none, he noticed, depicting Mary.

“Are these your friends?” he asked.

“Martin and Sasha and Jon and Tim are my friends,” she replied.

Ah. Of course; she’d probably been… excommunicated, or whatever cults did, and had cut off connection with these people. But she still cared enough to keep the photos up. Probably a sore spot.

The kitchen and dining room were equally sparse. Mary had, for some reason, invested in a bowl of fruit, kettle, toaster, and a bunch of spatulas and wooden spoons and things in a decorative holder on the counter, but the actual drawers and cupboards were empty – no cutlery, crockery, or anything that wasn’t in plain sight. The only exception was a large collection of teas and herbal infusions in one corner cupboard, and a single white mug. So far as he could tell, the only tea towel she owned was the one hanging artfully on the oven door, next to a pair of oven mitts with the price tag still attached.

The spare room she showed him to was similarly… aesthetic, but at least that was expected in a spare room. A perfectly made bed, single lamp on an otherwise empty bedtable, and empty chest of drawers beneath a window covered in lacy curtains was what he expected from such a room, but the other rooms of the house painted a disquieting picture.

This woman definitely had no experience living in a modern home.

“I’m going to have to go pick up some of my stuff from my apartment,” he said. “Thanks again for letting me stay.”

“Do you want help when you pick some of your stuff up from your apartment?”

“Uh… sure. If you don’t mind.” Another pair of hands would help him carry more, and Martin wasn’t thrilled with the idea of entering his apartment alone any more than he had to.

In the end, Martin grabbed the two biggest bags he owned and just filled them with everything essential that Mary didn’t seem to have. Cutlery, crockery, some very basic cookware. A good chunk of his linen closet, since she didn’t seem to have spare sheets or anything. It occurred to him that she was probably pretty strapped for cash, if she’d been cut off from her family suddenly. He also, on a whim, found space for his VCR and a handful of his favourite movies, since her TV wasn’t hooked up to anything; he didn’t think she even had internet, so Netflix was out of the question.

“Don’t tell the others I own a VCR,” he said sheepishly as he tried to make room for it among his spare clothes. “I don’t need Tim to have more ammo for his ‘retro aesthetic’ jibes.”

“I won’t,” Mary said, inspecting a snow globe she’d taken from his windowsill. “Martin, what is this for?”

“That? Oh, it just looks pretty. If you shake it, it makes it snow.”

Mary shook it excitedly, glanced out the window, and looked confused for a moment before her eyes fell back on the globe, and widened.

“It’s not important,” Martin felt the need to clarify. “It’s just pretty.”

“Everything is pretty,” Mary replied. “Nothing is important.”

“Some cheerful nihilism. Great. Well, you can have that snowglobe, if you want. God knows I’ve got enough trinkets.”

“Thank you, Martin.” Mary flashed him a smile and stuffed the globe into a pocked that Martin was sure looked too small to hold it.

“We should probably buy some food after we drop this stuff off, too. I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t have any?”

“I have a bowl of fruit.”

“So you won’t get scurvy, great. But we’re going to need more than fruit.”

They did lasagne in the end, the kind that comes pre-made from the supermarket. Martin had never been a great cook, and from the looks of the kitchen he doubted that Mary had ever cooked anything in her life, but she watched with fascination as he preheated the oven and set the foil dish in, like it was some amazing feat of gastronomical engineering.

Then, after dinner, he showed her how to wash and dry dishes. Just how sheltered had her life been?

“What was your life actually like?” he couldn’t help but ask. “Before all this?”

“Do you mean, before I was Mary?”

So Mary Sue was a fake name. “Yeah.”

Mary considered this for a long time, slowly drying a plate, and Martin started to think she wasn’t going to answer. But eventually, she said, “Jan was interesting, and being her was… safer. Things are very complicated now.”

“Do you miss your old life?”

She shrugged. “I knew I wasn’t going to be Jan forever. And Mary is very interesting, too. Mary knows how to cook lasagne, now.”

“An important life skill, I’m sure,” Martin laughed.

Martin was putting his stuff away in his room when Mary appeared in the doorway, holding one of his video tapes. “What’s this?” she asked, and lifted it like she was going to shake it vigorously like the snowglobe; he snatched it out of her hand before she could do so.

“It’s Alien,” he explained, then remembered who he was talking to. “I mean, it’s a videotape; a movie in a little box. The movie is called Alien. It’s a scifi horror; do you like those? Oh, wait, you might not know what – ”

“I like horror,” Mary said, smiling in a way that seemed to reveal far too many teeth.

“Great! Then let me show you how a VCR works.”

One thing better than watching Alien alone, Martin quickly learned, was watching Alien with somebody who clearly had no idea what to expect from the movie. He quickly found himself with a newfound admiration for her bravery; Mary didn’t jump, flinch or wince at a single scare in the movie. The whole thing just seemed to delight her. Had she been this composed during the Prentiss attack? No wonder she’d survived. No wonder she hadn’t quit immediately after. He was somewhat reassured to know that the person he was staying with would be so cool in the face of a crisis; if something like Jane followed him here…

But Jane was dead. It was over.

He told himself that, over and over, as he thoroughly checked his bed for worms before climbing into it.

Martin didn’t remember having any nightmares that night, but he must have, because at one point he sat bolt upright, certain that a woman was standing in the doorway watching him sleep. Jane! But by the time he gathered his thoughts enough to look again, the doorway was empty.

He got up to close the door, trying not to remember that he had very definitely closed it before going to bed.

---------------------



“Jon, you’re supposed to be resting.”

Jon rubbed his temples and tried to ignore the sharp aches in his… everything. The painkillers only did so much, and the worm wounds were taking their sweet time healing. He told himself that that was normal, injuries didn’t heal overnight, it didn’t mean there was something about the worms that would leave him a mass of bleeding holes forever… after all, Sasha’s shoulder had healed just fine.

“I am resting, Martin. Archival work is not physically taxing.”

“Not until a bunch of worms pour into your office and you end up running through a bunch of secret tunnels.”

“Yes, well, hopefully we can avoid a repeat of that little incident.” Jon tried to sound dismissive, but Martin had made a good point, sort of. Something very dangerous was still here. Gertrude had died in this room, and Jon very nearly had, too, and every instinct he had screamed at him that he was still being watched, and that someone here was hiding from him, wasn’t what they seemed. Those facts all taken together lead to one obvious conclusion – Gertrude’s killer was close. And until he knew why she’d been killed, he had no idea how much danger he, or anyone else in the archives, was in.

He glanced up at Martin, who looked concerned as he handed him a cup of tea. Martin, who he’d always taken to be incompetent, always dismissed and overlooked, but whom had shown remarkable preparation and resourcefulness in the tunnels – did that mean he’d been playing the fool until now? Martin had brought the worms here; what if he’d done it on purpose? He’d been living in the archives until the attack; had he been using the night hours to… help them, somehow? Prepare the worm invasion? Then he’d lost Jon and Tim in the tunnels, being conveniently absent when they’d run into Prentiss…

But if Martin had killed Gertrude, he wouldn’t have told them about the body and the tapes, right? Unless there was some larger game here.

“Thank you for the tea, Martin. I’m fine. I just… I have a statement to record, if you don’t mind.”

Martin hesitated. “You would… tell me if you weren’t fine, right?”

Yes,” Jon lied emphatically. “I just want to get back to a normal routine as quickly as possible.”

“Yeah. Okay, that… that makes sense.” Reluctantly, Martin left.

The statement was, as always, exhausting to record, but he always felt a bit sharper after doing them. A bit more able to focus on the sense that some one was monitoring him, that something wasn’t right. And that was exactly what he needed to be able to pin down.

At least people had stopped sticking googly eyes to his possessions. That had been getting irritating.

He’d just filed the new tape away when a knock came at the door.

Come in.”

Mary strode in and carefully placed a file on his desk. “Here is the location and employment history of Stan Hellensfield,” she said. “And I didn’t use any government or hospital computers.”

Right. Yes. Thank you, Mary.” Jon glanced up at her open, friendly face. Somebody around here was hiding from him… could it be her? No; she didn’t come to the Institute until more than six months after Gertrude’s death. Out of everyone, she was the one person he could be sure was on the level. “Mary. Martin’s staying with you, right?”

Yes. For one more month, until his new lease starts.”

Good. Are you two good friends? Close?”

We are friends. We are often close to each other. The archives and my house are both small spaces.”

Jon considered clarifying the question, but it probably wasn’t worth it. “Would you say Martin behaves… suspiciously?”

She shook her head. “Martin’s rarely suspicious of anyone over anything. He did think that Tim might be responsible for putting the eyes on – ”

No, I mean… do you think he’s hiding anything dangerous? Any dark secrets?”

I don’t know. I will ask him.”

No! No, don’t ask him. Just… what’s he like? I know he writes poetry, but any other unusual hobbies? Likes? Dislikes? Anything odd he does? What does… does he talk about me?” Jon rubbed his temples. This wasn’t going to be helpful. But something else might be. Jon glanced at the bottom drawer of his desk, where he’d stashed the very-much-illegal hospital record that Mary had picked up with apparently no trouble.

Never mind all that. I… I need your help. I want you to do something secret for me. You can’t tell any of the others. It might be a little dangerous.”

Okay.”

Jon blinked. “You agree just like that? I haven’t told you what it is yet.”

We’re friends, so I will help you.”

Right. Good. I need… when they found Gertrude, she was in a room surrounded by tapes. The police took those tapes as evidence; I really need them back. Can you get them from the police for me?”

Yes.”

Good. But you have to be careful. The police can’t know you brought them back here, okay? They can’t recognise you, or trace anything back here. If you can’t do it secretly, don’t do it; we’ll find another way.”

I can get you the tapes secretly.” There was no doubt in her tone.

Oh. Uh. Thank you.”

You’re welcome. Do you want anything else?”

No. Just, uh, take your time, and when you do manage to get them…”

I can get them now.”

And she left.

Jon stared after her. Had… had that been a bad idea? It was already striking him as an exceptionally bad idea.

Chapter Text

So Tim’s coming back next week,” Martin explained as he trailed after Sasha and Mary towards the break room, “samd I’m thinking we could have a little… archive celebration, you know? At having the whole crew back together again? Nothing big, just maybe some cake, spend a bit of time together…”

“Have you cleared this with Jon?” Sasha asked.

“Well, no, not yet. He’s been a bit… weird, since the Prentiss thing, have you noticed?”

“Weirder than normal?” Sasha asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, yeah. I keep seeing him like, looking at me. Watching me, when he thinks I don’t notice, you know?”

“You watch him when you think he doesn’t notice,” Mary pointed out. “You do it often.”

Martin flushed. “That’s not… oh, god, has he noticed? Has he said anything?”

“He asked me if we were close, and then he asked me about what sorts of things you did and did not like, and whether you ever talked about him. Then he told me a secret.”

“A secret? Oh god, was it about me? What secret?”

I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”

Oh, god.” Martin pressed his face into his hands, which was why he didn’t see the tall man approach. He looked up just in time to see him level a glare at Mary, then punch her full in the stomach, slamming her into the wall. Before anyone could react, he’d stalked off.

Mary! Are you alright?!” Martin cried, just as Sasha shouted, “Hey, what the hell! Security! Can someone get security?” and charged off down the hall.

“I’m okay,” Mary said, climbing to her feet. “Don’t call security. I deserved that.”

Martin scowled. “Like hell you – ”

“I hit him first.”

“When? Why? What did he try to do to you?”

Nothing. He was looking for a face and I got in the way.”

“A face? What? Are you concussed? Did you hit your head?”

I’m fine.”

You sound concussed.”

“We should stop Sasha from whatever she’s doing. Come on.”

--------------------

Angela looked at the four people assembled in front of her and, not for the first time, regretted getting a job in Human Resources.

She’d dealt with weird complaints before. Academics were high strung, especially the kind of academics who chose to go into paranormal research. But this? This was something else. The man and woman sitting on the seats in front of her couldn’t be more opposite; the man tall and muscular with scruffy hair, the woman the very definition of average, and the pair of them hunched over and avoided each others’ gazes like a pair of toddlers caught fighting. The other woman paced the room furiously behind them, still ranting, while the other man hovered by the door, clearly wanting to leave. Angela wished his opinion was a little more widespread among the group.

She held up a hand to put a stop to the ranting. “I’m having some difficulty following this,” she said. “What happened here?”

“Nothing,” the seated man and woman said in unison.

“Oh, it wasn’t nothing,” the pacing woman said. “This neanderthal came out of nowhere and assaulted Mary here.”

“On that note, Sasha, I think Mary might actually be concussed,” the man by the door said, “so – ”

We don’t need to be here,” Mary said.

The man beside her stood up. “Great. Then I can get on with work.”

“Like hell. Mary, I know you’ve come from a… difficult environment, but you don’t need to put up with that kind of thing here, okay? People can’t just hit you whenever they feel like it. Anyway, this has to be against some kind of code of conduct, against the law, no matter how Mary feels. This fucking ogre – ”

“My name’s Clark,” the man said sharply.

“ – can’t just walk around hitting people. That’s a hostile work environment.”

The woman, Sasha, paused for breath, and Angela cut in. “If Mary doesn’t want to make a complaint, there’s not much I can do.”

“Well what if I want to make a complaint?” Sasha asked. “He’s creating a, a dangerous work environment.”

“Okay, you know what? Fine. I’ll email all four of you the relevant forms and you can fill them out or not. It’s up to you. I’ll need your email addresses.” She pushed a blank sheet of paper across the table.

The four of them wrote down their emails, some more reluctantly than others, and filed out. The man, Clark, gave her a smile on the way out and said pointedly, “Do let me know if you have any more problems with opening pdfs, won’t you?”, then closed the door before she could ask what the hell he meant. But glancing at the email list gave her her answer, as well as freezing her heart for several seconds.

The email he’d written down was for Clark Simpson, her IT guy.

And the man who had just smiled at her was definitely not Clark Simpson.

What the hell was going on?

---------------------



Spying on the Stranger’s tools was not difficult for Elias, exactly. It was just slightly harder than spying on normal humans. He couldn’t simply find Mary’s mind and latch on; he had to search for her manually, through other eyes.

Fortunately, he had a lot of eyes.

Mary stood in artefact storage with the life thief, arms crossed, inspecting the fractal table. She bit her lip.

Well?” the thief – Clark now, Elias supposed – asked. “Can you break it?”

She shook her head.

“Damn.”

“If you can’t do it and the circus can’t do it, I don’t know why you thought I could,” she shrugged. “Maybe get one of the humans to help you?”

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do? Besides, you could be lying to me. You did attack me.”

“You went for the wrong face. I’m using that one.”

“You don’t need anyone else’s face!”

“Turns out I do. Sasha is Mary’s friend.”

“I could’ve had her life and been your friend.”

“Yes, you could have. But you aren’t. And you weren’t then, and she was, and you had an entire institute to pick from, so stop whining. What are you here for, anyway?”

What are you here for?”

Mary shrugged.

“Fine. You have your secrets, I’ll have mine.” Clark rubbed the back of his neck. “Not that it’s easy to keep any in this place.”

Mary regarded the table thoughtfully. “I’ll try to get you some help with the table. But I don’t think there’s much I can do. It won’t matter soon, anyway. The spider’s power won’t matter after – ”

Clark snorted. “Yeah, sure, if everything works. If the whole Unknowing isn’t delayed again .”

Then we will wait longer,” Mary shrugged. “I have a lot of movies to watch, anyway.”

Yeah, you’re not chained to a table.”

Then keep that life in one piece until we can find someone to break it, and it won’t matter. I have to get back to work.”

“Yeah, so do I. This idiot in the marketing department always locks himself out of his email at this time of day and he’s going to call for my help at any moment.”

“What is an idiot?”

“You are.”

E lias opened his eyes, having learned absolutely nothing. Well, what had he expected? That they’d just hash out their Evil Plan right there in the middle of a giant temple to the concept of being monitored, which was also their enemy? They were probably looking to steal some artefact or some important information for the Unknowing, which Elias wasn’t particularly worried about, but it would be nice to have a timeline. If neither of them was going to do him the favour of attacking his Archivist, then the Unknowing would be the best place to get Jon marked, and he needed to know if he had enough time to get him powerful enough. Because Jon right now…

---------------

Jon reached the end of another of Gertrude’s tapes, rubbed at his eyes in the hopes it might clear his vision (it didn’t), and looked blearily down at his notes. So far they read:

- Circus (Gregor Orsinov, “Unknowing”, “The Stranger”)

- Mary Keay had a Leitner that could talk to the dead (didn’t get on with Gertrude – possible suspect?)

- Changeling monster – same as the one that took Graham Folger? (“The Stranger” mentioned again)

T he notes were sparse because, over the past week, Jon had managed to bring himself to listen to only three tapes.

It shouldn’t be hard to pay attention to a willy ghost story, but somehow it was intellectually exhausting. Come to think of it, when he was doing the tapes himself, it had been the same – he’d managed to do, what, one per week? The nonsense statements, the ones that recorded to his laptop, he could breeze through those one after the other, but the real ones were wearying somehow.

Why would merely hearing about the supernatural be so tiring? Was that something to do with how the audio wouldn’t record electronically? Did it… do something to the mind, too, not just computers? That was an unpleasant thought.

But if he wanted to find out why Gertrude had been killed, he needed to push on. The answers had to be here somewhere; they had to be. Why else would these tapes have been with her?

Wait. Wrong question. No – right question, wrong conclusion. Why had these tapes been with her? She’d been shot in her office – his office – and moved down there, so why would the killer pile a bunch of incriminating evidence around her? But if the answer wasn’t on these tapes, that made less sense, because why would they pile a bunch of random tapes around her?

Ugh, the further he dug, the less sense anything made. Although that might just be because he was so tired.

All he knew for certain was that his predecessor had been murdered, and somebody close wasn’t what they seemed. So. Put the statement aside for a moment, focus on the colleagues. He’d dug up the backgrounds and work histories of Martin, Sasha, Tim and Elias, but hadn’t been able to find anything on Mary, which put her back on his suspect list because who doesn’t have any kind of history? He’d have to look harder later, but for, now, the most suspicious was –

Martin burst into the office. “Sorry to interrupt, Jon, but there’s a – ”

A policewoman slipped into the room behind him. “Me,” she said. “There’s me.”

Jon stared blearily at her for a moment before remembering who she was. Constable Basira Hussain. She’d questioned him about Gertrude’s murder.

“Are you here to make a statement, constable?” he asked.

“What do you think?” She glared at Martin. “You. Out.”

Martin glanced apologetically at Jon and backed out of the room. The constable kicked the door closed behind him. “Some evidence relating to the Gertrude Robinson case has gone missing.”

“That’s very unfortunate,” Jon said, ankle pressed to the box of incriminating tapes under his desk. “But I’m not sure how I can help.”

“You can tell me where they are.”

“Me? You think I broke into a police station to take evidence relating to a crime I very much want solved?”

“I think you’re the only person who wouldn’t shut up about those tapes while we were carting them out. And that makes you our number one suspect.”

Well, as you can see,” Jon said, waving the tape recorder that very much still had one of Gertrude’s tapes inside, “I already have plenty of tapes of my own. Do I really look like the sort of person who could break into a police station unnoticed?”

The policewoman looked him up and down, eyes lingering on his raw worm scars and uncombed hair. “No, you don’t. But I’m sure you won’t mind if I take a look around?”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“No,” she said immediately, then looked slightly surprised at herself.

“Then I do mind. Anything else I can help you with, constable?”

Unlikely. Although you don’t seem too upset by this news.”

“Upset that my predecessor was murdered and the police have apparently lost important evidence? Of course I’m upset. But I’m sure you’ll have another chance to solve this when I show up with three bullet wounds in my chest, too, so don’t feel too bad. Now if you don’t mind, I am very busy.”

“Have a good day, Mr Sims,” the constable said in that customer service tone that means ‘eat an enormous bag of dicks, you shitstain on the universe’s sweatiest jockstrap’, and left.

Jon lowered his head to his desk, and closed his eyes.

He shouldn’t have been that rude to the police. He knew he shouldn’t have been that rude. He knew it was a mistake while he was doing it.

But he was far too tired to care.

Chapter Text

About a week after Martin had started staying with Mary, he woke up certain that he was once again being watched while he slept. And he was definitely right this time, because as he flicked the lamp on, he could clearly make out Mary standing in the doorway, clad in pale pink pyjamas and clutching a yellow teddy bear, for some reason.

Mary, what the hell?! Are you watching me sleep?!”

“Yes.”

Martin wasn’t sure how to respond to that. After a few seconds, he choked out, “Why?”

“I can’t sleep.”

Martin closed his eyes and forced himself to take several deep, calming breaths. He reminded himself that his housemate, who had been so kind to give him somewhere to stay rent-free, wasn’t necessarily raised with the same social norms as decent people in civilised society.

Mary,” he said in what he hoped was a patient tone, “people don’t like it when you watch them sleep. It’s creepy.” When her expression showed no comprehension of this, or perhaps no comprehension of why it was important, he tried again. “Please don’t watch me while I sleep.”

“Okay, Martin.” She turned away, and he felt a sudden stab of pity.

“Look, I know you didn’t mean… it’s just… after Jane Prentiss I… why are you having trouble sleeping?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t look hard.”

“Are you hurt? Frightened? Did you drink too much caffeine?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been drinking the blackberry and mint herbal infusion. It’s the best one. There’s no caffeine in it.”

“Right.” Martin got up, racking his brain for sleep tips. “Uh, I hear warm milk helps. My mum used to give me warm milk back before my dad… back when I was little. And tell me a bedtime story, of course.”

“What is a bedtime story?”

“It’s a story you tell someone when they go to bed, to calm them down and help them sleep.”

“Can you tell it to me?”

Well, it’s… it’s really more a children’s…” Martin looked into those wide eyes and gave up. “Alright. Fine. Let’s heat you up some milk, and I’ll tell you the Blackwood family bedtime story.” Because this situation is so weird already, so why not?

Don’t tell the others about this okay?” he said as he, well, tucked her in. “They’d tease us for a year.”

“Okay, Martin.”

He sighed. “Alright, so my family bedtime story is a bit of a weird one. It’s um, do you know the story of the Tower of Babel?”

She shook her head. Probably not from a Christian cult, then. “So the story goes like this. After God killed most of the world’s population with a flood, the remaining people decided to build a tower to heaven. Some say they just wanted to get high enough to avoid another flood, and be safe. Others say they wanted to revenge themselves on him for the destruction. Still others say it was a matter of pride, that they thought themselves worthy of heaven and decided to build up to it. The motivations don’t matter; the point is, they united as one people for the grand project of building all the way up to heaven. And God saw their progress, and he was angry at their hubris, and struck the tower down. It sent its makers back to the earth, and to prevent them from ever being able to construct such a thing again, he scattered them all over the world and confused their tongues so that different groups wouldn’t understand each other. That’s the ‘official’ version. But according to my mum, who heard it from her dad…” Martin leaned in to whisper conspirationally, “they missed something very important. They cut the ending off the story, and confused the beginning for the end.

“See, here’s the thing about the tower of Babel: a vengeful God striking down a tower to heaven? Completely unnecessary to the story. God wouldn’t need to waste his time with such a task, because that tower was going to collapse. Any tower built to heaven by human hands would collapse. You know why?”

Mary shook her head.

“Because humans are builders. It’s not about the goal, it’s always about the activity. They would build that tower higher and higher until it collapsed under its own weight; they’d say ‘heaven is at this level’, and when they reach it, decide, ‘no, we can build higher; heaven must be higher’. They will build and build until something stops them, and that something is the weight of the tower itself. Because that’s just what we’re like. We go as far as we can. So they might build until the clay and sticks crumble. Or if they’re clever they’ll invent bricks and stonework before they get that high, and build even higher until the stones crumble. Unless they’ve invented steel and glass by then, and build skyscrapers so tall that the steel warps and collapses. They can make that tower a space elevator – metaphorically – and it won’t matter, they’ll keep pushing against the laws of physics until the tower is destroyed. God didn’t destroy the tower with a bolt of lightning and divine anger. He destroyed that tower when he made us a species of builders, determined to push against every limitation until it kills us, for the sheer joy of seeing how far we can go. Way back at the start of the story.

“The tower falls, and the only uncertainty is how much time we bought ourselves to indulge in the joy of building it, how high we got… and how much destruction the resulting debris is going to cause.

“When my mum used to tell this story to me, I’d get sad at this part, because it says something pretty depressing about the future, I think. About our exploding population and effect on the environment and all that. But she’d shake her head ans say it only sounds that way because she hadn’t told me the actual end of the story yet. God is at the beginning, making a people who will build until their tower collapses. The building and collapse is just the middle of the story. And do you know what the end is? What humans do after the tower collapses, after communication breaks down, after they find themselves lost and wandering through the rubble to the corners of the earth, unable to understand their neighbours?”

Mary shook her head again.

Well, they wander around lost and sad for awhile. A generation, maybe. And then… every single time… they start to gather again. They greet each other in tones they can understand, if not words. And they start once again stacking bricks, pulling themselves closer to heaven. That’s what we are, you and me and everyone else out there, no matter how much we might fight and disagree and hurt each other or ourselves – we humans are builders, always ready to advance higher and higher just to see if we can.”

M artin leaned down and kissed Mary’s forehead, just like his mother used to do for him, before he realised what he was doing. He froze, but she hadn’t pushed him away. In fact, she was asleep. Or maybe pretending to sleep? It was hard to tell.

Either way, he left quietly, before things could get even more awkward.

-------------------



Tim was surprised to discover that he was actually excited about getting back to work. He was returning to the place he’s nearly been killed by a worm monster, sure, but he was also returning to some kind of normalcy.

Within a few days, he was back into the routine; get a bunch of follow-up, do the follow-up, tease Sasha, move files from one box into a more appropriate box… oh, and the giant network of presumably Smirke-built tunnels under the institute, but that was a little less routine.

“You know,” Tim said idly as he and Martin sorted through a box of statements from the 1980s to pull out the handful of misfiled ones, “Smirke’s buildings have a significantly higher than normal rate of supernatural occurrences than normal.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Yeah, but we can be more sure of it now. Because the Smirke statements keep not recording to laptop, have you noticed that? In the tapes, Smirke keeps coming up.”

“So you’re saying this is proof that he was some kind of, I dunno, monster architect?”

“I don’t know if he was a monster. He was definitely into the occult, though. Have you read his occult writings? Weird stuff. I’m just saying that the fact that Jane decided to try to make a, a worm door or whatever down in those tunnels, is something we should probably be more concerned about.”

“Jane’s dead.”

“Yeah.” He glanced sidelong at Martin. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Just… not sleeping well lately.”

“Aren’t you staying with Mary?”

“Yeah.”

“Ooh, and ‘not sleeping well’? Are you two – ”

“No! It’s just… well, it was really nice of her to let me stay with her, I guess. I shouldn’t gossip, she’s just...” Martin lowered his voice. “Weirder at home.”

Tim raised his eyebrows. “House full of weird cult stuff?”

“No. It’s kind of hard to explain. It doesn’t matter, I guess; different people are different. And it’s a lot better than staying in the archives. Or going home. Oh, I think Jon was asking about this one; what’s a 2013 file doing in this box?”

“This place is such a mess I don’t even question it any more. Here, I’ll take it to him. I’m headed that way anyway.”

Tim knocked gently on Jon’s office door. There was no reply, but he also didn’t hear Jon dramatically monologuing, so he probably wasn’t busy with anything important. “Hey, boss, I got – ”

Jon was collapsed over his desk in a pile of tapes, one hand clutched around a tape recorder. He was breathing fast and shallow.

“Oh, shit!” Already dialling emergency services with one hand, Tim shook his shoulder with the other. “Jon. Jon, you alright?”

He didn’t respond.

“Guys! Medical emergency in here!” Tim shouted before going through the standard first aid steps. Nobody seemed to be in earshot, so Tim sat down and waited for the ambulance.

As they waited, he noticed a piece of paper in Jon’s hand. It looked like he’d been taking notes and grabbed it before passing out. He tugged it free from Jon’s unresisting fingers, and nearly stopped breathing.

The first note read:

- Circus (Gregor Orsinov, “Unknowing”, “The Stranger”)

Somewhere in this mess of tapes was information on Orsinov’s circus.

Tim had to find it.

Chapter Text

“Go home, Jon.”

“I can’t, Elias, I have work to do.”

“I am sure this institute will survive a slight delay in archival organisation, and I am equally sure that your four assistant can handle a bit of filing on their own.” Elias had to maintain a brisk pace to keep up with his Archivist who was walking rather faster than somebody should two days after waking from a 24-hour coma. “Honestly, I’m surprised they released you from hospital so early. But you definitely shouldn’t be up and about.”

“My brain scans came back fine. I’m fine.”

“You were in a coma. The fact that the scans don’t show any part of your brain as being dead does not mean that you’re fine. I’d rather not have a second head archivist drop dead in the Institute in as many years if it’s all the same to you!”

“Yeah, well, don’t shoot me and I’m sure we won’t have that problem,” his archivist snarled.

“Jon, are you accusing me of – ”

“Someone here did! And nobody seems to care that there’s a killer just, just wandering around here!”

“The police are handling it. And there’s no reason to think it was an institute employee anyway, Jon. You’ve read how… irrational… some of the statement-givers are; if any of them got a gun in – ”

“Then they wouldn’t have dragged her body into the secret tunnels and stashed it with a bunch of tapes, would they? Somebody here knew about the tunnels, knew about the tapes, had some reason to get rid of Gertrude – ”

“ – and what reason would anyone in the Institute have to stash tapes down there, rather than simply destroying them? This entire thing is irrational, Jon; it would be a mistake to jump to simple conclusions.”

“I don’t… I don’t know why,” his archivist lied. Ah, the boy was a bad liar; Elias would’ve noticed even if he hadn’t been watching him for some time. But he had been watching; he’d seen Jon open his drawer and frown at the incriminating hospital report in there, struggling with the idea that he should destroy it, and couldn’t bring himself to do so. So when comfronted with a pile of hidden evidence that a sensible criminal would have destroyed… he’d drawn the obvious conclusion. It had to be somebody in the same position as him. And he had, so far as Elias could tell, only suspected the archive staff rather than the Institute as a whole, meaning he’d already pinned down the effect as something specific to the archives. He was still putting on a show, pretending not to have noticed, lying to himself as if denying the truth could save him from it, but that would fade soon enough, if he genuinely thought his life was in danger.

He clearly wasn’t getting enough sleep, though, or he would’ve realised that that logic cleared all his assistants. They hadn’t been working in the archives when Gertrude had died. Elias considered dropping hints to that effect, but no; the paranoia was doing wonders for his archivist’s development. Except for the part where he’d almost killed himself overindulging on statements, but that was controllable.

Most things were, if you knew enough.

-----------------------



When Jon got to his office, he found Gertrude’s tapes gone. He wasn’t surprised.

The aggravating thing was that anyone in the archives could’ve taken them. Tim was the obvious suspect; he’d found Jon, so he was the most likely one to have… poisoned him, or whatever he’d dome to make him pass out, but he wasn’t sure how he would have accomplished that. Martin had made his tea that morning, so he could’ve done it. As for the girls, Sasha had been conspicuously absent all day, and Mary… well, he knew she had a knack for sneaking into places. And she was here under a false name, for some reason; had she worked with Gertrude, disappeared after killing her, and now come back in disguise to get him? What would be the point?

None of it made sense. But the absence of the tapes at least proved one thing: his adversary was still here. He was in danger.

Logically, he knew he should leave it alone. Gertrude had most likely been killed because she’d learned something, something dangerous; the safest thing for him to do was to stop prying.

But he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to find out what he wanted to know, and if he died in the attempt… well, he was just going to have to try very hard not to.

He was going to need those tapes back. Even his notes, scant as they were, were missing. And for that, he needed to know who took them. It was time to start seriously investigating his assistants.

--------------------------



“He’s been watching my house, Sasha.”

“Are you sure it’s him? Maybe – ”

“Maybe some other stalker with bad fashion sense is following me? Something’s wrong with his head, Sash. The Prentiss attack made him lose his marbles somehow.”

“He was pretty badly injured by – ”

“So was I! Do you see me doing a backflip over the edge of reality?”

“You’re drawing some kind of weird occult diagram right now.”

“That’s not relevant!”

“Isn’t it, though? A bit?”

“No. I’m trying to figure out the Millbank tunnels. Did you know there are no complete maps or blueprints of the prison? Anywhere?”

“Yes, I did, because I’m the one you asked to look, remember? Look, I think maybe we’ve all got some… unhealthy coping mechanisms… after the whole worm thing, that we need to…”

You seem fine.”

Sasha bit her lip. She knew she was good at seeming fine. “Why are you so interested in the tunnels, anyway?”

“Um, our place of work has a secret network of tunnels under it that nobody knew about? How are you not interested?”

Sasha opened her mouth and nearly said something stupid, before realising – secret tunnels, Smirke… this was about Danny. Of course it was about Danny. She felt like an idiot for not realising that right away.

“Can I help?” she asked.

He looked surprised at the question, but answered. “Depends. Do you know where bossman stashed those tapes he’s been going through?”

“Tapes? What?”

“The tapes. From the notes, I think they might be Gertrude’s? They have something about the circus on them.”

“Oh. Anything… important?”

“I don’t know until I hear them. But they’re gone now.”

“If he’s looking at the circus, maybe you should – ”

“What, suggest to my paranoid stalker that maybe we should join forces? Yeah, I see that going well. Yesterday he asked me if I owned a gun, so I don’t – oh, Jesus.”

“What?”

“He just nipped around that corner. I think he saw me see him. He can’t even leave us alone for our goddamned lunch break? As soon as I get what I need, I’m getting the hell out of this place.” He opened his eyes comically wide, and leaned across the table to take Sasha’s hands in his in a joking parody of sincerity. “Come with me, Sasha!” he whispered dramatically. “We’ll run off together and take the world by storm! With your computer skills and my natural charm, we’ll become successful international art thieves, spend ten years building our romantically tense bond on high-stakes heist after high-stakes heist, do One Final Job to afford our own tropical island to retire to – ”

“And die tragically mid-heist?”

“No, no, no. We’re the protagonists, not the cops. It looks like we’re going to fail, but it turns out we secretly faked our deaths and are living happily ever after on our new private island.”

Sasha pretended to consider this. “Do we have good internet on our island?”

“The best! We’re so rich, we paid to get a cable run there.”

“Do you have any idea how expensive that would be?”

“We’re so rich, Sasha!”

She giggled and pulled her hands away. “I’ll consider it. Although I recall a certain someone being very put out when I started looking for a new job.”

“Yeah, well, that was before we’d been stalked by worms. And our boss. And who knows what else is out there.”

“Yeah, well, who-knows-what-else or not, I have to get back to the office. I’ve got half a box of ‘real’ files to digitise and put into a proper database so they can be cross-referenced and accessed without having to dig through actual physical cardboard boxes, since some of us aren’t dinosaurs.”

“You own a flip phone, Sasha.”

“Jealous.”

--------------------



“I’m just worried about him,” Martin explained. “He wakes up after being unconscious for a whole day and just, just goes back to work? Is that even allowed? I know it was a week ago now, but what if there’s, I dunno, brain damage they didn’t find? And he’s always so tired! Have you seen how tired he is?”

“He needs more sleep for his brain to work properly,” Mary agreed.

“He does! But we can’t force him to sleep.”

“What if we gave him warm milk and a bedtime story?”

“Ha. No. I don’t think that would work.”

“We could knock him unconscious again.”

“Don’t even joke about that!”

“Then have you tried asking him nicely?”

“… What?”

“He is your friend, isn’t he? Friends do favours for friends, so maybe he will do you a favour and get some sleep.”

“Huh. I doubt it. I mean, I, I don’t know if Jon sees us as… Jon’s a bit of a closed-in guy, you know?”

“He owes me a favour,” Mary said firmly. “I will tell him to sleep.”

“I really don’t think that’ll…”

-----------------------



“Are you trying to blackmail me?”

“No. I already agreed to keep the tapes a secret.”

“Then why are you here?”

“To convince you to take some time off. Martin is very worried about you.”

“Ha. Sure he is.”

“Not sleeping enough is very bad for your health.”

“My health. Right. Mary, did you take Gertrude’s tapes out of this office?”

“No. I brought them to you. Why would I do that if I was going to take them away again?”

“To allay suspicion, maybe? Maybe you wanted them out of police hands and my request was a convenient excuse to get them without raising my suspicions. How can I trust anything you say?”

“You could just ask me.”

“Oh, yeah. Like I can trust any of you to be honest with me. At least one of you is lying to me, I’m sure, which means myself and the rest of you are in danger – ”

Mary stood up suddenly. “I don’t think you’re very good at being friends, Archivist,” she said. “You should ask Martin or Sasha for some advice on how to do it better.”

And she walked out.

Jon stared after her. It would be nice to have a bit of a rest. Take some time to recover.

After he figured out this whole Gertrude thing, he’d be sure to do that.



Chapter Text

“If we pull this off,” Martin promised Tim, “he’ll leave you alone for several days at least.”

“Actually, yeah. That sounds good. If it’ll earn me some goddamned peace and quiet, I’m in.”

“Really? Oh. Good. Shh, here he comes!” He looked up, as did Elias and the other archival assistants assembled in the room around the large table.

Jon entered the room and froze. “What’s going on?”

“Sit down, Jon,” Elias said.

“I really am rather busy – ”

“Sit down, Jon.”

He did, reluctantly.

“This is an intervention,” Martin began.

“Oh, Jesus Christ.” Jon went to stand again.

“If you’d rather it be a disciplinary hearing, Jon, we can certainly arrange it,” Elias said sharply.

Jon hesitated, then sat back down. “Fine. Say your piece.”

“Jon,” Sasha said gently, “since the Prentiss incident, you’ve been – ”

“Completely off the wall,” Tim cut in, earning several sharp looks.

“A bit erratic,” Martin corrected quickly, “and we’d really like – ”

“To not have to fire you,” Elias cut in.

“You’re not looking after yourself,” Mary said. “It’s making people worried.”

“Also, the spying and random murder accusations,” Tim added sourly. “Those are making people ‘worried’, too.”

“I’m not spy – ”

“You were watching my house.”

“You’ve been following me on my lunch breaks.”

“You searched my stuff. And said I was lying about a murder.”

“Yes, well, nobody else seems worried about the killer in our midst, so – ”

“Do you really think any of us would shoot someone?” Sasha asked. “And even if you did, do you think anyone here would try to kill you?”

“I don’t know! Maybe! You’re hiding something here; I know it. And what about the tapes, huh?”

“What tapes?” Martin asked.

Elias sighed. “Jon, this goes beyond an unhealthy work environment. It’s partly my fault, for letting it get this far. I should have been more insistent that you take more time off after the Prentiss attack, and I should definitely have pushed more for you to see a therapist – which I still recommend you do, by the way. The Institute’s insurance will cover the cost.”

“I don’t need therapy,” Jon snarled.

“You do,” Tim said. “There’s something actually seriously wrong with your brain. You’ve got some kind of… of clinical paranoia or something, and you definitely need – ”

“Not helping, Tim,” Elias said sharply. “Jon, I cannot force you to see a therapist, although I strongly recommend that you do. But I can force you to take some time off. One week, starting tomorrow. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be necessary, but since this is you we’re talking about, I’ll be revoking your security clearance until your week is up, so make sure you take everything you need home with you tonight. And if security catches you wandering around unauthorised, they will confiscate your keys, so to save us all a headache please resist the temptation.”

“Elias – ”

“No arguments, Jon. I expect to see you back here after one week, in a better and more constructive frame of mind, or I will be forced to pursue disciplinary action.”

“Do it, then. Fire me, if I’m such an inconvenience to you.”

“I’m going to assume that comment is a result of trauma and your obvious sleep deprivation. Good day, Jon. Everyone.” He left the room.

Jon levelled a glare at Martin. Martin could practically see the gears turning in his mind – he knew this little meeting was Martin’s fault. He was probably trying to figure out whether Martin was his enemy, trying to delay his investigation, whether this was some big plot against him.

For once, Martin didn’t care if Jon hated him, not if it was for getting him the care he needed. Martin had been in that position before, and it really wasn’t a big deal.

“I have work to do,” Martin said levelly, and walked out.

-------------------



The week without a head archivist was fairly routine, the most notable difference being that nobody was telling them to go out and investigate things, so they got on with the task of sorting and digitising files. Martin moved out of Mary’s house, careful to “forget” key items that she would need but didn’t own such as basic cookware and a few towels, and was much more relaxed for it – he liked Mary just fine, but she was… weird… to live with. Part of it was that he kept expecting to wake up and see her watching him sleep again, although she did seem to be respecting his wishes on that. The rest of it was, well, everything else. Mary didn’t seem to have any hobbies, and she didn’t own books or have internet. She spent a lot of time at home doing, well, nothing. She’d been happy to watch movies with him, and she started cooking and cleaning after watching him do it, but she’d otherwise spend hours at a time in her bedroom, completely silent, which Martin knew to contain as little in the way of personal effects as her kitchen had when he’d moved in. Once, he’d seen her in there through the window, just standing in the corner and staring at the opposite wall.

He figured that this was probably typical behaviour, because he’d sometimes catch her doing it in the lounge room too – standing and staring at the wall, or sitting and staring at the black screen of her television without turning it on. He’d been reluctant to ask her about it (maybe she was praying, or something?) and he felt bad admitting it, but… he knew he’d feel better living somewhere else.

So it was with a sense of guilty relief that he moved into his new apartment.

Jon, too, had a productive week away. He hated to admit it, but his assistants had been right – he had needed rest. After a couple of days away from the Institute, and with a bit of sleep, the obsessive sense of being constantly watched had faded to something barely noticeable, and the lingering sense that someone nearby was hiding had disappeared completely. That second one he attributed to the fact that he was away from all his suspects and they were not, by definition, nearby, but the first at least helped him think more clearly, and after reviewing his notes, one thing became obvious: his archival assistant were probably all innocent.

Oh, they were all suspicious in little ways, but Jon could find something suspicious about everyone in the Institute if he tried. The fact was that none of them had any real connection to the archives before Gertrude’s death; hell, Mary hadn’t even worked at the institute, and Jon himself had convinced Tim to transfer down with him. And his whole suspicion relied on the idea that the… that the obsessions he’d been developing since moving down there were… well. The killer had hidden, but not destroyed, Gertrude’s tapes. He wouldn’t have understood that as a logical action, before moving down to the archives.

And then there were the… other factors, that left him with one very clear, very obvious suspect.

So on Sunday, Jon violated Elias’ explicit orders and snuck back into the Magnus Institute. He waited until late, until as many people as possible had gone home, wore his most un-Jon-like outfit, and projected an aura of I Know What I’m Doing as he completely avoided the archive, heading instead for Elias’ office. Jon didn’t know how to pick locks, but there were no security guards anywhere near the office, so instead he just pulled out the screwdriver he’d brought for this purpose and removed the lock from the door, careful to replace it behind himself. It was a good thing the Institute used such accessible locks; he’d hate to have to disassemble the hinges instead and have an entire door to rehang.

Inside the office, of course, most things were locked away. Elias’ safe wasn’t even worth trying, and a quick inspection of the locked desk drawers told him that it’d take someone with actual experience and skill at this sort of thing to easily get into those without leaving a trace. But Jon got lucky, when he opened one of the room’s unlocked cabinets and found a box of cassette tapes. He recognised the label. Gertrude’s tapes.

Elias had taken them, as expected.

Well then. That about wrapped things up, didn’t it?

Jon left them where they were, and went home. He had a lot of thinking to do.

-----------------------



Sasha sipped her latte. She’d just spent an hour tracking down the details of some cultist Jon had asked her about, and had sent them off before it occurred to her that he was supposed to be avoiding work. Should she call him back and make him promise to stay home and rest? It probably wouldn’t accomplish anything.

So instead, she’d gone out for coffee with Mary. And left her laptop at home, to avoid her own workaholic tendencies.

Mary, it seemed, hadn’t been feeling similarly, because she put her own coffee down and reached into her own bag to pull out some folders that looked suspiciously like Magnus Institute case files.

“Did you bring statements here?” Sasha asked, snatching them out of her hands.

She nodded. “I’m trying to get through the – ”

“Mary, these things aren’t supposed to be taken out of the building.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“We’ll just… just take them back tomorrow, and I’m sure no one will notice.” She put them on the table. “But we’re not here to work, we’re here to hang out. How have you been?”

“I’m fine,” Mary said brightly. “I am going to buy a DVD player so that I can still watch movies even though Martin is gone.”

“A DVD player? God, and Tim calls me a dinosaur. Do you want my Netflix password?”

“What is a Netflix password?”

“Oh, dear. Oh, you poor, deprived thing. Let me introduce you to the world of stream-on-demand entertainment. You brought files, so I’m guessing you brought a laptop?”

They skimmed a few ads for TV programs before Mary pointed at one and said, “That is the same person as in this other one.”

“The same actor, yeah.”

“Martin’s movies also had the same person sometimes.”

“What kind of movies did you watch with Martin?”

“Martin said not to tell because Tim would make fun of him.”

Sasha laughed. “That sounds about right. Yeah, the same actors do lots of movies. It bothers me sometimes, if they have a distinctive style; I can’t see Jack Black in anything without just thinking of him as Jack Black instead of the character, right?”

Mary nodded. “He’s reluctant to let go of old masks.”

“I… guess so?” Sometimes Sasha thought Mary’s conversations were getting more, well, normal, and then she’d say something like that.

“I understand. They can be fun.”

“Oh, you’ve done some acting?”

“Yes.”

Sasha had looked at Mary’s resume after she joined the institute, of course, out of curiosity, but she couldn’t remember what her degree had been in. “Is that what you studied at college?”

“Yes.”

“You studied to be an actor, and ended up in paranormal research? That must have been a fun career trajectory. You should talk to Tim; he got here through publishing, of all things.”

Mary shrugged. “A mask is a mask. Just because he used to be in publishing doesn’t mean he can’t be an archival assistant now. Maybe he’ll choose to be somebody else tomorrow.”

“Yeah, he said the same. He’s thinking of quitting.”

“Good.”

Sasha looked at her in surprise.

“The Institute makes him sad.”

“I guess so. But he’s got things to… well. It’s his business. Not ours.”

They finished their coffees, and Mary left. Sasha was packing up her own things when she noticed that the files Mary had taken from the Institute were still sitting on the table. She’d have to return them. She flipped through them, out of curiosity, and froze.

Of the five files, three mentioned a large wooden table with geometric fractal designs etched into its surface. She remembered that table, seeing it in artefact storage, nearly getting lost in those lines… she didn’t have a laptop to record the statements and check their validity, but she didn’t need one. She knew the table was the real deal.

The stories were remarkably similar to Graham Folger’s story. Owners of the table would become increasingly paranoid and watchful, convinced that something was after them, until one day they dropped their guard and something took their lives. The only survivor recorded in the statements was someone who managed to damage the centre of the table, which Sasha supposed explained the hole, although it was weird that it was so regular – had someone carved it out neatly to repair the table? They must have, because the table was definitely still doing its thing.

Jon had been getting increasingly paranoid and watchful, convinced that someone was after him.

When had that actually started? They’d blamed the Prentiss attack, and finding Gertrude’s body, but were the roots of the issue actually in the moment that table had been delivered to the Institute?

Delivered, with the lighter, to Jon. The table had been delivered to Jon.

Sasha didn’t leap to her feet and run out of the cafe. She slowly and deliberately continued to pack away her things. She had to be careful. She had to be thorough.

She needed a proper plan for how to save her boss.

Chapter Text

It was remarkably easy to buy an axe in central London.

Martin held his nervously, considering for the first time that he’d never actually swung one. What if he… did it wrong? Missed and hit his leg or something?

“Don’t worry,” Sasha reassured him, shouldering her own axe and opening the trapdoor in the office floor. “We’ll be in and out, nice and quick.”

“Okay, but… why did you call me?”

“Backup. In case the table… well, it can be mesmerising. Last time I was down there, I nearly got lost in it, and something… I just need someone there, in case I get distracted. You probably won’t need to do anything.”

“Yeah, I get that, but why me?” Martin followed her down the wide stone steps. “I mean, so far as survival skill goes, I’m not – ”

“You survived Prentiss for two weeks,” Sasha pointed out. “And afterward. She didn’t get any worms in you, and one got in me and I had to be saved by a monster. I know you can handle this, but I have no idea if Mary can. But if you’re scared – ”

“I’m coming,” Martin said firmly. “Obviously I’m coming. We’re saving Jon here. But what about Tim?”

Sasha’s grimace was barely visible in the reflected light of their torches. “Yeah, see, I’m not sure Tim would say yes to risking his life to save Jon right now.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“But once we trash this thing, Jon should recover, and we can all be awkward about it and slowly rebuild trust over the next several months. Should be fun.”

Martin wished they didn’t have to go through the tunnels. Artefact storage had a door. But it was staffed by people who probably wouldn’t just let two archival assistants carrying axes stride on through, and when the ruined table was found neither of them wanted their names on the sign-in sheet. So the creepy worm-corpse-filled tunnels it was.

Artefact storage was actually very close to the archives if you didn’t account for all those pesky walls in the way, so it was a short and uneventful journey before Sasha and Martin hacked through a piece of flimsy plasterboard and into the room beyond.

“This seems insecure,” Martin pointed out. “I mean, not just for people like us getting in, but… I felt a lot safer when I thought sturdier walls were holding the power of these things in.”

“I’m not sure that even lead or titanium walls would do much to contain otherworldy horror magic,” Sasha pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess. That sure makes me feel better about working in such close proximity to these things.”

“Come on, it’s near the front door.”

Martin had never been in artefact storage before. He tried not to look too closely at the various items and containment boxes on the shelves and lining the aisles around him. What bothered him the most, he supposed, was how many things weren’t in containment boxes; ancient looking necklaces lay displayed as if in a jewellery shop, and in one corner was what he could only describe as a massive golden throne, glinting in the light of their torches. Someone could just… walk in and sit in it. What would happen?

“There it is.” Sasha pointed out the table, and Martin was relieved to see that it was near the door, so if something really went wrong…

“If something goes wrong, don’t run for the door,” Sasha said. “It’ll be locked from the outside this time of night.”

Oh. Fantastic.

Sasha raised her axe. And paused. Martin saw her eyes glaze over.

He didn’t bother trying to shake the entranced woman holding an axe. Careful not to look at the table, he simply shut off both of their torches.

Sasha took a deep, shuddering breath in the darkness. “Where’s – ”

“Right in front of you.” Martin took her wrist and guided her hand to the wood of the table.

“Okay. Stand back, I can’t see you.”

Martin got well out of axe-swinging range and waited until he heard the grunt, the swing, the splintering of wood. Sasha swung again and again, until the table had to be a pile of kindling.

“I oWe YoU mY tHaNkS.”

Martin clicked his torch on, and immediately regretted it.

The… person… thing… in front of them was

Well. It looked kind of like a person, in a way; a person that had been all stretched out to the point that limbs were barely recogniseable as limbs, and it didn’t move so much as it was somewhere one moment and then you realised that no, it was actually closer than that, like an image suddenly jumping out of a magic eye puzzle.

“Run!” Sasha screamed, taking her own advice.

“YeS. yOu ShOuLd.”

Martin didn’t need a third invitation.

The pair of them ran through artefact storage, almost immediately getting lost in the maze of artefacts and shelves. But finding a way out wasn’t nearly as important as staying away from that thing who stalked after them, row by row, without really moving.

“I oNlY nEeD oNe Of YoU,” is said. “Do YoU wAnT tO cHoOsE, oR sHoUlD i?”

Martin, torch once again turned off and hand clutched around Sasha’s, tried not to breathe so loudly. He still had an axe. So did Sasha. Would it do any good?

More to the point, to wield an axe, even one-handed, and a torch to see the monster with, they’d need to let go of each other. And when fighting something known to take over people’s lives, they definitely shouldn’t let go of each other.

Sasha squeezed his hand gently and began to lead the way backwards, step by slow, silent step.

“YoU cAn OnLy HiDe FoR sO lOnG, yOu KnOw.”

And then one of them, Martin wasn’t sure who, bumped into a shelf in the dark. Something heavy dropped off and hit the ground with a loud thud.

“ThErE yOu ArE!”

No sense in hiding now. The torches snapped back on and the pair ran, hand in hand, for where Martin was pretty sure the tunnel entrance was. Could they lost the thing in the tunnels? Maybe. Everything seemed to get lost in the tunnels, although being caught down there with limited batteries, a monster somewhere in the shadows and no knowledge fo where the exit was didn’t sound too great, either.

The monster was there, right in front of them; as one the pair dove sideways and slid over a shelf that had looked empty, scattering something invisible all over the floor. No time to worry about that; Sasha was pulling Martin to his feet and they were running, running for the tunnels, their feet slipping and stumbling and scattered invisible things.

Martin stumbled sideways into an open cardboard box containing, of all things, a stack of ancient film reels, his hand slipping from Sasha’s. And then, the monster had him.

It pinned him to a wall with one… hand, he supposed… and Martin could feel the tips of his extremities burn white, the edges of his vision burn white, the edges of his memories burn white.

“YeS,” the monster breathed quietly. “tHiS wOuLd Do NiCeLy.”

What would?

“YoU lOoK cOmFoRtAbLe EnOuGh.”

Who did?

“MaRtIn, IsN’t It?”

Who was Martin?

“BuT. i SuPpOsE i OwE yOu A fAvOuR fOr FrEeInG mE. sO i WiLl GiVe YoU a SeCoNd ChAnCe.”

The monster released the thing it was pinning against the wall. The thing dropped to the floor, gasping.

“RuN, mArTiN.”

Martin, Martin, that’s what the thing was called. Martin. Martin stumbled to his feet, stared at the monster for a long second, and then turned and bolted into the tunnels.

“Martin!” Sasha emerged from a tunnel and grabbed his wrist. “Are you okay?!”

“Um, no? But we have to run, it’s still – ”

“ReAdY oR nOt, HeRe I cOmE!”

“Shitshitshitshitshit!”

They got lost immediately, of course.

Martin spied a crack in a tunnel wall that might be a door and somehow managed to squeeze his bulk through it, pulling Sasha through behind him. A quick sweep of their torches showed they’d ended up in a small room, with no other exits, so they turned them off and waited, trying not to make any noise.

“CoMe OuT, cOmE oUt WhErEvEr YoU ArE!”

Martin bit into the skin of his hand, willing himself not to wimper. He could feel Sasha shaking uncontrollably beside him. Something was very slowly scraping its way through the entrance to the room. Martin raised his axe in two trembling, sweaty hands, ready to… well, die, presumably, but while swinging an axe, at least. Then Sasha behind him suddenly stiffened, grabbed his arm, and pulled him backwards through a doorway that he definitely hadn’t seen when sweeping the room with his flashlight.

They were in a corridor. Not the ruined, natural-looking corridors of the tunnels; this was like a maintained corridor in a hotel put together by the world’s worst interior designer. If was brightly lit with electric lighting, and carpeted, admittedly in a nauseating yellow colour that clashed terribly with the swirling green pattern on the wallpaper. Martin spun to face the monster behind them, but there was nothing there, not even a door – just more of the corridor.

“Oh, where are we now?” he muttered, while a high-pitched laugh he didn’t recognise echoed down the hall.

--------------------



Elias opened his eyes, stared up at the ceiling, and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.

The first half was pretty straightforward. He’d watched Mary draft the false statements and slip them to Sasha, and as much as it grated him that she’d be so rude as to besmirch the archives with false statements like that when he’d been nothing but accommodating, he had to admit that the false effects of the table she’d laid out were convincing to someone with Sasha’s limited information. He’d watched them destroy the table, watched Clark hunt them through artefact storage and into the tunnels, watched Michael follow them and then… lost them.

Which could mean several things. It was very hard to actually see much of what happened in the tunnels, so he wasn’t sure exactly why the two archival assistants had dropped off his radar. Clark might have killed them, but he doubted it; Mary had made it pretty clear that she was using them, and while the life thief seemed unable to resist the temptation to grab a little free terror from the pair, it didn’t seem the type to repay her help by killing her ‘friends’. But it was possible he was wrong on that point. It was hard to tell with monsters.

Michael might have taken them. If so, why? He’d helped the archive crew against Prentiss, so it was possible he’d move to save them from Clark, too. Or he could’ve just been bored and decided to eat them. Elias didn’t think he’d be so bold as to eat two people belonging so clearly to the Eye from within the Eye’s centre of power, but Spiral entities were even harder to predict than Stranger ones, so it was still a faint possibility.

Or, the pair might simply have taken a turn down a tunnel that had moved, and Elias had lost track of them. In which case, they’d either eventually emerge, or they’d die down there, and there wasn’t much that Elias could do about either scenario.

Mostly, he was just annoyed at the timing. Couldn’t Mary have waited another week to break the table? Couldn’t she have found a way to send Jon? Michael had already stabbed Jon, but a little chase through artefact storage with a monster who would probably avoid actually killing him would’ve been an excellent way to get him marked by the Stranger. A perfect, low-risk method of gaining a mark, wasted.

At this point, it looked like Elias really was going to have to rely on a dancing circus.

Chapter Text

“Take my mercy, Archivist, and leave.”

Jon didn’t need telling again. He got the hell out of Mike Crew’s house. Didn’t even wait to say goodbye.

Upon reflection, going to known superpowered serial killers for information probably hadn’t been the smartest move, but it had been the only one he really had available. He sure as hell wasn’t going to tip his hand to Elias until he absolutely had to, and nobody else seemed to know what was going on. Now, for his efforts, he had very little new information, a lot of confirmed suspicions, a burned right hand, and a lingering sense of dread as he walked down Mike’s front steps and wondered, for half a second, whether his other foot would hit the ground.

Jon had learned that, compared to Jude and Mike at least, he was a small, naive fish in a very big pond, and he was starting to think it might be best to keep out of the bigger fish’s way, if he could help it. But he probably wasn’t going to. He could put that obsessive need to know, to witness, into a logical framework now, one he most certainly didn’t like, but he wasn’t sure it was one he could resist.

----------------



“Did you ever think it would end like this?” Martin asked as they paced the endless corridors.

“Yes,” Sasha admitted. “I mean, not recently. But back when I worked in artefact storage, I’d read about the effect of some horrible thing we were testing, and there was always the worry that something like this would happen. Bit of a surprise for an archiving job, though.”

“Should we start… I don’t know, hacking the place to pieces again?”

Sasha shrugged, “Didn’t seem to make much difference the other times.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “How long have we been in here, do you think?”

“I don’t know, Martin. I didn’t know last time you asked, either.”

“Okay, but… do you think it’s been in the range of hours, or the range of days? Because it feels to me like it’s been days, and I’m… starting to get worried.”

Sasha shot him a look. She knew Martin wasn’t stupid, but some of the things he said… “We’ve been in a maze of nightmare corridors for days and you’re just now starting to get worried?”

“Yeah. Because I’m not hungry or thirsty. Are you?”

Sasha opened her mouth. Closed it again. She hadn’t thought of that.

“When we first got in here and couldn’t find a way out, I was terrified we were going to die in here,” Martin said quietly. “But now I’m starting to worry that… maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll never die in here.”

“Yeah, well… let’s put a pin in that, and check back in a century,” Sasha tried to joke. It fell flat. “Anyway, there’s always more halls and more doors.” She yanked a random door open. “Maybe behind this one – holy shit.”

On the other side of the door was the archives. Tim sat with a book open on the desk in front of him, staring at them open-mouthed.

Sasha and Martin bolted through the door, and Tim scooted his chair back, raising the heavy tome like a weapon. Sasha froze, realising what the scene looked like to Tim – two haggard, red-eyed people leaping out of the wall at him, wielding axes.

She put hers down, and raised her empty hands. “Chill out, Tim; it’s just us.”

He lowered the book. “Sasha. Martin. What the hell? You’ve been gone for days! Where have you been?!”

“That’s a very good question, one I’d also love the answer to,” Martin said.

“Me too, to be honest.” Sasha pinched her nose. “It was something to do with Michael, I think. I heard him laugh when we went in.”

“Michael? Creepy monster Michael who showed you the CO2 trick?”

“Yeah.”

“He saved us again?” Martin asked.

“I guess so? To be perfectly honest, I really hope not to run into him a third time.”

“He saved you? What happened? And why do you both have axes?”

Sasha exchanged a glance with Martin.

“We’ll tell you,” Martin promised, “if you promise not to, um… freak out?”

“Not to – ”

He was interrupted by a door opening – a normal door, this time, and Jon walking into the room. He looked like he’d gotten some sleep, at least, but there was something serious in his eyes, and one hand was wreathed in bandages.

“Ah, good,” he said. “Most of you are here. Where’s Mary?”

“She went to get a cup of tea,” Tim said. “Nice to see you showing up at the end of a crisis, as usual.”

“The end of a…? Okay. Look.” Jon took a deep breath and rubbed his temples with his good hand. “I owe you all an apology. I’ve not been… I’ve not been fair, to any of you, and I’ve done some investigating, and we need to talk. All of us. So let me know when she gets back, alright?”

Then he turned and headed to his office.

“Oh, like hell I’m putting up with this,” Tim snarled, leaping to his feet and following after him.

Sasha looked at Martin. “I think I hear somebody calling our names way over at the other end of the building,” she said conversationally.

“You know, I think I hear that, too. Let’s go.”

--------------------



Jon had barely sat down at his desk when Tim burst into the room. “That’s what you’ve got to say?” he snapped. “Sorry everyone, let me go mope in my office?”

“We do have a lot to talk about, but it’s very serious and I’d rather talk to everyone at – ”

“Sasha and Martin were missing for three days! What were you doing then?”

Missing? What? “Are they alright?”

“Seems it, no thanks to you. You weren’t even – ”

“ – Here, yes, and whose fault is that, Tim? You were part of the group who forced me out for the week, as I recall. A lot of dangerous and terrible things are happening right now, but I’m not sure what you expect me to do about any of – ”

“Anything! Anything other than falling apart and turning into an unreliable, paranoid lunatic would be great! Any kind of leadership, anything that doesn’t make you yet another thing the rest of us have to watch out for, would be fantastic.”

I suspect that won’t be possible, Jon thought.

“I have had it up to here with you, and with this whole place. The worms, your creepy stalker nonsense, now whatever Sasha and Martin stumbled into… I am so close to just walking, you have no – ”

“Then do it,” Jon said.

That threw him off balance. “What?”

“If you want to quit, quit. I’ll make sure you get paid through the month. I’ll write you a glowing reference for wherever you want to go next. We can go get the forms from Elias right now.” He leaned forward. “Just say the words, Tim.”

Tim hesitated. “I… I can’t. Not yet. I have things I have to do here, things I need the Institute – ”

“Is that the real reason?”

“No.”

“Then why won’t you quit?”

“I can’t.” Realisation swept across his face. “I… I really can’t. Why can’t I quit?”

“I’m not sure,” Jon admitted, leaning back. “I can’t, either. I was hoping that wouldn’t apply to you, but I guess that was too much to hope for.”

“Hoping that what wouldn’t apply to me? That what wouldn’t apply, Jon?”

“I don’t… exactly know, yet? I’m getting the shape of it, but the details… well, it seems we’re all trapped, so – ”

“Then fire me.”

“I can’t.”

“You won’t, you mean. Whatever’s going on here, I guess you need somebody running around, doing your – ”

“I mean I can’t. I already tried. I can’t even put the pen to the form without dropping it, and you don’t want to know what happens if I try to do it electronically.”

“Oh. Is that what happened to your hand?”

“No; that was me being an idiot.”

“That sounds about right.” Tim looked thoughtful for a moment. “Wait, you tried to fire me?”

“Of course. I tried to fire all four of you, weeks ago.”

“Why?!”

“Because I thought one of you was a killer! Which meant that myself and all the others were in danger! I couldn’t seem to get myself out, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave everyone else in danger too if I could help it! Turns out I can’t. And you can’t leave either, so… I guess that’s it. We’re stuck in this place.”

“So you decided to make the choice for us, by firing us.”

“None of you would believe you were in danger. Would you have believed me if I said I couldn’t quit? Would you have taken anything I said seriously?”

“… No, probably not. But you’ve decided we’re not killers?”

“Yeah.”

“So who do you think did it? Did she have any sinister assistants you wanna stalk?”

“Yes, actually. And I did try to find them. One guess as to what happened to them all.”

“… They’re dead, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. All under mysterious circumstances.”

“Well shit.”

“Yeah.” Jon took a deep, calming breath. “My main suspect for killing Gertrude is Elias. But to be perfectly honest, that’s… mostly because I don’t have any other suspects. I mean, he hired us; it’s his institute. We have to assume that he knows we’re trapped, so he trapped her, too, so why would he want to kill her?”

“You were saying you thought she found out something dangerous, perhaps?”

“Yeah. Maybe. And he does have her tapes, so – ”

“They’d be the tapes you were taking notes on when you passed out?”

“Yeah. I broke into his office. He’s got them stashed in there.”

“You didn’t… steal them back?”

“Of course not. I didn’t want him to know I’d been in. Until I know exactly how dangerous he is and what… what the point of any of this is, I’d rather play dumb. Although I don’t know how possible that is, here. Do you ever feel like you’re being watched, in this place?”

Tim laughed hollowly. “All the time.” He shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I should’ve expected sinister nonsense once we found out we were built on top of the Millbank tunnels. Did you know Robert Smirke designed that place?”

“Yes, you’ve said.”

“And this is what you wanted to gather us all to tell us about? That not only does this place suck, but we’re all basically stuck here?”

“Yes.” Jon hesitated. He could leave it there. He could talk to the other assistants, tell them this much, and then… move on.

But they deserved the truth.

“There’s… more,” he admitted reluctantly.

“Of course there is.”

“You’re really not going to like it.”

“Same as everything else so far, then.”

“Yes. Well.” Jon hesitated. “So, you’ve read a lot of the statements here.”

“Pretty big part of the job.”

“Right. And you’ve seen… a lot of them involve… people. Or things that used to be people. Like Jane Prentiss. Or, or Simon Fairchild, or whatever’s going on with the Lukases.” He looked awkwardly down at his desk, but not before he saw Tim’s eyes widen with realisation as he took a step back.

“Jon, what are you telling me?”

“Well, I’m not… I’m not sure of all the details yet, exactly but – ”

“Who did you kill?!”

“Nobody! What? No! I haven’t… I haven’t hurt anybody.”

Yet. Everyone in those statements, they always kill, or at least hurt, people.”

“Yeah, or they wouldn’t be in the statements. That’s a confirmation bias if I ever saw one. I haven’t done anything, Tim. I just… I might kind of have powers now?”

“Evil powers.”

“I… I suppose so, yes.”

“What can you do?”

“I can make people tell me things. I mean, when I ask questions, people answer them truthfully. Not ‘letter of the law’ kind of truth; they… they make an effort to be honest. Clear.” He curled his injured hand. “Even when they really don’t want to be.”

“Bullshit.”

“Fine. Think of a number between one and one hundred, and if I can get it first try, you accept what I’m telling you. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“What number are you thinking of?”

“Thirty-seven. Wait; that doesn’t count. I was distracted. I didn’t really have any reason to keep that from – ”

“Do you really want me to prove it with something you actually want to keep from me, Tim?”

“ … No. Okay, so… so this means what, exactly?”

“It’s wrapped up in being the archivist of the Magnus Institute, apparently. There are… powerful fear gods, I guess, out there, and apparently the archives serves one of them.”

Tim nodded wearily. “From everything we’ve got so far, my guess would be the Ceaseless Watcher?”

Jon froze. “How do you – I mean, I didn’t expect you to know that name, Tim.”

“I was working in paranormal research before you brought me down here to the archives.”

“So was I, and I certainly hadn’t heard of the Beholding.”

Tim rolled his eyes and left the room. Jon assumed the conversation was over, but Tim returned a moment later, a thick library book in his hands. He opened it to a bookmarked page, set it in front of Jon, and left again.

Well. That was that then, apparently.

Jon looked down and began to read Balance and Fear: A Treatise On Smirke’s Taxonomy.

Chapter Text

While Jon was busy reading, Tim filled in the rest of the crew. They stared at him.

“Seriously?” Martin asked.

“Yep.”

“We’re like… trapped here? Are you sure?”

Tim shrugged. “Try to quit.”

“I already have,” he mumbled. “Months ago.”

Sasha bit her lip. “And Jon’s…?”

“A fear-eating spy monster. Yup. Explains a lot of his recent creepy behaviour, doesn’t it?”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” Martin cut in. “He was… he was scared, that doesn’t mean he… he wouldn’t…”

“Wouldn’t what, Martin? Trap a bunch of people in a basement and make their lives hell with constant stalking and accusations?”

“He didn’t trap us here! Elias – ”

“Elias isn’t the one who suggested that I transfer to the archives.”

“Nobody did any of this on purpose.”

“You seem to think that matters a lot more than I do.”

Just then, Jon walked into the room. His gaze flicked over the four assembled faces, landing on Tim. “So you’ve already told them, then?”

“Yep.”

“Everything?”

Tim knew his smile was smug. He didn’t care. “Filled them in completely, boss.”

“I would have liked to explain.”

Tim spread his hands wide. “Explain away.”

“We’ll deal with this, Jon,” Martin promised. “We’ll, we’ll find some way to reverse whatever’s doing this to you, and…”

“Nothing’s happening to me,” Jon snapped. “Well, I suppose it is, but I’m not… I’m sure Tim made it sound a lot worse than it is.”

“Sure,” Sasha said, sounding unconvinced. “So what happens now?”

“Honestly? I have no idea,” Jon admitted. “I thought… I thought finding out who killed Gertrude would answer all my questions, or at least why since I’m reasonably sure it was Elias, but I’m starting to think it probably doesn’t matter. I guess we’re just… here now? Until we find a way to escape.”

“I say we set the whole place alight,” Tim suggested. “Take it all down with us.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, actually,” Martin cut in. “It sounds kind of um… suicidal?”

Tim shrugged. “We’re already dead.”

“That’s a bit of a pessimistic view for – ”

“No, it’s an accurate one. We’re stuck here for the rest of our lives, Martin, and do you know what that means? It means that everything else is just a matter of time.”

“Everything is always a matter of time,” Mary said, sounding puzzled. “And everyone is trapped by circumstance.”

“That cheery note aside, it’s particularly acute in our case. This is our lives now. We’re in this basement until something kills us; until a woman made of worms eats us or we starve in an endless tunnel or monsterboss here unhinges and eats our brains.”

“I’m not going to – ”

“Shut up. The only choice we have in the matter is how long it takes and how many of the bastards we take with us. So I say, yeah – revenge. Might as well take our killers with us while they take their sweet time savouring the kill.”

“I’m sure we can find something a little more constructive to do with our lives than immediately dying in an inferno,” Jon said drily. “I for one would like a lot more information on the situation before we proceed.”

“Yeah, you would, wouldn’t you, Archivist?”

“… That wasn’t fair.”

“Why don’t you just ask for information?” Mary asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Ask Elias. You said you wanted to know if he killed Gertrude and why. And he trapped you here. So why not just go and ask?”

“I’d rather play dumb with him for as long as possible. He’s probably… dangerous.”

Mary frowned. “This place serves the Ceaseless Watcher. How do you intend to keep secrets here if you’re going to talk about them openly?”

“She’s right,” Sasha said. “He’s probably got spy cameras in here or something.”

“Surveillance cameras don’t work down here,” Jon said. “It’s been tried.”

“And who told you they didn’t work? Elias?”

“Good point. Alright. I’ll go talk to him now. You guys – ”

“I’m coming with you,” Tim said, getting to his feet. “I want to hear this for myself.”

“It could be dangerous.”

“I thought I already made it clear that I don’t give a shit.”

“I think we should all go,” Martin said. “I mean, if we’re trapped here together, maybe forever, then we should all be… on the same page.”

Jon sighed. “What are my chances of convincing you all that staying behind is the better option?”

Four voices chorused back various iterations of “Absolutely none.”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

---------------------------



Elias sighed and reluctantly closed his laptop. Could Jon’s timing have been any worse? He was right in the middle of a spreadsheet.

Well, this was going to happen eventually, he supposed. Best to get it out of the way early. Every single Archivist did this, and they were always so angry about it… he should just make pamphlets. So You’ve Become An Eldritch Servant of Terror.

Waste of time now, since he planned on Jon being the last Archivist, but eh. Hindsight.

The archive crew stormed in, and Elias looked up. “Ah. Jon. And you’ve brought everybody, I see. Good, that’ll save a lot of back-and-forth.”

“Do you know why we’re here, Elias?”

Elias felt the compulsion creep through his mind, free his tongue. He could probably have resisted it, he thought; Jon’s power was developing and his control was of it was almost nonexistent. He might have been able to dodge, or deflect, and part of him wanted to, just to answer the question of whether he could, get a measure of Jon’s power.

But he didn’t. If he could lie to Jon, that wasn’t something to recklessly let Jon know with a petty show of power.

“Yes. I believe you’re here to shout a lot of poorly thought out and misdirected questions at me, and probably get quite upset when you don’t like the answers. Should we get this over with, then?”

“Did you kill Gertrude?”

Elias almost laughed. “That’s your priority? Very well. Yes, I killed Gertrude Robinson, and I did it because she planned to destroy the archives. It was something of a tragic loss, but I obviously couldn’t allow that to happen.”

“Because they’re important to the Beholding.”

Elias sighed. “Is that a question? Until your control improves, Jon, you’ll get better results if you actually phrase things as questions. Phrasing is important.” He glanced at Jon’s bandaged hand. “Although I suspect you’ve learned that lesson already. When I gave you a week off it was with the expectation that you’d keep out of trouble. What did you do?”

Jon ignored this. “What did you do with Gertrude’s tapes?”

“I gave them to security. They’re in storage, and I don’t know which storage room they’re in, so you won’t be able to get that out of me, I’m afraid.”

“Why did you take them?”

“Because I wasn’t going to sit back and watch you kill yourself, Jon,” Elias said sharply.

“… What?”

“You have many traits that make you ideal for this position, but moderation is not one of them. As soon as you got a hold of those things, you tried to listen to four in one week and put yourself in the hospital. And then came straight back to try to listen to more. Generally, Jon, I don’t consider it my place to micromanage the Archivist’s affairs, but I’m not going to lose you at this stage to an information overdose. Do you have any idea how difficult you would be to replace?”

This didn’t seem to be the answer that his archivist was expecting. He spluttered for a few seconds before saying, “Well, you could have just warned me.”

Elias sighed again. “Come on, Jon; you’re smarter than that. You really think I’d deprive you of the chance to discover things for yourself? If you want any chance of growing in power – ”

“I don’t!”

A comfortable lie, I’m sure, and one that might be a bit more believable if you hadn’t been throwing your power around since the moment you realised you had it. But whether you want to or not, Jon, you are going to need that power if you want to have any hope of protecting yourself, your friends, or anybody else from what is coming.” He put up a hand. “And before you ask me why, I should caution you that if you get that sort of information from me I believe that you will fail to protect anyone. I cannot hold your hand through this, not if you want to be strong enough to survive.”

“I’m going to need those tapes, then. They’re important, aren’t they?”

I believe so, although I haven’t heard most of them. But as I’ve already said, I’m not going to give you something to kill yourself with. I’ll have security release them to you three at a time. But if you put yourself in danger again…”

“I’ll be careful,” he snapped.

“Doubtful, judging my your behaviour so far, but I suppose it’ll have to do. Now. Is there anything else? I really am rather busy, I’m afraid.”

Reluctantly, the archival staff shuffled out. Elias got back to his spreadsheet, but now his flow had been broken. Why did Jon’s timing always have to be so inconvenient?

Well. It was nearly lunchtime, and the break room near Accounting was currently empty. If he was quick, he could nip in and reheat his fish in their microwave right before the lunch rush started.

------------------------------



Martin was cross-referencing some Hilltop Road statements when he noticed Mary watching him from across the room.

“Hmm?”

“You’re not happy.”

Martin laughed bitterly. “What gave it away?”

“Your general posture, lessened rate of speaking, current tone of voice and – ”

“Of course I’m not happy, Mary! I just came out of a nightmare I thought I was going to die in, or more worryingly live forever in, only to learn that, surprise! I’m in a different one! I’m freaking out! We’re all freaking out! Why aren’t you freaking out?”

“Would that help?”

“I don’t know! It makes me feel better!”

“It looks like it makes you feel worse. This is the sort of thing people are supposed to go out and get blind drunk about, right?”

“Yeah, I… I don’t think anyone really wants to spend time together right now.”

“Don’t sad people spend time with friends to feel better?”

“It’s really not that simple. I’ve spent the last three days with no one but Sasha, and Tim’s… not friendly right now, and Jon’s Jon, and you’re… you… and I think being around anyone right now is just a… reminder, of how stuck we are.”

“Were you planning to go anywhere else?”

“Well, no. But choosing to be somewhere is different from being trapped there. You should know, right? You ran away from… you know.”

“I came here.”

“And now you’re trapped here instead.”

“Have you slept recently?”

“Well, no; I’ve been trapped in – ”

“Go home and sleep,” Mary said firmly. “You’ll feel better with some sleep, some food and some water. And longer term, with some exercise and sunlight.”

“None of that is going to solve this whole evil archives problem.”

“Would solving that make you feel better?”

“Yes!”

“Do you have a way to solve it?”

“No!”

“These things will also make you feel better, and you can do them.” She reached into her desk and handed him a library book. He glanced at the title: 101 Classic Bedtime Stories. “To help you sleep,” Mary explained.

Martin couldn’t help but laugh. He knew himself well enough to know that in a day or so, he’d be doing what Mary was doing; trying to talk, trying to make everyone feel better about everything. It was weird for someone to beat him to it.

“Thank you, Mary. I’ll… I’ll try and get some sleep. You should, too.”

“I will try,” she promised.

That night, struggling to sleep, Martin turned the library book over in his hands. It didn’t contain his bedtime story, of course; no book did. And that story contained all the advice he needed right now, didn’t it? When you find yourself in the ruins of the tower, you get up and start building with whatever you have, because that’s what humans do.

Everyone was falling apart, and the only thing they had was each other. Gertrude had met a bad end. Her assistants had all died young, mysteriously, and presumably badly. If they were trapped together, their only strength was going to be each other.

And he couldn’t keep them together. They wouldn’t listen to him. Nobody ever did.

He could imagine Mary’s reaction to something like that. She’d look puzzled and say something like, “Then be someone they will listen to, instead.” Like anything was ever that easy.

But he could try.

Chapter Text

“Tim’s losing it,” Martin told Sasha quietly. “Look at him.”

Nobody had seen Tim for four days. Then, that morning, he’d walked in, said he’d been in Malaysia, and refused to answer any questions about it before sitting glumly at his desk and getting to work.

“Yeah, well, I can hardly blame him,” she said. “I’m half-tempted to try to burn this place down myself.”

“So Elias can shoot you three times in the chest and hide you in a tunnel surrounded by mysterious tapes?”

“Hey, if you’re gonna go, go dramatically.”

“You have to talk to Tim. He hates Jon, he won’t listen to me, and anything Mary would say would just make him angry. You’re the only person here he respects.”

“I’m not sure what you expect me to say, Martin. He’s stuck here. We’re stuck here. I don’t have a way out.”

“He doesn’t need a way out.”

Sasha shook her head. “Martin, there’s simply no way he’s ever going to be okay with – ”

“He doesn’t need a way out,” Martin repeated. “He just needs the hope of one. Here’s what you need to say to him…”

Ten minutes later, Sasha set a fresh coffee in front of Tim and sat down. “Hey.”

He looked up, red-eyed, from the folder he was perusing. “Oh. Hi.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Well, none of Jon’s three tapes right now are about circuses, so it really doesn’t matter, does it?”

“Yeah. About this whole… thing. You seem to know more about what’s going on than the rest of us.”

“I don’t know anything about what’s going on.”

“You know a lot about this… fear power thing? That this place serves?”

“Smirke’s taxonomy?” Tim shrugged. “We’re right underneath the best paranormal library in the world. The information’s right there.”

“Tim…”

“Don’t tell me to cheer up. Don’t. I’m not going to sit around, and smile, and play nice, and pretend that solves anything. This place is evil, Sasha, and we’re stuck here; Jon’s turning into a monster, and we might be, too, and even if we’re not there’s just a whole bunch of stuff that’s going to keep happening until something kills us. We can’t run away – I tried. We can’t quit. We can’t be fired – ”

“Says who?” Sasha asked.

“What? Jon said – ”

“ – That he can’t fire us. But Jon’s not the one in charge of all of this, is he?”

Finally, Tim met her eyes. Realisation dawned. “You don’t think…?”

“I don’t know. I’m just saying, our information is incomplete.”

“Yeah. I suppose it is.”

Sasha left him to his thoughts. As she passed Martin in the hall, she muttered to him, “You’ve unleashed chaos here today. I hope you realise this.”

“Oh, dear,” he said, deadpan. “How will the archives ever recover. I feel terrible.”

“Where did this mischievous streak come from?”

“Mischievous? Me? I’m not the one who destroyed a valuable supernatural artefact with an axe, and I’m certainly not the one who’s going to do whatever Tim is cooking up. I’m an accessory to mischief, at best.”

----------------



Elias prided himself, of course, in his knowledge. He wasn’t a man easily surprised, and he wasn’t a man given to allow himself to be taken by surprise. So when he opened his office door to find the room packed floor-to-ceiling with helium balloons, the startled yelp he gave as several sprang out and drifted up past his face was, on a personal level, somewhat embarrassing.

Right. These routines again. He’d gotten comfortable with Gertrude’s blessed lack of assistants in her later years. He could call the cleaners to deal with this, of course, but then there’d be gossip…

With a sigh, Elias pushed his way into the room and began shoving armload after armload of helium balloons out into the corridor, where they’d be somebody else’s problem. This delay was going to make the pay confirmations late again. He made a mental note to process the archive team’s pay last.

-------------



“Ah, Tim. Two of the last batch of tapes mention clowns or circuses in some capacity. Here.” Jon handed over a couple of tapes.

“Thanks, boss.”

“Why are you int – I mean, I would like to know why you’re suddenly so interested in this topic, Tim.”

“I’m sure you would.” He grinned. “It’s killing you, not knowing something, isn’t it?”

Jon rubbed his temples. “We’re on the same side, you know.”

“Mmm. Yeah. I with that were true, too. Anyway, that cop’s here to see you.”

“Hmm?” Jon spied the figure moving into view in the doorway. “Ah, constable – ”

“Not any more.”

“What?”

“I quit the force. That’s not why I’m here.” Basira shuffled around Tim, who left the office, tapes in hand.

“Oh. Then, uh, how can I help you? Besides the apology I owe you, I suppose, for last time we – ”

“Neither of us were having a great time that day,” Basira said, waving his words away. “I’m here to make a statement, actually.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Apparently you’re the guy to talk to. Can’t say it’s encouraging, the idea that new statements go straight to archives, but what do I know?”

“I can’t say I entirely understand the organisational structure myself, yet. So. You saw something supernatural?”

Basira flinched. “Something… odd. We don’t tend to use the S-word on the force, you know? Makes you look unstable. But sometimes we deal with things that are a bit strange, or odd, or weird, and if you see something weird-weird they give you a form to sign. Section 31, it’s called. Means that your witness testimony can’t be released as part of an FOI request, and a few other secrecy clauses. And we’re… it’s not an official part of the form, you understand, but it’s kind of accepted, internally, that you don’t talk about it. You don’t go telling civillians, and people who haven’t signed a section 31 before don’t ask, because nobody wants to sign one.”

“And that’s why you’re coming here to talk now. Because you’ve left the force.”

“Kind of? Other way around, really, I think.”

“Right. But why do people not want to sign a section 31? I would imagine that there are a lot of things police keep quiet about, so – ”

“Because once you sign one, you get more. Whenever an odd case shows up, they send the sectioned officers first, since they’re already, y’know… compromised, I guess? You sign one of those and suddenly every druggie hallucinating a building of spiders, every possible cult-related arson, every physically impossible switchblade murder rampage is your problem. That’s why it took us so long to get here for your worm thing; ll the sectioned officers were tied up, and anything that happens in this place is basically an automatic section 31. But it’s not technically illegal for me to talk to you about this. My old workmates are gonna be pissed if they ever find out, but… well, I just want someone to know about it. Because Altman deserves better.”

“Right. Well then.” Jon slipped a blank tape into his recorder and started recording. “Statement of Basira Hussain, regarding…?”

Basira leaned forward. “Regarding the kidnapping of Callum Brodie by Maxwell Rayner.”

------------



“… He was killed by a goddamn cultist, and now they’re just covering it up. They sent us to hell and back, again, and now they have the gall to just, just pretend it never happened. Again. Altman deserved better. And so do I. So I quit.” Basira stood up. “That’s uh, about it, I guess. I just… wanted to tell someone, for once.”

“Right.” Jon turned the recorder off. “Well, I hope the experience has been cathartic. Thank you for you statement, Miss Hussain.”

“Basira. Thanks for… listening, I guess. I didn’t intend to take up so much of your time with so much, well, detail, but…”

“This place does have that effect on people.”

“Right. Well, thanks.”

“Do you feel… better?” Jon asked, unable to keep the hope out of his voice. “For talking about it? Do you think it might have done some good?”

Basira heaved a sigh. “No. I was hoping I would, but… no.”

He’d been worried that might be the case. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, well. Sometimes the world sucks, I guess. A kid was saved and a lot of evil people are dead before they can hurt anyone else, so… ‘bye, I suppose.”

And with that, she left.

Jon sat by himself, in the quiet, and thought.

The People’s Church weren’t hard to figure out. A cult that served the Dark, terrifying, hurting and killing people to feed it. Just like Jude’s people served the Desolation, terrifying, hurting and killing people to feed it. How did people get involved in something like that? He supposed he knew that already, with his little cult serving the Eye.

Jude had made herself out to be a sadistic sociopath from the beginning, and maybe she had been, but… Jon had read Jane’s statement, and at least a couple of outside accounts of Mike Crew, from before they’d been completely corrupted. They had definitely changed, and without, at least in Mike’s case, seeming to realise it had even happened. Jon hadn’t hurt or terrified anyone, not on purpose. And he hadn’t killed anyone, not yet. But what if Tim was right, and it was just a matter of time?

What if Jon didn’t notice until it was too late? And what if, when he did notice, he didn’t care any more?

Chapter Text

Contains graphic violence

 

--------------------------

 

Elias walked into the archives, caught sight of Tim, and sighed. “Tim, that outfit is not work-appropriate.”

“Sorry, boss,” Him said, straightening his tie patterned to look like a dead fish and peering up from under the brim of his giant hat shaped like a birthday cake. “Forgot we had a dress code.”

“This is the third time this week, Tim. We have an image to maintain.”

“Oh dear. I suppose you’ll have to fire me.”

“You know perfectly well that that isn’t an option.”

“How unfortunate.” He tapped the side of his hat; the tips of the candles lit up, and Happy Birthday started to play.

“While we are on the topic of your… temperament… do you happen to know anything about the twenty seven Hawaiian pizzas delivered to my office yesterday morning?”

“Wouldn’t know anything about that, I’m afraid. I don’t like Hawaiian pizza. Maybe you could find out who paid for them to find the culprit?” he asked in the tone of one who knows very well that the pizzas were charged to the credit card of one Elias Bouchard.

“I’ll do that,” he said sourly, glancing at Sasha, who contrived to look innocent without taking her eyes off her computer screen. “Anyway. Mary. I was wondering if you could perhaps come and see me in my office in about, let’s say, ten minutes?”

“Sure.”

“Elias, have you seen Jon?” Sasha asked as he went to leave. “You didn’t send him off somewhere or something? He hasn’t been in yet.”

“I have not. Perhaps he’s stuck in traffic. Or he’s traipsed off to do something stupid. Either way, I’m sure he’ll be in later.” He went back to his office to prepare for his meeting with Mary.

When she arrived, he greeted her politely and waved her into a seat. “Now,” he said. “Mary. You’ve been with us for awhile now. How are you finding it, working here?”

“It’s a nice place to work,” she said. “My coworkers are very nice, and the work is interesting.”

“You’ve taken to it much better than I expected you would, I admit. You seem to have a talent for data entry. Very efficient.”

“Thank you.”

“I do have one little question for you, and it’s a rather important one. The matter is quite urgent, so I’d appreciate as honest and direct an answer as possible, please. Where, exactly, is my Archivist?”

The flicker of confusion that crossed Mary’s features looked genuine, but for a being such as her that, of course, meant nothing. “I don’t know.”

“Ah. See, that puts us both in an unfortunate position. Because I will get this out of you, Mary, and I’d prefer to do so in a manner that didn’t create any… bad blood between us. Are you sure you want to go with that answer?”

“I haven’t seen Jon since yesterday. Wherever he is, he hasn’t told me.”

Elias took a moment to dip into her mind. He was more careful than the first time he’d tried this with her, making sure to ‘shield his eyes’, so to speak, against the bright confusion. Getting anything from nonhuman minds was always a bit of a challenge; it was like opening a computer file in a program that didn’t support the format. You might get nothing at all, you might get a string of garbage, or you might get something that, with the right expertise, you could make semi-intelligible. And he’d had a while, now, to learn at least some of Mary’s ‘format’. Enough that he wasn’t picking up anything that immediately suggested that she did know where he was… but not enough for Elias to be sure. He was going to have to poke a bit to get anything useful.

“Well, let me tell you what I know. I know that at eight thirteen this morning, Jon opened the door to two delivery men who claimed that they were making a delivery. When he asked what they were delivering, one hilariously quipped, “You,” and mentioned a “Nikola” before the pair subdued him and forced him into the back of a van. A van that I wasn’t able to track, to a destination that I cannot see. Now, Mary, perhaps you have an alternate read on this situation, and if so I’d love for you to share it, but to me it looks very much like the circus has kidnapped my Archivist, and I’m sure you know exactly where they are. So if you’d be so good as to tell me, then I can deal with this situation and you can go back to that data entry that you’ve proven to be so skilled at, and we won’t need to have any… unpleasantness here. Okay?”

“I don’t know where the circus is,” Mary insisted. “I’ve been here. I haven’t been in contact with them.”

That had to be a lie, but Elias couldn’t find any evidence of such in her mind. Which meant that his ability to read it was woefully inadequate for this situation. He was going to have to rely on less refined tactics – he was going to have to convince or threaten her.

“It’s hardly a secret that the circus is integral to the Unknowing,” he said. “You honestly expect me to believe that any of you aren’t keeping a close eye on them?”

“We don’t have a weekly newsletter. They’ll call us when they call us. They haven’t called us, so I don’t know where they are.”

Another obvious lie, but he still wasn’t getting anything. He had no idea whether the bindings that tied the rest of the archive staff to the Institute actually worked on a being like her (he’d half-hoped she would try to quit, so he could find out whether she could), but he doubted it – even if her mask was ‘human’ enough for the purpose, she could easily discard it for another. Meaning he didn’t really have anything to threaten her with. Except, of course, for the obvious thing.

Which may or may not work. At least this would give him the opportunity to find out.

Elias tried to make sure he had something on hand to use against any archive employee, just in case he needed to. For most, it wasn’t hard – the average human lifetime is full of deep regrets, unfortunate circumstances and bad decisions that the human is largely unaware of, and it was trivial to draw up the relevant details and put together an unpleasant revelation. He had his pick of options. For Mary, though, pulling out anything coherent had taken a long, concerted effort, and in the end he only had one good, clear example to hit her with. Which could very well not phase her at all, even if he pulled it off.

But Elias rarely said no to an experiment. He did run an academic institute, after all.

“Perhaps I haven’t made my concern clear,” he said. “Jon is your friend, yes?”

“Of course.”

“Then I think it’s important for you to understand the sort or thing a human can experience at the hands of your kind. Let me show you an example.”

Elias bundled up the concept, and pushed it into the mind in front of him.

Colin had been walking home when the… people… had taken him. They had simple surrounded him, thrown a bag over his head, and dragged him away.

Now, he was here. In a wide, empty room. They hadn’t even tied him to a chair; they had simply laid him on the floor while one held his hands, another his feet. The others stood around him, looking so exceptionally normal in their perfectly generic outfits with their perfectly generic haircuts; not like kidnappers at all. Until you looked at their faces, and saw that none of their expressions were quite right.

The room was brightly lit. there was no furniture, but there were lamps everywhere, their light directed on him. The people crouched over him like cats watching a wounded mouse.

There was a knock at the door. One of the girls went to answer it. The others simply waited. Watching. When Colin tried to scream for help, one muffled the sound by pushing his hand into Colin’s mouth. Colin bit down, but he didn’t appear to notice.

The girl returned, and only then did anyone speak.

Who was it?”

The professor. But he left before telling me what he wanted.” She crouched over Colin, with the others.

I still think the heart is right,” one of them complained. “The professor said it was right.”

It doesn’t feel right. The pressure is wrong.”

Everything about the body feels wrong.”

Well, let’s find out.” This one tore Colin’s shirt open with a swipe of one hand. And then did the same to his chest.

Fingers moved through skin and flesh like butter, baring bone. Colin tried to scream, but his mouth was still full of fingers, and when he started to choke on his own drool, he found himself hoping it would kill him before the next part.

But it didn’t. Fingers scraped flesh back from his chest while another hand cracked his sternum open and peeled back his ribcage. And then it was no longer necessary to gag Colin, because his lungs were exposed, and he could not breathe.

Few things are as painful as questing hands venturing through tissues where no hand was ever meant to go. Lungs were pulled aside, adding new types of suffocation sensation to the already suffocating Colin; his heart, beating frantically, was cradled, as they nodded and pointed and discussed its beating in detail.

What about the valves?” one asked. “I want to see the valves.”

If we open it up, they’ll stop working,” another pointed out. “We won’t see anything.”

I want to feel them, then,” he said, and fingers were pressed into the heart itself, sinking into the chambers.

I want to see the liver while it’s still working,” another said. “I want to be ready for class.” And more hands tore at Colin’s belly.

Colin, weakening rapidly, wished to die.

And he got his wish.

Elias inspected Mary’s expression carefully. There wasn’t much to see; her face was completely blank, like she’d forgotten to emote. She was also, he noticed, forgetting to breathe. He skimmed her mind, but got absolutely nothing he could recognise. Just chaotic gibberish.

Hmm. Could have gone better.

“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” he suggested. “I’m sure that whatever filing you have to do today can wait.”

Mary didn’t answer. But she did stand up and walk out, so there was still something there that understood him.

Elias watched her leave, then rubbed at his eyes. God, that was exhausting. Maybe he should take a half-day, too.

Nobody ever appreciated the sacrifices he made for this Institute.

Chapter Text

Contains graphic depictions of self harm

---------------------------

 

Mary sat on her couch and stared at the black screen of her television, thinking.

She had felt pain before. She knew how the nerves worked. She was pretty sure most of hers were in the wrong place, but she’d used them, so she knew what it was like to feel pain.

She’d had no idea what it was like to be in pain.

She’d thought that she was getting the hang of imitating humans, learning how to speak, how to cook, having a favourite tea… but everything that Elias had shown her was so far outside her realm of experience or understanding that she was beginning to realise that she had no idea what a human really was.

And that bothered her.

The movies said that she should be feeling… guilt, right now. Over the man whose liver she had dissected with her fingernails while he bled out on the floor. She hadn’t yet figured out how to imitate guilt but she wished that she had. Her mask wasn’t anywhere near perfect. She had so, so far to go.

She wished that she could be that man, panicking as his life faded, consumed with pain and fear and hope and the ecstasy of death. Someone who lived their mask so completely that they lived or died with it. She’d never…

She was attached to Mary. Attached in ways that she would never admit to the others of her kind. She knew that, when it came time to discard the mask, she wouldn’t want to. She kept wanting to be Mary a bit longer, just a little longer, and when Mary was discarded, she was going to have to hide a sadness that would linger for longer than the mask did. There was something wrong with her, she knew, to make her feel that way. Something that she was so ashamed of that, when she was sent out into the world to Be A Person, she’d sought a job at the one place that none of her kind were likely to be.

She hadn’t truly understood that humans felt this way all the time, on a much deeper, more inviolable level than she was capable. She could never be as lost in a mask as they were, but she… enjoyed pretending that she could be, for a little while.

She wasn’t scared of being like that man, like her friends, like humans – she knew that would never happen. But she was a little scared of wanting to be. None of the others, she was sure, wanted to be this completely. None of the others would do what she knew she was about to do.

She took her shirt off and folded it neatly, putting it aside where she wouldn’t bleed on it. She stepped away from her lounge and laid down on the easily cleaned hardwood floor.

Then she dug her fingers into her chest and trow it open.

She felt the pain firing through her nerves. She tried to remember Colin, tried to remember what it felt like to be in pain, to be consumed by the sensation as it screamed into his mind that everything was so very wrong on every possible level. She could have willed the sternum to separate; instead, she broke through with her fingers, just as Fulan had done to Colin, remembering the man’s panic at the sharp crack.

She moved her lungs out of the way, cupped her heart, started to prod at it, remembered the fear of death and the hope of death all at once. Yes… yes, this was what it had felt like.

She could pretend, for a little while, that the experience was hers.

----------------------



Mary hadn’t come back from her meeting with Elias. He’d sent an email explaining that he’d given her the rest of the day off and Jon still hadn’t turned up, so the other archival assistants had gone on without them.

Martin and Tim peered over Sasha’s shoulder as she added to the notes on the computer screen.

“So,” she said. “With these. It looks like we at least know what the big problem we’re supposedly facing is. We have, uh.” She stopped, apparently unwilling to say it out loud.

“We have to stop the evil clown apocalypse,” Martin finished for her, hoping it’d sound less ridiculous out loud than in his head. It didn’t.

“Fantastic,” Tim said, cracking his knuckles. “Can’t wait.” He exchanged a look with Sasha that Martin couldn’t read.

“Okay but, we… we don’t exactly have a game plan for it, do we?” Martin pointed out. “I mean, Gertrude says that if we want to delay things properly we need to break things up during the ritual and I, for one, don’t know any, well, magic.”

“Who needs magic? We just kill this dancer and as many of its creepy circus friends as we can.”

Sasha frowned. “I’m not sure we’re necessarily capable of fighting off an army of clowns,” she pointed out. “Martin and I faced one of these stranger monsters in a tunnel, both of us were armed, and we definitely did not win.”

“Also,” Martin said, “looking at the report with the Mechanical Turk, I don’t think things are going to be… coherent… inside the ritual. So we can’t really rely on anything that needs a lot of coordination. Or comprehension.”

“So we need a more sophisticated way of killing off the dancer and as many of its friends as we can,” Tim said. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out. Knowing when and where this is happening would help. Or having Monsterboss come into work – isn’t this his job?”

“Don’t call him that,” Martin snapped.

Tim rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’m off to lunch; I’ll see you guys mid-afternoon.”

“It’s ten thirty in the morning.”

“Your point?”

In the end, Martin decided to take an early lunch, too. He had some shopping to get done.

He was bound in service to an eldritch evil, trying to find a way to save the world from a different eldritch evil, but he also had to buy more eggs today. When had life gotten this weird?

He was browsing the random knicknacks in a shop near the supermarket when his eyes rested on the photo frames. Maybe he should get photos of everyone together, for the office. To remind everyone they were in it together.

There was something familiar about one of stock photos in one of the frames. An overexposed paper picture of two women smiling into the camera. He’d seen that photo…

He’d seen it in Mary’s lounge room, among a half dozen similarly generic pictures. Did she… did she not understand what photo frames were for? Oh, dear.

He was surprised, honestly, that she kept photos of people looking at the camera at all, given how she talked about her Watcher –

Wait.

Wait.

----------------------



I’m gonna get put on a watch list for this, Tim thought to himself as he googled various ways to make explosives. He’d known some of this already from his old job in publishing, when he’d been editing acton titles, but the rules in action titles were… lenient. He sure as hell hadn’t needed to know the ideal air/powder mix to ignite flour. No; flour wasn’t going to work. They needed something they could easily get into… wherever things were going down.

He was going to need the help of a professional.

---------------------



Wait.

Okay.

So, they’d never really pried into Mary’s past. What if her cult upbringing had been serving the Ceaseless Watcher? What if she hadn’t run away, but working for the Institute was what she’d been supposed to do her whole life?

It made sense, right? The Dark had a cult and the Desolation had a cult, and the Stranger had a goddamn circus, for some reason, so wy wouldn’t the Watcher have a cult? She certainly hadn’t seemed as surprised by the recent revelations as everyone else. She must have known.

Then why hadn’t she warned any of them?? She hadn’t met them until they were already trapped, but still. She could’ve said something. She had to have known about the fears, right? Had she known about the upcoming clown apocalypse? Had she – ?

It was obvious what was going on here. Martin had never studied cults in particular, but he wasn’t an idiot; he knew how basic social control worked. If you had a group of people you couldn’t predict very well, you could assert some control by including an agent who’d build up trust with them, serve as a calm example, give the right influences and suggestions to… smooth things over. It wasn’t rocket science.

Why they’d picked someone so naive and socially incompetent was a mystery, unless that was also an act. It had worked, after all.

The real question was… what was he supposed to do about it? He couldn’t very well tell everyone. Tim was barely holding it together, Jon was distant, and who knew how Sasha was taking everything. Martin hated being manipulated, but for the others… maybe Mary’s presence was necessary. The whole situation was awful, but if they started breaking down, it would be worse.

They at least had to hold it together long enough to save the world.

So he was supposed to… what? Keep quiet? Just pretend nothing was going on? Or was that more dangerous, given that they weren’t really sure what anyone’s plans for them was, beyond the apocalypse thing?

He should talk to Mary. If he was right about her, then being straightforward was best. He could find out what her overall purpose actually was and… feel better about the whole thing, probably.

Elias had given her the day off, so she was probably at home. Martin went over and was about to knock on the front door when, through the gap in the curtains on the lounge window, he glimpsed something utterly incomprehensible.

Mary was lying on the floor, face blank and eyes wide, the skin of her chest torn open. For an awful moment, Martin thought she’d been horribly murdered, but within moments a far worse truth revealed itself as she curled her fingers around her exposed sternum and just… snapped it.

Martin wanted to close his eyes, he wanted to run, he wanted to scream, but horror had paralysed him, and he couldn’t look away as his colleague levered her own ribcage open, moved her lungs aside, and grasped at her own heart. After a moment, she plunged her fingers into the heart muscle itself, spraying blood in a wide arc across the room. She stayed there for… a second? A minute? And hour? … before withdrawing her fingers and calmly… putting her heart back.

Lungs were laid carefully over the top, the ribcage was closed. As Martin watched, skin and muscle knit itself back together, and Mary sat up. The only blood left in the room was that on her hands, which she carefully licked clean.

Martin was thankful when his knees gave out and he sank to the ground, because he was finally unable to see into the lounge room any more. He crawled under the window, sat back and just… tried to breathe.

What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck??!

Chapter Text

Okay. Okay.

Okay, so.

Okay.

What the fuck had Martin just witnessed?

Could be a hallucination. Had to be a hallucination, another something targeting him, trying to drive him made. Or something had attacked Mary, possessed her in some way… they had a lot of statements like that. He should make sure she was okay.

But no. He remembered Mary’s strange mannerisms when she’d first arrived in the archives, her cluelessness. He remembered how bare her house had been, as if it was entirely for appearance’s sake. He remembered her watching him sleep.

Mary had never been right.

His colleague was some kind of eldritch monster.

He had to warn the others. He pulled out his phone, started looking for Sasha’s number with trembling hands –

“Martin?”

Martin looked up. Mary stood in the doorway, not looking particularly worried or confused by the fact that Martin was crouched under her window having a panic attack.

“H – hi, Mary!” Martin practically screeched. “Didn’t see you there! I came to, uh… see you? Um, because, uh…”

“Did you come to see if I was okay? Because we’re friends?”

“Yes! Yes; Elias said he gave you the day off and I thought something might be wrong so I, um… yes. I came to make sure you were okay.”

Mary smiled brightly. “I’m fine, Martin. Thank you for checking. I’ll make you some tea.”

“Actually I, uh… I have to go? I have… some… filing to do.”

“When friends visit you give them tea,” Mary said firmly, taking his wrist and helping him up. Her grip was gentle, but Martin had no doubts about his chances if he tried to break free.

This was it, then. He’d discovered her secret, and she was going to kill him.

Unless she genuinely did just want to make him tea? Perhaps she hadn’t realised what he knew? Perhaps she thought he was just here to check up on her and share tea? Maybe. Maybe he’d live. After all, he’d spent a whole month in her house and she hadn’t hurt him. She’d just… toyed with him, he supposed. Like Jane. Maybe if he kept going along with her little pantomime, she’d let him go.

After all, she couldn’t be here for him. She must be here for something in the archives.

So he let himself be led inside. He sat at the table. And he waited while the kettle boiled.

“Would you like blackberry and mint?” Mary asked brightly.

“Uh… yes. Please.” She wouldn’t poison him, would she? No. He’d just watched her rip her own chest open and then heal it up with no problems. If she was going to kill him, she wouldn’t need to use poison.

“So, you’re, um… you’re feeling okay, then, Mary?” he tried.

“I’m feeling fine, Martin. How are you?”

“I’m… I’m good.”

“You don’t sound good,” she said doubtfully.

“Oh, don’t I? Haha, just the… stress of work and everything, I suppose.”

“Have you been sleeping and drinking water?”

“Y-yes.”

“And eating a variety of vegetables? Proper nutrition is good for managing stress.”

“I’m more an um, ready meal and donut kind of guy, actually.” Martin swallowed around the lump in his throat. “But I’ll, um, take that on board. I guess.”

Mary set a cup in front of him that, a couple of months ago, had been his. He took a cautious sip. Mary took a draught from her own cup, ignoring the boiling temperature, without taking her eyes off him. “You’re worried about something,” she said, in the tone of someone who’d just solved a complex puzzle. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“N-no. No, I’m okay.”

“Talking to friends helps people feel better about problems.”

“Not all problems, I assure you!” Or all friends, for that matter.

“Ah.” Mary nodded. “It’s a secret.”

“I guess it kind of is, yeah!”

Mary nodded, like he’d said something important, and Martin realised something.

The thing in front of him might be dangerous, and strong, and capable of healing just about anything, and apparently immune to pain. But she had been trying to behave like a human.

And Martin was a lot better at that than she was.

“How are you handling the stress, Mary?” he asked. “You’ve only been here a few months, all this must be a lot to handle.”

Mary shrugged. “A lot has been going on, and I’ve been trying to learn very fast,” she admitted. “I was very worried when you went missing earlier, and now Jon… it’s hard to keep track of so many friends.”

“Wait, what about Jon?”

“Elias said he doesn’t know where he is. He asked me, but I know less than he does. He didn’t tell you?”

“No, he – ” there were a lot of implications to that, but they were going to have to wait. If Jon was missing, Martin didn’t have any way of helping. He forced himself to stop thinking about it before he would start to freak out, and focused on the situation at hand. He was taking tea with a monster. “Elias never tells us anything. That’s not important right now.” Well, it was, but… “You’ve been worried, and trying to learn. What are you trying to learn about? We’re friends, so I want to help.”

“I’m trying to learn how this feels,” Mary said, suddenly reaching across the table and digging her fingers into his arm.

“Let me go!” Martin immediately screeched, and she did, looking worried. Martin inspected his arm, but there was no blood. She’d only nicked the skin a little, before he could stop her.

Monster, Martin. Don’t get cocky.

Trying to ignore the thundering of his own heart in his ears, Martin kept his voice as level as he could while he said, “Friends don’t hurt friends, Mary! Not on purpose.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“Don’t hurt me,” he snapped with a sternness he didn’t feel, and was surprised when she did, indeed, nod meekly.

“Don’t touch me, either,” he added, “without my permission. You’re very scary sometimes, Mary.”

“I know,” she said quietly.

Holy hell. Was she genuinely listening, or just toying with him more, waiting to catch him by surprise later? Her motivations didn’t matter, he supposed, if the end result was the same. (Until she decided to stop toying and catch him by surprise – then they would matte very much. He had to be careful.)

He pressed this mysterious advantage while he seemed to have it. “What are you?” he asked.

“I’m Mary Sue.”

“And what’s Mary Sue?”

“Mary Sue is an archival assistant at the Magnus Institute.”

Not what he wanted to know. “You’re not human, are you?”

“No.”

“… Really? You’re just admitting it, just like that?”

Mary looked worried. “Was I supposed to keep that a secret?”

“How would I – ? If you’re not human, what are you? I don’t mean your… your disguise, or whatever this is, I mean physically, what kind of a thing are you?”

“I don’t know if you have a word for me.”

“But you’re a, a monster of some kind.”

“Is it my turn now?”

“What?”

“To ask a question. In small talk, people trade questions and information. But the ratio varies. I don’t know when my turn is.”

Martin hesitated. “You want to ask me something?”

“Yes.”

“… Alright. What do you want to know?”

“How do the hands work?”

This was not what Martin had been expecting. “… What?”

“The hands. I can get them looking right from the outside, but they don’t move right. I can’t figure out how the bones and muscles and tendons all line up inside. How to they work?” Her eyes didn’t leave Martin’s hands while she spoke. He unconsciously clenched them into fists, which just seemed to interest her more.

“You want to… inspect my hands.”

“Yes.”

“And you’ll answer my questions?”

“Unless I have a good reason not to.”

Reluctantly, Martin reached his right hand across the table. Then stopped and pulled it back, remembering Mary plunging her fingers into her own chest. “You can’t… cut it open, or break anything, okay? Just the outside. No damage.”

“But then how will I see how it works?”

“Friends don’t hurt friends. Outside or nothing.”

“… Okay. Fine.”

He gave her his hand. She wasn’t gentle, as she felt around the bones and twisted his fingers this way and that, but she always stopped short of causing any real pain. Martin tried not to think about what she could do to his hand, if she were so inclined.

“You’re some kind of monster.”

“I think so? I mean, people mean different things when they say ‘monster’. Tim calls Jon a monster, but I am not like Jon.”

“You were never human.”

“No. I am a different thing. There’s a statement about me.”

That was useful! “Which one?”

“0161207.”

Martin fished a pen out of his pocket and awkwardly scrawled the number on his arm with his off hand. Mary yanked one of his fingers back.

“Careful! You’ll… bruise the muscle, or whatever.”

“There are no muscles in the fingers.”

“What?”

“There are no muscles in the fingers. Only tendons, pulled by muscles in the hand and arm.”

“Well, be careful anyway. Are you here to kill anyone?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Not yet?”

“I don’t know if people are going to die in the Unknowing.”

So she was part of the Stranger. That… made sense. “Won’t… won’t we die in the Unknowing? Won’t you be killing, or at least really hurting, your friends?”

“I won’t be Mary for the Unknowing,” she pointed out, as if he was being stupid.

“… Right. How, um… how long are you going to be Mary?”

“I don’t know. Do you think I should stop?”

“No! No, you should… you should definitely not stop.”

“Do you want to stop being Martin?” She looked carefully at his face, like his answer was something important and profound.

“No! No, I’ll… I’ll keep being Martin, thanks.” He yanked his hand back, and was a little surprised when she didn’t stop him. “I actually have some shopping to do, a lot of things I need to buy for Martin, so I’m just going to go now, I think.”

“You haven’t finished your tea,” she accused.

Martin gulped down the still-too-hot tea in two swallows. “It was delicious, thank you,” he gasped, and ran for the door.

“Goodbye, Martin!”

Oh, god.

Oh, god.

She didn’t follow him. Martin kept running for as long as he could, which admittedly wasn’t very long; he ran until he started crying from exhaustion and terror and relief all at once, then pressed himself into the corner of a bus shelter and pulled his hood over his head as if that would somehow stop her from recognising him if she did follow.

He needed to warn the others. And they needed to do… something… about her, before she got bored with being Mary.

He just had no idea what.

Chapter Text

Sasha heard Tim’s hat singing Happy Birthday returning from lunch before she saw him. She glanced up from her screen just in time to see him swan around the corner, two champagne glasses in one hand and an open bottle in the other.

“Heya, Sasha. Champagne?”

“It’s two in the afternoon.”

“Oh nooo, how unprofessional. Hope I don’t get fired.” He sloppily filled both glasses, then downed them one after the other.

“Are you drunk?”

“Not yet! Give me about twenty minutes!”

“Yeah, you might want to hold onto your sobriety for a bit. I’ve been look at some of – ”

“Guys!” Martin burst into the room, pale faced and panting. “Guys, I’ve got bad news and worse news, although I’m not sure which piece of news is the worse piece so I’m afraid I can’t offer your the option of order – ”

“I’ve got bad news, too,” Sasha said sourly. “Sounds like there’s plenty to go around.”

“Great!” Tim Sat on his desk. “You guys can take turns. Bad news table tennis. Sounds like Martin has two pieces, so he gets to serve. Pick one.”

“Uh… Jon’s missing. Like, properly missing. Elias doesn’t know where he is; he asked Mary and she doesn’t know and I’m really worried he might be kidnapped or killed or – ”

“Why would he ask Mary and not us?” Sasha frowned.

“Well, that kind of tails into my second piece of news, so…”

“So it has to wait!” Tim declared in his best referee voice. “Sasha for the return strike!”

“Um. Right. Well. We’ve been focusing mostly on Stranger stuff for, well, obvious reasons, but I’ve been branching out into some of our other files and tapes and, um. I don’t think the Unknowing is our only problem here.” She grimaced. “In 2007, apparently Gertrude stopped an apocalypse related to the Flesh, and there’s a 2009 statement here that… well, I’m not absolutely certain it’s an attempted Buried apocalypse, but…”

“They all have one, don’t they.” Tim put his head in his hands. “Of course they do. Why would anything not be the most complicated and dangerous thing it could be?”

“I… I think they might,” Sasha agreed. “I mean, I’m not sure. And it looks like at least one or two were already dealt with by Gertrude, so… that’s something.”

“Do we have one?” Tim asked.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to end the world!” Martin snapped.

“You know what I mean. Does it have one.” He waved one hand vaguely, to indicate the general aura of dread throughout the building.

“I’m not sure. I’m not sure about any of this.” Sasha bit her lip. “But if we did, we wouldn’t exactly hear about it, would we?”

“Can you stop saying ‘we’ like we’re involved in this somehow?” Martin cut in. “I’m only interested in saving the world, thank you very much.”

“Why wouldn’t we hear about it?” Tim asked. “You don’t think Gertrude would record anything about that?”

I don’t know. But I don’t think Elias would give us the tapes about it. Or any files about it in this archive. Although maybe that’s why Gertrude kept it such a mess – so Elias wouldn’t be able to find anything.”

“Well, she did a great job at that. None of us can find anything. Truly a professional. Martin, you had more bad news?”

“Um, yeah.” He cleared his throat nervously. “Mary’s a monster. Like, a full-on… like Michael, or that thing from the table. A piece-of-the-Stranger kind of monster.” He frowned. “That’s how it works, right? I still don’t completely understand how the fears – ”

“She’s what?” Sasha demanded. “What happened? Are you okay? Is she coming here?”

Martin, why the hell would you not lead with that?!” Tim leapt up off his desk, reached behind Martin’s, and grabbed Martin’s axe. “The Stranger, of course. Are you sure it’s the Stranger?”

“Well, I didn’t ask about the Stranger specifically, honestly it all looked kind of fleshy? But she seems pretty invested in the Unknowing, and her general behaviour – ”

“Wait, you talked to her about this?” Sasha paled. “She knows you know?”

“Well, I didn’t intend to, but she kind of… dragged me into her house? No, it – ” Martin waved his hands desperately for peace as Sasha, too, raised her axe. “She let me go. I mean, I ran away and I’m pretty sure she didn’t chase me.”

“Oh. Well. That sounds entirely safe, then. Hang on… Elias asked her where Jon is. So he knows what she is?”

“I guess so?”

“Does that mean her people, or whatever, have Jon?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”

“Oh, I bet he knows,” Tim said sourly. “‘The worms weren’t enough, guys, why don’t you all work with a literal monster’.”

“Do you think she’ll come back here?” Martin fretted. “Even though she’s been found out?”

“Don’t see why she wouldn’t, if Elias already knew,” Sasha said.

“We’re all in agreement that Elias is probably a spooky-magic-whatever like Jon, right?” Tim added. “Why wouldn’t he hire monsters? He clearly wants Jon to ‘grow in power’, although he’s pretty bad at keeping him alive if he’s let him get kidnapped. Anyway, she has to come back here. You can’t leave. I tried.”

“Does that apply to her, though?” Sasha asked. “I mean, if she’s not human, are the… rules the same? Can Elias bind her here?”

Sasha and Martin both looked to Tim for answers.

“I don’t know!” he snapped. “Just because I’ve read Smirke’s weird fear essays doesn’t make me an occultist! Ask Elias!”

“Either way, we have to do something about her,” Martin said. “She wasn’t here earlier, so she doesn’t necessarily know that we’re planning to stop the Unknowing, but it’s not like we can hide it from her. And she’s got to be here for a reason; to… to stop us, or to… get something… We have to stop her, and we have to find Jon.”

“Do you think she does know where Jon is?” Sasha asked.

“I don’t know. Ha, if we had Jon, he could ask her and find out, assuming his power works on monsters.”

“She’s tried to kill us before, I think,” Sasha said. “Mary, I mean.”

“When? I stayed in her house for a month and she didn’t touch me.”

Sasha bit her lip. “You know when we went to destroy that table, to save Jon? I tried to record the statements I’d based that logic on earlier today. They record to laptop.”

“They’re fake?”

“Yeah. And I got them from Mary.”

So she’s a Stranger monster, probably a spy, she’s trying to end the world, and she tried to kill Sasha,” Tim counted off his fingers. “Also she may or may not have kidnapped or killed Jon. And she’ll probably come into work Monday morning, even if she’s not on her way to kill us all now.”

“I think Elias would stop – ”

“Oh really, Martin? How close was Elias to not being able to stop Jane Prentiss? Did he stop the thing that trapped you two, or the thing that nearly killed you in artefact storage?”

Sasha saw Martin shudder and pale with the memory. Then his face lit up. “Artefact storage!”

“What?”

“That thing in there. It was trapped in the table, right? Well, is there anything in there we can use to trap Mary?”

The boys both looked to Sasha.

“I don’t know. Just because I worked in artefact storage doesn’t mean I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the items. Or any knowledge on what most of them do.”

“Well, that’s something we should look into, then,” Tim said, overcome with a focus that Sasha hadn’t seen in him for months. “We probably have until Monday morning to find something to trap the monster.”

“And we have to find Jon!” Martin added. “He could be in trouble.”

“You boys handle the monster, I’ll go home and try to find Jon,” Sasha said.

“Go home? What are you going to do?”

“If I told you, you’d be an accessory.”

----------------------



What Sasha was actually planning to do was find Jon’s mobile phone. If it was on his person. And if it was switched on.

“‘Don’t go through my computer, Sasha, it’s an invasion of privacy,’” she muttered under her breath in a mocking tone. “‘It’s creepy when you know all this stuff, Sasha’. Bet you’re happy I know how to get into your phone now, huh. Let’s see you complain about that ever again.”

The first thing she checked for was whether Jon had the tracking program that many of the staff had adopted during the Google Eye Crisis. Most of the adoptees had never bothered to uninstall the program. Jon, unfortunately, didn’t have it, which didn’t surprise Sasha in the least. Which meant an exact location was impossible to determine, or at least, beyond Sasha’s abilities without some very specialised and illegal software she didn’t have. But she did have the specialised and illegal software to get an approximate location.

Sasha knew who Jon’s phone provider was, and she also knew that they had a pretty serious security flaw in their system – they never properly wiped the access credentials of old employees, just scrambled their passwords. Sasha’s friend Carla had stopped working for them over five years ago and was still, technically, in the system, although she of course had no way of logging in and doing anything. Not without having cracked the new password. And not without having access to the system software, which wasn’t something someone could just take and install on their home computer.

Sasha booted up her home computer, opened the software, and logged into Carla’s never-removed account. Their “scrambled” passwords were pulled from a list of two hundred defaults, which was about the stupidest way to do things that Sasha could think of (why not just randomise??), but it had made it easy to crack. And now, she could track where the data was going.

She sent Jon a text: “Are you coming in to work today?”

Phones send tracking data all the time. Had Sasha had full access to the system, and known how to use it, she wouldn’t have needed to send anything at all. But she did have access to…

There. The signal that told the network the text had been received. Sent, as they were, to the nearest cell tower. Telling Sasha where the nearest tower was. Telling her what part of London Jon, or at least Jon’s phone, was in.

It was a start.

Chapter Text

So what, exactly, are you guys looking for?” Hannah asked as she lead Martin and Tim through artefact storage.

Martin and Tim exchanged a look.

Um… anything spider-related would probably be a start?” Martin suggested. “We need to… well. It’s complicated.”

Spider-related?” Tim murmured.

Well, the one example we have of this working is the table, so…”

Hannah frowned at both of them, but seemed to decide she didn’t want to know. Martin vaguely knew Hannah from the occasional conversation in the breakroom about movies, but they weren’t close. Now she was going to think he was weird.

Well, we’ve got aisles of spidery stuff,” she said, leading them down one such aisle. “Plus a few Leitners, of course, but they’re in separate storage.”

You have separate storage just for Leitners?” Martin asked.

Of course. They’re damn near impossible to contain. Seal them in a lead box and when you go back for them there’s a good chance half of them have somehow up and vanished. They’re more stable stored in some places than others, except when suddenly they’re not. Either way, it’s impractical and dangerous to store them here.” She stopped and waved a hand vaguely down the aisle. “Everything here is related to a statement involving some kind of horrible spider death. And further back here is some stuff with spider motifs that the researchers think are significant, but there’s plenty of other spider motif stuff everywhere where the spider motif wasn’t thought significant, so if the researchers are wrong about that then what you’re looking for could be anywhere in any of the containment rooms. Isn’t storage fun.”

We get similar problems archiving the statements, believe me,” Tim said, scanning the room. “I see you’ve got a lot of hazard tape up.”

we recently had a break-in. We assume it was the google eye prankster starting up again, but if it was then they got more than they bargained for. Collapsed that whole shelf over there, woke some kind of horror that turned a table to matchwood… honestly I expect their body to turn up somewhere in here. That tape is to warn you of the invisible caltrops.”

Invisible caltrops?”

We swept them up but we’re still missing five. You can go in there but, y’know, watch your step.”

Martin wasn’t listening. His eye had been caught by a cardboard box full of old film reels. The film labels had no names or descriptions; just complex drawings of cobwebs, done in crude permanent marker. “What are those?”

Oh, I thought you’d like those.” Hannah grinned. “Those are Neil Lagorio’s original cuts.”

Neil Lagorio? As in, the special effects artist? He was some kind of… occultist?”

Oh, I don’t think so. Tragic loss to film history to let them sit in here, if you ask me. They’re here because they came in with some kind of spooky statement about his death, but I was on the testing team for viewing them and I wasn’t eaten by anything. They are very good, though; I think he was experimenting with… with something to do with psychology or subliminal messaging, I guess? Some new way to add some creeping horror to a story, like how they use the right kind of music and soforth. There’s something really creepy about them, and I had nightmares for weeks afterward. Really good stuff. I’d pull out the projector and show you but, you know, occ. health and safety and all that. Look, how about I just…” she reached into her folder and pulled out a couple of sheets of paper. “Here’s our manifest for this room. The higher security rooms have a few more hoops to jump through, if what you need isn’t here. I have to get going, but page me if you need help, alright?”

You don’t need to watch us in here?” Tim asked.

Nope. I can get you a babysitter if you want one, but archival staff have security clearance for artefact storage.”

We do?” Martin frowned. “That’s weird.”

Yes, how mysterious,” Tim said drily.

Just obey the warning labels and don’t touch anything that shouldn’t be touched. The janitors hate having to clean blood out of things. And don’t forget to sign out when you leave.”

Right. Thanks, Hannah.”

She gave a little wave and left.

So,” Tim said, looking around the room. “Where to start?”

Honestly, I want to pull out a projector and watch – but, uh, we do have a mission,” Martin quickly cut himself off at the look on Tim’s face. “Even if we don’t know… what to use or, or how. I mean, I wouldn’t have known how to bind that other thing to the table, would you?”

I’m thinking we should look for something a bit more straightforward,” Tim said. “Maybe some kind of box, or magic handcuffs or something. If there’s something here that can actually kill her, that’d be perfect.”

Should I be worried that your mind is going straight to murder?”

Tim scowled. “We’re going to have to kill as many of these things as we can to save the world. I think a chance to find out what does or doesn’t work on this one can only help.” He stalked off down the aisle.

Martin jogged to keep up. “Do you think this is a good idea? Trying to trap or, or to… get rid of her?”

It was your idea to trap her in something, Martin.”

Yeah but, but I’ve been thinking. She hasn’t hurt us, has she?”

She tried to kill Sasha by tricking her with that table, didn’t she? And that nearly killed you. And then both of you got stuck in – wherever you were.”

But that might have been a mistake? I mean, I lived with her for a month and I’m fine.”

She was toying with you, Martin. Just like Prentiss. You know she was.”

Yeah, I know that. I know. I just… I think it might be a bit more complicated than that? I mean, she’s… trying to be our friend. Or at least trying to pretend to be our friend. Like, she’s making the effort, and if we betray her like this and fail, she’s going to get way more dangerous. She’s not dangerous right now, so if we just – ”

For now, Martin, yes. That’s what they do. They play around and string you along and then someday she’s going to decide that enough is enough and it’s time to peel your skin off, and we have to deal with the problem before that happens.”

I don’t think she’d peel anyone’s skin off – ”

That’s what they do, Martin! That’s what these things are like! And if you play their game, you’re going to die in some horrible way.”

You think we’re all going to die in a horrible way anyway.”

I do. But I have too much pride to go out at the hands of a fucking Stranger. I’d rather have died to Prentiss’ worms. Or Elias can kill me himself, with… whatever nonsense he can do, which I’m sure we’ll learn at the worst possible time.”

He might genuinely just be a normal manager who happens to work in an evil fear temple,” Martin shrugged.

Ha. No way. We’re not nearly that lucky.”

T hey walked in silence for a little bit, trying to figure out how to use the various artefacts around them to trap somebody, until Martin piped up, “What about Jon?”

What about him?”

I get what you mean about Mary. But you always talk like that about Jon, too, and he’s, well, Jon. You don’t really think he’s going to go off the deep end and hurt someone, do you?”

You’ve read the statements, Martin.”

Yeah. But only the people who do go really bad are going to end up in the statements, aren’t they? Like, like those people who throw people off building or infect nursing homes with plagues or whatever… there might be a hundred others out there doing nothing, or doing good, even, and we’d never hear about them. All Jon can do is ask people questions. That’s… I mean, there are unethical ways to use that, but it’s not inherently dangerous. Do you really think he’s going to go… bad?”

Tim sighed. “I don’t know, Martin. I don’t know any more about any of this than you do. I’m just sick of being blindsided by random horrible bullshit. So yeah, when the creepy paranoid boss who’s been making my life terrible shows up with evil magic, I tend to not be as optimistic about the future as you. Better cautious than dead, for as long as that can last, anyway.”

Unless it makes us dead,” Martin retorted. “How can we make the world better if we don’t even try?”

Try how? All of this stuff is about fear and terror and evil, Martin. There’s no good to be done with it, because the power only comes from making things worse. Anything else is like… violating metaphysical thermodynamics, or something, I don’t know.”

Yeah, says Smirke,” Martin said stubbornly. “But even he tried to do good, to balance them and limit their power.”

And he failed! Balance is obviously impossible. Just look around!”

So he was wrong. Meaning he could be wrong about other things.”

Tim rubbed his temples. “Martin – ”

I’m just saying, the one thing we know here is that we have no idea what’s going on. We were wrong about Mary for ages; we were clueless about the archives being mystical at all for the longest time. And now we’re just going to be like, ‘oh, we’ve been beaten over the head with enough basic information to put together a picture, so let’s grab our first assumptions and assume they’re right’? Working here, seeing the bad side of everything, that doesn’t mean that that’s all there is. And even if it is, that doesn’t… make it all bad, I mean… I mean, it’s like chemotherapy, right? Chemotherapy involves taking poison, making yourself really sick. But you do it to kill cancer – the poison can save lives. I mean, technically, working here makes us evil too, right? Feeding the, the Beholding, or whatever. But we’re using that power to save the world. Which proves that good can come of it.”

Yeah, if we pull it off,” Tim said. “If all the other awful stuff I bet we have to do to do it actually pays off, and we just don’t make everything worse, then fail.”

You don’t think we can do it?”

I don’t know. And neither do you, because we don’t know exactly what’s happening, or where, or when, and we don’t have a plan. But I’m not going to let myself get killed by optimism before we have a chance to take down as much of that circus as possible.”

Well , Martin thought, at least he has… some kind of motivation. I just really, really hope he’s wrong.

Chapter Text

The pair didn’t make much progress in finding something to bind Mary. Given that neither of them had any clue what they were looking for, or how to bind a monster, or much about what Mary was, they weren’t surprised.

We’re not getting anything done here,” Tim eventually said, defeated. “I’m going to check the statements for strategy ideas.”

I’ll be right with you,” Martin said. “I just want to peek at those film canisters.”

Since when have you been a film nerd?”

I’m not a – ” Martin’s cheeks flushed. “Neil Lagorio is a revolutionary figure in the special effects industry and his techniques influenced the whole direction of the horror genre! Even today, movies – ”

Tim put up a hand. “Okay, okay. See you later.”

Martin didn’t try to find a projector or anything. He was mostly interested in what movies were in the box. If they had Dead Sky or The Nightmare Children, maybe he could talk to Hannah about checking them out for viewing…

He quickly found that the entire box of canisters was unlabelled. The labels all just had those spiderweb designs drawn on them. Part of his mind was thinking this is deeply suspicious, that is a massive red flag , but the rest of him wasn’t really listening as he opened one of the canisters to inspect the film itself. Using the little penlight on his keychain, he illuminated one of the frames to see if he could recognise it.

The image was of a spider, lurking in a massive web, and Martin felt a thrill of excitement. This hadn’t been in any Lagorio movie he’d seen, which might not mean anything – he didn’t seek out Lagorio movies in particular, or anything, he only watched horror casually – but it might. He thought he should’ve known if there was one about spiders, which meant that this might be a lost Lagorio movie , mouldering away in artefact storage.

Or it might be some random early scene from a movie about something else. He unspooled some more film in a manner that would make any professional want to murder him for the damage it could potentially do, and checked more frames.

Hannah had been right; there was something about the images that… well. It pulled on something deep in the psyche, something that made the viewer want to see more even as they felt uneasy. Tape began to spool loosely around Martin’s feet as he sought more images of the spider, trying to get a more complete picture.

He saw the problem that the previous watchers had had. They’d watched the film on a projector; a series of still images flashing by to create the illusion of movement. You could get something out of the frames that way, between the artificiality of motion, but you lost the truth of the frame – that it was still. That the thing was trapped there in the box, never to be freed by time, available for perusal at the viewer’s leisure. The movement of the film was the effect. It was artificial, a recreation of the movement o f the figures that created it; an introduction of extra, unnecessary noise.

Martin examines the stills, one by one, searching for the important ones. Heedlessly unwound film tangled around his ankles, but he didn’t pause to untangle it; he was too busy searching. Eventually most of the canister was loose, wound around his legs and arms and even looped around his neck couple of times, tangled as long strings tend to get when not properly wound up. He noticed that his fingertips, holding the film and the light, were purple; the tape on his wrists had tightened with all the movement. He tried to tug it free, but it was going to have to wait. It would take too much time and effort, and he had more frames to inspect.

He’d almost, almost found everything important, he was sure. But there was always one more piece to find, one more thread to follow. He couldn’t find the last few pieces of the puzzle because he could no longer move; he was too entangled in the film, wounds around his limbs and body like heavy chains, like wayward rope, like cobwebs ensnaring an unwary fly all wrapped up and waiting for the spider to return.

And that was how Tim found him.

-----------------------



Hey Martin, it’s getting late. Do you want – oh, shit!”

Martin was sitting on the floor of the artefact storage vault, almost completely encased in shiny black film. Very little but his head and fingertips were clear, and he was staring blankly at a frame held between motionless purple fingers.

Tim dashed forward. “Martin? Martin, speak to me!”

No response. Tim whipped off his absurd birthday cake had ant dropped it on Martin’s head instead, pulling it down over his eyes to blindfold him.

Martin, predictably, panicked.

Calm down, it’s just me! Calm down! Stop moving about until I get you out of this!” Tim glanced around for something sharp to cut the tape, but touching anything sharp in artefact storage was probably a really bad idea. He didn’t want to leave Martin alone long enough to go get scissors, and carrying a man bound entirely in film through the institute back to the archives was probably going to raise a lot of questions, so he just used his hands and teeth to break the film apart, freeing Martin layer by layer.

When he could move enough, Martin knocked the hat off and started to help. It was obvious, from the way his mottled hands moved slowly and clumsily over the tape, that they were numb, and after a few minutes of work Tim heard him gasp sharply as the pins and needles took hold. Once Martin was free enough, Tim pulled his shoes off to check the circulation in his feet. They were just as bad.

What the hell happened?” Tim asked. “I thought that film was safe! The artefact storage woman said they were safe!”

I guess she thought they were,” Martin mumbled. “I think I’m okay, though. I just got a bit carried away.”

Carried away?! I think it would’ve eventually strangled you.”

Yeah, well, it… it didn’t.” Martin squeezed his eyes shut and took a few deep, ragged breaths. “Thanks for the rescue.”

You should go to hospital.”

And say what? ‘Excuse me, do you guys have a ward for people who were nearly killed by weird spider films?’ I should be fine, I think, when I can feel my hands and feet properly again. I’m just… really tired.”

Go home, then.”

Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.”

W hile Martin rubbed feeling back into his extremities, Tim cleaned up the film. Well, he shoved it all into the bottom of the cardboard box and stacked other reels on top of it, so it looked undisturbed. Anything more than that could be artefact storage’s problem, the next time someone went through the box.

Martin needed to recover. Sasha was off looking for Monsterboss. On Monday, a monster would waltz into the archives once more, and Tim still had no real method of stopping it. Not unless he got creative.

What was it Martin had said about the supernatural? It could be used like chemotherapy. Take poison to kill a cancer. Tim didn’t like the idea, but he was running low on options. He might have to take a gamble.

He’d failed Danny. He wasn’t going to fail a second time.

--------------------



Martin went straight home. He emptied his pockets, tossing everything in them in the general direction of his bedside table, and then simply collapsed onto his bed without bothering to get undressed. He was unconscious within seconds.

---------------------



Sasha had texted Martin and Tim with Jon’s general area as soon as she’d determined it, but she knew she could do better. Well… she couldn’t. But someone could.

She found Hermann in a little coffee shop on the edge of town, sitting alone and sipping a chocolate milkshake. Even from behind, she could see that the portly man still had his trademark chaotic white beard, spreading out from his face like a cloud made of toilet brush bristles. From half a block away, she pulled out her laptop and scanned the open wifi networks to confirm what she already knew, then nodded to herself, put it away, and approached.

Hermann,” she said with a grin, sliding into the chair opposite him and grabbing his milkshake. “Long time, no see.”

Hermann didn’t look remotely surprised at her presence. He didn’t look up from his laptop at all. “So you’re still alive, Baby Star. That’s good to know.”

Ah yes, not yet killed by the dangerous world of academia. I see you’ve set up a personal open wifi hotspot under the cafe’s name.”

You can’t prove that’s me.”

Are you scraping personal data from all these innocent people?”

I’m not going to steal from them or sell it, Baby Star, so put those judgey eyes away. I just need a lot of… noise, to cover my own activities, and real people’s data makes better noise than fake data.”

She fluttered her lashes jokingly. “Sounds like an invasion of privacy to me, still.”

Pot. Kettle.”

Didn’t you go to jail for doing this?”

Yes, and I learned my lesson life a good reformed citizen. Don’t do it inside government buildings.” He closed his laptop and looked up. “What do you need from me today?”

Who says I need anything?” Sasha sipped Hermann’s milkshake. “Maybe I just wanted to see a dear friend I haven’t seen for two years.”

Ah yes, so sorry for assuming. Good to see you, how have you been?”

I’ve been great, thank you, Hermann, but I actually came to see you because I need something.”

Colour me surprised. How can I help you, Baby Star?”

Can you track a mobile phone for me?”

Yes, obviously, provided you have the – oh.” Hermann flipped through the papers she handed him, and scowled. “Terrible choice of phone model and provider.”

I know, right?!”

I mean, any smartphone is a terrible idea, security-wise, but even taking that into consideration… he doesn’t use facebook or read emails on this thing, does he?”

I haven’t exactly gone through his phone to check, but he’s the type of guy that probably would.”

Christ.”

I need to know exactly where this phone is. Like, what building it’s in. Can you do it?”

Yeah, probably. But… are you sure you want me to?”

What? Of course. That’s why I’m here.”

I mean, it… you’ve got a stable life and all that. If you’re asking me to, I don’t know, stalk an ex-boyfriend or something – ”

No, no! It’s not… I guarantee you that he wouldn’t press charges for this or anything. He definitely wants me to find him.”

Mmm. You’re not in trouble, are you, Baby Star?”

No,” Sasha lied. “How much time do you need?”

An hour or two at most. And two hundred and fifty dollars.”

You can’t just do a favour for an old friend?” Sasha asked jokingly.

It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other. Don’t insult us both.”

She laughed, and pulled the money out of her pocket. “I’m going to want a receipt for this.”

For an illegal phone hack?”

Of course. How else can I claim it as a work expense?”

Hermann just shook his head. “You’re so weird, Baby Star.”

She handed his nearly-empty milkshake back. “Pot. Kettle.”

Chapter Text

Martin lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

He didn’t know how long he’d been there. He had, in the background hum of his mind not entirely consumed with the puzzle he was trying to solve, figured out what must have happened. Somehow, when Tim had been freeing him from the film, a couple of frames had ended up in his pocket. When he’d emptied his pockets before bed, just chucking everything at his bedside table and not really caring where it ended up, the two frames had landed on top of his bedside lamp, one on top of the other. And when he’d awoken from some horrible nightmare he could no longer remember and reflexively turned his lamp on, the light had projected the two film frames, superimposed on each other, onto his ceiling, turning two images of an animatronic spider into… something a lot more complicated.

And now he couldn’t stop looking at it.

It had eight legs, it had sixteen legs, it had four legs, it had thirty two legs. It looked at him, it did not. It had fangs, bared; it faced away, with no mouth parts visible. It didn’t move, of course; it was a still image made of two other still images. But the details obscured each other, and any perspective he tried showed a different spider, from a different angle, doing a different thing. Which was the real image?

There was a secret in there. If he kept studying it, he’d be able to see how it worked.

He could stop, once he figured out how everything worked.

-------------------------



Sorry, Baby Star. Can’t do it.”

What do you mean, you can’t do it? It’s a mobile phone. I guarantee he doesn’t have any kind of… of special security. Jon doesn’t think of stuff like that. I once saw him type ‘google’ into google.”

“I know. I should be able to do it, but somehow all I’m getting is some kind of random noise? It doesn’t make sense.”

“So his location’s… corrupted, somehow?”

“It’s a puzzle and no mistake. By all accounts it should be perfectly trackable, because you got his tower, right? So his phone’s communicating with the towers just fine and that means they’re getting the information they need, but when I try to access it…” Hermann shrugged. “I tested on a couple of other phones and they’re coming up fine, so it’s not a weird security update. Sorry.” He went to hand the money back, but she waved a hand dismissively.

“Do something else for me, then. There’s got to be some other way to find him.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I don’t know yet. Let me think.” She bit her lip. “Can you.. make his phone take photos, or video, and send them to us?”

Hermann chuckled. “I’m not a wizard. I can get into the back-end, but for that kind of thing, he’d need the right software installed, and from the look of the phone I don’t think he has it. Nor did you give me the info I’d need to access it if he does, so unless you have more on his phone you haven’t given me…”

“No. Dammit.”

“It’d probably just show us the inside of his pocket, anyway.”

“Okay. The mic, then. Can you make him call me? So I can hear what’s going on?”

“Maybe. Haven’t tried that with this kind of phone. But I’ll… actually, there might be a backend hack for that, even if I can’t. The audio would be messy, but – ”

“Whatever you can get is useful. Anything that might give me a clue as to where he is, and what’s going on over there.”

Timeline?”

“Faster is better.”

“Be talking soon then, Baby Star.”

----------------------



M artin lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

He’d figured it out. The problem was that the spider was a distraction. It was the background that mattered. Everything important always happened in the background, supporting the big, flashy centrepiece that held everyone’s attention while the webs worked and worked…

He could see them on the ceiling, strangely clear for something being so clumsily projected. In both frames, the spider stood in front of a large cobweb backdrop, each fascinating in its own individual right, but together forming a complex pattern almost beyond human understanding. Turning and twisting, strands intersecting in an organised system that he was sure he could understand if he just managed to follow one line all the way to the centre…

His eyes burned. He kept forgetting ti blink, so lost he was in the lines. His chest felt heavy, but he knew he wouldn’t suffocate; whenever he came close, his hindbrain would kick in and reflexively force a breath. So there was no need to divert important brainpower from the task at hand, unravelling that maze of lines that comprised the web.

He could stop, once he figured out how everything worked.

------------------



“So the Archivist sent a lackey, hmm? Too afraid to face me again?”

Tim sipped his latte and regarded the woman across from him evenly. “I’m not here because of that arsehole. It’s Jude, right?”

“Ooh, first-name basis already. Getting a little familiar, are we, mister…?”

“Tim. I need someone dead, and I can’t do it myself.”

“Oh, really? And you thought you could just whistle me up and I’d play assassin for you?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Jude smiled in a way that showed too many teeth. “This generation of Watchers sure is presumptuous. Of course, if killing is what you want, I’m happy to…” she reached forward and pressed two fingers to his collarbone.

Tim didn’t flinch.

“Really? You want me to believe you’re not afraid to die?”

“Not really relevant, is it? Honestly, I’d prefer to live long enough to kill certain bastards who ruined my life, but other than that, I’ve got nothing to lose. And I can’t stop you, so make up your mind over whether you’re going to kill me and stop wasting my time.”

Jude laughed and withdrew her hand. “Okay, you’ve earned my curiosity. Who does the Watcher’s lackey want dead so badly he’d risk his life to ask my help?”

“Her name is Mary Sue. She’s an archival assistant at the Magnus Institute. Here’s her address.” He handed a piece of paper over. “I had a look around and considered setting the house ablaze myself, but I’m pretty sure she’d survive. You’re more… experienced.”

“She’s your coworker.”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to kill her.”

“I want her dead. I don’t particularly care whether it’s you or not.”

“What kind of soap opera lunacy is happening in that place? I thought you were supposed to be more restrained than us.”

Tim shrugged. “My reasons are my own. Will you do it?”

“For something in return.”

“Of course. What do you want?”

“I want something from the Institute. Something valuable, something powerful that they won’t want to lose. Get it for me, and we have a deal.”

“Great. What is it?”

Jude blinked. “Really? You’ll betray your own just like that?”

“If you think I care one bit about what happens to the Institute, you’ve massively misread my situation. What do you want?”

Jude hesitated. “Well, it’s actually nothing powerful. I don’t even know if it’s there, any more, or where you’d find it, but…”

“So I may or may not be able to buy your help. Fantastic. What is it?”

Jude told him. He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment.

“So we have a deal?” she pressed. “If you can get it for me, I’ll take out this Mary Sue?”

“You take out Mary without hurting any bystanders. And if you fail, she can’t know anyone from the Institute was involved in organising it.”

“Ugh, you’re no fun. Fine.”

“Great. I’ll start looking for your payment. Good day.” He got up and left. Being close to Jude made him uncomfortable. There was something in her eyes… something that he dreaded one day seeing in Jon’s.

Making deals with monsters to kill monsters. What had his life come to?

---------------------



M artin lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

He’d figured it out. The problem was that the background was a distraction. It was the medium that mattered; the noise in the grain of the film itself. Everyone ignored noise, but noise, too, was information. And noise was rarely noise. It was just a pattern that the observer couldn’t understand, so they dismissed it.

The noise in the film told the story of the composition of the film. The noise in the film told the story of the manufacturing process. The noise in the film determined the experience of the film, so if you followed it back, got the starting conditions, you could follow it forward, predict the result. If you tinkered just right, if you knew how other plans, the plans of lesser plotters, the plans of simpler minds overlaid on it, making the webs in the background, the spiders in the foreground, then your noise could influence and twist them into the desired shapes and they would never even know you were there. He just had to keep studying it long enough to figure out the technique.

He could stop, once he figured out how everything worked.

-------------------



Bad news first, Baby Star – we can’t force his phone to call. My software guy says that’s not really something you can make a mobile phone do at a distance, not unless the phone itself has the software for it.”

Sasha tried not to feel too disappointed as she sipped her latte. “Yeah, you did warn me that might be the case. Thanks for trying.”

“We got something, though.” Hermann grinned. “Remember how I said I might have a hack through the backend?”

“So you, what… accessed the microphone, or…?”

Hermann laughed uproarously, causing several other cafe patrons to glance over, then look away quickly. “Jesus, girl, do you have any idea how a mobile phone works? Nothing the microphone does goes through the backend. Well…” he winked. “Nothing the official microphone does goes through the backend. But you’ll love this.

Hermann reached into his bag and slapped a mobile phone onto the table, and Sasha braced herself for the upcoming presentation. This was part and parcel with working with people like Hermann – he worked for the love of the art, and that meant that you paid in more than just cash. You also had to listen to him describe his tricks to you. She paid attention, and tried to learn something.

Okay, so this here is the model of phone your quarry’s using. And this here, is your quarry’s phone’s insides.” He pulled a small tool out of his pocket and expertly disassembled the phone, laying the back aside. “You know what this is?” he asked, indicating what looked like a random spot in the phone with his tool.

“You know I’m not a hardware girl, Hermann,” she sighed.

“You could be if you wanted to.”

“But then I’d have less to pay you for, wouldn’t I? What is it?”

A gyroscope. All modern smartphones have them, to tell the phone what angle it’s being held at so it knows when to use landscape or portrait mode. In most phones, I’d have to install malware to get the sensitivity up, but we lucked out with your quarry, because this model has a janky gyroscope.” He grinned. “It’s way too sensitive. It’s also not usually transmitted in the backend, but if you happen to have some credentials for requesting phone diagnostics like I do, you can get it over the network.”

“And how does an oversensitive gyroscope help us?”

“A gyroscope moves with the phone, Baby Star. That means it also moves with the air around the phone. This baby can pick up vibrations as high as about 200, maybe 220 Hz. Do you know what the frequency range of human voices is?”

“Wait. You turned the gyroscope into a microphone?”

“A bad phone manufacturer did that for me. But I got the gyroscopic signal to transmit over the network, and that takes a lot of creativity when you can’t put malware on the phone itself. I also have a program for you to turn it into noise, but don’t expect a clear signal. You can probably make out most of the words said in an average tone – I’m not promising you any more than that.” He handed over a USB drive. “Login credentials on the drive too, of course. Destroy it when you’re done.”

“Of course. I paid you for the service; how much for the program?”

“Let’s call it a favour owed, shall we?”

“Try to stay a free man long enough to actually call in the favour before you die, alright?”

Hermann laughed. “I’m reformed into a model citizen, Baby Star. You know that. Take care of yourself, now.”

“You too, you old coot.” Sasha finished her latte and left, resisting the urge to look back over her shoulder. Every time she left a meeting with Hermann, it felt like the last time she’d see him. And someday, it really would be.

But she had what she needed. Now, it was time to focus on saving Jon.

------------------



M artin lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling.

He’d figured it out. The problem was that the noise was a distraction. Looking deeper, the

The globe in Martin’s lamp blew, plunging the room into darkness. He squeezed his burning eyes shut, willing tears forth to moisten them, and sat up, every muscle cramped and screaming after… minutes? Hours? Days? Of inactivity.

He reached for the lamp and, not daring to open his eyes, snatched up the frames of film, tearing them into quarters with the strength of desperation and balling the pieces up in one hand. He should burn them. Just to be safe.

His hands were sweaty. Probably to be expected. He didn’t think anything strange about it, until he smelled the vinegar.

Martin launched himself out of bed and flicked on the bedroom light. The fragments in his left hand were dissolving into vinegar before his eyes. He tried to drop them, but the liquid stuck them to his hand. By the time he’d gotten to the bathroom and turned the tap on, the fragments of film had disappeared entirely.

Martin scrubbed at his hand for at least ten minutes. But no matter how much he scrubbed, under the artificial floral scent of the soap he could still smell, very faintly, the acrid tang of vinegar.

Chapter Text

Secretly, it always bothered Elias that even he couldn’t properly navigate the tunnels. He understood why – they were confusing by design, on a metaphysical level, an ever-changing system that no human mind should be able to navigate, and after everything he liked to believe that he was, at least, still human. A map, while possible to obtain, would be too convoluted for a human mind to memorise in the limited amount of time that it was useful. He knew, logically, that he shouldn’t expect to be able to navigate the tunnels with any reliability.

He still felt that he should be an exception to that rule, though. His gifts of perception far outstripped anyone else’s, even those of his strongest archivists at their peak, before they burned out. He’d helped design these very tunnels, so he should have at least some sense of their layout. In a way, they were a part of him, as much a part of him as the old body sitting in the centre of the maze. But no – on the outskirts of the tunnels, he was as lost as anyone else. He had to do the hard work of figuring things out passage by passage, just like anyone else.

But there were two places within the old prison tunnels that he could always find with no trouble. The Panopticon, of course, which always burned bright in his awareness, a place he could never lose. And The Library, whose visibility in his awareness was… variable.

In the early hours of Monday morning, The Library was more difficult than usual to find. This was a very good sign.

It meant that his Archivist was very likely still alive.

The Magnus Institute had two libraries. One of them was the greatest known collection of paranormal research texts in the world, which even those who looked down on the Institute as a whole looked upon with envy. The eyes of the greatest paranormal researchers in the world had browsed its shelves, looking for secrets.

The other was The Library, which no eyes but Jonah Magnus’ had beheld since it was installed two centuries ago.

In Gertrude’s day, The Library had called to him almost constantly, a starving and needy thing demanding his attentions, and he would’ve been able to find it blindfolded. Now, he had to follow a faint thread of connection through cramped and winding tunnels until his hands pressed to stone that would move aside for very few people. For a moment, he felt a jolt of panic, wondering if it would finally refuse to move for him.

But it didn’t. The stone moved, and he was among the books, the tug of temptation to sit down and read enveloping him like an old blanket.

There was a compulsion in the books that he had taken from Albrecht von Closen, all that time ago, but it wasn’t a particularly strong one. This was no coffin determined to drag people down into the pressing earthy dark, no wayward meat grinder that sang of the siren call of flesh. The purpose of The Library was to ensnare those already curious. A mind that wasn’t sufficiently curious, that had to be forced, was a poor meal indeed.

And Elias was curious, of course he was. But he was also sensible. Even when the other compulsion of The Library was strong, that insistent, demanding voice that roared in his skull to Sit in the Circle, Sing with the Stones, be the Seer and See, be me be me BE ME , he had held firm. Knowledge was a tool, had to be a tool, sought for its power and use and not for its own sake. Otherwise, he would be consumed by it. Like Von Closen had been. Like Johan von Wurttemberg had been.

It could be difficult to remember such things, when one served the Eye. Elias forgot, constantly; he’d taken a lot of risks and burned a lot of resources in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But he wasn’t nearly foolish enough to listen to The Library. No matter how the curiosity burned, he knew better than to become a part of this thing, this raging force he’d twisted to his will to the point where it might almost have been mistaken for a piece of the Eye (an easy but dangerous mistake to make), this hungry place that demanded the sacrifice of human minds.

He would never, ever allow himself to become the Archivist.

In Gertrude’s day, while she stubbornly resisted her role as much as she could, The Library had been hungry and demanding and tried to draw him in as a better candidate, one that could properly keep things ticking over. But now, it was quiet. Sated. Things were as they should be.

Oh, well done, Jon,” Elias breathed as he ran his finger along a row of books. Elias had not, in fact, read most of the books. Oh, some he had; the ones that were important enough, or safe enough, and they’d tried to burrow profound secrets into his mind as such artefacts are wont to do, but on the whole he knew it was a dangerous game to listen to the singing of the stones. It was all too easy to sing along.

It was one of the reasons he’d never really bothered to track down the strays. He had enough of The Library gathered that its location “belonged” to him, at least enough to wrap it up in the Panopticon and the Institute, under his control, so why add more dangerous elements? The other books were perfectly fine where they were, drifting uncontained about the world and sowing their random terror. He certainly had no use for them.

Anyway, bending the entire Library to the service of the Eye would be greedy.

Elias’ fingers lingered for a moment on the spine of one of the thicker tomes, a book with a sort of heaviness about it in the air. It was easily the width of his hand and bound in simple, black leather, like most of the books, its title made out in gold capitol letters on the spine: BABEL.

It was one of the foundational texts in the library, and one of the few he’d actually read, back in the early years before he’d realised the danger. It had taken him eleven months to get through, eleven months of persistent headaches and not enough sleep as he tried to untangle the dense prose of the story, written small and cramped across those endless fragile pages. After he was finally done, out of curiosity, he’d gone back and counted the words, careful not to read them again. The story was less than two thousand words long.

It wasn’t what he was here for today.

The second book his finger stopped at was called Principles of the Circle. He had skimmed the introductory chapter of that one, back at the beginning, to gain enough knowledge to be able to properly steal The Library, and opened it again when Leitner had started collecting books, just long enough to satisfy himself that Leitner wasn’t at risk of stealing his prize. It contained deep truths about The Library, he knew, and deep truths about the world as a whole. If he could understand that book, it would be child’s play to find any missing piece he desired. Including the Archivist.

It would also quite probably cost him his sanity, which simply wasn’t worth the risk. Jon was replaceable. His mind was not.

So he continued until he found another book, labelled simply Accounts. This one, he pulled off the shelf, and sat down at the heavy oak desk in the centre of the room with a notepad and his favourite pen.

“Well then,” he murmured to himself, “let us for now operate on the assumption that Jon is still alive.”

What Elias wrote on that pad would not have been called, by any normal mind, mathematics. He was not deriving basic information from starting figures. He was drawing it from nothing, from instinct, from… well, from the inherent truth and knowledge of the library itself, with a little help from his patron. He had learned some of this, and invented some of it himself; he was following the consequences of the bindings he had put on the Institute when it was constructed.

He was trying to determine exactly how much metaphysical control he had over Mary Sue.

The answer was not as enlightening as he would have hoped. If he was calculating correctly – and there was every possibility that he wasn’t – the thing wearing the face of Mary wasn’t truly trapped and bound to Jon in the way that Tim, Sasha and Martin were; nor was the mask, not really, unless it believed that it was. His control over Mary seemed to extend to her belief in his control over her.

A flimsy tether, at best. He had no idea what she believed on the matter. Or what counted as 'belief' for something like her.

Well, useful information nevertheless. If he was lucky, the other assistants would kill her, or she’d die in the failed Unknowing, and he wouldn’t have to worry about it any more.

Or she might just get bored and leave. That would also be acceptable.

Elias made his way back to his office. Leaving the library was always harder than finding it, but he was quite experienced at this sort of thing by now. If he wasn’t so distracted, he might have thought to Look into his office before opening the door, and might not have been surprised by the bucket of water and blue food dye that immediately tipped off the door and splashed across the carpet, showering his legs before he could get far enough back.

Ah, yes. There was that little ongoing problem to deal with, too.

After he changed his suit.

Chapter Text

Contains brief discussion of animal death

--------------

Mary always got in for work at 8:59am, so the other archive assistants made sure to get in an hour earlier on Monday.

“Do we have any updates on Jon?” Martin asked as Sasha walked in, listening to something on her phone with one earbud. “Since you found the approximate area he’s in, I mean.”

Well, he’s alive,” she said. “Or at least, whoever’s got his phone is.” She grimaced. “He keeps moving around and upsetting the gyroscope. I think he might have the phone in his pocket.”

“A logical place to keep a phone,” Tim commented, adjusting the shoulder strap of his slinky black cocktail dress. “By the say, Sasha, do you know Elias’ new phone number? He changed it on me and I’m not done signing him up for promotional offers for things yet.”

Do we have anything more than ‘alive’?” Martin pressed.

“Not really. I’m supposed to have audio, but so far it’s just static and garbage. Either nobody’s done any talking, or there’s something wrong with the setup.”

“You bugged him?” Martin asked. “When?”

To say I ‘bugged him’ is giving this hack job a lot more credit than it’s worth, believe me. I’m using hardware in ways it’s not meant to be used and if it’s in his pocket, I don’t think we’re going to pick anything up. But I’ll keep listening, just in case.” She tapped her earbud. “You guys got anything for the monster we’re about to see in an hour?”

“Not really,” Tim said. “We could try to axe her to death.”

“At this stage I think our best bet is to play along,” Martin said. “If we can keep her… entertained… until we come up with a more permanent solution, that’s probably safest for everyone. But we shouldn’t let her know that we’re trying to stop the Unknowing, obviously.”

“How the hell are we supposed to keep that from her?” Tim asked.

“I don’t know. But if she’s trying to end the world and she knows we’re getting in the way…”

“So we not only have to find our boss and stop the apocalypse, we have to play keep-away with a monster,” Sasha said. “This won’t go terribly, I’m sure.”

“I think it’s doable,” Martin said. “She’s very… easy to fascinate, at least temporarily. And she doesn’t seem to think we mean her any harm, so if she’s willing to play nice and we play nice…”

“It won’t last forever,” Tim warned.

“No, it won’t. But if we can keep things going until we get Jon back, maybe he can get something out of her that’ll help us deal with the problem.”

With spooky monster powers, you mean?”

“Tim…”

“No, I’m all for it. Set those two against each other, leave the rest of us out of it as much as possible. Of course, it means we’ve got to worry about Mary hanging around in the meantime – ”

The door to the archives opened, and all three assistants looked up guiltily. But it wasn’t Mary, arriving early. It was Elias. He looked Tim up and down, lips pressing tight.

“Dress code specifies that shoulders must be covered, Tim.”

“Oh, sorry, boss. Forgot we had a dress code.” He reached under his desk to retrieve a neon feather boa, which he settled over his shoulders. “Better?”

“I’d like to see you in my office in thirty minutes, Tim.”

“Uh-huh. I’ll try to remember that.”

“Mmm.” Elias left.

“Don’t you think you might be pushing him a bit too far?” Martin asked.

“I dunno, let me check. Do I still work here? Yes? Then I guess I’m not pushing far enough.”

He might be dangerous.”

“Martin, he’s about the only thing in this place that hasn’t tried to kill one of us. You want to play nice with a world-ending monster but you’re scared of Elias? Come on.”

“What did you do to put that expression on his face?” Sasha asked.

“Well, you know the carpet in his office? Lovely pale cream colour?”

“Yeah?”

“Very light, very easily stained?”

“Oh god. Do I want to know?”

--- ------------------



E lias didn’t miss Tim’s little smirk as he glanced down at the new rug in the doorway of Elias’ office, but he ignored it.

“Tim. Have a seat.”

Tim sat down and rested his feet, sheathed in bedazzled crocs, on Elias’ desk. “What can I do for you, boss?”

“You could try taking this job remotely seriously,” Elias snapped, then forced himself to calm down. This shouldn’t be a problem. He’d dealt with… restless archival assistants before. He was letting the stress of finally being near the end, of finally having a plan in Jon, get to him; he couldn’t afford that.

“Oh, I take my job very seriously,” Tim said. “Reading weird supernatural reports, moving files from boxes into other boxes, occasionally nearly getting killed by some eldritch horror… all very thrilling stuff.”

Tim, if your behaviour doesn’t improve then I am going to have to pursue disciplinary action.”

“What, fire me, you mean?”

“You know perfectly well I can’t do that.”

Tim sat up suddenly and leaned forward, angry. “I know perfectly well you won’t do that. I don’t for a second believe you can’t.”

The result is the same, I’m afraid. What do you think would happen if I did respond to these childish tantrums by firing you?”

“Your little institute would be a lot more peaceful and we could all go on with out lives.”

No. The next archival assistant who got it into their head that they wanted to jump ship would simply start this nonsense, secure in the knowledge that if they annoyed me enough, they’d have an easy way to leave. No, Tim; I’m afraid that’s not an option. But I will not continue to tolerate this behaviour.”

“Kill me, then. Something here is going to. I’m in the way of your scary evil plans? Then kill me.”

“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“Really? Won’t kill me, won’t fire me… I guess we have nothing to discuss.” He started to get up.

Sit down, Tim.”

He did.

Elias could break him. He had the means to do so. For someone with Tim’s past, it would be easy; easy to remove this little irritant that had been throwing his weight around for the express purpose of making things difficult for so long.

But he wasn’t going to. Tim was still useful, and Elias was not in the habit of needlessly wasting resources. He was going to have to be a bit more subtle than that.

I think I finally understand the problem here. You’re so caught up in the certainty that you’re doomed here, that the worst is inevitable, that you believe that you are not afraid of death. And therefore, that there’s nothing I or anybody else can do to hurt you. But the problem with that reasoning, Tim, is the very flawed assumption that the worst thing that can happen to you is death.” He leaned forward. “But I have a wider array of methods of persuasion at my disposal than you might think. Would you like to see an example?”

“Oooh, are you going to threaten me with a particularly painful and gruesome death? So scary.”

“No. I’m going to talk to you about kittens.”

Tim frowned in confusion. “What?”

“Kittens, from when they are very small and blind, are left alone by their mother in safe places while she hunts. She might leave them for hours at a time, perhaps up to a day, secure in the knowledge that when she comes back, they will be there waiting for her. Unless, of course, they’re found by two young boys who don’t know very much about kittens and try, in their well-meaning little way, to save the animals that they assume to be lost and abandoned. How old were you, Tim? Nine, wasn’t it?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Yes, nine; it was going to be your tenth birthday in two weeks and you thought that if you hid them from your parents until then, you could convince them to let you keep them as a birthday present. So you ‘rescued’ the kittens, you and your brother, from the alley, and hid them in the very back of the shed, trying to feed them scraps of tuna and sausage.

You were young. You weren’t to know that kittens need to be kept very warm. You weren’t to know that they were far too young, and needed to be fed special kitten milk with a teat. You weren’t to know that kittens that young need help even going to the bathroom. So when they died of neglect, cold and hungry and uncomfortable, crying for a mother that had no hope of finding them, one could argue that you weren’t really to blame. Do you want to know what they felt, Tim?”

It was interesting, how quickly the blood drained from Tim’s face under the weight of a sudden experience that wasn’t his. He whimpered, knuckles whitening as he gripped his chair.

Elias let up after just a few seconds. He wasn’t cruel .

“What was that supposed to prove?” Tim asked. “You really think that little trick is going to change anything?”

“No. That is what we call a demonstration, Tim. So that you have some idea of the scope of things. If you like, I could arrange for a stronger one. Perhaps we could discuss some other formative event in your life… something about Daniel Stoker, perhaps?”

There must have been some blood left in Tim’s face, because he suddenly became even paler. “You wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t I? Aren’t you curious, Tim? Would you like to know how it felt, right at the end? What he was thinking when – ”

Don’t.”

Then we agree. There is no need for further unpleasantness on either side. Right?”

Tim glared at him.

“Right, Tim?”

“… Right.”

Excellent. Now, I believe you have some archiving to do? I myself am very busy.”

Tim leapt to his feet and practically ran out the door. Elias turned to his computer and started filling out the necessary budget request forms for having the carpet replaced.

He’d handled that meeting pretty well, he thought.

Chapter Text

Martin looked up from the statements he was organising to see Tim, white as a sheet, stumble in through the door.

“Holy shit, Tim,” Sasha exclaimed, leaping to her feet. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Martin opened his mouth to offer tea, but even he could see that that wasn’t going to help. They couldn’t help without knowing what had happened. So instead he said, “Is it something we need to watch out for?”

“What?”

Whatever you just saw. If there’s yet another danger running around here that might kill us or something…”

It was a dirty trick, Martin knew, but it worked. Tim sank into his chair and nodded. “Turns out Elias does have spooky magic powers.”

“What did he do to you?” Sasha growled.

“Nothing. Not really.”

“What can he do?” Martin tried.

“He knows things, I guess? I don’t think it’s mind reading, because it was stuff I didn’t exactly know, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he could do that too. Because he can… do the opposite.”

“What?”

“He can project things. Into your mind. Concepts, and… experiences.”

Sasha’s eyes widened. “Oh, god. Did he – ”

“No.” Tim took a deep, shuddering breath. “Not yet.”

Martin watched the exchange between the two. He wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but he didn’t think it helpful to ask. So instead, he went to make that tea.

Mary was in the break room, preparing a blackberry and mint herbal infusion, and smiled brightly at his approach. “Good morning, Martin! Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yes,” he lied in his best ‘I didn’t spend the entire thing paralysed on my bed staring at a spooky spider projection’ voice. “How was your weekend, Mary?”

“It was fine.”

M artin was surprised at his own calm as he stood next to her and started making tea. She could grab him so easily. She could kill him so easily.

But it was already clear that she wasn’t going to, not at the moment. So it was irrelevant. He found himself dismissing it.

“Do anything fun?” he asked conversationally.

“I bought some house plants. If you give them enough water and sunlight, they can live in your house and brighten it up.”

“Developing a green thumb, are we?” he asked, and then clarified when she glanced at her own thumbs, “I mean, are you getting into gardening?”

“I don’t really have a garden. But I have five house plants.”

Well, I’m sure you’ll be great at caring for them.” Martin watched her out of the corner of his eye as he finished preparing the tea. If she walked into the archives and the others were… difficult… how would she react? Would there be a problem? Probably not, he decided. Sasha and Tim were both a lot better at masking fear than he was. He’d been absolutely terrified on Friday, and she’d kept playing along. So long as Tim didn’t outright attack her, continuing to humour her should be fine.

But he hoped they found a more permanent solution soon. He had no idea how long they had before she’d get bored with them.

“Can you take this one to Sasha?” he asked, indicating one of the cups. “I’ve run out of hands.”

Yes, Martin.” She picked up the cup in her free hand, and the pair headed for the archives.

W hen Mary entered, Sasha and Tim both tensed, but otherwise didn’t react. Mary didn’t seem to notice, placing the tea in front of Sasha with a cheerful “Good morning!” before heading straight to her own computer to get to work.

“Thank you, Mary,” Sasha said cautiously.

“Martin made it.”

Sasha visibly relaxed, thanked Martin and sipped the tea. Martin passed a cup to Tim, who pulled a bottle of vodka out of his desk to top it up.

The atmosphere was quiet and tense as everyone got to work. They couldn’t talk about the Unknowing in front of Mary, and if the circus had Jon then that meant it was probably best not to discuss his situation, either. Martin had no illusions about whether Mary’s friendship game would hold up if she had to choose between the circus and protecting Jon. The longer he could keep her from having to make decisions like that, the longer they’d be safe.

After about five minutes, Mary ventured, “Tim, you look sad. Did you get enough sleep?”

“I’m fine.”

“Your expression looks – ”

“I do NOT want to talk about it.”

“Ah.” Mary nodded. “It’s a secret.” She didn’t press the issue.

After another half hour or so of tense filing and typing throughout the room, Sasha sat bolt upright in her chair and put her other earbud in. She was smart enough not to say anything in front of Mary, but Martin watched her face go pale and deliberately expressionless. A few minutes later, she resumed typing, and Martin got an email from Sasha, containing an audio file.

“Hey Mary,” Sasha said, getting up, “can you come and help me get a box?”

“Okay, Sasha.” The girls left; Tim and Martin both immediately plugged in headphones and listened to the file.

Sasha had been right; whatever magic she’d pulled to bug Jon’s phone, the audio quality was awful. It sounded like the phone was being shaken about in a bag of marbles, and Martin had to listen to it three times to make out any real conversation. Some of the words, he knew, he’d never pick up.

“ – so disappointed, Archivist!” a voice said. Martin was pretty sure that the voice was unfamiliar, but it was hard to be certain, given the quality. “You’re really not doing a good job of healing that hand. I’ll be --- skin in three months for –- and I’d like to have two hands for the dance!”

If Jon replied, the phone didn’t pick it up.

Of course it --- A good lotion --- before we peel you! But all those little scars are --- really, Archivist, you should take better care of your skin! It’s just inconsiderate to other people who might want to use it.”

Another pause. In which Jon may or may not have said something.

“Well, soon enough it --- just hang in there!”

That was the end of the file. Once Martin had listened to it three times, and put together all the words he could, he almost cried with relief.

Jon was alive. The speaker had called him “Archivist”; that meant they were talking to Jon. Jon was alive and had his phone. Although Martin wondered dimly how much battery power that phone still had, and how soon they were going to lose any way to track him at all.

He was also, if Martin was interpreting the discussion correctly, going to be skinned for the ‘dance’ in three months, which… wasn’t great, but it gave them time to rescue him and a timeline for the Unknowing.

Oh, god. If the speaker’s dance was the unknowing dance… the world might only have three months left.

No, don’t think like that. The world wasn’t doomed. It just meant they would be saving the world in three months.

That didn’t make him feel a whole lot better.

But Jon was alive. His kidnappers presumably needed him alive until they skinned him (ew!), so he’d stay alive for three months. He was, using a limited an d literal definition of the word, technically safe for now.

A nd that made everything else alright.

---------------



This, Sasha noted, was the second monster that she’d willingly met with in an isolated location, alone.

Michael had wanted to see her because he wanted them to defeat Jane Prentiss. What did Mary want?

Why are you here, Mary?” Sasha found herself asking.

Mary looked puzzled. “ I work here.”

Not what Sasha had meant, but clarifying might bring up the Unknowing, and it was best to avoid that topic altogether. What was safe to talk about with her… monster coworker… to distract her while her other coworkers… spied on her… kidnapped boss…

When had her life gotten this weird?

Well… did you have a good weekend?”

Sasha half-listened while Mary chatted about houseplants and scanned the shelves for a box to pretend to need help with that would take a while to fetch, so the boys had time to finish with the audio clip. Dealing with Mary was going to be a very delicate line to walk, until they found a more permanent solution.

She hoped they would find one soon.

------------------



Mary was having a pretty good day. She’d woken up nice and early to water her houseplants and had a good, well-rounded breakfast (important for health and happiness) before heading into work. Thanks to Martin’s help, she was pretty sure she had the hands almost right – some of the insides were a bit fudged, but they moved properly, at least – which helped her type even faster, so she was having a very productive work morning. And now she had an opportunity to practice her small talk with Sasha.

But Tim wasn’t having a good day, and while she knew that talking about problems with friends made people feel better, it didn’t seem like Tim wanted to talk to her. And Jon, if Nikola had him, was probably having a terrible time. She wished she could make all her friends happy at once.

Jon…

Mary didn’t know what Nikola needed him for, exactly, but it probably wasn’t going to be anything he was happy about. And that wasn’t… well, it was good, from a more distant standpoint, for the Circus to have everything they needed for the Unknowing, even if Jon was included. But it wasn’t something Mary liked. Mary wanted her friends to be safe. But Mary had been constructed to wait out until the Unknowing. So…

How, exactly, was Mary supposed to feel about any of this?

It wouldn’t matter any more, once the Unknowing was underway and the mask was discarded. But it mattered now. She didn’t know what the appropriate position on any of this was. Sasha would know, Sasha knew how to be human better than she did, but she didn’t think a human was going to give her useful information on anything related to the Unknowing. Sasha, if she even knew about it, wouldn’t like it. If the experience that Elias had shared with her on Friday was any indication, then humans were attached to their masks on a level that Mary was still trying to understand. Sasha, like the others, would be terrified at the thought of having their identities torn apart, at the inevitable end of understanding. Sasha wouldn’t want to lose Sasha, and Mary…

Mary would miss being Mary. Except… she probably wouldn’t, when she wasn’t Mary any more, would she? But she did now , she… was saddened now, by the idea of not being Mary, far more than the little twinge of lingering regret she was sure she would experience when it actually happened. She almost wanted to regret it more, she was almost proud of the lingering thread of grief over Jan, wishing it was stronger – like that would make the masks important, like importance might somehow magically make them more real.

People were confusing.

Chapter Text

Tim was asleep when his phone rang. He reached blindly for it, knocked it to the floor, and cursed. Now he was gonna have to move to pick it up.

“Mm. Yeah?”

“It’s me,” Sasha said. “Jon’s phone battery died. We’ve got all the audio and location data we’re going to get.”

“And why are you telling me at…” he checked the time… “three in the morning?”

“I want you and Martin to come over to mine. We can comb through the audio data, look for anything we might’ve missed, without having to worry about Mary or… any other interruptions.”

“At three in the morning?”

“Well it’ll probably be closer to four by the time you’re all organised and get here, but yeah. I have the right software here and I… don’t want to do this at work.”

“It is THREE. In the MORNING.”

Sasha sighed. “Tim, I know you’re still pissed at Jon, but – ”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Monsterboss is an arsehole but I’m not gonna let him get skinned by evil clowns. I’m on my way. You’d better have good coffee.”

“Plenty of it. How do you think I’m still awake?”

Tim arrived at Sasha’s place about the same time as Martin. Tim had been inside before, and knew what to expect; Martin clearly hadn’t, and the look of bafflement on his face as he tried to reconcile the stacks of random computer parts, various unwashed mugs with novelty slogans, and scattered magazines (on all topics; PC magazines sat in a pile with Woman’s Day, travel brochures and at least one hunting & fishing magazine) with the sharp and well-dressed woman he knew from the office, was comical. He stared at the large rubber duck in a pirate hat hanging in a little crochet net bag from the side of one of her many computer monitors. “Um, what’s…?”

“Ducky? My Partner in Crime. Anyone who uses a computer to do anything useful needs a rubber duck. I’d never get anything done otherwise. How much sugar do you want in your coffee?”

“Um… do you have tea?”

Of course. How much tea do you want in your coffee? I’m thinking we work on double shots until at least seven, then taper down so we can get into the office in some kind of normal shape. Oh, and I’ve set up spare computers for the two of you.” She waved a hand toward said computers. “I’ve chopped the audio into one-hour segments; there are three cases of speech I’ve found but I think we should comb the rest for any I’ve missed, given how bad the quality is.”

Sa-sha,” Tim groaned.

“Ti-mo-thy,” Sasha groaned back.

T im knew he wasn’t going to win, so he grumpily sat down and booted up a computer.

Sasha had helpfully marked the three identified audio clips; he plugged a set of headphones in and listened to those first. The first he’d already heard. The second was a short conversation between three people about “the calliope”; Tim made a mental not to search their evolving digital statement database for anything about calliopes when he got in for work. The third was the most concerning. Whatever Sasha had done to get audio from Jon’s phone only picked up a very limited range of sounds, so it was hard to know exactly what was going on, but it didn’t sound… great. Some kind of struggle was taking place; the clip was mostly quiet except for occasional bursts of clicking static and someone (the person from the first clip, if Tim had to guess, but it was impossible to be sure) kept admonishing someone else (presumably Jon) to “keep still!” and saying things like “Your Elias hasn’t trained you all that well, has he? This would hurt a lot less if you weren’t so rude about it.” Other bursts of sound weren’t easy to identify but, in context, Tim couldn’t help but consider that they were probably muffled shouting and grunts of pain.

This circus was going to fucking burn for everything they’d done.

Tim took the coffee Sasha offered in trembling hands and tried to force himself to calm down. He didn’t even look at Martin. He didn’t want to see the expression on his face.

Time to listen to some mindless static, searching for voices. That would help.

Most of the audio that hadn’t been marked for voices had worse static. Maybe Jon was moving around a lot more when he was alone, or maybe there were people talking still, being drowned out by the noise. Tim’s mind kept wandering from the low, rumbling hum and random clicks and white noise in the audio. There was so much to do in so little time. Getting Jon back meant they could properly question Mary, but that meant revealing they were working against her, and she’d drop the friend act. Meaning he needed to find Jude’s little artefact as quickly as possible… if it even existed. If it was still in the Institute. He needed a plan B in case he couldn’t find it.

And dealing with Jude to kill Mary, especially if it involved technically stealing from the Institute… there was Elias to consider. He knew about those random kittens, he knew about Danny, so Tim didn’t think there was any realistic way of hiding his own dealings from him. Elias hadn’t mentioned Jude in their little… meeting… but he had hired Mary, presumably knowing what she was; if Tim acted against him like this…

Well. If it came to it, if Tim had to choose between getting rid of one of those monster bastards or avoiding Elias’ retaliation, that was an easy choice. He’d do what he had to do to get rid of her. Danny was dead, Danny couldn’t be saved, but his coworkers could, and those clowns could be hurt . If Tim had the chance to hurt them, and didn’t take it because he was afraid of a little bad memory? He wouldn’t be able to live with himself. That was worse than anything Elias…

No, it wasn’t worse. But it should be , dammit. If it came down to it, Tim was going to do the right thing, no matter how Elias retaliated.

After about half an hour of listening to random sound, when a particularly loud staticky shriek blasted into his ears, Tim swore and tore the headphones off. “Argh! This is pointless.”

If there’s something in here, we have to find it,” Martin said with hollow determination.

There’s nothing here! It’s just noise.”

“The most important information is always in the noise,” Martin said, seemingly to himself. “Anything outside it, others have already found.”

“Yeah, because you can’t find anything in the noise,” Tim snapped. “That’s why it’s noise.”

“Sometimes you do,” Sasha cut in. “Sometimes you get lucky.”

And we’ve been remarkably lucky so far, haven’t we. Luck just pouring out of our fucking ears. If Monsterboss would stop moving his phone around for half a fucking minute –

Then he’d probably have stopped breathing,” Sasha pointed out. “Not ideal.”

Martin, slumped in his chair, suddenly sat bolt upright, eyes wide. “The noise!”

“What?”

“Listen.” He pulled his headphones out so the main speakers would come on and played one of the clips.

It was the third audio clip that Sasha had marked. The one with the physical struggle. Despite the very upsetting content, Martin just looked focused as the clip played, then grinned triumphantly. “Hear that?”

“Yeah, it sounds awful,” Sasha pointed out.

“He’s fighting,” Martin said.

“Yeah, and?”

And,” Martin said patiently, “you can hear the other person talking pretty clearly. A lot less static than most of the audio. Weird, if he’s moving around to much, don’t you think?”

Tim realised. “He hasn’t got the phone on him. It’s nearby, but it’s not in his pocket or anything.”

It’s not him moving around,” Sasha added. “Something else is moving the phone around, or… or making noise near it.”

“And figuring out what that is,” Martin added with a grin, “is going to tell us a lot about where Jon is.”

-------------------



B asira jolted awake and reached for her phone. The memory of the knife across her coworker’s throat, the encroaching dark, and those eyes the only thing piercing it as they stared directly at her, was still sharp in her mind.

The phone was picked up on the second ring. “Mm?”

“Daisy?”

Daisy sighed. “Dreams?”

“Yeah. I… I’m sorry. I’ll let you sleep.”

“No. No. I’m awake.” Daisy seemed to be moving around, probably sitting up. “It’s been a while.”

“I know.”

“You could… come by the station, you know. And talk?”

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”

“I guess not.”

After some hesitation, Basira said, “You could come to me. It’d be good to have a partner. And your experience…”

“I… can’t, Basira. I’m needed here. There are things that… I can do more good here.”

“Because you’re the only Sectioned detective? You shouldn’t have to do it all on your own, Daisy.”

I didn’t have to, when – ” Daisy cut herself off, and took a deep, shuddering breath. “Are you getting help? Professional help?”

“No.”

“You should.”

“Are you going to?”

Daisy laughed. “No. But I’m not having recurring nightmares every night, Basira.”

“Not yet. Working there isn’t good for you, Daisy; it’s not good for any of us.”

“It’s good for the world, though.”

“Do you really believe that?”

Daisy didn’t answer. Basira knew what she must be thinking. Thinking about some of her rougher jobs, some of her extrajudicial jobs, her jobs involving full operational discretion, that she didn’t think Basira knew about. But Daisy wasn’t as subtle as she thought she was.

Basira had never seen the bodies. But that was just because she wasn’t inclined to go digging them up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “For calling you in the middle of the night. I should… you’re busy. I should let you sleep.”

“Basira, I – ”

We can talk another time, okay?” Basira hung up. Then she lay on her back and stared into the dark for a long time. It was a comforting dark, a real dark, so fundamentally distinct from… that dark.

She’d chickened out, once again, from explaining the part of the recurring nightmare that really worried her to Daisy. Oh, the nightmare itself was awful, being back there in that place, reopening the mental wound every single night, and Daisy could understand that, understood her decision to quit the force enough that she at least tried to hide her own personal hurt over it. Basira knew that she had occasional nightmares too, although not the same one every night without rest. But Basira hadn’t mentioned the man.

She knew it was the man in the Institute that she’d described her experience to, even though it was hard to pay attention to any part of him except those intense, staring eyes that wouldn’t leave but wouldn’t help, a pair of eyes that seemed to be the only important thing about him has he dispassionately observed her predicament. At first, she’d figured that the logic of him being there kind of made sense; the dreams had started the night after she’d spoken to him, reopening that mental wound, so maybe him listening got… mixed up… in her perception of the event somehow. But the dreams wouldn’t stop, and he wouldn’t leave. He just stood there, watching.

And the thing that really got her? That she had no way to explain to Daisy? He was changing.

At first, he’d shown up looking basically how he had when they’d spoken, but for his penetrating stare. Now, he looked more gaunt every night, his clothing more ragged, his hair more tangled. Recently, he’d been showing up without a shirt at all, and he had the clear look of someone who’d lost far too much weight far too quickly. She’d spied bruises on his throat and chest and , although it was hard to tell in the darkness and with those eyes so distracting, what might have been rope burns on his arms.

Having recurring nightmares was probably expected, eventually, in her line of work. Having recurring nightmares featuring some kind of nightmare stalker boogeyman modelled on an academic she’d met a couple of times was a little more weird. But what was really strange was having a nightmare stalker boogeyman whom, she was more and more certain every night, needed her help.

Chapter Text

Melanie wasn’t having a great day. But she rarely did, any more.

“I’m looking for Jonathan Sims,” she repeated. “You’re sure he’s not in?”

“The archivist is on leave,” the woman repeated in a generic Customer Service Tone. “I’m one of his assistants, though. Perhaps I can help you find what you need?”

No, she couldn’t. Because what Melanie needed – aside from a job, Ghost Hunt UK to get back together, and the whole world to forget they’d ever seen GHOST FREAKOUT UK LOL GHOST HUNTER UNHINGES (NOT CLICKBAIT) – was someone to vouch for her so that she could get into the fucking library and get back to actually doing some fucking ghost hunting. Which meant grovelling to someone she’d insulted the professionalism and integrity of last time she was here, because he was the only employee of the Institute that knew her, however vaguely.

“You can’t,” she said flatly. “When will he be back?”

I’m not really sure,” she said vaguely, and looked about to say something else when a young man entered the room and saw them talking. His eyes widened. “Ah, hello!” he said. “Don’t worry, Mary, I’ll handle… um, hi there. Can I help you?” The woman left.

“I am looking,” Melanie repeated for what felt like the ten billionth time, “for Jonathan Sims.”

“Right! He’s on leave.”

“So I’ve been told. When will he be back?”

“We’re not sure. But uh, maybe I can help you instead?”

Melanie clenched her jaw and took a deep, calming breath. She reminded herself that it was hardly any of these people’s fault that they were wasting her time, and yelling at them wouldn’t accomplish anything except getting her thrown out of the building.

“It’s fine,” she said. “I’ll come back another time.”

She turned to leave, when yet another man entered the room. Ugh, she was not going to have the same conversation a third time. But this man looked her up and down in a strangely curious, penetrating way, and smiled. “Oh, hello,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to be Melanie King, would you?”

“Yes,” she admitted, bracing for the jokes, but instead he offered her his hand. “Elias Bouchard,” he said. “I’m the head of the Magnus Institute. I must say, I really enjoy your show. Do you happen to know if there’ll be any more episodes soon?”

Had this guy not seen GHOST FREAKOUT UK ? “Um,” Melanie said awkwardly, “probably not. I’m… looking to move into other employment, actually, so there probably won’t be time for…”

Well, that really is too bad. Your methods were crude, but showed a lot of promise. Hang on, are you saying you’re looking for work?”

“Well, yeah. But I’m here to talk to – ”

“Do you have any experience with archiving?”

“Uh, Elias – ” the other man cut in. Elias ignored him.

“Our previous archivist left these archives in a real state and Jon has complained about their state of disorganisation. I’ve been looking to hire some more assistants for him, to help sort it all out. Is that something you’d be interested in?”

“Elias, you can’t,” the other man protested.

“Really, Martin? Why not?”

The man swallowed nervously. “Well, she’s, uh… she’s unlikely to be qualified for…”

“Now, now, you know that formal qualifications aren’t everything, are they? What do you think, Miss King?”

“Well, truth be told, I actually don’t know anything about archiving…”

Oh, it’s quite simple to pick up. Of more importance here is your experience in informal research, and with the paranormal. That sort of thing gives someone an eye for seeing what’s relevant in terms of organising a place like this, and I’ve seen enough of your lateral thinking skills on Ghost Hunt UK to know you’d be a real asset here. Should we discuss the details in my office?”

“Elias.”

“Problem, Martin?”

The two met each other’s eyes. After a long moment, Martin looked away.

“Don’t take it,” he said quietly to Melanie, and then hurriedly left the room.

“Is he…?”

“Under a lot of stress right now, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t worry about him, he’s harmless. Shall we?”

Melanie considered. So far as she could tell, this man had just swept in and offered to solve all of her problems at once.

“Sure,” she said.

----------------------



He what?” Sasha asked.

“You didn’t stop him?” Tim asked. “You didn’t warn her?”

I tried!” Martin angrily stirred his tea, then fumbled and dropped the spoon. “What was I supposed to say? I didn’t have any way to stop him, it’s not like any of us have any leverage on him, and I couldn’t exactly explain to her, could I? ‘I know you don’t know me and this is gonna sound insane, but his guy is an evil manager with eldritch powers trying to bind you in service to an ancient fear god’. There is just no way to make that believable, even to a ghost hunter.”

“Don’t worry,” Sasha said. “We’ll find a way to… deal with him. After Jon. And Mary. And the apocalypse.”

“Which raises an interesting point,” Tim said. “Are we going to explain the apocalypse to the new girl? I mean, that’s going to take a bit of a leap of faith.”

“I’m sure that when she has a look through all the statements it’ll be perfectly believable,” Martin said. “The more important question is whether we’re going to tell her about Mary. Did you guys see that video of her? At the old train yard? I think if we tell her her new coworker’s a monster, she might…”

“Do something that forces a conflict with Mary we can’t win?” Sasha finished. “Yeah. Probably. We shouldn’t tell her.”

“We might have to help her hide,” Martin said. “Mary, I mean.”

“Why? It took us ages to figure it out.”

“Yeah, because we assumed she was from a cult,” Tim said. “We can’t assume Melanie will do the same. Or that Mary won’t just tell her. She hasn’t mentioned anything to either of us, but when Martin asked…”

“I’ll have a talk with Mary,” Sasha said. “Try to explain things and help her… blend in.”

“When did this get so convoluted?” Martin asked. “We need one of those red string wall charts just to keep track of what secrets we’re keeping from who, and why.”

And we have to stop the clown apocalypse,” Sasha added.

“And we have to stop the apocalypse.”

“I got in contact with my guy,” Sasha said. “Tonight he’s getting me a phone like Jon’s, so we can do the gyroscope thing and try to find out what’s making that static.”

“You think we’ll have much luck?”

No. It could be anything, and it all just sounds like static. But I mean, what else can we try? Tim, do you want to – ”

“Can’t do anything tonight. I’ll be here late. I’m looking for Adelard Dekker statements, but most of our statements aren’t in the database yet so there’s going to be a lot of box digging.”

“Who?”

“The guy who bound that other thing to the table? Gertrude mentions him making a couple of statements, so I’m hoping that somewhere he talks about how he pulled off that trick. In case we need it for Mary.”

“Well, good luck.”

“I think we all need some of that.”

----------------



B asira felt kind of stupid as she walked into the Magnus Institute. She had no idea what she was going to say to Mr Sims when she saw him, but that was kind of the point. She’d see that he was fine, go home, and feel dumb for a couple of days about thinking anything… odd… was going on.

Dreams were weird. They didn’t have to make sense. Her thinking they meant anything was actually wrong was silly. And she could see for herself, and get past it. And maybe the dreams would stop, too.

The lady on the front desk let her through, and she once again headed down to the archives. One of the assistants was there – what was his name, Matt? – and looked up as she entered.

“Oh! Hello, constable. I didn’t think we’d see… do you need to talk to us more about Gertrude?”

“What?” Oh, right’ the dead old woman. “Uh, no. I’m not with the police any more. I just… is Jonathan Sims in?”

“No, he’s on leave. Everyone keeps asking… we emailed Rosie about this! Uh, sorry, I mean, can I take a message?”

“Um… sure. I have, uh…” oh god, this was stupid. She handed him her business card. “Can you just um, make sure he has this?”

The man glanced at it, nearly dropping it as he turned it over in his hand . “You’re a private investigator now?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’ve been working with Jon?”

“Well, no. But, um… okay, this is going to sound really strange, I just…” Nothing for it. She’d sound like an idiot, she could leave, she could forget the whole thing. “I had a dream that he needed my help.”

“A dream.”

“Yeah.”

“That Jon needed you help.”

“I think so? Look, it doesn’t matter; I’ll just… I’ll just go.”

“How did he look?”

“What?”

“In the dream. Is he… okay?”

“It’s stupid; it was just a dumb – ”

“How did he look?”

Basira hesitated. “Not great, to be honest. A bit, um, scuffed up. And like he’d lost weight too quickly, you know the look.”

The man looked away. “Jesus.”

“Is… is everything okay?”

He looked at the card. Looked at her. Seemed to think. “You’ve dealt with supernatural stuff before, right?”

“I’ve seen some weird stuff. Why?”

“Okay, yeah. We should probably talk.”

Chapter Text

Sasha was out with Mary. Tim and Melanie were who knew where. So Martin sat Basira down and did his best to explain.

“Your boss got kidnapped by an evil circus?”

“Yes.”

“Full of monsters.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Martin hesitated. Trying to explain the Unknowing at this point was probably a bit much. He answered honestly. “We’re not entirely sure. But he’s definitely in a lot of danger. We’ve been trying to find him.”

“Have you gone to the police?”

“We’ve filed a missing person’s report, but who exactly do we report the evil monster circus to?”

“… Point. I know the one detective they’ve got who’d handle something like that, so I guess I can… anyway. How can I help?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one who had this weird dream, right?”

“Yeah. Guess so.”

“Have you had… prophetic dreams before? Or anything?”

Basira shook her head. “Just this. I don’t know if it’s even prophetic. Might be coincidence.”

Either way, we could use the help. Is it a case you’re interested in taking? It shouldn’t be hard to convince Elias to approve the expense; it’s not like he seems to be making any headway.”

“Sure. I’ll send you a contract after lunch.”

A fter she left, Martin went to see Elias.

Come in, Martin.”

Martin didn’t bother with pleasantries. “Why did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

You’re trying to stop an apocalypse, are you not? I thought you’d want as many hands on deck as possible. Melanie King is a capable ghost hunter who’s shown that she can comport herself well in times of stress. You might need her, especially since one of your other coworkers is so compromised.”

“You mean the monster you hired? You put her in that office with us.”

“Yes. Well. We all make mistakes.”

A mistake? A mistake is… is buying the wrong kind of printer ink, not – ”

“Either way, there’s very little I can do about it now. You know I can’t fire her.”

“You could deal with her in other ways.”

Elias looked surprised. “I didn’t expect you of all people to suggest I kill employees who happen to be inconvenient.”

“No, I… I didn’t mean…”

“You didn’t mean it, or you just didn’t want to be the one to say it?”

Doesn’t it bother you? Her presence here?”

“Of course. That’s why I hired you some extra help. Although frankly, I’m a lot more worried about our missing Archivist. He has a limited amount of time to grow in power if he wants any chance of stopping the Unknowing, and we can’t really afford the delay of a kidnapping right now.”

“Yes, that’s clearly the biggest concern with Jon’s situation right now.”

Elias shot him a sharp look, and Martin remembered the look on Tim’s face when he’d stumbled back into the archives after Elias’ demonstration of what he could do. Martin reminded himself to be careful.

“We’re trying to find Jon, but we don’t have much information. How did you know who had him?”

“I saw the abduction take place.”

“You were spying on him?”

No more than you have. But I saw him at the time, yes. Those two couriers took him, said they had to deliver him to Nikola, and threw him in their van, which I do not have the ability to track with any accuracy. I lost sight of him fairly quickly, and wherever they have him now is also shielded from the Eye. I know, I suspect, less than you do about the situation right now, despite my gifts.”

Martin filed all that away under Useful Information About Elias’ Powers, and nodded. “And that’s all you know?”

“I know he is still alive, but I believe you have that knowledge already.”

“I want to hire a private investigator to help look.” He handed Elias Basira’s business card.

“Hmm. Yes, that’s probably a good career move for her. Send through the contract and all that. Anything else I can help you with, Martin?”

“… I think that’s everything. Thanks.”

“Best of luck.”

Even before he’d known about the Eye, Martin had always felt like he’d narrowly escaped some disaster whenever he left Elias’ office, no matter how cordial the interaction. That feeling was even worse, now that he knew what Elias could do. Oh yeah, and the fact that Elias had killed Jon’s predecessor. That didn’t help.

I didn’t expect you of all people to suggest I kill employees when they become inconvenient,’ like he didn’t shoot Gertrude. Which nobody seemed all that worried about. Well, Martin supposed they were probably safe from Elias so long as nobody tried to destroy the archive, which just left… the entire rest of the universe to be afraid of, he supposed.

He should’ve taken that job at Nando’s instead.

----------------------



Sasha tried not to think too hard about how she and Mary had ended up in the same coffee shop where she’d met Michael, and prepared to have what would probably be the most awkward conversation of her life.

“Elias hired a new archival assistant today,” she said conversationally.

“Oh, really? Anyone I know?”

“Melanie King. She’s a ghost hunter. I mean, she used to find ghosts and film them,” Sasha clarified, realising how easy ‘ghost hunter’ could be misinterpreted. “So she’s had some experience with the supernatural.”

“That’s good. We’re going to run out of room in the archives if Elias keeps hiring more people, though.”

“Perfect chance to petition for more space.” Their coffees arrived, and Sasha waited for the server to move back out of earshot before leaning forward. “I’m hoping we can be good friends with Melanie. It’s good to have a lot of friends, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely. This is the most interesting group of friends I’ve ever been a part of!”

Sasha tried not to think too hard about the implications of that. “Your other… friends, before you came here. You lived with them in college, you said.”

“Yes.”

Sasha had read Lionel Elliott’s statement. “They weren’t like us, were they? The other archival assistants, I mean.”

“No, They were more… predictable. We were all studying very hard.”

“They were like you.”

“Yes.”

Sasha steeled herself. Martin had said that Mary had been open when he’d confronted her, but there was always the chance she’d react poorly. “You’re not human, right?”

And Mary shook her head. Just like that. “I’m trying. But there’s so much to remember.”

Yes, we’re very complicated. Here’s the thing, Mary. With Melanie, we don’t… we don’t know her well, yet, and she might have trouble adjusting to working in the archives. We don’t know how she’s going to react to anything. It will be a lot safer and easier if she thinks you’re human. Your imitating is good,” she lied quickly, “but maybe don’t… tell her the truth, if she does suspect something?”

You want me to lie to her?” Mary frowned. “Isn’t she going to be our friend? Friends are supposed to be honest, right?”

Well, yes. When they can. But…” Sasha briefly considered the implications of this conversation. She definitely didn’t want Mary to think it was okay to deceive friends; it would make her far more dangerous to have around. She couldn’t ignore the fact that the last time Mary had decided to deceive her, it’d been to trick her into destroying the table, and she and Martin had nearly died. Avoiding any more little issues like that would be best for everyone.

Time for a different tactic.

You’re trying to be like a human, right? Trying to blend in?”

Mary nodded.

Well, why don’t we have a little game? Let’s see how good you are at being human, by seeing how long we can go without making Melanie suspicious. The rules are that you can’t lie to her – that way, you have to be careful to blend in really well, so she doesn’t ask. Tim and Martin and Jon and I will support you.” And lie to Melanie when you’re not listening, Sasha added to herself. “It’ll be a real challenge, to see how much you’ve learned.”

A game? I do like games. Normally they’re the opposite, though.”

Normally you play to scare people?”

Yeah.”

So this will be something new and exciting. You can really test your skills. Maybe learn something new.”

Mary considered this for several seconds. Then, finally, she nodded. “Yes. This sounds like fun.”

Great!” Sasha sipped her latte. Mary picked up hers and took a big gulp; Sasha put a gentle hand on her arm. “Hang on. There’s a tell right there, see? That’s one of the first strange things we noticed about you. You drink hot drinks as if they’re not hot. Doesn’t that hurt?”

I can feel pain,” Mary said, somewhat defensively. “I know how the nerves work.”

Right. Well. Humans generally try to feel as little pain as possible. So when you have a very hot drink, pay attention to whether it hurts to drink it, and drink it in ways that don’t hurt. Wait for it to cool a little, and just sip it.” Sasha demonstrated. “That way you look more human.”

But Tim doesn’t feel as little pain as possible. He eats painful food all the time, and he exercises until his muscles hurt.”

Okay, yes. Um…” Sasha hesitated, gathered her thoughts, tried to think about how to explain things like having a taste for hot food, or enduring a painful workout to become stronger.

This was going to be a lot more complicated than she’d thought.

---------------------



Tim looked up from the files he was perusing at the woman entering the archives. She was familiar, of course, from the internet.

Hi. I’m Melanie. I work here now?”

I know who you are,” Tim said, looking back at his work.

Right. You must be Tim?”

Mm-hmm.”

After several seconds, she said in a much angrier tone, “You know, I’m starting to get the impression that none of you want me here.”

We don’t,” Tim said bluntly. “I don’t think anyone should be here. It’s not your fault; he should’ve tried harder to warn you. But I guess it doesn’t matter now, does it? You’re stuck here. With us. Might as well settle in.”

Is this the whole ‘you can’t quit’ thing?”

Mm-hmm. Have you tried?”

No, and I’m not going to. If you don’t want me around, well, that’s your problem.”

Try. Maybe you still can. Maybe it takes a while to take hold. I don’t know. But if you can get out, do it.”

Melanie crossed her arms. “I’m not going anywhere. I need a job, and it’s fine here.”

Tim snorted. “Right, because you haven’t been eaten by worms yet.”

“… What?”

He gestured at the scars on his face and neck. “That’s how I got these. Flesh-eating worms. Jon’s got ‘em, too. Martin and Sasha nearly got killed by a table monster and then got trapped in nightmare corridors.”

Yeah, well, I got shot by a ghost out there. Bad stuff happens everywhere.”

Shot by a ghost? Really?”

Melanie shrugged. “I know you want to hype up the drama of a filing job here, but you’re not going to scare me off. I’m here now. Deal with it.”

Tim shrugged. “Think what you want. When we rescue Jon, he can clarify everything with his spooky nightmare powers. Get everyone on the same page.”

His spooky nightmare – what do you mean, rescue Jon?”

Oh, Martin didn’t tell you? He’s been kidnapped by a monster circus.”

“… What?”

They’re trying to start the apocalypse, and we think they need his skin, for some reason? I don’t know the details.”

Are you having me on?”

Nope.”

Hmph. Sure you aren’t.” She stalked off, leaving Tim in peace to continue his research. Which wasn’t as apocalypse-based as some of his colleagues might have hoped.

He was using the time alone to try to figure out where Gertrude might have hidden Jude’s artefact.

When he was sure everyone was gone, he headed for Jon’s office. He had no real hope that anything important in there would still be where Gertrude had left it. Jon had used the office for months, a significant portion of the wall had been replaced after the Prentiss attack and the whole place had been thoroughly cleaned of worms. But there were still boxes in the corner where random files and trinkets that Jon hadn’t known what to do with yet had been tossed, so that was a good place to start looking.

If he was lucky, he’d be able to pay one monster to kill another, and things would get a lot less complicated.

Chapter Text

Martin, to his own great embarrassment, had caved to the trope. Like some conspiracy theorist from a bad movie, he’d bought a giant corkboard, pinned various notes to it, and was in the process of linking them together with string.

He’d had no choice. He needed to be able to look into the Unknowing in a Mary-free environment, and he couldn’t access the growing electronic archive database from home. Anyway, he felt better having things laid out in a physical chart that he could alter. It was easier to follow the strands of influence that way. Although he was quickly realising that he was going to need a second corkboard.

The Unknowing. At least two previous attempts, both interrupted, causing delays. Gertrude had suggested that the whole system would be vulnerable if the Unknowing was actually underway before it was destroyed, ending the attempt for however many hundreds of years it would take to build up power again. Martin wasn’t sure how she’d reached that conclusion, or how building up fear power worked exactly, but they didn’t have time to develop a full understanding of the metaphysics before saving the world. She seemed to know a lot more than they did, and that was going to have to be good enough.

A monster who lured people into alleys and stole their skin. An evil taxidermy shop that, if Martin was interpreting the statement correctly, was run by someone wearing a skin the monster had stolen? And Melanie’s statement had mentioned one of the monster victims too, stapling her own skin back on. An evil circus to conduct the ritual, a dancer who needed a skin of great power and had, for some reason, chosen Jon’s.

Except for the rather worrying implication about how powerful Jon must be, Martin had no idea what to do with any of that.

Rescuing Jon would help, of course, but he was sure they could find another skin – the previous attempts hadn’t mentioned anything about anyone in an Archivist’s skin in particular (although he supposed the statement givers probably wouldn’t know). Elias seemed to think that their only chance of success relied in Jon being powerful enough to save them, but since Jon’s abilities seemed to stretch to ‘make people honest and chatty’, Martin didn’t see how this was going to help. What was he going to do, get the dancer too wrapped up in a Big Villain Monologue to dance? Maybe they could figure it out when they had Jon back.

M aybe Elias just meant that Jon needed to be powerful enough to ask the right questions, get the right information to stop it? That couldn’t be it, or Elias could’ve simply told them the information.

Martin picked up a notecard to write “Elias” on, dropped the notecard, and cursed. No one at work seemed to have noticed that he’d been fumbling things all day, but unless he was a lot more careful, someone was going to notice eventually. He kept forgetting about the damn fingers.

As he thought about them, he opened his left hand and rubbed the last two fingers. They felt things just fine; touch, heat, pain, all the normal sensations . They just didn’t move . Well, sometimes they did, a little. But then they’d be paralysed again, just two unresponsive stalks of bone and skin on his hand, and he’d drop something. At first, he’d thought that maybe Mary had damaged something when she’d been poking around, but that couldn’t be right; she’d only inspected his right hand. He’d booked a doctor’s appointment, but he already suspected that they weren’t going to find anything.

The paralysis didn’t make sense to Martin. Mary had told him that there weren’t any muscles in the fingers, just tendons; little internal puppet strings to pull the bones into the right alignment, controlled by more distant agents in the hand and wrist. That meant that the paralysis had to be in the hand or wrist, but surely that meant that other hand movements should be affected? So far as he could tell, it was just those two fingers. Like the tendons within had stopped puppetting them like they were supposed to.

If it got any worse, he’d bring it up with the others. But for now, they didn’t need silly distractions. They needed to focus on saving Jon, and saving the world.

--- -------------------

Melanie walked in to the archives on her second day to see Sasha, whom she’d already been introduced to, and the assistant she’d talked to about Jon when she was hired, who she hadn’t. The young woman looked up from her typing to give Melanie a broad, welcoming smile. “Hi! You’re Melanie.”

“Um… yes.”

“I am Mary.” She got up and offered Melanie her hand. “Welcome to the archives.”

Well, at least someone around here doesn’t hate me being here, Melanie thought as she shook her hand. It had been hard enough, years ago, fighting and clawing together enough respect and interest to get Ghost Hunt UK off the ground; she’d not been looking forward to having to claw herself a new space in another career. “Um, thanks.”

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Mary asked. “Martin usually likes to make tea, but he’s off interviewing somebody with Tim.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Great!” Mary shot her another bright smile and returned to work, apparently deciding the conversation was over. Melanie tried to ignore how carefully Sasha was watching the pair of them while she pretended to be staring at her phone. Her flip phone. What was there to stare at on a flip phone? Especially when Melanie could see a perfectly good, new-looking smartphone sitting on top of Sasha’s computer tower. A work phone/personal phone deal, probably, but a flip phone?

Melanie decided that she probably didn’t want to know, and got to work. Her task was quite simple: she had a box of what the others worrying referred to as “real statements” whose audio versions had already been recorded, and her job was to type them up for the electronic database. She didn’t understand the notation and filing systems yet (what the fuck did ‘suspected Flesh’ mean??), but she’d been assured that it was fine to leave those alone for now; someone else would come through to do that. She just had to do the boring grunt work.

After her recent experiences with war ghosts, she was happy for a little boring grunt work. At least she wasn’t likely to get shot here.

About a third of the way through a report on someone hiding from a monster under a blanket, she found herself murmuring the words aloud as she typed them. Suddenly, Sasha was at her shoulder, blocking the computer screen with one hand and offering her a piece of gum with the other.

“You should take a bit of a break,” she advised.

“I’ve only been working for like five minutes,” Melanie replied, puzzled.

“Yeah, but… okay, there’s no way for me to explain this that sounds… sane, but you don’t want to read the statements. Once you start saying them aloud, it’s time to walk away while you still can, because if you get caught up you’re going to tire yourself out really fast. We already have audio of these ones; there’s no need to put yourself through that.”

“What are you talking about?”

Sasha rubbed her eyes. “Look, this place is super weird, okay? It has a lot of little quirks, and a lot of them suck. The statements won’t hurt you, exactly, but they can be pretty rough and they’ll tire you out. Trust me; it’s best to be as… distant… as possible when you’re interacting with them.”

“Interacting with them? They’re words on paper.”

“It’s hard to explain. But trust me. When you find yourself murmuring along out loud, stop while you still can.” She proffered the gum again. Melanie, warily, took a piece.

“Chewing on something helps,” Sasha continued. “Sorry to be all weird and vague, but it’s… really complicated.”

“Uh… right.” Okay, so the only vaguely normal person in this office is Mary. Got it. Melanie glanced at Mary, who was typing away at an impressive speed on her own computer. She couldn’t help but notice that Mary was typing from a red-stickered box of ‘real statements’ as well and didn’t seem to be having any problems or showing any concern whatsoever over whatever Sasha meant by ‘reading the statements’.

Melanie returned to her own typing, careful to keep quiet this time, lest she avoid worrying Sasha further. She’d thought she’d left Really Weird Coworkers behind when Ghost Hunt UK had fallen through, but apparently now. Ah well, at least archiving work promised to be safe and peaceful.

---------------------



“Shitshitshit!”

“Down here!”

“Why are there locusts? The locusts are in the middle of a dormant cycle right – ”

“Yeah Martin, that’s the one weird thing about this basement! The locust dormant cycle! Got a lighter?”

“Here.”

“Protect your face.”

----------------------



“It’s Corruption,” Tim said grimly, stomping into the archives behind Martin. “I’m going to lunch.”

“I like your gloves, Martin!” Mary piped up brightly.

“Since when do you wear gloves?” Sasha asked.

Martin flushed and shoved his hands into his pockets. “London is cold!”

“Okay, okay… it was just a question. Oh, Tim; if you’re going through the break room, can you test the sound of the microwave on the JonPhone? It’s not the sound of a PC tower.”

“Sorry, I’m going out.”

“No problem; I’ll test it later.”

“Why would a microwave be active near him for hours at a time?” Martin wondered.

Tim ignored the speculation. The others seemed to have finding Monsterboss well in hand, and anyway, they still had nearly three months to do that. He wanted to address the more pressing issue, and searching Jon’s office had turned up nothing.

Breaking into Gertrude’s apartment wasn’t hard. Judging by the state of the window, he wasn’t even the first person to do so. Two things really bothered him about the situation though; the first was, despite the fact that someone else seemed to have broken in before him, the place wasn’t ransacked.

The second was that it was still Gertrude’s apartment.

Her body had shown up ages ago, but the place was still full of old lady stuff, covered in dust and cobwebs. Why hadn’t the place been re-let? Why hadn’t this stuff made its way into the hands of relatives or, if she didn’t have any, at least been auctioned off? Old mail sat on the kitchen counter, addressed to Gertrude; a dirty tea mug sat in the sink, mould growing in the bottom. Like she’d left, been shot, and this place had just been… left how it was. Why hadn’t the landlord stepped in? Was something supernatural happening here, or was it simply a matter of a woman who paid her rent well in advance and a landlord who didn’t pay attention? Maybe Gertrude owned the flat, and when she’d died, there was no one close to her to notice. No one to handle her affairs.

Tim pulled a book of her bookshelf and was momentarily taken aback by the cover, where the model’s eyes had been carefully removed. A couple of months ago, that would have creeped him out to no end, but he understood the logic, now. Someone in her position probably had enough of being looked at at work, without having to see fake people doing it too. He’d listened to a lot of Gertrude’s tapes, read a lot of her files, trying to figure out where he might find payment for Jude, but she was a hard person to get to know much about, beyond being cold and practical. Tim wasn’t sure if that dispassionate ruthlessness was her, or her position. If that might happen to Jon, too.

Well, who’d be able to tell the difference? He was already such a self-centred arsehole.

But Tim wasn’t there to speculate on human nature. He was there to do a job.

So he started to search.

Chapter Text

Watching Mary have lunch was an adventure in itself. Melanie watched her retrieve about thirty tiny containers from a large bag, each with about a spoonful of a different kind of food in it, then slowly open and eat them one by one, chewing thoughtfully each time.

“Um… what are you doing?” Melanie couldn’t help but ask.

“Oh! I’m trying to decide which foods I like.”

“You don’t know which foods you like?”

Mary laughed. “What kind of adult woman doesn’t know what foods she likes? When she’s had so many years to learn? But taste buds change over time. Maybe I’m missing out on something delicious.”

“I hear that. I used to love bananas as a kid. Now? I hate them.”

“I saw somebody on the internet putting bananas into a cake yesterday. Cake is nice!”

“Yeah, I guess. Hey, Mary, have you noticed that the people around here are a bit weird?”

“What did I do that’s weird?” she asked, sounding panicked.

“Nothing,” Melanie lied, looking at the tiny food containers littered about. “It’s just… the others seem to hate it here, and hate me being here. Well, Tim and Martin do, anyway; Sasha hasn’t said much. Do they do that to you, too? Do they have some kind of like, boy’s club thing going on?”

“Everyone’s been my friend,” Mary shrugged. “I think they’re just easily frightened.”

“Explains why they’re working in a basement full of paper instead of out there doing proper ghost hunting, I guess.”

“Yes, the Watcher’s servants do seem to go for the easy pickings,” Mary said in a judgemental tone.

“The who?” Melanie asked, but was interrupted by Martin bursting into the room.

“Melanie, there you are! Talking to Mary! Alone!”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, no! I’m glad you’re making friends with everyone. It’s good to have a lot of friends, isn’t it, Mary?”

Mary nodded solemnly, chasing a mouthful of vanilla custard with a mouthful of spicy curry.

“… Right.” Melanie glanced between the two, and slowly backed toward the door. “I’m gonna buy lunch, I think.”

“Have fun!” Martin called after her as she shut the door behind her.

Maybe she had been a bit hasty in getting a job here…

----------------



Mary finished had up her lunch and left by the time Martin had made his tea. The process was slowed down by him having to do it one-handed. Three of the fingers on his left hand were paralysed today, and he didn’t want to drop anything.

He knew he should be worried. Paralysis was a big deal, and paralysis that was advancing, paralysing more things, was a massive one. He should probably cancel his appointment for next week and just go to the ER immediately. His fingers were paralysed.

He should be worried about that.

And he was. He was. But he’d also noticed the inconsistency of the condition. That morning, as he’d carefully analysed his corkboard and looped strong around thumbtacks to connect his notes, he’s had full control of all of his fingers but one. Now, he was down three – no, two again. Life had returned to one of them while he stirred his tea.

He has to know why.

Telling the others at this stage would be a bad idea. Not only would it distract them from the other missions and muddy the waters, make the group dynamics harder to track, but their speculations and interference would make it harder for him to figure out what was going on. These were answers that he could find, he was sure of it. There was no need to complicate the matter.

He at least needed to keep it to himself until they found Jon. Nothing was more important than finding Jon.

“Hey,” Sasha said, entering the room behind him and making him jump.

“Oh. Hi there. How are things going?”

“Well, y’know.” She put the duplicate of Jon’s phone on top of the microwave before sticking her soup inside. “Found a little snag in our Mary-Melanie dance.”

“Mmm?”

“Yeah. If we don’t want Mary to know we’re opposing the Unknowing, but we do want Melanie’s help, and we don’t want Melanie to know about Mary, how exactly are we supposed to convince Melanie not to say anything to Mary about it?”

“Good question. When Melanie’s more on board with the whole evil clown thing, that’s definitely going to come up.” He glanced at the phone. “You know, somehow I doubt they’re running a kitchen microwave near Jon.”

“Best to try everything.”

“I guess, but you’ve got hours of static. What are people microwaving for hours? And why would they turn the microwave off to taunt their prisoner? They only talk when it’s clear.”

“Or, they talk a lot, and we only pick up clips from when it’s clear because the voices are lost in the static otherwise.”

“Yeah, maybe. But then that’s – oh. Hang on a minute. Sasha…”

“Mmm?”

“They took him off in that Breekon & Hope van, right? And Elias lost track of them, so we don’t know where they took him to.”

“Right.”

“And now he’s near something that periodically makes noise and/or moves for hours, but stops sometimes. And they only talk to him when it’s not making noise. That is, it stops whenever someone’s with him.”

“A logical deduction.”

Martin picked up the microphone. “How do you think the gyroscope in this thing would interpret being in a moving delivery van?”

Sasha’s eyes widened. “You think he’s still in the van?”

“Why not? It makes sense, based on what we know, right?”

Sasha snatched the phone out of his hand. “I’m going to go find someone who has a van to test this. You call your detective.”

“Private investigator.”

“Whatever.”

------------------



“Hi, Daisy.”

“Basira. What’s up?”

“I… I need a favour.”

“Yeah, I figured that’d be the case. What do you need?”

“I’m working an a, a kidnapping case. A weird kidnapping case.”

“And they went to a PI instead of the cops?”

“It’s complicated. I need to find a vehicle that we think the kidnappers are using. It’s um, it’s a white delivery van. The company’s defunct so I can’t find any there. I was hoping you could get your guys to track it for me, but it’s… well, it’s an odd one, like I said.”

“…”

“Daisy?”

“Breekon and Hope?”

“What?”

“The company. Was it called Breekon and Hope?”

“Uh, yeah. How did you – ?”

“I’ll look into it. Basira, if you find the van, don’t approach it alone, okay? Call me.”

“I will, but what’s – Daisy? Daisy?”

-------------------



A lunch break wasn’t long enough for a thorough search of Gertrude’s apartment. Tim decided that what he was looking for would either be hidden or it wouldn’t, and Gertrude hadn’t been the kind of person to go halfway, so after finding nothing in the obvious places – jewellery box, bedside cabinet, that sort of thing – he went straight for the most obscure hiding spots he could think of. The only interesting thing he found was a small box in the vent in Gertrude’s bedroom.

The box contained a cassette tape, a USB drive, and a small book. Only after carefully checking for a Jurgen Leitner bookplate did Tim peek inside.

It was a photo album. The first page contained, of all things, two photos of Elias, with the handwritten label ELIAS BOUCHARD. Both were candid photos, apparently taken without his knowledge. The next page had two photos of the front desk lady, ROSALIE DAWKINS.

He flipped through the album. The entire thing was like that; candid photos of people inside the Magnus Institute, presumably all employees (the handful he recognised, including Sasha, were definitely employees), all clearly showing their faces and most of them taken without the subject seeming to be aware of the camera. In each case, one photo was an old polaroid, the other a printout presumably taken on a digital camera. Why had Gertrude made this? Why hide it in a vent? Had she gone off the deep end like Jon, gone paranoid and started stalking her coworkers?

No; it was too many people, and only two photos of each, generally not doing anything interesting. Tim pocketed everything.

There was nothing else in the box. Dammit.

Tim’s lunch break was almost over. He should get back to the office. He didn’t want to make a habit of being consistently late. He didn’t think Elias would care about such a thing, but… well.

Best not to risk it.

---------------------



Martin looked thoughtfully at his hands, bending the fingers of his left hand with his right, and idly wondered if what he was about to do was very stupid.

Probably. But it had felt like the right thing to do, as soon as he had thought of it. He knocked on the IT office door.

“Come in!”

There were generally five people in the office. Only Colin was there when Martin entered, which suited him just fine. He looked up from behind a desk festooned with lego robots. “Oh, Martin! Long time no see! Computer trouble?”

“No.” Martin glanced around the office. “Everyone off helping people?”

“Yeah, we’re a little slammed. Clark hasn’t been in for awhile – you know Clark?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty new. Barely finished training the guy and he just stopped showing up for work. The rest of us have been scrambling to cover which at least means there’s more space in the office at any given time. How can I help you?”

Martin hesitated. “You know about, um… robots, right? So you can do pulleys and… and things that move?”

“That’s a vague question. I mostly do lego comps these days, but I’ve been known to dabble. If you’re looking for a drone or something that’s not really my area.”

“No, no. But I do need someone to build me… something. Do you sell custom work?”

“Depends on the job. What do you need?”

“Well, uh… it’s kind of a secret, alright? I don’t want other people knowing about it right now.”

“I don’t do sex toys,” Colin said immediately. “Way too many things that can go wrong, too many ways people can get badly hurt.”

“What? No! No, nothing like… no! It’s just, uh… don’t tell anyone, alright?”

“Okay. What do you need?”

Martin pulled off his left glove. “These fingers aren’t working properly. I’m sure the doctors will have a solution, but in the meantime I’m hoping… is there a way to make something that can, you know, move them?”

“You want me to build you a prosthetic?”

“Yes! Just, you know. So I can hold things, and type.”

“Can I see?”

Martin offered him his hand. Colin inspected the fingers. “Mmm. I don’t know much about hands. Can I get you something that can help you type with these fingers? No. That’s a pipe dream, unless you’re going to a proper roboticist with a lot of money. Can I get them to open and close so you can hold stuff? Maybe. But Martin, a doctor really should – ”

“Already booked.”

“Right. And why is this secret, exactly?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“And not my business, I guess. But the secrecy’s going to be a problem, because it means you’re going to want something you can fit in a bulky glove, right?”

“Why is that a problem?”

“Leverage. You’d want the pulleys to be up quite high from the knuckles. Having them lay low enough to fit in a glove is… I don’t think it’s going to work. But I’ll look into it.”

“But the tendons are inside the fingers, and they have plenty of leverage.”

“Inside the fingers is different. Although I’m very interested in trying this now. Could be a good intellectual exercise; just… don’t expect too much.”

“Right. Well, thanks. Let me know about cost and all that.”

“I’ll let you know when I have a better idea of how the hell to accomplish this. That all you need?”

“Yeah. Thanks. Good luck with the IT workload.”

“Good luck with sorting paper.”

“Yeah, you know archive work,” Martin muttered as he left. “Just safe, routine sorting paper.”



Chapter Text

“I really don’t see why this is necessary,” Elias’ voice said. “I hardly think I’m in danger of – ”

“Just for my own piece of mind, then, Elias,” Gertrude said.

“Fine. This is Elias Bouchard, head of the Magnus Institute. Is that enough?”

“Plenty, thank you, Elias.”

A pause. The tape recorder was switched on again, in a new environment.

“Go ahead,” Gertrude said.

A sigh. “I’m Rosie.”

“Full name, please.”

“Rosalie Dawkins.”

“Thank you, Rosie.”

The whole tape was like that. Only about twenty voices were on the tape, unlike the fifty or so pages in the photo album. Apart from a couple of timing delays where the recording had started or stopped a few moments out of sync, the audio on the thumb drive was the same; two recordings of the same events. Tim couldn’t figure out the point of it. Two pictures of each person’s face, two recordings of each person’s voice, for… redundancy?

Did Gertrude have memory problems, perhaps? That’d be ironic, for a servant of the Beholding. She was pretty old, though. Maybe it was her defense against Alzheimer’s, though he was pretty sure Alzheimer’s didn’t work that way. Even if it did, why would memorising everyone who worked in her building be her priority of what knowledge to try to preserve?

Maybe some monster had cursed her with… something. Some kind of Lonely thing, perhaps, that attacked memories of people close to her? But fifty or so Institute staff still seemed like a weird target for that, and she hadn’t recorded any precious memories or even any details on who they were. No, it had to be for something else.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t relevant to his mission. He the tape and USB in his desk drawer, along with the creepy photo album. If it was about something important, whatever it was would probably try to kill them eventually, and they could deal with it then.

Tim looked up as Martin shuffled in, hands in his pockets.

“You alright?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Martin said. “I’m going to record a statement. I’ll be in Jon’s office.”

“Didn’t Sasha do one yesterday?”

Martin scowled. “Elias says there’s a ‘shortfall’, with Jon indisposed. I asked what that meant but he gave one of those explanations he likes that don’t explain anything.”

“So he’s making you do it?”

“He didn’t specifically tell me to, but I’m pretty sure if it doesn’t get done, he’ll ask Melanie, and she’s still adjusting.”

“You can’t protect her forever.”

“No one can protect anyone forever. That’s no reason not to protect who we can.”

“Mmhmm.”

Sasha walked in and waved the duplicate Jon phone triumphantly. “We have a match! By which I mean, being in a moving vehicle is one of like five things I’ve tested so far that might be the sound we’re getting. It’s kind of hard to match random humming and static with anything for certain.”

“That’s great!” Martin said. “By the way, we might want to take Mary off digitising the statements for awhile.”

“What? But she’s so good at it!”

“I know; that’s the problem. Melanie’s noticed how difficult it is not to, you know, get absorbed, and she’s been asking Mary how she can do it so fast without any problems. If we don’t want her to get suspicious…”

Sasha sighed. “Good point. But it is massively useful to have someone who can’t ‘read’ the statements doing it. Taking Mary off digitising duty is going to slow us down a lot.”

“Oh noooo,” Tim piped up sarcastically. “The evil organisation will have sloppier records. How terrible. I don’t see why we’re updating any of this at all. Gertrude had the right idea, half-arsing it.”

“If we’re going to save the world, I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we had as much well-organised information as possible to plan with,” Sasha said.

“Okay, fair.” And Tim had to admit, the database had been very useful in his side projects. He’d know a lot less about Gertrude, or Jude, or monsters in general without it.

“So far as saving the world goes,” Martin said, “do we, um, have a plan for that? I know we need to find the ritual and do… something… when it starts, but… what, exactly?”

“Well, we have two axes,” Tim said.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to do all that much. Hey, where are Mary and Melanie?”

“Melanie’s in the library, Mary’s at lunch.”

“Oh. Good.”

--------------



Melanie wasn’t an idiot. She knew when she was being handled.

It had taken about three days of working in the archives to get a feel for the scope of what they were dealing with. Poking around the growing archival database had revealed pretty quickly that the whole evil circus thing was real, and part of a bigger picture, and that them trying to summon the apocalypse wasn’t one hundred per cent out of the realm of possibility.

She’d looked at some of the statements, too, from the red-marked ‘real’ boxes and compared them to the blue ‘junk’ boxes. She’d developed a pretty good sense of telling real from fake ghost stories already, or at least what the tellers believed were real, and the archive team’s sorting matched up roughly with how she would’ve done it; she would’ve sorted a handful differently, but nobody could agree completely on such things. When she’d asked Sasha how they determined real from fake, she showed her, using a laptop microphone and a tape recorder.

Melanie remembered arguing with Jon about recording her own statement on tape, when the laptop software had failed to record it properly. She also knew she’d recorded the story for herself, at home, in the hopes of maybe making an episode of Ghost Hunt UK with it, and it had recorded to laptop fine. She wondered if she’d have gotten different results if she’d recorded it at the Institute, or – judging from some of the other statements – just with the intention of telling it to the Institute.

Yesterday, she’d summoned up the courage to type up a resignation letter. Just to see. It had been hard to type; her fingers kept slipping to the wrong keys, and when she was finally done, she just couldn’t bring herself to hit ‘print’.

That was a problem. Melanie might have needed a job, but she had no intention of being trapped. Still, it confirmed that the others were being honest with her. Mostly. There was one thing that everyone was very careful to keep away from her, lead her around, hide from her.

Any time she found herself alone with Mary, somebody would swoop in within moments and interfere.

They probably thought they were being subtle, just happening to come in right then, just happening to have something else that either she or Mary needed to do. But they were so open with everything else, no matter how unbelievable it sounded, so why were they keeping her away from Mary?

Melanie wasn’t an idiot. She knew when she was being handled. And she didn’t like it.

Which is why she’d slipped away to the library and waited until Mary’s lunch break (Mary was unfailingly punctual), made sure Mary was alone, and followed her to the ice cream shop where Mary had spent the last couple of days’ lunches steadily tasting her way through all the flavours. As she watched, Mary took a big spoonful of Rum and Raisin, considered it for a few seconds, and screwed up her face in pain.

“Hey,” Melanie said, approaching.

“Hello, Melanie! Would you like some ice cream?”

“No, thanks. So, you like ice cream?”

“Yes. Not this one, though,” she added, scowling at the cup before taking another giant spoonful. “I watched Ghost Hunt UK.”

“Oh, which episode?”

“All of them. Over the past couple of days.”

Melanie stared. “Did you sleep?”

“Oh, I’m not tired. When necessary, humans can go many days without sleep before non-mental critical systems begin to fail,” she said, as if quoting from a textbook.

"What about critical mental systems?"

"They recover with sleep unless missing sleep is a regular occurence." She smiled brightly. “I am fine. I went longer without sleep in college.”

“Ha, right. That’s college, isn’t it.”

“It is,” Mary said solemnly.

“So, um… what did you think? Of Ghost Hunt UK?”

“I liked the one with the cave ghost the most. At the beach?”

“Oh, yeah. That was hell to film. We had to do three takes on approaching the cave because the sunlight was being a bitch, and that meant we had to rake our own footprints out of the sand between approaches, it took like an hour just to get into the cave. Worth it, though. That episode did really well. Richard reckons he managed to see the ghost, though we didn’t get it on camera.”

“Wow, really? I’ve never seen a ghost.”

“You haven’t? Really? The way the others talk, we should be expecting supernatural nonsense any moment!”

“Well, we had an invasion of flesh-eating worms who tried to dig a fear portal in our secret tunnel network and start the apocalypse. But that’s not as cool as ghosts.”

“Fear portal? What secret tunnel – no, I’m sure I’ll find out if it’s important. I’m gonna have to take you ghost hunting sometime. Y’know, if the Institute lets us get away for long enough. Tim says we can’t just leave.”

“He had several days away from the Institute before he got sick. Or we could just wait for our holidays.”

“Or I could just fucking kill Elias. Reckon that would work?”

Mary laughed. “I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think Tim tried that one.”

“Then it’s set. I kill Elias, he becomes a ghost, you can see him, and we don’t even have to leave the building to do it. We put the video up on youtube, it goes viral, you join the Ghost Hunt UK team, we leave the institute behind and become wildly successful. A perfect plan with no holes, and everyone wins.”

“Except Elias.”

“Yeah, but who cares about him? Say, what did you do before joining the Institute?”

“I studied anatomy in college.”

“Ooh, you’re a biologist?”

“I’m an archival assistant.”

“Yeah, the job market’s a bit like that these days, isn’t it? But you must have, like… been into the supernatural, right? To end up at the Institute? I don’t think I know any scientists who are into the supernatural.”

“A lot of the statements in the archives take place in laboratories, or are investigated by scientists who then give statements.”

“That happen to you?”

“No. I just applied for a job.”

“But you must have had some supernatural encounter or something, right? Or did you just wake up one day and decide you were interested in the supernatural?”

“Both.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

“… Right. Sorry.”

But Mary didn’t look bothered by her prying. She just shot her another bright smile. “I am getting more ice cream. Would you like some?”

“Still no, thanks.” Melanie watched her head up to the counter. Aside from not wanting to randomly share details about scary encounters with someone who was practically a stranger, Mary didn’t seem to be hiding anything.

Why didn’t the others want Melanie talking to her?

Chapter Text

“And they don’t move at all, you say?” the doctor asked, examining Martin’s fingers.

“Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t,” Martin said with a shrug. “I haven’t seen any pattern to it.”

“Hmm. Only the fingers? No other paralysis? Other symptoms?”

“I don’t… I don’t think so.”

“Alright. Well, I’ll arrange for some tests for you, and prescribe you some anti-inflammatories in the meantime. The most likely cause is inflammation around the tendons, which could be related to allergies, any number of chronic conditions, or a simple injury. Did you strain your hand recently?”

Martin almost started sobbing with relief. “Inflammation? Seriously? It’s just some swelling?”

“Potentially. The tests will tell us if it’s anything more serious. I’ll write you a doctor’s note for your employer; you really need some time off work to rest the hand if you want it to heal.”

Martin had absolutely no intention of taking time off work. “It’ll heal?”

“Probably. Unless it won’t. If it’s a chronic condition, or the tests bring back something else… wait a minute, what’s this?”

“What?”

The doctor gently moved Martin’s hand under a lamp and turned it on, staring intently at his little finger. After a moment, he opened an alcohol wipe and scrubbed it across Martin’s fingernail, frowning.

“What’s wrong?”

“Some kind of discolouration I’ve never seen before. Do you work with dyes, food, glues… any kind of chemical that might discolour your nails?”

Martin tried to recall if he’d touched anything weird over the past couple of weeks. “Um, I don’t think so? I touched some old film a while ago that was kind of… vinegary?”

“Yeah, old film does that. Vinegar doesn’t discolour keratin, though. Just let me…” He opened a sterile paper packet and withdrew a tiny set of pointy tweezers. He manoeuvred the tips just under Martin’s little fingernail and carefully withdrew… something. Some kind of stringy silver-white matter. “That’s interesting,” he murmured.

Martin inspected his fingers closely in the bright lamplight. Whatever the doctor had withdrawn was indeed laced under his little fingernail. Well, the feeling of relief had been nice while it lasted.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. I suppose we’ll be running a lot more tests.” He took some notes. “My best guess would be some sort of fungal infection. Until we know what it is, it’s hard to know how difficult it will be to treat, but I’m going to put you on a general antifungal treatment while we await results.”

“A fungal infection. That’s a… a normal thing, right? That people get.”

The doctor gave him an odd look. “I suppose so? Hard to say how ‘normal’ it is until the tests come back. In the meantime, keep your hands clean and wear gloves if you touch anything. I’ll write you a script for antifungal cream.”

A fungal infection. God.

Martin hoped he was right.

-----------------------------



Over a few days, Tim searched Gertrude’s house top to bottom, and found nothing.

That in itself worried him. Hadn’t she had a whole lot of enemies to protect herself from? He’d expected some kind of defense system or something. Some booby traps, maybe a cursed artefact or two… but aside from the eyeless books and the box in the air vent, the only surprising thing about Gertrude’s apartment was how little she seemed to own.

This had been a fool’s errand, anyway. It was time to explore some options other than Jude Perry.

He flipped through the photo album again, just in case there was some kind of clue, something useful, but there was no reason for there to be. Just pairs of photos of random people, each with a name. About two thirds of the way through the album, he paused, and stared.

What bothered him about the pair of photos wasn’t that they were clearly of different people, unlike the rest of the album – it was pretty easy for photos to get mixed up, and it wasn’t surprising that a couple might have been accidentally swapped. Either the polaroid of the gentle-faced old man with the bad moustache sitting in the archives or the printout of the broader-looking man in front of a familiar natural stone wall was clearly just out of place, and he’d find the twin photo further along in the album.

No, what had caught his attention was the name label: JURGEN LEITNER.

Gertrude had known Leitner? Leitner had been in the archives or, more worryingly, the tunnels beneath the Institute? Gertrude had known Leitner well enough to merit putting him in this album, with her coworkers? That was…

Well, probably not important, in the grand scheme of things. But weird.

---------------



Daisy shared one last glance with Basira before getting out of the car.

They’d been tailing the white van for two days. It just drove around, never seeming to need fuel, the drivers never seeming to rest. It stopped about once a day and someone would climb in the back for about fifteen minutes, which gave Daisy hope that their quarry was indeed in there; they were probably feeding him. But Daisy’s experience with this van made her wary about confronting the drivers directly unless she had to, so they’d been biding their time, waiting for the right opportunity.

Finally, they had it. The van had stopped outside a house, and the two delivery men dragged a heavy box out of the back.

Slipping inside before they shut the back door was easy.

Daisy got one glance around the room before the door clanged shut, blocking out all light, but for someone with her experience, it was enough. She saw the old coffin, still sitting on the left side, all wrapped in chains; a couple of large unlabelled wooden crates on the right. She wasn’t opening any boxes in here. Even if Sims was inside a crate, she sure as hell wasn’t opening anything.

But she already knew he wasn’t. From behind the rust-red curtain with the grinning clown face on it that she’d glimpsed up near the front, she could hear faint breathing, smell blood and sweat.

Daisy crept forward and listened, making certain she could hear no one but herself and a single breather behind the curtain. She waited for the van to start moving again before turning on her penlight on the very lowest setting and slipping behind the curtain.

Sims looked… well, not great, but she’d seen kidnapping victims in far worse shape. A couple of bruises on his chest had almost faded away, but the scratches around the ropes tying his ankles to the chair looked fresh, as if he’d been struggling against them recently. His arms were behind his back, where Daisy couldn’t see them, and he was gagged.

He had a sort of desperate-yet-defeated look about him, which was understandable given the circumstances, but he looked more curious than frightened as he squinted his eyes against the faint glow of her light and tried to make out who she was. Daisy knew that most people couldn’t see in as low light as she could, so she turned the light on herself and turned it up enough that he’d see her face as she put a finger to her lips. He nodded.

She wasn’t in uniform for this job, obviously, but Sims seemed to trust her as she slipped behind him to undo the ropes binding his hands. They were marked up, especially the left hand, but aside from the rope burns from his own struggles the marks all looked old, like the little scars that pocked his body. Who the hell was this guy? Wasn’t he supposed to be a librarian, or something?

Once his hands were free, Sims pulled them forward with a groan of pain and started trying to rub some life into them, while Daisy freed his ankles. After a minute, he was able to pull the gag from his mouth.

“Who are you?” he gasped.

“Detective Alice Tonner,” she replied, opening her jacket to reveal her badge. “Call me Daisy. I’ll be your rescuer today. You Jonathan Sims?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you walk?”

“I… I think so.” He got to his feet, wincing.

“Great.” Daisy tossed him his clothes from the cardboard box they’d been sitting in. “Get dressed. We’ve got about ten minutes before everyone’s in position and we can do something stupidly dangerous.”

“Looking forward to it,” Sims said shakily. Daisy moved back into the main part of the van, crouched in a corner where she didn’t have to touch any boxes, and waited.

The coffin was still there. After all these bloody years, the coffin was still there. Sims pushed his way past the curtain and followed her gaze.

“Don’t touch it,” she warned him.

“I’m not stupid,” he said. “Wait, you know about it?”

“Yes.”

“You’ve seen it before?”

“Yes.”

“When? How?”

So she told him. She hadn’t told the story of what happened to Isaac since she’d signed her first Section 31, but the story came easily, the long-forgotten details sharpening anew in her mind as she explained. She wasn’t really one for stories, but hearing it seemed to calm Sims down, somehow, as well as fill in the time while they waited. Maybe he felt safer dealing with a cop who he knew had seen weirder shit before, who he knew wouldn’t freak out at the sight of an evil mannequin or whatever.

Shortly after she finished, she got the warning buzz on her phone.

“Alright,” she said, standing up. “Ready to do something borderline suicidal?”

“Not really, but I’m guessing we don’t have other options, do we.”

“You can stay in the van if you like.”

“ … Let’s do the borderline suicidal thing.”

“Great.” Daisy waited for the van to slow down, then opened the back doors. Below them, the road rushed by impossibly fast. Somewhere behind her, Sims tensed and stepped back. Daisy looked up from the road to Basira, her car swerving all over the road behind them, keeping the other traffic back.

She glanced at Sims. He was small, for a man, which was going to make this a lot easier. She scooped him up in her arms.

“Hey, what are you – ?!”

“Tuck your head in.”

“What?”

“Head down, Sims, unless you want to break your neck.” How had she gotten in this situation? She was a police officer, not a damned stuntwoman, although if got harder and harder to tell once you’d signed your first Section 31. The van still felt too fast, way too fast, but she looked up and Basira nodded at her, and that meant it was the right speed no matter what Daisy’s instincts said, so she jumped.

She curled herself around Sims as best she could and rolled, the road tearing at her shoulder and back, nearly rolling right into Basira’s parked car. Then Basira was by her side, leaning Sims on her shoulder, helping Daisy to her feet.

“You alright?”

“Yeah. Is Sims alive? Bit of a waste of time if not.”

“I’m alive,” he mumbled.

“Great,” Basira said. “Let’s get you both to hospital then.”

Daisy stared after the van, almost out of sight already. They were the real prey, and part of her wanted to get behind the wheel and pursue, or run after the van if she had to. Normally, she wouldn’t be babysitting the victim; she’d be out there preparing to make the arrest, the takedown that the other police, the ones who’d been on the crew to block in and slow down the van without stopping it and risking the kidnappers getting out and endangering Sims, would be making. Normally, she’d be out there engaging with whatever the hell those things were who’d almost stolen Isaac, who’d endangered this weird librarian, who looked human but didn’t flinch at the strike of a baton and had hands like blocks of cement. And today, her colleagues were stealing that from her, while she nursed a torn up shoulder and id babysitting duty.

But she hadn’t come out today to be a detective. She’d come out to help Basira.

So she got into the car, and let Basira drive them to the hospital.

Chapter Text

“Martin, I have to get back to the archives.”

“You’re in hospital, Jon. Why don’t you ever just let yourself be in hospital? Look at you!”

“I’ll be fine with some food and rest. Martin, they’re planning the apocalypse!”

“The Unknowing, yeah. You didn’t happen to learn where the ritual site was, did you?”

Jon stared. “How did you know about – ”

“What, you think we just sit on our hands all day when you’re not there? We’re looking at an apocalypse in about two months, or at least we were before your rescue; they might be delayed finding another skin for the Dancer, unless you know whether they’ve got backups?”

“I don’t… I don’t know.”

“Right. Safest to assume we’re still on the two month deadline anyway. We can interfere and delay them, but if we want to delay them for any real length of time, like centuries, we need to destroy the ritual while it’s underway. Except we don’t have a way to do that yet. Tim keeps hinting that he’s working on something, but he won’t tell any of us what it is, and honestly I don’t think it’s going all that well.”

“How is Tim?”

“Fine. I mean, not fine. But focused on saving the world. Well… focused on destroying a circus. Same thing.”

“And Sasha? Mary?”

“Everyone’s fine. Even Melanie’s settling in alright.”

“Who?”

“Melanie King. The youtuber? Elias hired her as an archival assistant.”

“What? When?!”

“A couple of weeks ago. You’ve missed a lot.”

“It certainly sounds like it!”

“Yeah. And when you’re out of hospital and properly rested, we um, we need your help. With your truth question thing. Our best bet on finding the ritual site for the Unknowing is to, um… ask the monster.”

“The monster.”

“Yeah. I don’t know if your power works on monsters, but…”

“It does. I had no problem with it the couple of times I managed to speak to my captors, and it works fine on Michael. What monster?”

“Mary.”

“… what?”

“She’s a monster. Um. Do you remember that anatomy professor? Dr Elliott?”

“Statement #0161207. What about him?”

“Mary’s one of his students. From the statement.”

“Mary.”

“Yes.”

“Mary Sue.”

“Yes.”

“But she’s… she… what?”

“I know!”

“Does she know you know? Is everyone – ”

“Safe? Yeah. She knows we know, although Melanie doesn’t know, and we’ve been keeping her… entertained, while we try to find a way to contain or, or kill her. She’s play-acting at being friendly and helpful, for now, but with the Unknowing coming up…”

“She’s going to have to drop that soon enough. Yes. I suppose I should question her, then.”

After you’re out of hospital.”

“I don’t need to be fully recovered to ask a few questions, Martin.”

“Of a monster who might snap and try to kill you mid-examination?”

“… Okay, fair point.”

“Also, Elias said the Institute will pay for therapy if you – ”

“I don’t need therapy, Martin.”

“Jon, you were kidnapped by evil clowns for a month! They wanted to skin you for a world-ending ritual!”

“Most of them weren’t clowns, actually. There was an organist and the Dancer and a lot of… taxidermied people involved.”

“Oh, well, that sounds a lot less traumatising!”

“Well, after we deal with the apocalypse I’ll look for a therapist, alright? Hey, when did you start wearing gloves?”

“A couple of weeks ago. Don't -- The weather’s been cold! Oh, yeah; I should probably warn you about Elias, too. He does have spooky powers.”

“I thought he would. Any idea what they are?”

“We know what some of them are. There’s probably more. He can see and hear stuff at a distance, and, and know things about you past, things that even you don’t know. And he can, um… project? Memories, I guess, or… or concepts? Into your head.”

“Like forcing a statement into your head?”

“I don’t think so. Tim wasn’t… talkative about it, when he got back. But he’s been very careful not to upset Elias too much ever since.”

“That’s… probably concerning.”

“Well, yeah. But unlike the monsters and the apocalypse and everything, there’s not that much we can do about it, is there?”

“I suppose not. Well. I look forward to coming to grips with all this mess!”

After you – ”

“Yes, Martin – After I get out of hospital and get some rest.”

----------------



Melanie’s hand was steady around the cup as she raised her hand to knock on Elias’ door. Her comment to Mary about killing Elias had been a joke when she’d said it, but she couldn’t get the idea out of her head, and as time went on, she’d become more and more convinced that it was the only way out. He had done this to her. He had trapped her here. He had trapped all of them here, and so many of her coworkers had acquired scars here already, and it was only a matter of time before she did too, something worse than a ghost bullet, and this man was trying to trap her, to corral her, to control her…

Her hand was trembling. But Melanie was, among other things in her old job at Ghost Hunt UK, an actress. She took a breath, waited for the tremble to stop, and knocked.

“Came in.”

“Hi, Elias.” She plastered a genuine-looking smile on her face. “I was out picking up coffee for everyone, and I thought you could probably do with one. I wasn’t sure how you take it, but I thought black without sugar was probably right?” She set it on his desk.

“It is right. Thank you, Melanie.” He glanced at the drink. “But you seem to be working hard, I’m sure you could use a pick-me-up yourself. Why don’t you drink it?”

“Oh, no; I have my own down in the archives, so…”

“One with fewer painkillers dissolved in it?”

Melanie didn’t know what to say to that. The silence stretched.

“People often assume that coffee is a good drink for hiding such things, but it really isn’t. They leave a taste, and a chalky residue that’s quite visible, especially if the coffee is served black. I’m curious; do you know what dosage it would take to kill a man of my size, or were you simply hoping that if you’d gotten it wrong you could finish the job… manually?”

Melanie’s breath caught in her throat. “Why ask? Why even ask if you know everything?”

“Oh, I don’t know everything. Could you imagine how exhausting that would be? But I do know some important information that you don’t, and that it would greatly benefit you to know if this is the course of action you’ve decided on.” He picked up the coffee, inspected it. “I know, for example, what would happen to you if I drank this. Do you?”

“Yeah, we’d be free,” she spat.

“An interesting assumption. What lead you to that conclusion?”

“What do you mean? You trapped me here! You trapped all of us here!”

“I handed you a contract to sign, certainly. But if a man locks a tiger in a cage and then you poison him, does the tiger’s cage magically unlock? No.” He put the cup down and met her eyes. “What happens is that the tiger starves to death, because you’ve just killed the person who feeds it.”

“I… I don’t…”

“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. I sometimes forget that you’re all still rather new to this, and the distraction of an upcoming apocalypse probably doesn’t help. Let us try another metaphor – you are an arm of this institute. Or a finger might be better; all of you, fingers on a hand. And I am its beating heart. What happens to a finger when the heart stops beating, Melanie?”

Melanie snorted. “What, so if you die, we all die?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“That’s ridiculous. That’s not even a good lie.”

“It is, nevertheless, the truth. So let’s have no more clumsy assassination attempts, hmm? I’ll let this slide, but further incidents will reflect very poorly in your performance review.”

And like that, he was back to paperwork. Like she wasn’t even there.

His face was so damn punchable. But Melanie wasn’t an idiot. So she turned and left. She turned, and stalked out of that smug fucker’s office, and left him to his spreadsheets and theatrics. He was right about one thing, though; there would be no more clumsy assassination attempts.

Next time, she wouldn’t be clumsy.

----------------------

“If he dies, we die?” Sasha asked, looking around at the other archival assistants.

“That’s what he says,” Melanie said glumly.

“Seriously?”

Melanie shrugged.

“I can’t believe you just tried to murder our boss,” Martin said. “Is nobody worried about that? The attempted murder?”

“Our boss murdered the previous Archivist,” Mary pointed out.

“Okay, yeah, that’s true, but that’s also more reason to not tick him off, isn’t it?”

“It’s bullshit anyway,” Tim said, without looking up from his computer screen. “The whole ‘we die if he dies’ thing.”

“Exactly!” Melanie exclaimed.

“We don’t know that,” Martin protested. “We don’t know anything about him. We didn’t know he could do what he did to Tim until he did it, we didn’t know we couldn’t quit until we tried. Why wouldn’t this be true?”

“We know it’s bullshit,” Tim said, “because when Gertrude became head archivist, James Wright was the head of the Institute. And then he went missing, and Elias Bouchard took over, and a week later it turned out Wright had died in artefact storage. Know who hadn’t died? Gertrude.”

“Okay,” Martin relented. “That’s a fair point.”

“Not really,” Sasha said. “That just tells us that Jon’s fine. Did Gertrude have any assistants?”

“Don’t know. I’d have to check. But why would the rules be different for Monsterboss?”

“For the same reason you keep calling him that. Anyone else develop any spooky symptoms working down here?”

Martin shoved his left hand in his pocket and shook his head along with the other assistants. But he was already thinking through the implications of Tim’s words.

Maybe Tim was right; James Wright had died and Gertrude had lived, and that meant that Elias was lying. But if he’d been found a week after Elias had taken over, that was a full week in which he could’ve died without being the head of the Institute. There were plenty of things in artefact storage that could take more than a week to kill someone; if he’d gotten caught in something fatal, Elias had been rushed through a promotion to avoid unnecessary deaths when Wright perished…

Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing was that they didn’t have solid evidence that Wright had died as head of the Institute, so Martin wasn’t willing to call Elias’ bluff. Meaning that if they did need to kill Elias, they needed something more thought out than a quick assassination; they should remove him as head of the Institute first, just to be safe.

Obviously, nobody was going to kill Elias. It was awful, scary, that Melanie had tried. They weren’t murderers, Martin himself wasn’t a murderer, and anyway, who could say that Elias’ replacement wouldn’t be worse? They didn’t know how the structure worked, or if his replacement would have Elias’ powers, or even worse powers, and none of it mattered anyway because Martin was never going to help kill someone! (Except apocalypse clowns, maybe.)

But as an intellectual exercise. If it were ever going to be on the table in theory, although of course no one would ever have to actually do it, then they’d need a plan to replace him in the Institute first.

And that was a fascinating and complicated intellectual exercise.

Chapter Text

Jon stared at his notes. He’d spoken to each of his assistants individually, and they’d all given him a slightly different version of what was going on, but he was pretty sure he had the general picture. Martin had, of course, protested his return to work a mere two days after getting out of hospital (the weekend DID count, no matter what Martin said!), but had backed down when Jon had snapped at him that he’d had an entire month ‘resting’ by himself and didn’t particularly care to continue the practice at home.

He was still doing physical therapy, of course. The circus had taken care with his skin (he’d deliberately roughed up his arms and ankles on the ropes, just to piss them off), but had had no such interest in preserving his muscles, and now he had to eat and exercise to get both his weight and strength back. And sitting at home wasn’t going to help with that, either.

He needed to figure out what to do about Mary. Obviously, he was going to have to interrogate her about the Unknowing, but when he did she’d almost certainly drop the friendly facade. And they’d have to do… something… about her anyway, before the ritual, or she’d stop them from interfering. They had limited time left to figure out a plan and enact it, they didn’t need distractions, and Elias kept cornering Jon and inquiring about his ‘progress’, reminding him he needed to be ‘strong enough’ for what was coming. He seemed genuinely worried. Which didn’t bode well.

Tim entered without knocking. “Heya, boss.”

“Hello again, Tim. How are – I mean, I’m interested in knowing how you’re doing, Tim.”

Tim snorted. “Same old, same old. Building full of monsters, world about to end.” He was being less hostile, at least – Jon wouldn’t call him friendly, but he wasn’t treating Jon as an enemy. For the moment. “Got a question for you.”

“Yes?”

“Yeah. When you moved in, and this place was all full of Gertrude’s stuff, did you find a necklace? It would’ve had a lock of hair in it.”

“I don’t… I don’t know. Is it important?”

“It’s important to me.”

“Tim, what are you up – ” but Jon cut himself off at the flash of anger in Tim’s eyes. “Sorry.”

“You’ll want to get a tighter handle on that, boss,” Tim snapped.

“Yes. Yes, of course. Um, I think I stuck all of Gertrude’s random knicknacks in a box and put it in the corner in the main archive storage. Near the tapes, where all the miscellaneous things end up?”

“Right. I’ll look there then. Um… get some rest, okay?”

“As I told Martin, rest is the absolute last thing I need right now. But thank you for your concern.”

“Yeah.” Tim left. Jon briefly considered trying to find out what he was doing, but he had enough on his plate. Much as he hated not knowing something, everyone else probably had a better handle on things at the moment than he did.

And he had a monster to interrogate.

-----------------------



“Are we sure we have a solid plan for – ?” Sasha began.

“I’ve got it handled,” Tim said. “Trust me.”

“You’re not going to, you know, hurt her, are you?” Martin asked.

Tim stared at him like he was a lunatic. “What do you think, Martin?”

“Well, I… it’s just… I mean, she’s been helpful…”

“She nearly got you and Sasha eaten by a monster in artefact storage.”

“She also saved me from a monster in artefact storage,” Sasha pointed out. “I’m not… sure why, but…”

“Because it was more fun to see you scared, that’s why,” Tim growled. “Sometimes, they let people go. For a bit. For the fear. That’s how these things work. But the niceness is an act, and she will kill us when she gets bored.”

“Hey, quick question,” Melanie put in, “what the hell are you guys talking about?”

“Oh, right,” Tim said. “Uh, Mary’s an evil monster trying to bring about the apocalypse, when she gets back from lunch Jon’s going to interrogate her, and then we gotta deal with her before she kills us all.”

“Deal with? What do you mean ‘deal with’?”

“It’s fine, I’m handling it.”

“Tim, what do you mean by ‘deal with’?”

“Hi, everyone!” Mary chirped, walking in and heading straight for her desk to get back to work. The other assistants exchanged glances. Sasha reached under her desk, hands closing around her axe just in case, while Tim leaned on the closed door. Martin wen to fetch Jon.

Now that they were actually at this point, Sasha didn’t feel like they were nearly prepared enough. She didn’t like that Tim had been so cagey about his plan with Mary, didn’t trust that it was foolproof without seeing the plan herself. But Tim was insistent that he didn’t need help and Martin, for whatever reason, had backed him up, agreeing that Tim could handle it, so she hadn’t pressed the issue.

But she didn’t like not being in the loop. She didn’t like not being useful. She glanced at Melanie, who looked as confused and angry as Sasha felt. They were going to have to apologise, later, for keeping the whole Mary thing from her. After Mary wasn’t a problem any more.

Martin returned with Jon, and sat down at his desk. Sasha knew he’d have a hand on his axe, too. He looked as frightened and apprehensive as she felt; the last time they’d tangled with one of these monsters, things had… not gone well.

Jon placed a spare chair in front of Mary’s desk, sat down, and stared right at her. “Hello, Mary.”

“Hello, Jon!” She looked up and carefully analysed his expression. Then she carefully analysed the expressions of everyone else in the room. Then she seemed to realise that something was happening. “Something is wrong.”

“Not necessarily,” Jon said. “Not if we’re all reasonable. But I do have some questions for you. What are you, Mary?”

“I’m Mary.”

“For now.”

“Yes.”

“You’re not human, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re a, a monster, a… fear entity, a piece of the Stranger. Aren’t you?”

“I… suppose so? I’m not completely familiar with your… fear cosmology, but that sounds right.”

“You’re trying to bring about the Unknowing.”

Mary didn’t answer. She glanced at the door; Tim braced his feet. Sasha’s hand tightened on her axe.

Jon tried again. “Are you trying to bring about the Unknowing?”

“Yes.”

“What are you doing, to bring about the Unknowing?”

“Right now I am just waiting for the call. I haven’t been given any tasks.”

Sasha hadn’t expected this answer. Nor, it seemed, had anyone else.

“You haven’t been… then why are you – ?”

“Friends don’t pry,” Mary growled.

“Why are you – ?”

Mary’s hand shot out. She dug two fingers into Jon’s cheeks, pushing them between his teeth so he couldn’t speak. “Stop.”

Jon simply tipped his chair back until he was out of her reach, regarding her with what Sasha considered a suicidal level of disdain. She stood up, keeping the axe held low enough to be hidden by her desk for now. No reason to instigate a fight, but…

Martin, it seemed, was less cautious; he’d moved almost behind Mary, who was too busy glaring at Jon to have noticed. Jon simply resettled his chair out of grabbing distance and looked her up and down.

“Mary, I have spent the last month at the mercy of things much scarier than you and frankly I’m a little tired of being manhandled by various fake people and nameless weirdos who are trying to destroy the world as I know it. You came here, into this place, this temple to the Beholding; you came here, into my archive, and you are going to answer my questions.”

Sasha, Melanie, and Martin all tensed, ready to spring in when Mary attacked Jon… but, miraculously, that didn’t happen. Mary just hunched in her seat like a spoiled child and mumbled again, “Friends don’t pry.”

“You want to know what friends don’t do, Mary? Friends don’t try to destroy friends’ lives; friends don’t trick friends into going to destroy artefacts in order to try to kill them; friends don’t let their friends get kidnapped for a month by their other friends who want to skin them for – ”

“The circus aren’t my friends!” Mary snapped. “I had no idea they were going to grab you. I didn’t know why they had you until everyone else figured it out. I didn’t know where they’d taken you. There was nothing I could do to help!”

“And would you have helped, if you could?”

“Yes!” Mary exclaimed, and then looked shocked at her own answer. Sasha wondered vaguely whether that shocked expression was something she had to decide to put on her face, or whether it was a genuine emotion. She supposed it didn’t matter, since Mary presumably couldn’t lie to Jon; theatrics or not, she had to be telling the truth when she haltingly continued, like she was only just figuring out the answer herself as she went, “If I had a good chance to save you, I would’ve taken it. I would have… I would have made them delay the ritual to find another damn skin. There are other options, that don’t involve hurting you.”

“What other options?”

“I don’t really know. There was a gorilla skin, bu I think they lost it? They don’t tell me these things, I’m not… I’m not some Unknowing mastermind, I’m just here.”

“Why are you here?” Jon asked. “Why did you come to the Institute?”

“We were sent out into the world to find jobs. Elias hired me.”

“Why the Institute specifically?”

“Because it’s… we don’t like it here. Things like me, I mean. We don’t like being looked at this closely. I thought… I thought it was the place I’d be most likely to be alone.”

“You’re not here to steal anything? To spy on us?”

“Spying is what you do. I haven’t hidden anything from them if they ask, but they usually don’t ask.”

“You came here to… run away from your kind?”

“No! I just… I wanted some space. Parvel and Erika and Juan and the others were great, we could all help each other learn, but everyone else was always so ready to move on so quickly and I never was. I wanted to be Mary somewhere where I didn’t have to worry about them thinking I was doing it wrong, so when we split up, I looked for somewhere that they and the circus and everyone else probably wouldn’t want to spend much time.”

This was not an answer that Sasha had been expecting. Judging from everyone else’s expressions, it wasn’t an answer that anyone had been expecting. She’d been wracking her brains trying to figure out what Mary might want from the Institute, why she’d brave infiltrating the place knowing that Elias would probably spot her, and ‘I wanted somewhere my family would hate so they’d give me space’ had not been on her list of potential answers.

“Okay,” Jon said. “Okay.” He rubbed his temples.

“Let’s talk about the Unknowing.”

Chapter Text

I knew the dame was trouble as soon as she walked in, Basira thought to herself in her best Detective Noir mental voice. But for once, Daisy didn’t look like trouble. She just looked tired, as she slumped into the chair across from Basira’s desk and accepted the strong coffee that Basira pushed into her hands.

“You alright?” Barisa asked.

“Mmm.”

“Aren’t you normally on shift about now?”

“They gave me some leave,” Daisy said, her mouth curling around the word like it was a personal insult. “Like they think a spooky van ride and a cut up shoulder is gonna make me a liability.”

“You deserve some leave,” Basira said firmly.

“Mmm.” Daisy sipped the coffee. “I’ve been having dreams.”

“Nightmares?”

“Yeah. But not like… not like how they happen, sometimes. A recurring dream.” She glanced up at Basira, a question in her eyes, and Basira immediately understood.

Oh, no. This was her fault. She should’ve described her dreams better, should’ve been more open with Daisy, even if it made her look like a fool. She shouldn’t have let Daisy get into that van without warning her. It hadn’t even occurred to her that there’d be a danger; Daisy was always so tight-lipped! She wouldn’t… she’d never…

“Daisy. What did you tell Jonathan Sims?”

-------------------



“When is the Unknowing taking place?”

“I don’t know. Soon. They’ll be delayed now while they find another skin, but I think they have most pieces in place.”

“Where is the Unknowing taking place?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere in London, I’m pretty sure. A place that humans ascribe a lot of meaning and power to, for us; a theatre or a circus or, or something like that, with the space to dance.”

Jon sat back and tried not to let his frustration show on his face. So this was why Mary hadn’t made any serious attempt to fight or run, but instead was cooperating with his questioning. His questions weren’t a threat. She didn’t know anything important.

“Will they call you for the Unknowing?”

“I think so. They’ll want as many singers and dancers as possible, so I think they’ll call everyone in the area.”

“What happens if you don’t show up?”

“They’ll continue with everyone they do have.”

“If we try to stop the Unknowing, will you stop us?”

“Yes,” she admitted through gritted teeth, glaring at him. “If I can.”

“Will you kill us?”

“Only if you make me. Please don’t make me.”

Are the tears in her eyes real, or part of the illusion? Jon wondered. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean… there have been a lot of delays. The Unknowing has been attacked before, things have been stolen or sabotaged, you escaped… delays happen, and they’re fine, and the circus finds another way. But… but if you put the whole ritual in danger, like how everyone starts planning to do whenever I’m not here, I… I don’t want to hurt my friends. But it’s too important. If I have to kill you to save the world from you, then yes, I will.”

“We’re trying to save the world from you. What do you mean, save the world from us?”

“From the Eye. If we don’t save the world, you will destroy it. Or one of the others will. We probably won’t get another chance if the Unknowing fails; we will run out of time. So it cannot fail.”

A familiar feeling rose in Jon, like an old friend – the distinct sense that he had massively misread a situation, to the point where he had no idea what he’d misread or how to get back on track.

“The Eye’s not destroying the world,” Jon said. “We’re not going to start any apocalypse.”

“Do you think you’re the Eye’s only servant, Archivist?” Mary asked with a smile that was more teeth than warmth. “The circus will continue with the Unknowing whether I want them to or not. Do you have more control over your cousins than me?”

Something in her tone…

“Mary, do you even want the Unknowing to take place?”

“Yes. It’s better than any of the other options.”

“Okay, but… if nobody else was going to attempt an apocalypse ever, if it was just between this world and the Unknowing… then would you want the Unknowing to take place?”

Mary hesitated. “I don’t know. I’m… I’m very young, I’m not used to… having… things.”

“Having things?”

“To being things. I… things are unknowable, interchangeable, under the meaningless labels. The Circus are trying to purify the world, trying to remove the… the false illusion of meaning, to give us all the freedom to choose our illusions, although even saying ‘our’ is… yes, stop pushing, I’m answering, the right words just don’t exist. Masks are interchangeable when nothing has meaning, but if they’re interchangeable then that also means they don’t have… value. You can decide whether something has value, I think? For yourself? And even though value is also an illusion, it… has value… if you decide it does. I think.” She put her head in her hands. “There are no words for this.”

No, no,” Jon said, “I think I understand what you mean.”

I don’t know if the Unknowing is better, because I haven’t had time to figure this out yet. I’m going to be sad when I’m not Mary any more, and I’m not… supposed to be. Or maybe I won’t be sad, in the new world, because everything will be different so I will be too, if I’m even a ‘me’, which I might not be. I don’t know what the Unknowing will do to us. I don’t know what we’ll be in a place where we’re not surrounded by humans so certain in their own identities, to give us stability. I’m used to not knowing things, and not knowing is fine, but…”

But?”

I think maybe the circus doesn’t know, either.”

And you’re not ready to find out.”

I’m not ready to find out. A world that’s for us sounds amazing, but I don’t know if it’s… right. I don’t think more is always better, or easy is always better. It’s like… it’s like… she shook her head.

Like gorging on nothing but your favourite food every day, as much as you wanted,” Melanie supplied. “Until eventually, the idea of flavour is meaningless.”

Yes!” Mary nodded.

And when that food is identity and meaning itself…” Jon said thoughtfully. “I think I understand. Wait here for a bit, okay? I want to talk to the others.”

He ushered everyone except Mary into his office.

Well,” Melanie said. “That was… something.”

She’s going to be gone when we go back out,” Tim said. “She’ll run right off to the circus and tell them whatever they need to know to kill us all and take Jon again. No way she still thinks of us as friends now.”

I don’t think she will,” Martin said.

I don’t believe it,” Sasha said, shaking her head. “We’ve got a… a hippie monster.”

How do you figure?” Jon asked.

Well, not a hippie, but I don’t know the right word. She’s like… she’s like those people who think that stuff that’s difficult and scarce and natural is better, like people who only eat what they grow in their own backyard and lament the agricultural revolution or whatever.”

They’re not wrong,” Jon said. “While agriculture greatly increased the amount of people we can support, and the complexity and variety of civilisations, the actual health and happiness of the average individual was massively decreased by its invention. Even today, the average adult is far less happy or healthy than the average pre-agricultural adult, and of course the industrial revolution, another massive ‘advancement’ for humanity, created a similar downswing in – ” He noticed that everyone was staring at him. “Right. Anyway.”

Are you suggesting humanity should abandon agriculture?” Sasha asked, amused.

No! Billions of people would die! Anyway, we’ve changed so many plants an animals and so much land… it’s not the kind of thing that’s reversible.” But if I, like Mary, were a hunter-gatherer standing on the cusp of the agricultural revolution and I could somehow foresee the effect it would have on my people, would I start planting those seeds? Maybe, for the temporary boost it would give my tribe… especially if I knew that the neighbouring tribe would be coming up with a similar idea pretty soon, and didn’t want them the get the immediate benefits and wipe my tribe out. “Anyway. It seems that Mary knows nothing useful.”

Of course she doesn’t,” Tim said. “That would be too easy and straightforward. No, we have to do things the most difficult way possible.”

I still can’t believe that none of you told me my coworker was an actual monster,” Melanie said. “Who keeps that a secret?”

It was my idea not to tell you,” Martin said. “Blame me. And it was because we didn’t know you yet. We didn’t know how you’d react.”

Oh, great. Makes me so much better to hear that my coworkers are babying me because they’re scared of how I’ll react to things.”

You did try to kill Elias,” Martin pointed out.

She what?!” Jon asked. “Not important. I mean, yes, massively important, but not our top priority right now.”

How messed up is it that attempted murder doesn’t make our list of priorities?” Martin said.

So there’s just a, a monster in the office,” Melanie said. “Great.”

Nothing new,” Tim shrugged, shooting a glare at Jon.

Jon rubbed his temples. Why had he been so eager to come back here, again?

------------------------



Oh god,” Basira breathed. “I’m sorry, I… I shouldn’t have involved you in this.”

Don’t be stupid. Of course you should have. Don’t worry, Basira; I’ll solve this problem.”

What do you mean? What are you going to do?”

It’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Daisy went to stand up, but Basira grabbed her arm.

Daisy. Don’t hurt him.”

“ … What?”

I know your job is sometimes… complicated… but promise me you won’t hurt Jonathan Sims. Okay?”

Daisy stared at her. “He’s a monster, Basira. He… he dragged that story out of me, and now he’s in both of our heads. Are we supposed to ignore that? Just let him run around doing that to other people?”

He didn’t, he didn’t hurt anyone – ”

Do you honestly believe that? He’s hurting you every night, and even if he wasn’t, these things don’t stop at mind games. He’s out there doing worse than this; they always are.”

You don’t know that. You have no way of knowing that.”

Why are you so bloody protective of him?”

Because I have to do some good!” she snapped. “Since I left the force, I… he’s the only person I’ve been able to save. And that only happened because of the dreams. I can’t go back, not after… I’ve seen them screw over too many officers, I’ve seen them leave us alone and unsupported too many times because nobody else wants a Section 31, but out here I feel like more people might be getting hurt or dying, people I could’ve saved if I was still there. But I can’t go back, I can’t. And we saved this guy, Daisy.”

He’s a monster,” Daisy said slowly, like she was explaining something to a small child. “We can save people by taking him out.”

We don’t know that.”

Daisy sighed. “Fine. I think you’re being bloody stupid, but fine; I won’t go after him over this. But if I do catch him doing something worse, if he shows up in a case where, where nightmare monsters are killing people or something – ”

Yeah, yeah. I get it. Look… how much leave do you have?”

Daisy screwed up her face. “They won’t let me back for another week.”

Do you wanna… catch a movie or something?”

Aren’t you working?”

If somebody comes in that desperate for me to take their spousal cheating case or find their lost cat while we’re out, they can leave a message. Come on; I’ll buy you an overpriced ice cream.”

Chapter Text

When they walked out of the office, Mary was working. Just sitting at her computer, typing up a statement. Doing her job. To Martin, that seemed absurd, but when he thought about it… what else would she do? Just sit there?

Martin did some typing, too. Typing with two hands, because, to his great relief, the antifungal treatment he’d put on his fingers was working. He had almost full use of his hand already; he’d woken up that morning with almost the entire hand paralysed and panicked, but movement had returned during the hour he’d spent at his Red String Corkboard, winding yarn around pins to connect concepts, and by the time he’d gotten to work, he could comfortably type. (Which was good, because Colin had told him that the prosthetic he wanted was probably impossible, unless he wanted to find a professional to design it.) He was incredibly relieved to learn that it must have been a fungal infection and not… any of the more complicated possibilities that had come to mind.

Mary left at exactly five o’clock with a bright “Goodbye!” to everyone, like they hadn’t cornered and interrogated her. Tim left about two minutes later, picking up something small from his desk before he headed out the door. Martin didn’t see what it was, but somehow, (maybe from the way Tim held it, careful but unafraid), he could sense its potential, its power – none at all, except if used in a very specific way. And Tim was always a bit rash, tending to overplay or underplay his hand, so as he left, Martin called out. “Tim. Whatever your plan is, be careful, okay? Don’t get short-changed. You might need every bit of leverage you can get.”

Tim just gave him a weird look and left.

Martin went home to his corkboard. He suppose that he could move it to the archives, since there was no point in keeping it from Mary any more, but it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for her to be able to see with a glance exactly how much they knew and what they were planning, at least when they had a plan. Besides, it would be difficult to move. He’d run out of space on the corkboard itself days ago, and notes were pinned across the walls of his bedroom and well into the hall. He was going to have to replaster and paint the walls before he moved out, but that shouldn’t be hard.

The layout was… neatly chaotic. From a distance, it looked like jut a mess of string and notes of very few words, but he’d arranged it so that whatever he was trying to see was obvious at a glance. He’d kept down the amount of string by only marking about a tenth of the actual connections to keep everything neat; anything that was obviously implied by another connection, any connection within one or two degrees of separation of a marked one, he didn’t bother to connect with string. There was no sense in cluttering up the board with the obvious.

Most of his bedroom wall was, of course, taken up by the Unknowing. That was definitely going to need updating, with the very valuable information they’d gotten from Mary – probably in London, the sort of place that humans would give meaning and power associated with the Stranger, and with room to Dance. He had space to expand the Unknowing notes now that he’d been able to take down his Missing Jon notes, and there was probably reason to tentatively assume – although it would be a mistake to rely to heavily on the idea – that since Breekon and Hope had been driving Jon about in a fairly small area (as determined by Sasha tracking his phone to a single cell tower), they’d possibly been keeping him close to the ritual site. He’d float the possibility with Sasha tomorrow; she could search an area for possible sites more efficiently than he could.

The Unknowing was not the only thing on his board. Well, wall. To one side fo the Unknowing was fourteen cards, labelled with fourteen fears. The Stranger was connected with a piece of yarn to the Unknowing; The Flesh and The Desolation had their own little cards of notes detailing when Gertrude had foiled their rituals, and a brief description of how, according to what they could glean from the statements, Gertrude had foiled them. The Observing, he’d simply drawn a thick black cross through; that left ten rituals to look into, once they were done with the Unknowing. If they were really, really lucky, the statements they hadn’t looked at yet would show Gertrude defeating all of them, and they’d be in the clear after the Unknowing. But given how sure Mary had seemed that some other apocalypse would succeed if the Unknowing didn’t, Martin doubted it.

On the other side of the Unknowing notes, red string stretched between cards that were mostly blank, but for the occasional obscure symbol or initial that Martin used to orient himself. That one was a challenge. One he really shouldn’t be wasting time with, when the Unknowing was so urgent, but he couldn’t resist at least mapping it out. If he did have to go up against Elias Bouchard, how would he? How do you take down a man who can apparently see anything, who can control people’s thoughts (or at least impose thoughts on people), who you were trapped under, who you couldn’t kill without dying? How would he leverage things to swing them in his favour instead of Elias’, when Elias held all the power and all the knowledge?

Well, he wouldn’t map his plan out on easily readable cards on a wall where Elias could presumably see it, thus the lack of card labels. He was certain that he’d been obscure enough with the few symbols he’d used that nobody could even guess what he was mapping. He’d look through it later, but he didn’t have time for diversions at the moment. He was supposed to be saving the world.

Martin picked up his pins and started to update his conceptual map of the Unknowing.

-------------------------



Look at you, following a woman home from work, Tim thought wryly to himself. But he had to be sure that Mary was going home, and not… off to get them all killed and Jon re-kidnapped, or whatever. He didn’t believe for a second that she’d been entirely honest with Jon, no matter how sure the Monsterboss was in his powers. Tim knew very well that the world was full of things a lot stronger than Jon. Besides, masks and illusions and threats behind smiles was what the Stranger did. He wouldn’t be surprised if something like Mary could put on a new ‘truth’, have it pulled out of her by Jon, and then simply discard it.

But she did go home. Tim watched her house from far away enough to be unobtrusive, hand clutched around Jude’s payment, which he’d found in the box that Jon had pointed out. He’d told the others he could handle Mary, that he didn’t need their help, and he didn’t. Jude’s little congregation could handle Mary with ease.

But he couldn’t help but wonder about what Martin had said about not getting short-changed, about needing all the leverage he could get. Was this the best use of the resources he had?

Tim wasn’t self-unaware. He knew perfectly well why he had to do this himself. He might like to tell himself it was because he couldn’t trust some of his coworkers, because he wanted to protect the others, because there were too many things to focus on at once and it made sense to take this one off their hands, but he wasn’t an idiot. He was here, alone, because he was owed revenge for what these monsters had done to Danny.

Mary hadn’t been involved with Danny, so far as Tim knew, but that didn’t really matter. She was one of those things, and she would have hurt plenty of others. They took one of his, he’d take as many of theirs as he could. He’d make them regret their existence down to whatever served as their bones, right before they perished screaming. But…

But he had limited leverage with Jude. And the circus was out there, close by. And Grimmauldi was out there, close by. They were the real targets. They were what mattered. Mary was a distraction. A waste of resources. He could use what he had more wisely.

Tim called Jude.

------------------------



Elias was beginning to think that he may have plotted himself into a corner.

Everything about the plan had seemed fine. The Unknowing was the perfect excuse to get his Archivist marked by the Stranger, and though there was no real threat, the search for other rituals would give Jon plenty of chances to pick up his missing marks. One or two of them might be difficult – he still had no idea what he was going to do about the End – but all in all, he should be able to pull his ritual off without anyone noticing a thing until it was too late.

Except for the damn kidnapping. Elias wasn’t sure of exactly what had happened to Jon in his months’ absence, but judging from the condition he’d come home in, he had to be well and truly marked. Which made the Unknowing rather pointless – dangerous, in fact.

Because Jon wasn’t ready. His compulsion powers were developing fine, and he’d taken straight to reading statements again as soon as he was back, but he couldn’t see anything. He had two months, give or take, to develop some real power, or the moment the Unknowing started he was going to be helpless. He’d miscalculated, giving him so many assistants; he’d expected Jon to be driven relentlessly forward like Gertrude, to use them properly, but he’d gotten himself kidnapped and they’d done most of his job for him, robbing him of the opportunity to develop his powers.

There was nothing for it. He was going to have to force his Archivist to grow. He was going to have to find something to push him to develop his skills in the limited time they had.

It was time to stir up some hornet’s nests.

Chapter Text

Okay, Tim. This is your element. Pull out all the stops and be the most Obnoxious Little Bitch you can be. You’ve been training your whole life for this moment.

Tim Sauntered into the cafe. Jude was already there, and glanced up at his approach. “So you did find it, then?”

“Yep.” Tim pulled out the locket, and opened it briefly to reveal the lock of auburn hair, the last earthly piece of Agnes Montague. (Well, the last piece that Jude knew about. There might be more in that weird ritual clearing in the middle of nowhere, but Tim wasn’t about to enlighten her about that.) He snapped the locket shut and pocketed it as Jude reached for it.

“I could simply kill you for it, you know,” Jude growled.

“Why didn’t you just take some hair from her when you killed her? Thought your friends would judge you for it? Probably sacrilege or something.”

The table began to smoulder under Jude’s hands.

“Relax, Jude; you can have it. For a price – a new price. The situation had changed.”

“What, you make up with your little girlfriend in the archives? You want me to kill someone else for you now?”

“Close enough.” Tim sat down opposite her. He put the locket on the table, covering it with his hand. “You’re going to help me burn down a circus.”

“Am I really? And why would I do that? I might be persuaded to find some amusement in burning your Eye lackey friend, given how much of an annoyance your kind have been to us in the past, but I have nothing against the Circus, and a little trinket isn’t going to change my mind.”

“And the fact that they’re trying to end the world doesn’t bother you?”

“Well, if one wanted to cause the greatest amount of despair, one would say that a good old clown apocalypse is just what the world needed, hmm?” Jude said, with obviously fake indifference.

Okay. Time to either get killed by a pissed-off cultist, or not. Tim leaned forward. “But we both know things are more complicated than that, Jude. I know you.”

“What from reading a couple of pathetic statements?”

“Yes. From a couple of pathetic statements. Because that has all that’s worth knowing about your kind. You might think you’re big and scary and such complex people, but you’re not. You think there’s special about what you are, about what you do? No. every human alive has stood on the edge of a balcony or next to a busy highway and revelled in the inherent power they have to make that simple choice to step forward, to destroy all that potential and careful planning with one quick decision. Everyone knows what it’s like to self-sabotage something important and feel the power and agency in being able to break a future. There’s nothing special about that, nothing divine; you just got addicted to a fear of desolation and were too cowardly to feed it yourself, so you turned to others. Started kicking over other kids’ sandcastles, breaking other kids’ toys, because you can’t be bothered building your own, because you think that being threatening somehow makes you powerful or important. You were a schoolyard bully trying to make up for the fact you can’t make a positive difference by contenting yourself with a negative one, and now? Now you’re just an addict. You don’t scare me, so it’s a waste of time to try.”

That last part was a lie, of course, and they both knew it. Jude raised her eyebrows. “I don’t?” She made a grab for his hand, still covering the locket on the table, and he drew back, hoping he managed to hide the brief stab of terror before it showed on his face.

“No. You don’t. So if you’re done posturing, maybe we should talk about why you’re so keen to have this locket, and why you’re going to help us take down the Circus.”

“I already told you, I’m not taking down the Circus for a locket.”

“No, you’re going to take down the Circus for Agnes. You do want to see her again, right? You’re all awaiting her return, waiting to build up enough power, and while most of your congregation would be pushing it to last long enough, you’re fairly young for… the kind of thing you are. You can probably keep your flame alive for a good long while yet and scour the world by her side. But not if the Circus get to it first.”

“Mmm. Perhaps. But your people are so keen to fight the Circus; maybe we should just let the two of you tear each other apart, to even greater destruction.”

“You want to sit back and watch while we wreak havoc? A little backwards, don’t you think?”

“Ha, perhaps.”

“Jude, you’ve met Jon. He’s no Gertrude. Do you honestly think he has a chance against a real challenge? As fun as it might be to watch Monsterboss get his arse kicked by evil clowns, if you’re banking the fate of the world on his competence – ”

“True; he is kind of pathetic. I’ll suggest it to the others, but I can’t promise anything. Now, my locket?”

“I’m not giving you this in exchange for an ‘I’ll think about it’. I’m going to need a token of good faith.”

She rolled her eyes. “What else could you possibly want?”

“Why, knowledge, obviously.” Tim smiled. “You’re going to tell me where the ritual site is.”

“Why would I know something like that?”

“Still posturing? Come on, Jude. Where is it?”

“Seriously, I don’t know.”

“Huh. Guess I can destroy this, then.” He stood up, careful to jump back out of the way of her grab, knowing she could just roast him if she chose and the only thing stopping her was that she didn’t want to damage the hair in that fucking locket. Why had this seemed like a good plan, again?

“I don’t know where it is,” she repeated. “But it’s at some kind of wax museum, I think. Or has something to do with waxworks.”

“Good enough.” Tim tossed her the locket. “Be seeing you at the end of the world, Jude.”

“Not if I incinerate you first.”

Tim forced himself to laugh easily at that, like it was a joke and not a threat, and got the hell out of there.

Well. He had what he’d come for – a wax museum. Sasha could probably do something with that. If he was lucky, they might have a handful of psychopathic arsonists, too, but he didn’t really trust Jude’s congregation to be able to keep on task long enough to be useful, or agree on anything in a span shorter than 2 months.

But the ritual site information was a good trade, for a locket.

Now he just needed to deal with Mary.

------------------



Colleen McKenzie shifted her weight from one foot to another and wondered, not for the first time, how she’d gotten here in life.

Life used to seem boundless, full of opportunities, but somehow she was in her mid-20s behind the counter of a coffee shop, the same as she had been yesterday, the same as she would be tomorrow, and she couldn’t really remember choosing to be here. Oh; she’d chosen to go to school, she’d chosen to move out of home, she’d chosen to get an apartment, she’d chosen to take a job that could pay her rent. But none of those things had really felt like choices, when she’d done them. They’d been things that had happened to her, and now she was… here. Behind the counter of a coffee shop.

A young man walked in. Short, brown hair, handsome-ish in a way, except for the reluctant and vaguely apprehensive look on his face. Colleen sympathised; she felt that way every day when she had to come to work. She pulled on her Customer Service Smile.

“What can I get you today?” she chirped.

“The usual, please, Colleen,” he said tiredly. Then, at the look of confusion that crossed her face, he grinned widely. “What’s wrong, Colleen? You don’t remember what your friend Dale drinks?”

Of course she knew what Dale drank. Dale had been coming by three times a week since before Colleen started. But the man in front of her wasn’t Dale; he didn’t look or sound anything like him, even if he seemed to be wearing Dale’s favourite shirt. Colleen glanced at the Friends of the Shop board, where a lot of the regulars smiled out of photos, looking for the one of Dale… no, this man. Grinning back at her over a frappacino.

She looked back at him. He was still watching her, his grin wide and predatory.

With trembling hands, she made him Dale’s regular frappacino.

The man who wasn’t Dale sat at Dale’s usual corner table, but he didn’t pull out a book like Dale usually did. He looked nervous, keeping an eye on the door. Within the minute, a woman walked in, walked straight past the counter without ordering anything, and sat opposite him.

“What do you want?” ‘Dale’ asked.

“What do I want? You’re the one who called me here.”

“Heh.”

“You’re not happy.”

“You bound me to a table!”

“That sounds like something you should take up with Dekker or Fielding.”

“Yeah, well, they’re both dead, so…”

“And so is the table. So the situation is resolved. You didn’t call me here to complain about tables.”

“No.”

“You called me here to tell me something.”

“Yeah.” He sipped his drink. “I was at the Magnus Institute.”

“An unusual choice. Did you have a good time?”

“No!” He screwed his face up in what struck Colleen as a petulant and childish manner. “I got lost in a tunnel network and had to eat this old tramp to find the way out. And he was boring. No friends or family to speak of. Only cared about books. But he did know a lot about books. You know, the weird ones.” He paused, looked at the woman like he was expecting some kind of response, but she said nothing. So he continued. “He knew enough about the tunnels to get out, even though they were so confusing, because he’d been down there for years. Hiding, mostly, but he had plenty of places to hide. He’d chosen that place because he had a suspicion that there might be a powerful ancient library down there, one with books more powerful than anything he’d come across before. That’s what I came to tell you.”

The woman cocked her head. “Why would you tell me this?”

“Because… well, he only really cared about the books, but he knew there was more. He thought there were… other versions of power, connected to the library. He thought there were trees.”

“Trees?”

“Apple trees. He didn’t know much about them. I’ve forgotten most of it now. But he knew that the library had the trees, and the trees, last he knew, had belonged to the Spider. So I thought you should know.”

“Hmm. And now I know.”

“Yeah. So can I leave?”

“I wasn’t stopping you.”

The man who wasn’t Dale bolted out of the shop, leaving his barely-touched frappacino. The woman just sat there, in the otherwise empty shop, staring contemplatively at a cobweb in the corner.

Eventually, Colleen worked up the courage to walk over and pick up the abandoned coffee. The woman focused suddenly on her with a gaze that Colleen could only describe as… hungry.

“Help me with something in my car,” she said.

Colleen swallowed. “Will it take long?”

“No.” The woman smiled. “It won’t take very long at all.”

Colleen took a few steps towards the exit, before the woman said, “You should close up the shop, first. If would be a shame to leave a mess for the morning crew.”

“Yeah.” It was an hour early, but Colleen closed up. She wiped down counters, turned off appliances, set the coffee machine to its cleaning cycle. She calmly locked the door, and followed the woman down the street.

It was still a fairly busy street. She could run off in some other direction, or get someone’s attention. She could choose to do so many things other than follow the woman, step by step, to her next destination. Except… she knew she couldn’t. Colleen wasn’t the sort of person who made choices. She did a lot of things that had felt like choices at the time, but come to think of it, hadn’t they just been reactions to the next circumstance, moving through the motions of the next thing she was supposed to do with her life? Everything about her history suggested that Colleen couldn’t make her own choices. If she’d ever had the ability to do so, it had atrophied long ago.

So she didn’t try.

Chapter Text

Melanie couldn’t sleep.

It wasn’t the nightmares that used to keep her up, with Sarah re-stapling her arm while he stared at her, drinking in the scene. Those had stopped when she’d signed up at the Institute, and in a way she was glad she’d gotten information in the order she had, because if she’d found out that Jon had legitimate spooky powers instead of being a figment of her imagination while she was still having the nightmares, well, things probably would have gone badly. No; she couldn’t sleep because she couldn’t stop thinking about Mary.

Her coworker was a legit monster. Not a ghost, although she supposed that ghosts were a subset of the same thing, or at least a similar thing, scars left by fear or whatever, but… but Mary, who scowled her way through bad ice cream flavours in an attempt to find Her Favourite Flavour, who always insisted that Melanie needed to step away from the keyboard and drink water when the typing started to give her a headache, who had laughed along with her when she suggested ditching the Institute and going ghost hunting together… was a, an incarnation of fear, or whatever.

Melanie wasn’t really sure what to feel about that.

It wasn’t like Mary was the only monster she’d worked with. There’d been Sarah Baldwin, of course, and Jon and Elias probably counted. If anything, Mary was remarkable for being the only monster she’d worked with who wasn’t a massive dick. And everyone had kept the information from her, treating her like a fucking child, because they ‘weren’t sure how she’d react’. Just, just giving her the information she needed to be useful to them, leading her around the nose like…

Ugh. She hated that Elias had taken advantage of her ignorance to manipulate and trap her. She didn’t need this bullshit from her coworkers, too. And they’d all been in on it, except presumably Mary, so the ‘monster’ was also the only person who hadn’t been lying to her.

And now Tim was going to kill her, wasn’t he? He was going to kill Mary. Everyone had been edgy about it, let him brush off questions, saying he was handling it, but the archives crew always worked as a team. There was only one reason why everyone would be so willing to let Tim handle something so dangerous alone – they didn’t want to be involved in what he had to do. What he seemed eager to do. And Mary had straight-up admitted that she’d kill them to stop them from saving the world, if she had to, so what other response was there to that, really?

She’d admitted it through tears, pleading with them not to force her to do it, before explaining that she didn’t want the world to end, either. But it was going to, so she had to save it from being ended by someone else.

No. Fuck this. Fuck this whole thing. Melanie had been researching ghosts long enough to know that ‘oooh spooky monster bad’ was a lazy take, and she wasn’t standing by letting that arsehole kill Mary just because it was an easy answer. She’d crawled through a blood-soaked traincar and been shot by a ghost, she was NOT scared of some tastefully scarred Ambercrombie & Fitch model with hard-on for monster killing.

Melanie got up, pulled on the first moderately clean clothes she found in the pile on her floor, and started loading up the Ghost Hunt UK van.

Fifteen minutes later, she was parked outside Mary’s house. After a quick look around to make sure that Tim wasn’t about, she knocked on the door, and was relieved when Mary answered, dressed in pale pink pyjamas and holding a fuzzy yellow teddy bear like she’d stepped out of a magazine ad. She smiled brightly when she saw Melanie.

“Hi, Melanie! Would you like a cup of tea?”

How did I not realise how weird she is? Melanie wondered, but shrugged the thought off. “No. I think you should pack a bag with whatever you need and come with me in the van. I promised to show you a ghost, right? So let’s go find a ghost.”

“You need sleep. We have work in – ”

“We shouldn’t go to work for awhile. We can just drive… away from here, until we… figure things out. I don’t think you’re safe here, Mary.”

“And friends should try to keep each other safe,” Mary said with a nod. “Alright. But we can’t not go to work. We can’t leave the Institute.”

“Or we’ll get sick, I know. Probably die eventually.” At least, I will. Does any of that apply to you? “But not right away, and that gives us time.”

Mary nodded again and went inside to pack a bag. Melanie waited in the van.

Well, she supposed the other assistants had been right, in a way. They probably wouldn’t have predicted what she’d do when she found out about Mary.

---------------



Elias locked the door to his office and drew the shades before withdrawing The Seven Lamps of Architecture from his desk and turning it over and over in his hands.

The book bothered him. It bothered him a lot. Not because of its contents – the unsuspecting employee he’d tested it on had revealed it to be a fairly pedestrian artefact aligned with the Buried, conveniently providing his own burial and saving Elias the bother of hiding another body – but because of where he’d found it. Just sitting there, in one of the tunnels.

His tunnels.

It wasn’t unusual for the singing stones to turn up wherever they pleased, of course; they were, by nature, uncontainable outside the circle. But he’d never had one show up in the tunnels before. Never so close. There were, to his mind, two possible explanations.

Perhaps his control over The Library was slipping. According to The Library’s own books, or at least as much of them as he’d dared to read to learn enough to control it, it could be loosely divided into three parts that the books insisted on archaically referring to as the Seer, the Circle, and the Singing Stones. Elias supposed that these names were because The Library predated the written word, and the Stones taking the form of books was probably a more recent development, but since the text he’d read translated to the reader’s language anyway he wasn’t sure why it couldn’t translate to less fanciful terms. Anyway. The Circle, the location of The Library, the zone of stability and control, was what mattered; Archivists and books were mobile, but so long as he had the location wrapped up in the power of the Panopticon, he had influence over the whole system. The Circle was a sort of centre of gravity, its location determined not just by ideas on what and where a library should be, but by the location of the other parts, which was why the heavy central tomes that he’d taken from Von Closen, so much denser with power than these trivial strays, could never be allowed to leave The Library itself. And, like a centre of gravity, its location influenced the parts that created it, tying the Archivist to the Institute, and creating a zone of stability where the books, when gathered within, couldn’t leave of their own accord. And couldn’t appear of their own accord, either.

But the Seven Lamps of Architecture had shown up, worryingly close to The Library itself. If it had found its own way there… well. He would need to experiment, need to determine how unstable his control was and what to do about it. He couldn’t afford to lose The Library at this time. Not when he was so close. It had never before been so critical to maintain control of the Archivist.

The other possibility was that the book had not shown up on its own. Which meant that somebody had brought it there. Which was worse.

It was possible that that Distortion was running amok, trying to make him paranoid, but he didn’t think so. It wasn’t the sort of creature to have any interest in the books, and it shouldn’t know about The Library, although he supposed that if it was still hanging about the Institute it might have followed him down without him noticing. He doubted it, though; that kind of methodical patience wasn’t in the nature of such beings. Besides, a book that controlled earth like this, down in the ever-changing tunnels… had someone gone down there, specifically, on purpose? The Buried had always been a little… well. He still remembered that digger, who’d marched into the Archives to make a statement declaring he knew what was buried beneath them and then tried to dig through the office floor with his bare hands. Perhaps encasing The Library in stone and earth, even in such a central place of power for the Beholding, carried risks.

But if someone had been searching down there, they wouldn’t have left the book behind, would they? There’d been no body, no blood, no piles of ruined earth to suggest that the user had inadvertently buried themselves. Which meant that the book probably had shown up on its own, and he needed to be more careful of his control with The Library.

Or he needed to be faster with preparing his Archivist. Who would need a challenge or two to encourage him to increase his power before facing the Unknowing. And who would, sooner or later, need to face the Buried. He’d been planning to call in some favours for this sort of thing, but relying on others was dangerous, and when such a perfect opportunity fell into one’s hands...

Elias had some planning to do.

Chapter Text

The thing that really annoyed Sasha about being tricked into lifelong service to an ancient evil fear god in a role with a notoriously high death rate was how bad the Institute was at actually doing its job. Oh, sure the whole research institute front for collecting statements had probably seemed wonderfully clever in the 1800s, but times had changed and the Institute hadn’t. They could be spreading so much more fear of Beholding than they were! Elias could see stuff and had wealthy patrons, so where were the CCTV cameras on every street of every major English city, legislated for by bribed and blackmailed politicians? They lived in the age of social media and call-out culture; why wasn’t anybody capitalising on that, pushing for total personal transparency and building up some real fear of having people’s long-forgotten mistakes rediscovered, distributed everywhere, and used to ruin their lives? People were terrified of that, and you didn’t even need to waste time and energy being all spooky about it! There were entire subgenres of science fiction specifically about the horrible consequences of the loss of privacy, mass surveillance, and control of information on a mass scale, the Institute had the means to enact most of those things, and they just… didn’t. Were they supposed to be feeding an entity of voyeuristic terror, or sit around an old building picking up the scraps of other fears? Either Sasha had badly misunderstood the entire purpose of the Institute, or two hundred years’ worth of Institute heads had been woefully incompetent and turned her workplace into a supernatural embarrassment. And both of those things annoyed her on principle. Of course it was a good thing that the servants of the Observing who were actually there of their own volition were apparently all incompetent and England wasn’t under their terrifying thrall, but if you’re going to do a job you should at least do it well.

Point was, had the Institute been run properly and made the kind of societal changes that a sensible evil head of an Eye temple would have made, it wouldn’t be taking her so long to track down fucking wax museums. It’d be like… a single database search. Find some known Stranger followers and run their faces through facial recognition until you got lucky with one that kept the same face for long enough. Job done.

She’d found seven wax museums in England that were suspiciously abandoned, closed for maintenance, or otherwise might be being prepped for an apocalypse, four of which were probably big enough and only one of which was in London. Of course ‘probably big enough’ was a guess, and they didn’t know how long the Circus needed to prepare their ritual site, and…

Well, it was a start. They’d have to go and scout out the locations. On their feet. Like pre-internet barbarians.

She got into the office early, as they usually did, to have a chance to talk and work before their unfailingly punctual monster colleague showed up. Tim was already there, feet up on his desk, reading a book about circuses. The room was pretty crowded with so many assistants, and Sasha couldn’t help but notice that there was even less space than usual, that with the giant safe that had apparently been installed in one corner overnight.

“Uh, Tim… why do we have a safe?”

“To keep things all locked up and secure.”

“What kinds of things do we need to secure in an archive?”

“Monsters.”

Sasha looked at the safe. She looked at Mary’s not-yet-occupied desk. She looked at Tim.

“You cannot be serious.”

Tim shrugged. “It should work. That safe’s fire-proof, gas-proof, the lock mechanism’s protected and unpickable from the inside, and it can withstand the weight of a steamroller. I’m ninety nine per cent sure it should be able to hold her.”

“And if it can’t?”

Tim reached under his desk and pulled out something. Sasha stared.

“Tim, is that a fucking welder??”

“Don’t tell Monsterboss. You know what he’s like about ignition sources in the archives. But if she can get through a safe encased in sheet metal, we were fucked from the get-go and none of this mattered anyway.” He put the welder away.

“Well, that’s, um… practical,” Sasha allowed.

Just then, Martin came in, carrying a large cardboard box. “Did you kill her?”

“Nope.”

“He’s going to lock her in a safe,” Sasha said.

“Oh.” He glanced at the safe. “Good. I was a bit worried.”

“You don’t owe her anything, you know,” Tim said. “She should die.”

“She hasn’t done anything.”

“That we know of. I bet she’s killed people before, before she came here. And she’ll kill more.”

“We don’t know that! You should at least find stuff like that out instead of just making assumptions based on what people are, when they can’t help it.”

“I’m not about to haul off and attack Monsterboss, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Martin flushed. “That isn’t… I wasn’t even thinking about… I mean, just on principle.”

“Mmm. Can’t help but notice that you thought I might kill her, but didn’t say anything yesterday. So you can’t be that against the idea.”

Martin coloured further. “Yesterday was just very stressful,” he said. “But you’re definitely not going to kill her?”

“I don’t think I can. Safer to use the safe.”

“Good. Even if you don’t like what she is, she is a major asset.”

Tim frowned. “How?”

“After we foil the Unknowing, she’s going to want to keep the world together long enough to try again. If we do it right, that should be… generations away. I don’t know how many more apocalypses we need to foil, but having a shapeshifter in our corner who’s invested in stopping them is probably not going to hurt.”

“Also,” Sasha added, “she’s really fast at typing, and her not being able to read the statements is doing wonders for getting all this digitised.”

“Hmm. Well, if either of you wake up one morning to find she’s sold you to a skin-eating clown, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Martin said, heading for Jon’s office.

“What do you think’s in that box?” Sasha asked.

“Who cares?” Tim shrugged turning back to his box. “Go ask him. Doubt it’s a secret.”

“Yeah, well, when you’re done reading, we’ve got some wax museums to scout today. Moderate probability of evil clowns.”

Tim immediately snapped the book shut. “Oh, Sasha. You always know just the right thing to say.”

-------------------



Martin had, in the end, decided to relocate his planning wall to the archives. It would be better to actually be able to use it during work hours. But setting it up somewhere where researchers or members of the public might see it could cause some awkward situations, so he’d decided to set it up in the tunnels.

He knew that Jon, Sasha and Tim had all explored the tunnels a little on their own; he’d seen Jon emerge from his office a couple of times when he hadn’t gone in using the door, and he was pretty sure Tim used them when he wanted to get around without talking to anyone, but Martin tended to steer clear of them. The last time he’d been in the tunnels hadn’t gone all that great. So he made sure to set up in a little alcove close to the stairs he’d descended, where they were in full view and he couldn’t possibly get lost. So long as Tim didn’t get it into his head to mess up Martin’s map for a prank, that should be fine.

There were more spiders in the tunnel than Martin remembered. It wasn’t hard to figure out why; nobody had made a massive effort to clean the tunnels of worms after the Prentiss attack, and if you introduce a food source in the form of thousands of worm carcasses… things were going to get bad for the spiders when the dead worms ran out, though. Martin hoped that, when they made their exodus in search of somewhere with more food, they didn’t do it through Jon’s office, or at least did it when Jon was out.

Reconstructing his concept map was easy; as he pulled each card out of the box, he could remember what they had been attached to, and why. He had to hang up an old sheet to pin them to, since nothing was going to stick to the dusty, uneven cave walls without far more effort than it was worth, but that was simple enough. He had his fourteen fears lined up down one side and was in the process of trying to fit as much of the Unknowing map as possible on the wall when he heard someone approaching behind him.

“Uh, hi, Elias. What are you… do you need me for something?”

“Oh, I just wanted to see how everyone was doing. What with saving the world.” His eyes flicked over the wall of notes and rested, just for a moment on the Observing card on Martin’s Potential Apocalypse Fear List, crossed out with thick black lines. “The Unknowing is approaching. Do you… have a plan?”

“We’re working on it,” Martin said.

“Hmm. Well, I have full faith in you all. Good luck.”

Then he turned and left – not, Martin noticed, through the trapdoor. He must have another exit.

Martin knew he should get back to building his Unknowing map, but he couldn’t help but speculate on the implications of this. Elias wasn’t one to come down to the archives all that often, preferring to communicate via email and soforth. The last time he’d gone out of his way to come down had been… when Tim was making a nuisance of himself to get fired, Martin was pretty sure. And he’d loitered a lot when Mary had first started.

And now he was coming to see Martin in the tunnels, for no apparent reason.

With what martin knew of Elias’ powers, which wasn’t all that much, the obvious conclusion was that he came down for a closer look, so to speak; a chance to look in Tim’s head or whatever, see what he’d been planning. So had he come down to look in Martin’s? Did he think Martin was planning something dangerous? He wasn’t, although if he was getting Elias’ attention then it was probably best to leave his How To Defeat Elias exercise off the board altogether, in case Elias wondered what those cards were.

But Elias hadn’t shown that much interest in Martin. His eyes had gone straight to Martin’s Unknowing concept map. Had that been what he wanted to see? He’d wanted to see what Martin was doing?

But he could see things at a distance, right? He’d seen Jon get kidnapped, until he’d been thrown in the van that was shielded from Elias’ sight. So he didn’t need to physically come down to see what Martin was doing. If he needed a clearer view, or whatever, he’d at least have waited until Martin had finished building the map.

A spider crawled past, dragging half a dead worm.

Elias had been as taken by surprise as any of them by the Prentiss attack. The worms had been building their strength and numbers for weeks before Jon and Sasha discovered them, and Elias had had no idea. And now, Martin had gone into the tunnels with a box of stuff, and within half an hour Elias had turned up to see what he was doing.

Were the tunnels shielded from him, like Breekon and Hope’s van? Could he not see into the tunnels?

Useful if true. Martin would want a bit more evidence before relying on it, though.

He turned back to the task at hand.

Chapter Text

The pizza boy took a step back and practically shoved the box into Mary’s hands.

“Have a nice day!” she called after him as he bolted to his car.

Melanie finished texting her coworkers that she was fine, they didn’t have to panic, she’d been chasing up some leads and she didn’t know where Mary was, before popping the phone open to take the battery out. She didn’t know how Sasha’s phone tracking hacker abilities worked and she wasn’t taking any chances. “You did that on purpose,” she chided Mary, as the pizza box was placed on the motel bed in front of her.

“Did what?”

“Scared him. I know you can smile properly. And your speech is a little off sometimes, but not like that.”

“I didn’t hurt him,” she said defensively.

“Just ruined his night with a terrifying encounter?”

“You ruined his night by ordering a pizza to be delivered in the rain because you didn’t want to have to go into the rain yourself.”

“… Okay, fair point.” Melanie toasted her with a slice of pizza in concession and took a bite out of it. “Is it something you like, have to do?”

“What?”

“Being a fear monster, or whatever. Do you have to scare people to… feed, or whatever?”

“I don’t actually know.”

“You don’t know?”

“It’s not something I’ve ever, you know, not done!” Mary said defensively. “I only learned to be any good at seeming human recently, and people can still tell eventually. It’s always happened around me, so how would I know if I needed it or not?”

“Is it something you like doing, then? Is it fun?”

“I don’t know. I think so? I’m still learning about ‘fun’. Is that thing you do yo your hair all the time fun?”

“What thing – ?” Melanie glanced at her non-pizza-holding hand, which was entwined in her hair, absently wrapping it around her finger. She put her hand down. “I don’t know. I just do it. Is that what being scary is like?”

“I don’t know.” Mary picked up a slice of pizza and inspected it carefully. “I don’t know what the… the different… I’m still building my, myself. I don’t usually go this… deep. I don’t usually have to be someone this… much. It’s easy for you, getting to just wake up and be a person and know all about it.”

Melanie laughed. “Is that what you think being a human is like? You think any of us ever know what the hell we’re doing?”

“You all seem pretty confident about who you are.”

“That’s an act. Nobody out there has any fucking clue. We might not have as much of a, a blank slate as you, but I’m starting to think a lot of that is just because we only get one shot. We can’t ditch the mask for another one, so we have no choice but to get entrenched.”

“No, no; you have a… um…” Mary frowned at her pizza, thinking. “I read some psychology books, right, and you guys have an inherent assumption that you’re a person. The way your mind works is built on the idea that you exist, and that the mask you wear is the thing behind it, and that you’re distinct for the world, like the label ‘me’ means something. That’s an obvious lie, but it’s like… pushed so far into your brains that most of you can’t ditch it without effort, and you can’t ditch it for very long. And it being gone is terrifying because it’s the entire basis of how your thoughts work. So even if you don’t know the details of what sort of person you are, you always start from assuming you’re a person, which gives you kind of a head start. I have to make that assumption for myself and then try to remember it as I puzzle through, even though I know it’s a lie, and that… slows things down.”

“Maybe it’s your brain that’s lying to you.”

“What?”

“Maybe, it’s not us assuming we have an identity that’s the lie. Maybe the lie is in your assumption that you don’t. Like… what was your name, before you were Mary?”

“Uh, Jan.”

“Right. So you were Jan, and then you all… headed out into the world, or whatever, and you chose to go somewhere where you’d have more space and freedom to be Mary. You knew you were going to be reluctant when it was time not to be Mary, right? So, that must have come from your experience with Jan. And others, if there were others. And the way you responded to it, I’m guessing that that makes you different to your… your siblings, right? Or at least you assumed it would, maybe you all feel that, but the point is. There are thoughts or feelings or inclinations or whatever that are a part of you, and not necessarily a part of them, and aren’t a part of whatever name or face you happen to be wearing at the time. That’s you. That’s an identity.”

“Maybe? I don’t… I don’t really see…”

“What, having trouble conceiving of it? Just as a human might have trouble conceiving of not having one? If our minds can be based on a lie, so can yours. Why assume ours are wrong?”

“You know, I think you might be right. I mean, I’m a figment of your imagination, so – ”

“Whoah. Hold up. What do you mean, I figment of my imagination? Because if you tell me I’ve had some kind of psychotic break and you’re some weird hallucination I – ?”

“No, that’s not… I meant of humanity’s imagination. I’ve been digitising a lot of statements and stuff and… I’m not an expert in how any of this works, but it’s pretty obvious that, that what we are is dependent on what you are. What you fear. My psychology is built on your psychology, maybe as a species, maybe as a culture, maybe just the people I happen to encounter… I don’t know. But… okay, look, the point is. Your psychology is built on whatever helped your ancestors survive and reproduce; not what’s true or false, but what’s useful, so there are probably lies in there. But mine is built on the holes in yours, and that’s another degree of separation. Neither of us have any claim to truth, but yours is more likely to be closer. I think.”

Melanie stared. “A few days ago I watched you eat ice cream, get brain freeze, and then keep eating through the freeze for like thirty minutes.”

“I had a limited amount of time to try as many flavours as possible. What’s your point?”

“My point is, when did you become a fucking philosopher?”

Mary laughed. “I read.”

“I guess you do. But if we’re going to be talking deep fundamental truths, I need alcohol, and I’m not going out in the rain to buy any.”

“I can get – ”

“Oh no, the night time petrol station employees have enough weird stories without you freaking them out with a literal monster encounter. So, no fundamental truths.”

“Fine. Why are we here?”

“Mary, I literally just said – ”

“You know what I mean. You took me on this ghost finding trip because you said I was in danger. Were our friends going to kill me?”

“I don’t know. I thought… I thought they might.”

“Because of the Unknowing.”

“Yes.”

“Do you ant the Unknowing to happen?”

“Definitely not.”

“Then why haven’t you tried to kill me?”

“Aside from the fact that there’s no chance I could, you mean?”

“Yes, aside from that.”

Melanie sighed. She certainly didn’t want to admit the truth – her decision hadn’t been based in any faith in Mary, so much as it had been because she was pissed off at everyone except Mary. Probably not a great basis for making fate-of-the-world decisions. “This shouldn’t have to be our problem,” she snapped. “I’m a ghost hunter who took an archiving job, I didn’t sign up for all this apocalypse bullshit. At least you knew what you were getting into.”

“Not really. I knew about the Eye and the Unknowing, and I expected Elias to be more of a danger to me, but I didn’t know about friends. I didn’t know I was going to have to deal with friends who couldn’t be friends because we would have to hurt each other. It’s easier for you humans,not having to deal with that.”

Melanie stared. “Wow, you really don’t get us at all. You think humans don’t go through that kind of thing? Have you read, watched or listened to… any drama, ever? Like, uh… Shakespeare? Any kind of, um, fantasy novel? Any soap operas?”

“I watched some horror movies with Martin.”

“But otherwise?”

She shook her head.

“You said you read?”

“Only real things. I was trying to figure out humans.”

“Oh, then you absolutely have to read fiction. Fiction is how humans teach each other to be human. It gives us frameworks for understanding and feeling and experiencing things that are safe and clear, because they’re fake. Cancel ghost hunting tomorrow; that can wait. Tomorrow, we are going to a bookshop.”

Chapter Text

Melanie didn’t have that much money, but Mary did. Apparently she bought very little, aside from her lunch food experiments; when Melanie asked whether she had rent or anything, she just looked at her blankly. So they were able to buy plenty of books.

Melanie had spent half the night on the motel wifi looking at reviews for various books to figure out what they should get. At first, she’d considered just getting books with dramatic conflicting loyalties where everyone ultimately ended up friends, but… wouldn’t that just be treating Mary the way that Melanie’s coworkers had been treating Melanie? So she threw some tragedies in, too.

She still wasn’t sure what she was trying to do, exactly. Just… distract Mary until the Unknowing? That wasn’t going to work. If the fate of the world was at stake, Melanie was going to have to help save it. And Mary would surely try to stop her.

Mary wasn’t the only one who was conflicted. At some point, they were both going to have to choose each other, or their world.

And there really was no contest there.

-------------------



Jon stared at his computer screen and tried not to fall asleep. He had the urge to just go out and track down some Stranger servant, maybe swing by that weird taxidermy place, and just ask them where the ritual site was. However, as the rest of the team had pointed out:

1. Mary hadn’t known where the site was, and there was no guarantee that any randomly found one would either.

2. Even if they did, the questioning would tip off the Circus that they knew where the site was, losing them the potential element of surprise.

3. Do you have a deathwish, Jon, you stupid fucking idiot. Do you have a deathwish. Those guys JUST kidnapped you for an entire month as easy as breathing. None of us, least of you, have the resources or strength or fighting skills to stand up to a bunch of monsters who want to kill you. What are you going to do, ‘ask’ them to death. How did that go for you last time. Are you trying to die. Just sit down and wait for the footage.

He had to admit, they had some good points. Which was why his assistants – minus Melanie and, of course, Mary – were out kind of skirting the area around various wax museums Sasha had flagged wearing hidden cameras, and sending him the footage, in the hope he’d recognise one of his kidnappers.

It was a long shot, but everyone was hoping not to have to actually break into the museums until they absolutely had to. So Jon (who’d be far too recogniseable walking around the streets, and who Martin had gotten a little protective of since the whole kidnapping thing) was resigned to sitting in his office, combing through street footage for vaguely familiar faces.

He vaguely recalled being the boss here. In theory. He used to tell his assistants what to do, and they’d do it.

Whatever happened to that?

-------------------



Tim was at the post office when Jon called him.

“What’s up?”

“The museum in Yarmouth. Louis Toussad’s House of Wax? Two people loitering out the front on your camera feed. They weren’t people.”

“Yarmouth? Ha, Martin was way off. Alright, we’ll take a closer look tonight.”

‘Try not to – ”

“I’m not an idiot.” Tim hung up. He took the package he’d come for from the lady at the counter, thanked her, and left.

The envelope didn’t have a return name or address, but it was blackened and singed a little at the corners. Subtle, Jude. He tore it open, finding a key, an address, and a license plate number.

A car? It had to be stolen, right? No way this wasn’t stolen. It was also clear on the other side of London, probably just to be inconvenient. There was a chance she was just trying to get him arrested or something, but he doubted it. If jude wanted to inconvenience him, she would’ve just burned hs house down or something.

The key turned out not to belong to a car. It belonged to a van. A van completely packed with boxes of… something.

It took a bit of inspection, some reading of labels, and hasty googling for Tim to realise what he was looking at.

Well, he didn’t go to a Desolation cult for subtle, he supposed.

-----------------------



Sasha frowned at her phone. There must be something wrong with the reception, or the speaker, or something, because there was no way that Tim had just told her what she thought he’s told her.

“Sorry, what?”

“C4. A van of it.”

“Which you got from that crazy wax cultist?”

“Yeah.”

“Why were you talking to – more important, why are you telling me this over the phone? You know people can listen into this, right?”

“The only people we’ve found spying on us so far can see whatever they want at any time, apparently, or ask unanswerable questions, and they want to save the world as much as we do, so…”

“Well if Jude mailed you something and those couriers grabbed Jon from his house, I’d say we probably have a lot more spies to worry about. They know where we live, at least.”

“The devils, they can use a phone book!”

“Yeah, yeah; shut up. Just saying, we should discuss this in person.”

“Do you know how to use C4, Sasha?”

“… What? No! Why would I know something like that?”

“I always kind of assumed you were some kind of government superspy or something with your mad hacking skillz.”

“Never pronounce ‘skills’ with a z again.”

“You can’t prove it had a z. We’re talking in an auditory medium.”

“The z was in your tone, Tim. And no, being able to guess your email password or get into someone’s phone doesn’t make me a demolitions expert.”

“Can you like, google it? On the dark web or whatever?”

“I’m hanging up now.”

She did. Jesus. She kind of wished she did know a demolitions expert, just to see the look on Tim’s face, but while her social circle might include occasional thieves and con artists (difficult to entirely avoid in hacking circles) it didn’t include any terrorists or, contrary to Tim’s wild fantasies, government superspies.

Just then, Martin handed her a cup of tea. “You look annoyed. Does that mean Tim called?”

“Yeah. Ha, do you know anyone who can use C4?”

“Probably.”

Sasha blinked. “What?”

“Well, Caitlyn – you know Caitlyn from accounting? – married Peter last year, and he’s a construction worker. They do demolitions in construction work so he probably knows someone who knows about it. More importantly, why do you want someone who can use C4? Where did you get C4? What are you going to blow up?”

“Tim needs someone who can use C4, because he got a van full of it from Jude Perry, and we’re going to blow up Louis Toussad’s House of Wax, which is the ritual site, mid-Unknowing.”

Martin stared. “I was… I was in the break room for ten minutes! What the hell did I miss? Did we find Melanie and Mary, too, and I just missed it?”

“Melanie said she was fine – ”

“She texted that she was fine and turned her phone off. That means nothing. Jane texted Jon with my phone for 2 weeks when she trapped me in my apartment. If Mary has Melanie,” Martin said, “we need to know.”

“Ever noticed how alliterative the names around here can be sometimes?”

“What?”

“Never mind. If Mary did do something to Melanie, or if someone else has them both, there’s not much we can do to find them. We don’t have phone data, they’re not logging into their facebooks… unless they walk around with some huge sign pointing out who and where they are, we’re not going to get much. We just have to wait until they resurface.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.”

-------------------



Not for the first time, Melanie resolved to paint over the giant GHOST HUNT UK logo on the side of her van sometime soon. She’d changed her hairstyle since GHOST FREAKOUT UK had aired but people still occasionally recognised her, and it had to be the van’s fault.

Although she supposed that if she really, truly cared that much about not being recognised… returning to the haunted traincar that had started it all probably wasn’t her most fantastic idea.

Melanie told herself that it wasn’t fear that was accelerating her pulse as she and Mary helped each other over the fence. It was just adrenaline. She was aware of the danger and her body was preparing her for the potential need to act quickly. She wasn’t afraid, she was just ready, and if that was a bit uncomfortable, well, that was the fault of the traincar, making her feel that way! She grabbed Mary’s wrist and pulled her through the yard.

Getting in had been a lot easier with Mary to distract an inconvenient guard, and Melanie still remembered the security camera layout from last time. They made their way across the yard until she caught the scent of blood on the air. The figures that seemed to be sitting in the rusted skeletons of the trains, just for a moment, figures that were probably just figments of her imagination, didn’t matter so much any more – she knew more about how these things worked, now. Anyway, she was holding the wrist of a literal monster designed to scare her! How dare this place think it could do anything to her?! The memory of the scalpel wound burned across her shoulder; she ignored it, and quickened her pace.

The car was exactly as she remembered. Less unsettling, this time. She almost felt relief as the blood started to run down the wall of the traincar; this here was proof that there was something here, that she hadn’t been hallucinating, and she’d brought a witness. As she watched the man stab the person on the gurney again and again, the scar on her shoulder burned and she wished for nothing more than a scalpel in her own hand to get that bastard back for what he’d done to her. He’d cut her, he’d buried these memories in her brain; he’d been an integral part in her search of other war ghosts, leading her to the Institute, trapping –

Mary was tugging on her arm. “We should go,” she whispered.

She was right, of course. Melanie didn’t want to stick around long enough to be attacked again. Nobody needed a GHOST FREAKOUT UK II.

“So,” Mary said as they left the place behind, “that was a ghost.”

“Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t expect to see it again this time. I thought it might be a bit random, you know? Only showing up sometimes? Otherwise I would’ve thought there’d be more stories about it.”

“Perhaps it does. But of course it was going to show up for you.”

“What does that – ?” but before Melanie could finish her question, she stumbled, fell. Mary caught her.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah. Just a bit of a dizzy spell.”

“That’s the third one today.”

“Maybe I need to eat more iron.”

“Maybe you need to return to the Institute.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Mm.”

Melanie followed Mary back to the van, not mentioning the other two dizzy spells that Mary hadn’t noticed. She was going to have to return, eventually. But not yet.

Melanie King wasn’t going down without a fight.

Chapter Text

Daisy had promised not to go after Sims over the dreams. She hadn’t promised to ignore him.

She’d seen too many things over too long a time to be bothered by nightmares, but there was something about its endless recurrence, about him just standing there watching her, about the knowledge that her experience wasn’t private, that really got to her. He was out there doing… something. They always were. And she had to now what it was.

So she’d been spending a fair amount of her spare time keeping an eye on Jonathan Sims.

It wasn’t hard; he barely went anywhere except home and work. She took to lurking in the general area of the Magnus Institute whenever she had the chance and watching for the rare occasions that he left. Even then, he rarely went anywhere except to the bakery on the corner, with the general wariness of someone who’d recently been kidnapped by evil clowns.

So when he left the Institute mid-morning, flanked protectively by three of his assistants, that was a little weird.

They weren’t hard to follow; while the group seemed on the lookout for anyone about to grab Sims, it didn’t seem to occur to them to worry about being followed. They got on the Underground and it was no problem at all for Daisy to get on with the crowd and just wait for their stop.

They were going clear across London, apparently. Daisy was on her lunch break, but she didn’t have any set appointments for the afternoon; no one would care if she was a bit late. When you were the only Sectioned detective, people didn’t want to know what you spent your time doing.

Following them after they left the Underground was a little trickier, on the much sparser street, but not challenging. They only walked a couple of blocks before stopping to surround and inspect a van. Daisy slowly strode past them down the street, on the opposite side of the road, texting the license plate to a friend at the station. She had confirmation of what she’d expected within minutes: the van was stolen.

So Sims’ little team had nicked a van. Why? What was –

Then one of them opened the back, and Daisy had to duck into a shop to avoid anyone seeing the shocked look on her face. She knew C4 when she saw it.

What the hell was that freak planning?!

--------------------



“Are you sure, Daisy?”

“I know what plastic explosives look like, Basira.”

“Okay, but if you only glimpsed them… he just doesn’t seem the direct action kind of type, is all I’m saying. I mean, he’s scary as shit, but even in the dreams he just watches.”

“Well maybe that’s what his entourage of little freaks is for. We don’t know what they are, yet.”

“True. Did you, you know, put a report in?”

“No. There’s no need to make this complicated.”

“Daisy – ”

“If they’re going to blow people up, Basira, we need to stop it as fast as possible! This has to be bigger than him so I can’t just… just grab him right away, but I don’t have time to report it, then wait a week while it swills through the system only to be handed right back to me with full operational discretion anyway!”

“You could use the backup, is all I’m saying.”

“I’m not scared of Sims. Anyway, I came here.”

“Yeah. Ha. It’ll be a bit of a change from lost cats, I suppose.” Basira looked at Daisy carefully. Was she… alright? She was tired, certainly, and stressed from discovering someone trucking around a bunch of illegal explosives, but even aside from that, she was normally… less keen to get Basira involved in something that was surely going to end permanently for her enemy. Did she hate Sims this much? Or did she just miss Basira this much?

Basira nodded. “Okay. Let’s solve this weird monster terror plot before any innocents get hurt.”

---------------------



Melanie’s health only got worse. After a few more days, she couldn’t stand without her legs trembling with the effort. Then it became hard to keep any food down.

“You’re sick,” Mary said firmly. “You’re taking the day on work.”

“They haven’t beaten me yet.”

“So you’re going to sit here and get even sicker, for no reason, before going back to work? I’ll carry you there if I have to.”

“No – you can’t go in, until… until I know what their plan is.”

“Until you know whether they’re going to try to kill me.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you wait much longer, you won’t be able to get to the building without my help.”

“Fine. I’m going in. But first I want to introduce you to… to a friend, somewhere you can lay low for now.” Until the end of the world. God, they were lucky that Mary wasn’t directly involved in the Unknowing; if she’d been a threat to the world, Melanie would have to be on Team: Kill The Monster. But if she could just keep Mary out of the way, well, that should be good enough. Without having to give in to those smug bastards who thought she couldn’t handle the truth, who thought she’d be ‘unpredictable’, even though they were all supposed to be in the same boat.

Ugh, and now she was going to have to go to work and talk to them.

Mary had been watching Melanie drive the van for awhile, so she had no problems getting behind the wheel and following Melanie’s directions. The closer they got to the Institute, the better Melanie felt, but she was definitely still weak when they arrived at Georgie Barker’s house. Melanie ignored the tremble in her knees as she walked up Georgie’s driveway, and the way Mary stood too close, ready to catch her if she fell but clearly knowing better than to offer help.

Melanie’s knock was answered immediately. Georgie took one look at her and practically dragged her inside. “What the hell happened to you, Melanie? Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on. Uh, hi,” she added to Mary, “I’m Georgie. Do you want a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you,” Mary said, lingering on the doorstep – possibly wondering whether it was appropriate to enter without an invitation, or something? – until Melanie grabbed her wrist and pulled her inside with the hand that Georgie wasn’t pulling on, creating a daisy chain of welcoming insistence. Georgie guided – well, pushed – Melanie into a seat, disappeared briefly to put the kettle on, then returned.

“Do I need to call an ambulance or something?” she asked.

“I’m fine. I was just about to head into work, actually.”

“Like hell you are!”

“No, really, it’s fine. I, uh… I need a favour.”

Georgie glanced out the window at the Ghost Hunt UK van. “You need to borrow some equipment or something?”

“No, it’s not about… this is Mary. She needs somewhere to stay for a little while? A few weeks, maybe; I don’t know. There’s some… stuff at work.”

“Stuff that I’m guessing you’re not going to explain.”

“No.” Melanie thought about this. She could cut the conversation off there, and Georgie wouldn’t push it, she knew. Georgie was cool like that. She’d help a friend because they needed help, and while an explanation might be appreciated it wouldn’t be forced, and she drifted through life with the general expectation of being treated the same. A lot like Mary, come to think of it.

But Melanie was asking her to house a monster while she got back to stopping the apocalypse. And while she knew, knew, that Mary was no threat to Georgie, and that Georgie didn’t need to know about the apocalypse stuff, and that explaining wouldn’t help any of them in any way and would just make things worse because it would give Georgie reasons to refuse them… that wasn’t her choice. That was what the rest of the archives had done to her, and she wasn’t a hypocrite. Georgie deserved the information to make her own decision.

“Not before that tea is ready,” she clarified. “After that, yeah. You probably should know everything.”

So Georgie made the tea.

And Melanie explained. She explained about Elias hiring her, about the fears, about the nature of the supernatural. He explained about Jon, and here, Georgie stopped her.

“This Jon. We’re talking about the same Jonathan Sims, right? Fussy guy, pretentious voice, does that thing where he’s always adjusting his shirt cuffs?”

“Yep.”

“He’s an eldritch servant of evil with spooky powers?”

“Technically? So far as I can tell his ‘powers’ involve people just… answering his questions, but nobody tells me anything, so there might be more. Still, not what I’d call spooky or impressive.”

“He is the most annoyingly curious person on the planet. Loves his invasive questions. And he got hired as an archivist? He doesn’t have the degree for that! How did he not immediately realise it was a cover – actually, no, that tracks. I once watched him pour orange juice on his oatmeal and eat the entire bowl without noticing.”

“The Archivist isn’t the weird part of this story.”

“He definitely is, but keep going.”

So she explained the apocalypse.

Georgie stared. She sipped her tea. She thought very hard.

“Well,” she said eventually. “That’s something.”

“That’s what you’ve got to say? ‘That’s something’?”

Georgie shrugged. “I don’t really have much more to add, yeah. So you’re off to your evil Institute to save the world from an even more evil power?”

“Pretty much.”

“And when you get into work you should be able to walk in a straight line and not look like you’re on death’s door?”

“According to Tim, yeah.”

“And there’s nothing I can do with the whole world saving thing, I’m guessing?”

“Only by giving Mary somewhere to stay. This is, um… this is the crux of the issue, here. I understand if you don’t want to help after I explain, but…”

“Just tell me.”

So she did.

Georgie’s expression as she stared at Mary was completely unreadable. Flickers of wariness and disgust followed flashes of curiosity and thoughtfulness until, a good half a minute later, Georgie said in a completely neutral tone, “Okay. You can stay in my spare room for now.” She glared at Melanie. “You owe me big time for this.”

“I won’t forget.”

“And you still owe me for that camera.”

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“Good. Now drink your tea and go to work so you feel better.”

Melanie laughed and sipped her tea. She knew she could count on Georgie. She wouldn’t tolerate Mary hanging around forever, but it bought some time.

Who knows? Maybe they’d become great friends.

--------------



Georgie watched Melanie drive away, hoping that her condition was good enough that she could actually drive safely. But she had other dangers to worry about.

The monster had headed for the spare room immediately after Melanie had left. Georgie didn’t know what she was doing in there – just sitting around and staring at the walls, probably? – but that suited Georgie’s purposes just fine.

She’d lost one friend to one of these things before. She wasn’t going to lose another.

At least the dead woman had had the consideration to look like a monster. A dead woman surrounded by unresponsive students in a medical lab; hard to mistake that for anything safe. This one was… well, if it served the Stranger, it make sense for it to play nice, get close, right? Georgie wasn’t completely sure she understood the fear thing, but she understood how monsters worked. The last one who’d gotten close had nearly killed her, and not all of her had come back. None of Alex was ever coming back.

If she had Melanie in her spell already, well… Georgie didn’t know what that meant, for Melanie. But waiting longer would only make things worse. So as soon as she was sure Melanie was gone and Mary was in her room, she googled the number for the Magnus Institute, and gave them a call.

“Hello, you’ve called the Magnus Institute; this is Rosie. How may I help you?”

“Uh, hi. I need to speak to someone in the archives?”

“Are you a researcher with us? To access the archives, you need to – ”

“No, no. I, uh, I’m trying to get in contact with Jonathan Sims. The head archivist? It’s kind of important, but I don’t – I mean, I’ve lost his personal number, and it’s kind of an emergency…”

“It’s against protocol for me to transfer personal calls, but… just this once, dear. Don’t tell anybody, and make sure you get his number, alright?”

“Thank you so much.”

The call was transferred. Georgie waited for someone to pick up. Like hell she was letting this happen again.

Chapter Text

Elias raised his hand automatically to squash the insect crawling across his desk, then froze when he saw it wasn’t an insect; it was a small spider. Hmm. He’d known that his project had the Spider’s support – or at least a Spider’s support; it would probably be a mistake to assume that all children of the Mother of Puppets were united in their purpose – since Jon had walked through his doors, but usually they were rather more subtle. It could, of course, be an ordinary spider, but that was unlikely. He’d seen the things down in the tunnels, his tunnels, infesting what should belong to –

Well. They weren’t near the real tunnels, the area around the Panopticon. Just the fringes around the Institute. So they were probably trying to send him a message, but at least they were being polite about it.

The tiny spider crawled onto the Seven Lamps of Architecture, sitting on his desk.

“You think so?” he asked aloud, although the spider obviously couldn’t reply and quite probably no one could hear him. The Mother of Puppets didn’t tend to… work like that. Honestly, trying to sort out how her children operated tended to give Elias a headache; he was about information, first and foremost, and actually comprehending or connecting it took ordinary human thought and focus. The Spider’s minions were the opposite, building their connections without seeming to care overmuch about observing anything more than the bare minimum to make the web work, treating extraneous information as a distraction rather than an asset. He couldn’t get his head around it, and it somehow made them more difficult to predict than just being able to assume conservatively that your enemy might know everything. Somehow, it gave them a massively advantageous unpredictability without impeding their actual ability to function too much, which was… frustrating. One of the main reasons he tried to keep out of the Spider’s way, or at least felt reassured when their goals seemed to align.

But whatever little puppetmaster (or network thereof) was backing his little venture seemed to be getting bold. He was almost insulted, that anyone would think that this lack of subtlety was required, that he was that stupid. He had a plan; he didn’t need an army of spiders for moral support, or whatever they were hoping to communicate. Still, it did make him much more secure in his plan, going forward. He wasn’t sure Jon was ready yet. It was perfectly possible that Jon would die. But… well. There were a few marks that were hardly going to get safer with time, and the Buried was one of them. If it was going to kill him, better to do so early, before Elias had invested too much.

So he picked up the book, and headed for the tunnels.

------------------



“So I checked the text messages we all received and I’m pretty sure that Melanie is fine,” Martin said as he lead Jon down the stairs into the tunnels. “Not certain, but pretty sure. I think she’ll probably keep Mary away from the Institute for as long as she can, but I don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or how long that’ll be, so I think the best bet would be to have Tim in the archives as much as possible in case Mary does show up again, because he’s got the plan to deal with her.”

“By shoving her into a safe.”

“Yeah.”

“Martin, I don’t… I don’t think he’s going to be able to push a shapeshifter into a safe.”

“Well, if he fails, he just needs a good escape route. Tim’s smart enough to take full responsibility for the plan, so if she decides this makes anyone and enemy, it should only be him, and I don’t think she… she’s never been aggressive, you know?”

“That’s true,” Jon said thoughtfully. “She’d either flee or attack, and if he gets out of her sight, she’d probably choose to flee rather than chase him around the Institute. She seems to think of herself as a guest here and wouldn’t want to… offend the Eye.”

“Exactly. So if that happens, Tim can stay in the archives and he’ll be fine. Point is, we don’t have to worry about Mary or Melanie if you have Tim work in the archives as much as possible. Which means that we can focus properly on…” he dramatically pointed his torch at his wall of notecards and string.

Jon skimmed it, wrinkling his nose distastefully at a spider crawling up one side of the sheet. As Martin had expected, Jon hadn’t even noticed most of the spiders – they were mostly on the ceiling, and most people didn’t look up.

“What am I looking at?” Jon asked.

Fair enough. Everyone’s mind worked differently, and Martin hadn’t exactly labelled his strings. He started to relate the key points. “Essentially, our issues are: determining the exact time of the ritual. Arranging for the explosives to be transported to the site – I don’t think we should use Jude’s van since I think it might be stolen and the last thing we want is to get police involved – and set up in advance without the Circus noticing. Finding somebody able and willing to set up the explosives. And, of course, the detonation, which… well.”

“Which has to be done by me,” Jon said, nodding. “Elias is convinced that I should be able to resist the Unknowing’s effects enough to be able to do it during the ritual, so long as I gain enough power beforehand.”

“If we could get an exact time, we could set up everything to timers in advance,” Martin said, and we wouldn’t even have to be there.”

“Even then, I should still go. It’s too important; if something went wrong with the timer, or they were discovered.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know. I just…”

“Think it might be a bad idea to stand in the middle of a building while I collapse it mid-apocalypse ritual?”

“Yeah. Sounds kinda dangerous.”

“I’ll do my best to be outside the building when I push the button, Martin.”

“Hmm. Still doesn’t fill me with confidence. Anyway. Our explosives experts. I’ve made small talk with Peter and I have the names of three construction workers that could probably use this stuff. What I don’t have is any way in hell to convince ordinary people to come blow up a wax museum and not go straight to the police.”

“I might be able to do that. Depending.”

“How? Depending on what?”

Jon shrugged. “Depending on what sort of secrets they have. It’s not… exactly ethical, but…”

“You’re going to blackmail them into saving the world?”

“If I have to.”

“Not many people have secrets big enough for that, but it’s worth a shot. So, the transport – ” Martin stopped as he felt the ground tremble beneath his feet. He looked at Jon. They both prepared to run.

Then they fell, earth and stone crumbling around them.

-----------------



Georgie let the call ring out before putting the phone down and swearing quietly. Why was nobody picking up in the archive? Didn’t they need someone there in case researchers wanted… old documents, or whatever? She’d have to try again later, but she had wanted to get through before Melanie got to work. She didn’t want to risk Melanie picking up. Maybe she should wait for closing, go down there herself, catch Jon on his way out the door…

In the meantime, she should check on her guest. Georgie knew better than to let those things get their hooks in you; the last one had nearly destroyed her with a single sentence. Still, she didn’t think it would try anything on her if it was in the middle of some game with Melanie, so…

But Mary wasn’t in her room. The window was wide open, and a note had been left on the bedside table.



Georgie,

Thank you for you hospitality, but I can’t stay here. I stayed long enough for Melanie to leave, but Jon might compel her to tell him where I am, and I don’t think it’s fair to get you mixed up in this. I’ll remember your generosity, but I don’t think we’ll see each other again. I think it’s best for me to disappear until the Unknowing. When all this is over and the lies have been stripped from this world, the thing I want to remember most about getting to be Mary was that I got to have friends. I don’t want to do anything that changes that, and that means I can’t be here, where Jon can find me.

I wish you the best.

Mary



Georgie stared. She almost laughed. Mary wished her the best? Right after talking about how her people were going to end the world in a couple of months? She could at least be pretending to try to stop them; going along with it and being all ‘but good luck with your remaining 2 months!’ was just insulting.

Well, Melanie was not going to be happy about this. Not one little bit. But if it meant Mary leaving Melanie and everyone else alone… fine. She’d take it.

Chapter Text

When the earth stopped moving, all Martin could feel was the inexorable press of soil.

He couldn’t see anything. He could taste earth and blood, where he must have bitten his lip. He could hear ragged breathing – he could breathe! The earth buried his legs from about the waist, but his head was in the air, his cheek resting on somebody warm and moving; Jon, presumably.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I think I’m in one piece,” Jon grunted in reply. “You?”

“My legs might be trapped, but I don’t think I’m hurt.” As he said it, he kicked his legs experimentally and found that they could move, a little. Slowly, he dragged himself out from behind the pressing earth and hard stones. Jon, from the sounds of it, was freeing himself from a similar situation.

“We might cause a cave-in if we’re not careful,” Jon warned him, “and crush or suffocate ourselves.”

“How much air do we have?”

“No idea.”

The pair, free from the wall, barely fit in the tiny pocket of space. Martin felt Jon’s back pressed up against his stomach as their heads bent awkwardly against the roof and they felt out the space with their arms. Well, elbows.

This is it, Martin thought. We’re dead.

A strange kind of calm on the other side of panic rolled through him. He was so used to fear, now; it had become a background part of his life, always something to watch for, always something to run from, always something to plan around. Worms or artefacts of monsters or his mother having a bad turn or someone trying to hurt Jon. But there was nowhere to run here, there was nothing to plan around, there was nothing to watch for or fight. They had lost, they were dead, the Tower of Babel had collapsed as it was always going to do, eventually, although he hadn’t expected his demise to contain a collapse quite so literal.

There was nothing left to be afraid of.

And Martin knew what he was going to do next, with an unemotional, detached certainty. He was going to pick himself up from the ruins and start building the tower again, because that’s what humans did. They were dead, but he was, nevertheless, going to attempt to survive. It wasn’t even a decision he was making, not really. It was simply the next thing his body would do in these circumstances.

“These tunnels are mostly stone,” he pointed out to Jon. “If we dig around, we might find bigger pockets between the stones. If we’re lucky, we can make it to an intact tunnel and try to find a way out.”

“Or cave this place in and be crushed or trapped.”

“We’re already trapped. And we’re already going to die.”

“Yeah. Let’s look around.”

So the pair started to dig through the dark underground, searching for tunnels and caves.

-----------------------



Elias looked at the book in his hands and wondered if he’d done the right thing.

Of course he had. All of logic said he had. This had been the right time – the Buried wasn’t going to get any less dangerous, so it was best to do it early, when it would be easier to recover if Jon died. This had been the right course of action – he hadn’t had to track down some untrustworthy servant of the Buried to manipulate, and could keep everything in his own hands. This had been the right place – the Seven Lamps could manipulate Smirke’s tunnels and Jon had gone into the tunnel of his own accord, so he hadn’t had to lure him anywhere he couldn’t control. But…

Well, it was so hard to see anything in here. He couldn’t tell how Jon was doing. He was pretty sure he was alive, but that meant very little in a cave-in; he could be trapped or bleeding out or suffocating, as good as dead down there in the earth. Elias was fairly sure that the tunnels he’d twisted around were right; big enough that Jon had a reasonable chance of surviving but narrow and confused enough that the Buried would find him down there. But it was out of Elias’ sight now, and therefore out of his control, and if something went wrong…

Well. There was no reversing the action, and it had been the logically correct one, so there was nothing to do but press onward. Complete the day’s tasks. Next task: a very early lunch.

Elias decided to go to the bakery across the street. Himself, without sending a secretary. He… wanted to walk under the open sky for a couple of minutes. He was so distracted worrying about Jon that he almost didn’t See the danger in time, and as he flung himself off the street and landed hard on the pavement he could’ve sworn he felt the van rushing past brush the tip of his shoe.

He barely had to Look to feel Melanie’s rage pulsing from the vehicle. He stood up unsteadily (from the sudden movement, surely; not from fear), checked himself over (badly bruised shoulder, but he wasn’t really hurt), and decided that maybe he should send a secretary after all.

Bringing Melanie aboard was going to pay off with Jon eventually, he was sure, but she was becoming… inconvenient. It was time to nip that in the bud.

It was time for Melanie’s first performance review.

---------------------



Through the earth, they dug.

They dug slowly. They dug patiently. They dug in complete darkness, balancing time (they would run out of air if they didn’t find more soon) against safety (one wrong move and the ground would crush them). Displaced earth takes up more space, so as they dug, they ended up with less space around them; soon they were trying to press the loose earth around themselves tight, fighting the ground itself for enough space to inch forward while they tried to breathe as little dust as possible and ignore how quickly the air around them was becoming stale.

It took forever. And then, forever was over. Jon’s hands pushed past a rock and found air.

He didn’t scramble out all at once, collapsing their tiny tunnel on them both. He said, “Martin, I think we’ve found an air pocket,” and carefully widened the gap, crawling forward slowly, very slowly, Martin so close behind him that the man was lying on his legs. They squirmed their way out and dropped into… a space they could almost stand up in. Oh god, the luxury of almost being able to stand up!

Jon couldn’t see anything, of course. His eyes hadn’t adjusted – there was no light to adjust to. Heir torches were… somewhere, in the rubble above them, probably. His legs took his weight, his arms had their full range of movement, and he was breathing. Beyond that, it was hard to tell his condition.

“Are you alright?” he asked Martin.

“Yeah. You?”

“Yes.”

“How far did we dig to get here?”

“Ah, about my body length, I think.”

“Jesus.”

They grabbed each others’ hands in the dark, to avoid losing each other. To have enough space where that was even necessary was… well. Best not to get too optimistic. They could very well still be trapped.

Without needed to discuss it, the pair felt out the bounds of their new prison. The part they’d landed in was about five foot high, although both floor and ceiling were too uneven to be very precise. Tiny, hard stalagmites and stalactites bashed at their feet and heads if they moved incautiously. Jon supposed that that was probably a positive sign; this area hadn’t been disturbed by the cave-in so it was probably a lot more stable. Right?

The tunnel narrowed dramatically on both sides. Soon, they were kneeling on the pointy floor, then lying down. Jon swore quietly.

There was nothing to do but press on through any gap they could fit in. There was no safety in waiting; no rescue was coming.

“We should get out breath and then pick a direction, I suppose,” Jon said.

“I think that end is wider for longer,” Martin said, moving Jon’s hand to indicate which side of the tunnel he meant. “And has less of those little stalagmites. How far underground do you think we are?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t fall for long, so it can’t be far, surely? Although given how long it took us to dig that little tunnel, I don’t think distance really matters.” He sighed. “I don’t… know anything about this place.”

Martin laughed quietly. “Join the club.”

“No, I mean I don’t… sometimes, I know things? Things I… can’t really explain. Like,,, like I’m recalling them from the statements, or some long-lost memory, but they’re often things I wouldn’t have read or heard before. Usually, they’re completely useless, but sometimes I know something useful, and I was hoping I might… know… a way out. But I don’t.” He found himself gripping Martin’s hand tighter. “Quite possibly there is no way out.”

“Probably not,” Martin agreed. “Which means there’s no harm in looking for one. We can’t doom ourselves any further. “What do you mean, about knowing things? Is this like with your unavoidable questions?”

“Probably. I have to assume it’s a Beholding thing. I wish Elias would warn me of these things in advance but…”

“But ‘if you wish to have any chance against the Unknowing, you must learn to see these things for yourself, Jon,’” Martin said in a terrible Elias imitation. “What sort of things do you know? Can you give me an example?”

“Uh, alright. Last week I found out that when you were a child, your stuffed elephant was named Hermann.”

“Oh yeah, Hermann! I’d forgotten about him!”

“I also knew that the footage near that wax museum contained servants of the Stranger. I didn’t recognise either of those people from my captivity, I just knew what they were.”

“That was useful, at least.”

“Yes. I’ve been trying to know something that’ll be useful here, but I don’t have any control over it.”

“It isn’t working on anything down here?”

“Not so far. But I can’t predict when it’s going to happen, or about what, so…”

“Hmm,” Martin said thoughtfully. The space was silent for awhile but for their breathing, before Martin said, “Have you tried feeding it?”

“What?”

“The Ceaseless Watcher. I listened to that recording you made, of your conversation with Jude Perry? Where she talks about feeding your patron so it doesn’t devour you? This knowing… does it happen more when you’ve been doing Archivist things?”

“I don’t… I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. Does it matter?”

“Not sure. But if you want to know how to get out of here, it’s worth a try, right?”

“I don’t exactly have any statements down here to – ”

“You’ve got me.”

He couldn’t be serious. “Martin, you don’t have to do that.”

“You said yourself, we’re probably doomed down here. We’re going to be crawling around blindly until we die or we get out. If we die, it won’t matter, and if it might help us get out…”

“Fine. Tell me what you like, and I’ll… I’ll listen.”

“I don’t think that’s our best bet. I think we have a better chance the more… archivist you are. You should probably ask me, so you can get something that I don’t want to tell you, that I can’t keep from you.”

“I’m not going to force you to tell me about your trauma, Martin!”

“I just said I’m okay with it. If there’s any chance it might help get us out of here.”

“Being coerced by the threat of death isn’t the same as being okay with something. I don’t think you want to do this.”

“Of course I don’t. But no matter how fair any of this is, we are being threatened with death. So… ask.”

Jon squeezed Martin’s hand for reassurance – for him or Martin, he wasn’t sure, and asked. “Martin, what’s an incredibly painful memory that you don’t want to tell me about?”

Martin must have had regrets, because he hesitated before speaking. Then he took a deep, shuddering breath, and began.

“I was eight when my mum started getting properly sick. It wasn’t that long after that my father left…”



Chapter Text

Melanie strode quickly away from Elias’ office, towards the safety of the archives, trying to get a hold of herself. Elias’ threat echoed over and over in her mind – “If you try to interfere with me again in any way, I will drive that image so deep into your psyche that even if you are right – even if you live – it will be there every time you close your eyes.”

At least she’d bruised up his shoulder pretty bad. But she couldn’t even find joy in that.

Oh, god. Dad. Elias was right, it hadn’t been her fault, but… it kind of had, hadn’t it? Even if she hadn’t known. She’d put him there. And he’d suffered so badly. Maybe Elias should put that experience in her mind. Maybe she deserved it. Melanie knew that there’s always been something toxic about her, and she’d fought and fought for everything, fought to be respected, to prove she was worth taking seriously, but deep down, she knew she wasn’t. People who had value didn’t have to try this hard. She’d faked it til she made it, stood in front of cameras with a smile and looked her peers in the eye and pretended she’d known what she was doing, but she always screwed it up, and her bad decisions had killed her father so horribly, along with every other thing in her life.

Now there was just this. And a fucking apocalypse. And she’d probably screw that up, too.

No. No; there was a way out of this. There was always a way to claw back up, she just… she needed to back off for a bit, find another angle, another way to attack this threat that didn’t involve going through Elias, not directly. Or at leas that was quick enough that he wouldn’t be able to retaliate. Poison didn’t work, running him down with a car hadn’t worked, but there’d be…

“Melanie!” Sasha’s overjoyed voice made her jump. “You’re oka – you’re not okay. What the hell happened?! You just disappeared – did the circus – ”

“No,” Melanie managed to say. “I’m fine.”

“You’re obviously not.”

“I just saw Elias…”

Understanding dawned on Sasha’s face. “Oh. I’ll, uh… I’ll make you some tea.”

------------------------



Martin was heavy, leaning on Jon’s chest. And his tears were making Jon’s neck wet.

But Jon didn’t complain. He just sat there, awkwardly patting Martin’s shoulder as he finished confessing that he knew his mother hated him, always had no matter how hard he tried, and he didn’t know what he’d done wrong

Well, this explains basically everything about why you are the way you are, Jon thought, but didn’t say it. Instead he said, “I’m… I’m sorry, Martin.”

“Yeah, well… I asked you to do that, so.” Martin sat up, and moved about a bit, probably wiping his face on his sleeves in the darkness. “So. Do you… know… anything?”

Jon thought. “No. Sorry, I… I can’t control it, and nothing’s…”

“Right.” But Martin didn’t sound disappointed; he sounded… thoughtful.

“You didn’t expect that to work.”

“I thought it was worth a shot, but if you don’t control what you get and a lot of it is useless anyway, the chances of you getting anything useless now were pretty low.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Also,” Martin admitted reluctantly, “there’s a chance that your… knowledge powers?… might not work down here, especially for something like that.”

“I could compel you to answer just fine.”

“Yeah, but we’re both sitting here, next to each other. That’s different to knowing stuff, I think. I’m working on a theory that Elias might not be able to see anything in these tunnels, that maybe they’re… shielded from the Eye, like the van they kept you in.”

“So you just did that as a, what, an experiment? To confirm your theory?”

“No. Your ability not working doesn’t confirm anything; it’s too unreliable. I was hoping you might find something helpful, I’m just… not surprised that you didn’t.”

Jon nodded, although there was no point in the darkness. “It makes sense that those kinds of powers wouldn’t work down here,” he said thoughtfully. “I always feel so lost down here. And if Elias could see things down here, he would’ve noticed Jane’s worms before they attacked the Institute.”

“And Gertrude’s body,” Martin pointed out.

“He hid Gertrude’s body in the tunnels, didn’t he?”

“Exactly. And it was a stupid place to put it. He shot her in her office, left the place covered in blood, but dragged her body into the tunnels before calling the police? That’s a stupid plan. They might have found the trapdoor, and he left it so close tot he entrance; hiding her like that made him look so much more suspicious than if he had’ve just left her in the office. I get why he hid the tapes, I can see why he’d have trouble destroying information, but that really was a terrible hiding location for anything, especially a corpse. I found her by accident, running from worms. It’d only make sense to someone who could see basically everywhere else, to think of a place like that as well-hidden.”

“Ha. There’s a point. You ready to move on?”

“Yeah.”

The pair headed for the end of the cave they wanted to continue from and carefully lay down. If the whole cave was like this, Jon thought, it might not be the lack of air or eventual starvation that got them – they might simply be torn to shreds by the cave floor and die of their wounds. They’d have to be careful.

Once again, the tunnel narrowed quickly. The danger of a cave-in had been replaced by the dangers of the sharp, uneven floor and ceiling, which was more painful but technically less dangerous. Jon took the lead, being smaller, and the two didn’t talk as they pushed their way through the gap in the stone as it grew narrower and narrower. They needed to concentrate entirely on their task.

Forward, forward; there was always more forward. Sometimes it sloped up a little, which was very difficult to move through; sometimes it sloped down, which was easier but felt like moving backward, so far as getting out was concerned.

And then, Jon felt it.

“Martin! Do you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“Breeze! Air flow!”

“I don’t. There’s air flow? That’s fantastic!”

Jon sped up, immediately cut his hand on a rock, and slowed down again. The passage had his chest pressed to the ground, elbows forward to protect his face from floor and ceiling alike, but there was air at the end of it.

No light, yet. But maybe, if he kept going…

Something was wrong. Jon stopped moving. He couldn’t hear any problems; just dripping water, hit own breathing…

He couldn’t hear Martin.

“Martin?” he called.

“I’m here.” The voice was further back than Jon had expected. “Keep going, Jon.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m stuck.”

“Alright, I’m coming back.”

“No. No; there’s nothing you can do. Jon, I’m… I can’t fit. I think I can wriggle back, but I can’t go forward.”

“Right. I’m coming back, and we’ll try the other end of the tunnel. It seems narrower at the start, but maybe it – ”

“Jon. No. we can’t do that. These rocks are… you’re cut up, too, right? We can’t afford to backtrack. You need to save your strength to get out, and there’s a breeze ahead of you. That’s the way out.”

“I am absolutely not leaving you here.”

“I know. You’re going to go and get help. Because if you don’t leave and get help, then we’ll both die down here, Jon. So I need you to keep going. Okay?”

“Splitting up won’t help us! It’s dark, and this place is a maze, and – ”

“Staying here will get us both killed. It’s our only chance. Please, Jon – keep going. Find that breeze.”

“I will come back for you.”

“I know. Good luck, Jon. I… I just want to say… well. Good luck.”

“Stay safe, Martin.”

And then Jon started to crawl forward again, pitting his vulnerable flesh against the limited mercy of cold stone.

Chapter Text

Martin waited, still, until he couldn’t hear Jon any more. He wanted to shout encouragement, tell him he… but saying anything more risked Jon changing his mind, coming back for him, and Martin was still in that cold place on the other side of terror where their death was the default any anything more was a step forward. He didn’t need Jon’s company to die in the cold dark. And Jon, if he kept moving, had a chance to make it out. A negligible chance, but a chance.

So he didn’t move, he didn’t make a sound, until Jon was gone. And then he slowly edged backward, every inch closer to his tomb costing him a bump or a scrape.

Then he huddled near the tunnel they’d made to arrive, hugged his knees, and waited to collapse into hysterics.

But the hysterics never came.

Pathetic, in a way. He could sob uncontrollably over not connecting with his mother, but not his own death? Well, the former had had the help of a compulsion. Maybe if he’d told Jon about how they were definitely going to die, he’d have cried over that, too. Unfortunate that Jon’s last memories of him were going to include him sobbing into his neck like a baby, but Martin had known the risks. And he was scared. So scared, he couldn’t feel it any more, like when you turned up the audio too loud and everything flattened to a thundering, meaningless noise. Not only was it easy to dismiss, but even here, with space and time to process, he tried to reach for it and couldn’t.

And now he was going to die. He wondered how many of the fears his demise was feeding, although if they were all really aspects of the same thing he supposed the question didn’t have any true meaning. Still, it was nice that at least someone was getting something positive out of this experience.

The stone on the walls and roof of his tomb was smoothed with water where it wasn’t sharp with stalagmites, hard and clearly undisturbed for centuries, except for their entrance tunnel. He’d seen parts of the tunnel system like this higher up, in the areas they usually walked, mixed among the more obviously constructed stuff, tunnels built by humans and nature locked together in a confusing and ever-changing mesh, but this part had obviously never been part of the network. The only mess and dust in the place was what they had brought with them, bursting through the wall, wildly off-course.

He hoped that the path Jon had taken eventually looped back to the tunnels they’d been trying to dig back into. But even if it did, those tunnels were so confusing…

A piece of rubble fell from the entrance tunnel behind him, onto his shoulder, and something moved down his shirt. Worm! Jane’s worm! Finally, he felt real panic again; Martin jumped to his feet, cracking his head on the stone above and dropping back down immediately, ignoring the new head wound while he scrabbled for the invader on his back. He should’ve been careful, he should’ve realised that the CO2 might not reach as far as the worms, he shouldn’t have assumed that just because Jane was dead didn’t necessarily mean all the worms were…

His hand closed around the invader and crushed it. It hadn’t been a worm. It had been a spider. Jane was dead, Jane’s worms were dead. It was just one of the tunnel spiders, having fallen with them and survived by luck until…

The tunnel spiders.

Those tunnels had been full of spiders, their ceilings crossed with cobwebs. Digging around blind was a great way to die, and they’d been lucky to find this little cavern the first time, but with a map… if Martin could be sure of the direction to a tunnel and keep digging until he found it…

All he had to do was follow the trail of spiders through the earth until the tunnel opened up again. And he’d sent Jon off to wander – no, that was probably for the best, actually. Jon would panic and kill himself having to crawl through spiders like this. But Martin had a chance of maybe getting up there and sounding the alarm; they could come back for Jon…

Martin felt a flash of beautiful, relieving hope.

And then, of course, came the bone-deep dread and fear. If imminent death wasn’t a certainty, well… it was still very much on the horizon. He was almost certainly going to die. And he was going to do it squirming his way through loose soil filled with spiders and the scattered remains of Corruption worms.

Martin remained where he was for a bit, freaking out. He absolutely did not want to go in there until his breathing was well under control.

----------------------------



Eventually, the crack through which Jon was wriggling, inch by inch, began to widen once again. He could take full breaths. He could move forward without cutting his face. He could manoeuvre his arms, and get his knees under himself, a little.

That maddening little breeze seemed to have changed direction; it was through another narrow bit, but he was not, he was not going that narrow again until he was certain he absolutely had to. Uneven stone pulled at his tattered clothing like tiny, grasping hands; once, he was certain a fist had closed around his ankle, and kicking out in panic had copped him a nasty bruise on his knee. He still couldn’t see anything, of course, but he followed the widening of the gap, moving away from the breeze still, which felt wrong but –

No, the direction of the air had changed. More than one exit? Or perhaps he was simply going mad. That would make sense. He’d been crawling on his belly for… it had to be hours, right? It must be hours. Or maybe minutes, maybe days. Impossible to tell. He’d been crawling for time, struggling for every inch and every breath, paying for progress in blood and pain with no certainty about whether he was even making progress or simply burying himself deeper. This wasn’t the sort of thing a human was supposed to do. So maybe he had gone mad.

Maybe that was why the tiny little stir of that breeze blew back and forth now, like somebody breathing on his face.

“Who’s there?!” Jon screamed into the darkness. His own voice bounced painfully right back into his ears, but that was all. No answer.

Which meant he was alone. Because if somebody was lying right in front of him, invisible in the dark, breathing onto his face, they would have had to answer. If somebody was grabbing at his trousers, trying to pull him back into the tight space he was escaping, they would have had to answer. People answered him. That was how it worked.

So he was alone. He was safe.

Well, except for the obvious, very significant dangers to his life, he was safe.

Jon dragged himself forward, forward, until he could crawl. Until he could crouch, Until he could stand, for the few seconds his trembling legs allowed him before giving out.

He slumped against a wall of soft earth and rough stone, not smoothed or calcified by water, and was hit with the sudden memory that the Institute was technically built on a swamp. So he could very well be under the water level right now, in a little pocket of air mercifully unfilled, but where one wrong turn or a shift of the ground could…

No, best not to think of that. Besides, this air pocket must have remained for centuries, so what was the chance it would fill now? Could even he really be that unlucky?

Hmm. Definitely best not to think of that.

When he could stand properly, Jon continued forward. He’s have liked to rest, but Martin might need help as soon as possible. His shoes were as tattered as everything else on him, but the soles were intact, so being able to walk meant hardly any new injuries; a true luxury. He just had to keep one hand in front of him, one on the wall, and follow… what was he following? That strange, soft thumping, like footsteps? No – the breeze. The breeze was the other way.

He could do this. He had to do this. Martin was counting on him.

-------------------



Martin dug.

There were animals who did this all the time. Rabbits, for instance. And moles. Moles were amazing at tunnelling through the earth, and they weren’t very smart, so it couldn’t be too hard.

Of course, when humans tried, they usually died. Martin tried not to think too hard about that as he dug his hands into the soft rock and earth they’d emerged from a lifetime ago and, once again, buried himself.

He didn’t need light. He didn’t need a map. He had hundreds of spiders, living and dead, and their guiding cobwebs to reassure him with every handful that he was going the right way.

Ew. This was going to make a really weird statement later. Best to record it himself and log it right into the database, he thought; Jon definitely wouldn’t want to read this one. The digging was easier than expected, actually. It definitely wasn’t easy; the earth held him and he was constantly gasping used and dusty air, lashing blindly for another little pocket to breathe. But there were pockets, caught between stone and cobwebs, if he could stomach the occasional spider to the face. And earth laced with webbing was easier to burrow through than bare earth had been. He tried not to think about how horribly infected his many, many cuts probably were as he dug and dug and… hit air. Air!

Martin wriggled out into the tunnel. Then he felt around to confirm that, yes, he was in a tunnel. A tunnel in a network that he knew to be treacherous and easily lost in, that would seem to move around without warning, and with no way to know how far underground he was or how far from the Institute, but…

One hand to the wall, Martin started to walk.

-----------------------------



“Sasha, have you seen Monsterboss today?”

“Not since first thing this morning. Why?”

“Oh, I’m just looking for a tape I think he was using. But it’s not important. It can wait until he swans back in again. You want anything from the bakery?”

Chapter Text

“Hey there.”

Mary looked up from her book at the man towering over her. He looked about mid-20s and was looking her up and down with a crooked smile.

“Hello,” she said, turning back to her book. He took the seat across from her. Why? Was it wrong to go to a coffee shop alone? Perhaps she was supposed to bring company, and he was trying to help her out by providing it.

“How’s the book?” he asked.

“It is dramatic,” she replied. “Ye Zhao needs to lead the army to protect her people from being conquered, she’s their last hope, but she’s just found out she’s pregnant and doesn’t think she’ll have a chance to get pregnant again. So she needs to choose whether to keep the baby, which could put all of China in danger if her enemies find out she’s not in peak physical condition, or give up on her chance for children. I hope she keeps it. She really wants children.”

“Uh… right. So, are you waiting for anyone?”

“No.”

“You want company?”

She smiled without looking up. “Yes, but I don’t think they want me.”

“Well, I’m – ”

Mary looked the man in the eyes and gave him one of her less practiced smiles. He sat back suddenly, but didn’t leave. Melanie would be disappointed in her for doing this on purpose again, probably, but she was what she was. She put down the book. “You have a few minutes to talk, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Great. How’s your day going?” She picked up her coffee and sipped, maintaining eye contact the entire time.

“It’s uh, fine. I mean, I have work later, so that’s…” he shifted awkwardly in his seat, edging it back from the table.

“But you’re free to talk right now.” Mary tried the smile again, a little wider this time.

The man swallowed nervously.

“What’s your name?”

“Um… Paul?” An obvious lie.

“No it isn’t.”

He edged back further. Mary reminded herself to go gentle. If she pushed too hard, he was going to flee and the game would be over.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “You wanted to talk to me.” She sat back a little, pulled up a more normal smile. Still maintained eye contact, though. “Anything interesting happen to you today?”

‘Paul’ glanced around, but nobody else in the coffee shop was looking at them. Mary could practically see his mind work to make this situation normal again. “Well I saw a car accident. I think everyone was fine, though? A van accident, anyway.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. A van with some kind of ghost slogan on it swerved off the road and took out a mailbox and nearly hit a dude.”

Melanie. She’d been sick; probably not in a condition to drive…

“Where? Where did this accident happen?”

------------------------------



Martin knew he couldn’t keep wandering forever. Sooner or later, he was going to pass out. And sooner or later, he was going to die. He just had to hope he’d stumble into an exit before then.

One hand to the wall, he kept walking.

-----------------------------



Jon didn’t want to crawl into another tiny gap. He really, really didn’t want to.

But there was no choice. It was the only way forward. And at least the ground here was smoother, softer. It wouldn’t cut him up so badly. He gritted his teeth, got down, and started to crawl forward.

------------------------------



The accident had been practically outside the Magnus Institute. Mary stood across the road, staring at the little ring of hazard tape around the space a mailbox had once stood. Then she headed into the parking lot to check Melanie’s van, which looked barely damaged. Melanie had parked the van at work, and presumably gone to work. She was fine.

Mary should leave.

But…

What was she doing? Just waiting for the apocalypse, hiding out because she didn’t want to face the problems her own loyalties had created? She wasn’t helping her friends or the Circus out here. She was just hiding. Could she claim to have friends, in the end, if all she was doing was avoiding them so they had no chance to be anything else?

Ye Zhao would be ashamed of her. Frodo and Antigone and Sam Vimes and Superman would all be ashamed of her.

If she was going to have friends, she had to back that commitment up. She had to give them a chance to be friends, or to… not be friends. And if they didn’t like her any more, that was their choice. And if they wanted to kill her, well, she was sure she could get away without having to hurt any of them. Not permanently, at least. Even if she might… even if she might have to give up being Mary, because there was no point to Mary that wasn’t tied up in her friends. But that was the risk she was going to have to take, if she wanted Mary to be a good and honourable person.

Mary held her head up high, and headed in to work.

---------------------------



Zara headed down into the cellar for another keg. The beer was flowing pretty freely, for the middle of the day, and she was run off her feet four hours into her shift at the pub, so when she heard a strange thumping on the cellar wall she was inclined to ignore it. That was, until the banging became more insistent. And then the wall began to tremble.

Zara stepped back and scanned the room for some kind of weapon just as the wall collapsed inward and a figure stumbled out, collapsing immediately onto their knees.

The man was dressed in rags so torn up and covered in dark mud that she couldn’t tell what clothes they’d originally been. Most of his skin and hair was covered in the same mud, a mix of dirt and blood, and the skin that was visible was covered in cuts, bruises and scrapes. He had one hand pressed over his eyes to shut out the light while he gasped and trembled for a bit, before saying in a remarkably even and polite tone, “Hi. I’m Martin. Where am I? Also, can I borrow your phone? It’s kind of important.”

------------------------



Tim had sort of grown to expect that something could ruin his day at any time. So while he spent the afternoon absently scrolling through Facebook and steadfastly refusing to get any real work done, he wasn’t surprised when somebody opened the door to the archives to presumably do exactly that.

He was surprised that it was Mary, though.

The pair sized each other up for a moment, Tim resting his hand on the axe under his desk, which he’d taken from Martin’s. Mary gave him a bright smile. “Hi, Tim.”

“Hi, Mary. Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“We went looking for some ghosts. It was fun.” Her eyes caught the safe in the corner. “Oh, that’s new!”

“Yeah, got it installed to protect our more important stuff. It’s really secure, check it out.” He got up and opened the safe, gesturing theatrically to the inside. Mary, looking delighted, came right over to have a look.

“It’s huge!”

“Yeah, I thought I’d go upmarket, since Elias has to pay for it. Fucker. I reckon you could fit a whole person in here.” To demonstrate, he got into the safe himself, but he couldn’t quite get his head or arms in. “Dammit.”

“I could fit!” Mary said excitedly. “See?” She jumped right in.

It was too fucking easy. She had one leg out of the safe, one hand on the door; the instant she pulled those in…

Tim’s phone rang. One hand on the safe door, he answered. “Martin? Martin, calm down; what’s – are you at hospital yet? Fine, fine; I’ll handle it. Call the police and go to hospital, we’ll do what we can here. Okay.” He hung up.

Two monsters trapped, huh. Monsterboss underground, Mary about to climb into the safe. She pulled her arm and leg in, leaned back against the back of the safe, and grinned triumphantly. “See?”

And just like that, the impossibly strong shapeshifter could be contained.

Tim sighed. He took his hand off the door. “That’s pretty impressive,” he said, “but you should get out of there. Jon’s in trouble, and I think you might be able to help.”

Chapter Text

Mary wasn’t entirely sure how she was supposed to find Jon. The tunnels under the Institute were so easy to get lost in at the best of times, and they went everywhere, and she had no idea where Jon would be by now.

But she volunteered to go down, and made a persuasive argument, and convinced everyone that she was the best choice. If she got lost down there then she, unlike the others, wouldn’t die. If she got trapped or in trouble then she, unlike the others, had the ability to change her shape and get out of it. She was immune to a lot of the dangers that plagued her friends; she was of the Stranger and no other fear could mark or claim her, and her facsimile of fear, real as it was to her personally, didn’t feed them. She couldn’t read statements, couldn’t fall victim to Leitners without human intervention (she’d broken into storage and experimented with a few awhile back; nothing), couldn’t feed the fears and wrap them around her mind and trap and kill herself. She didn’t even need light all the time; she’d brought one, but she could mostly keep it turned off and use the touch and hearing she’d enhanced for this purpose to navigate, which would save her batteries.

So if someone was going to venture down into those tunnels…

She wasn’t sure how she was going to find Jon, but she had… an inkling. Mary tended to run into humans wherever she went. That made sense; it was what she was for. If she wandered into those tunnels, and there was only one human in close proximity… well, it wasn’t the most reliable plan, but it was all they had. And if she didn’t find him, the rescue teams would show up soon enough. Once they finished arguing about who had to go to the Magnus Institute, and had scrounged together enough Sectioned police.

So through the dark, Mary walked.

-------------------------------



So this is it, Jon thought. This is how I die.

It hadn’t even seemed like a very tight squeeze at first. It hadn’t been, really. But he’d been scrambling forward on his elbows, and something above had shifted, and finally, finally, the ground had caved in on him, pinning his legs. There was open air just ahead, he knew; if he stretched out his arms, he could wave them in all directions. He was so close. But he’d been pulling and struggling and kicking against the weight on his legs, and there was simply nothing to be done. He was stuck, in the dark earth, where nobody would find him. He was going to die.

And somewhere behind him, Martin was waiting in the dark for Jon to bring a rescue party. How long would it be before Martin gave up hope in him? Or would Martin die in the dark still holding onto the conviction that Jon would save him?

Somewhere, out in the darkness, the random echoes of water once again resolved into a sound that might be analogous to footsteps, but not human ones. The gait was off, the sounds were…

But there was nothing down here, he knew that; he was alone. Nothing was going to get him but time; thirst, hunger, exhaustion, infection. The cold, maybe. No monsters were coming closer, even if that’s what it sounded like… was that laughter? Was somebody quietly laughing?

“Who’s there?” Jon shouted into the cave, expecting once again a reassuring lack of an answer.

“Mary!” came the reply. “Jon? Where are you?”

“What do you want?”

“To fiiiiiiiind you!” Her answer bounced off the cave walls in such an eerie, inhuman way that Jon, who’d thought his fear was all used up on the myriad threats to his life around him, felt a sudden new stab of terror for the thing in the cave with him, and as he did so, she immediately stopped walking. “Oh! There you are!”

And then she was there, next to him; fingers that were too broad and hard to be human with sturdy nails designed for digging were running over him, searching for the stones that trapped him. Bone and sinew snapped and cracked around him as she reached further into the crevice than a human arm should be able to, clearing away the rubble on his legs with impossible strength and gently pulling him out.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Um… no.”

“Can you walk?”

“I don’t…” Jon tried to stand. Failed. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll carry you, then.”

He was lifted onto a back that felt wrong. Mary’s waist was too narrow, her hips too wide; not in an hourglass figure sort of way, but more like channels had been dug into the sides of her waist to allow his legs to sit comfortably while he piggybacked her. She leaned forward as she walked, so it was easy for him to lie on her and not fall off and the pair could keep their heads well clear of the ceiling, and moved forward at an angle and pace that shouldn’t be nearly as comfortable or easy for a human skeleton as it seemed to be for her.

She handed him a water bottle, which he drank from, gratefully.

“Thank you. Martin’s trapped, he –”

“He’s already out.”

“He’s okay?”

“He’s in hospital. I don’t think he hurt himself permanently.” Mary stopped walking. “Jon, you need to calm down.”

“What?”

“You’re too scared. These tunnels are really hard to navigate already and you’re getting us turned around. You’ve wrapped your fear of being buried all around your mind and you’re leading us in circles.”

“I can’t just stop being afraid of something.”

“Can you be someone who isn’t afraid, for a little while? You can always be Jon again when you’re out. I won’t steal him.”

“That’s not… how does that even… I can’t just be someone who isn’t afraid, no. That’s not how humans work.”

“How much do you weigh?”

“I don’t know. Is that impor – ”

“Never mind, I think I have it.” She pulled him off her back and… kissed him.

Jon was too confused to react as Mary pressed her mouth to his. It wasn’t until she breathed into his mouth, and he tasted a strange salty tang at the back of his tongue, that he understood what she was doing… but by then, the drug on her breath and his exhaustion were both dragging him into unconsciousness.

-------------------------



Mary felt… wrong… as she handed her unconscious friend over to the ambulance crew. She’d put on her normal form again to exit the tunnels, of course, so nobody gave her a second look except to try to pressure her into letting them check her over (she refused; it was a waste of their time and there were some parts inside her that she still wasn’t sure she’d ever hooked up right and didn’t want doctors looking at), so she was able to just walk away and… think.

Everything was wrong and right at the same time. She was supposed to try to be human, so why was it that the more human she tried to be, the more confusing things had gotten? She’d put on inhuman hands and feet and bones to more easily navigate the tunnels, to better find her friend, and it have felt awful, disgusting, to do so, to use her powers like that, but… everything she’d read, in her dramas, had told her it was the Right Thing, the human thing to do, to use her abilities to help her friend. So why were her Stranger instincts screaming at her that it was wrong? And then she’d found Jon, and he’d been frightened of her; he’d hated the feel of her inhuman hands on him, and that had made them feel right, like she was fulfilling her purpose, but… she didn’t want to make Jon scared, either. And that had confused the hell out of her. She was supposed to make people scared, but humans didn’t want their friends to be afraid… she understood the conflict there a little better, at least. The purpose of her imitation was to stimulate or exacerbate fear. She wasn’t made to be a perfect imitation, so… maybe that was it? She was trying to be more human than she’d been made for?

No, that couldn’t be right. She was nowhere near a good imitation of a human. She was far too confused for that to be the case. Melanie had said that humans were confused about what they were all the time, but Mary was pretty sure she’d just been trying to make her feel better. No way were humans actually this lost all the time; they’d never get anything done.

Or maybe they were confused all the time, and that’s why she was confused. Mary wasn’t certain what she was, exactly – that was sort of the point – but she was pretty sure her explanation to Melanie about being a figment of human imagination was about it. Just as Jon had wrapped his fear of a deep and crushing tomb around himself and fuelled the notion with his fear to trap them in circular tunnels, humanity had distorted its fear of the familiar other to make her, so if humans thought that being confused all the time were core to the human experience then, well. Maybe confusion was something she couldn’t escape.

The problem, she decided, was that she was trying to think like a human and a nonhuman at the same time. Which was all she could do. Because a nonhuman trying to be a human was what she was. A walking identity crisis, and she couldn’t do anything about it.

She recalled a conversation she’d had with Sasha a long time ago. Sasha had explained that humans tried to avoid pain, but when Mary had asked about Tim hurting his muscles on purpose with his work out routine, things had gotten… complicated. Sasha had tried to explain that while pain was supposed to report body damage, avoiding it altogether didn’t always have the best outcomes – that sometimes, people endured pain for a more important goal. That Tim put his muscles through pain because the workouts made them stronger, and that was important to him, so he fought against his instincts telling him that moving them was bad, because he knew they were wrong in that instance.

Maybe this was like that. Maybe going through this would make Mary stronger. But how would she know when her instincts were right, and when they were wrong?

No wonder her cousins were all so dismissive of their masks and refused to hold onto them for this long. They were probably worried about eventually having to think about things like this. If the… what analogy had Martin used?… the Tower of Babel was always going to fall eventually, building it bigger just made the fall more devastating, the loss more painful, the collateral damage more widespread. Build a little tower, get bored, knock it down yourself, build somewhere else, don’t think about it. Don’t do something so bloody stupid as to keep building, building higher to heaven, piling on more weight for the inevitable destruction.

She should change the mask and walk away now.

She wasn’t going to. She was going to keep building.

She was too fucking human not to.

Chapter Text

Georgie called Melanie on her lunch break.

“Hey, Melanie.”

“Oh, hey, Georgie. What’s up?”

“Not much. I just… wanted to see if everything’s okay?”

“Oh, yeah, fine. Look, I’m sorry about not updating you on the whole Mary situation right away – I think she’s moving back into her place, did she tell you?”

“… She’s with you?”

“Yeah, she came back to work. Saved Jon’s life. Things are still a bit dangerous here, I’m pretty sure Tim still wants to kill her, but if she’s coming back to work I can’t exactly send her away.”

“She’s back at – what do you mean, saved Jon’s life?”

“Oh, there was a cave-in. Did I tell you about the network of secret tunnels under the Institute?”

“You… did not.”

“Well, there’s a network of secret tunnels under the Institute. Jon and Martin, one of the other assistants, got caught in a cave-in… it’s been a whole thing. Everyone’s alive, apocalypse is still coming up, no one’s sure what to do about Mary since she’s hardly gonna let us stop the apocalypse, it’s all just pure chaos. Also I tried to murder my boss and it didn’t go down well.”

“You tried to kill Jon?”

“No! No, the earth did that part for me. I tried to kill Elias.”

“The… one who, if he died, you die?”

“He says so. I still don’t believe it.”

“Right. Um. Look, this isn’t really a phone conversation. What are you doing tonight? If you come over to mine, we can get Greek takeout and you can explain all this to me again, because I think I still only understand about half of what’s going on.”

“Make it Mexican takeout and you’ve got a deal.”

“Why does no one appreciate Greek food like I do?”

“Because Greek food tastes like sweat. We’re getting Mexican.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll eat boring Mexican food while you tell me about your chaotic day.”

“That’s all I ask.”

After she hung up, Georgie stared at the phone in her hand. So Mary had lied to her. She must have known that Georgie was going to turn her in, so she’d promised to disappear and then… what, returned to the archives behind Georgie’s back? That didn’t make any sense. Georgie wasn’t involved, there was no reason to dodge around her in order to go meet up with the people who Georgie was planning to tell about her anyway.

Whatever was going on, it put Melanie and her coworkers in danger. And Melanie, despite knowing that Mary was a monster, seemed to be buying her bull. Georgie didn’t think that voicing her concerns to Melanie was going to help; it wouldn’t do anything except risk driving Melanie away from her. She needed to find out what kind of danger Melanie was in without pushing Melanie away.

This was complicated.

A few seconds’ googling found what she needed.

Georgie couldn’t help but feel a bit silly as she knocked on the door. What was she supposed to say? ‘I want to pay you to track down a monster and see what it’s up to, here’s where it works’?

“Come in.”

Georgie did. The woman inside, sat behind a large wooden desk in front of the most neatly organised bookcase that Georgie had ever seen. She stood to shake Georgie’s hand.

“Hi, I’m Basira. How can I help you?”

“Georgie. I need help… following someone.”

“That’s what we do here. Who?”

“Not like… I mean, I don’t know her that well. She’s a friend’s coworker…” Georgie trailed off as Basira’s brow raised fractionally. She wasn’t making this sound great, was she?

“Okay, look,” she said. “I think my friend’s coworker might be… dangerous. Like… like a stalker? I don’t have any evidence to take to the police or anything, I just… want to make sure my friend is safe.” By hiring you to stalk the ‘stalker’ instead. “My friend started a new job recently, right, at the Magnus Institute, and – ”

That caught Basira’s attention. “Wait, the Magnus Institute? The spooky paranormal research place?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Your friend’s a scientist or something?”

“Uh, no. She was hired as an archival assistant, which she is not qualified for by the way, and one of the other assistants… are you okay?”

“Oh. Yeah. Want a coffee? I think you should tell me everything.”

-------------------



“Go back to bed, Jon.”

“Getting kidnapped by the Circus is one thing, but I never thought I’d be kidnapped by my own assistant. This is a betrayal, Sasha.”

“We’re still in your apartment, so you’re not kidnapped. But you are under house arrest. You were in a cave-in and you nearly died. You look like hamburger meat under those bandages. Go to bed.”

“Bright side, at least no one will want to wear this skin for the Unknowing.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I beg to differ.”

“… Okay, yes, it’s hilarious. But it doesn’t buy you going-to-work privileges. I made Martin a solemn promise.”

“Martin’s hurt as badly as I am. Nobody’s guarding his front door.”

“That’s because he’s not an idiot who needs to be told to rest. Also, I’m regularly checking in with him to make sure he’s home.” Sasha waved her phone.

“Pfft. He could lie to you. It’s not like you can ask for photographic proof; that dinosaur of a phone can’t even receive photos.”

“Why does everyone hate my flip phone so much? Do you have any idea how awful the security on a smartphone is?”

“Was that awful security what enabled you guys to find and rescue me from evil clowns? Because that just makes me want a phone with even worse security.”

“Go. To. Bed. I’ll make you some tea.”

“You don’t make it as well as Martin.”

“Shut up or I’ll put salt in it.”

-----------------------



As soon as Mary saw that the number calling her was displayed on her phone as ##*??^%&, she knew what sort of caller to expect. She picked up.

“Who is it?”

“Max Mustermann. Who is this?”

“Mary Sue.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mary. They say you’re working closely with the Archivist.”

“Yeah. He’s very well guarded, though,” Mary lied, “so if you want me to get the skin, I don’t think my chances are good.”

“That’s a pity. Not a problem; I’m actually calling because I think I’ve found an alternative, but if you were gonna get the Archivist to the Dance then there’s no need for me to bother.”

“I’ll try to do that,” she lied, “but I really don’t think it’s going to work. You should probably assume I’ll fail.”

“I’ll make a bid for mine, then. See you at the beginning of the world.”

“Looking forward to it.” She hung up.

Well, that was one little problem solved. Jon wasn’t in danger, at least not that specific danger, and they could still go ahead with the Unknowing. Things were going well.

---------------------



“Okay, Tim, but what if – ”

“Christ, Martin, you’re always complaining that Jon works when he’s injured. Rest!”

“I am resting. I’m in bed right now. I’m just calling you, too.”

“I’m not going to kill everyone’s pet monster before you get back. Unless she tries to kill me.”

“And the van?”

“Yes, I moved the van. Get some sleep. Everything’s fine here.” Tim hung up.

Martin stared at his phone, sighed, and put it down. This took some effort, as most of his body was covered in bandages and dressings. The hospital had let him go home but insisted on bedrest, which was reasonable, and put him on a whole bunch of tablets, and some of the painkillers made his thinking woolly, which was making him feel antsy. Martin’s response to tress or trouble had always been work; do something to make the situation better, to make people feel better, care for the person who needed care, don’t be useless. Now he was the one lying around, healing, waiting for the world to end.

No wonder Jon kept trying to sneak back too early.

He knew that rest was the right course of action, of course. And he was taking it, he was just... grumpy about it. It wasn’t just his skin and the bruises and the blood loss and the dehydration; his immune system had taken a hit too, maybe due to some kind of infection he’d picked up down there. He knew this because the fungus in his hand was back.

Two days after getting out of the tunnels, his little finger had stopped working again. At first, he’d hoped it was another injury from his dig (strange thing to hope for), but no – more of that stringy white stuff was growing its way under the nail. He’d applied the antifungal cream that had worked so well last time, but it didn’t seem to be doing much. So once he was all healed up from his various tunnelling injuries, he’d have to go back to the doctor to deal with that, he supposed.

At least Sasha was keeping Jon at home. That was one less thing to worry about.

Chapter Text

A monster working at the Magnus Institute. Basira wasn’t surprised.

A monster who was an assistant to Jonathan Sims. Even less surprising.

Some kind of recent accident at the Magnus Institute that put Jon and one of his assistants in hospital was a bit unexpected, but that had nothing to do with Basira’s case; if anything, it made it easier to track this Mary, who was… weird. Weird like… kind of like a character from The Sims.

Ha, and she worked for Sims. There was a joke in there somewhere.

More importantly, having a reason to investigate Mary gave her a bit of an in for the whole truck-of-C4 thing. She and Daisy didn’t know where the C4 was for the moment, but if his assistants were involved and she was discovered following Mary or poking around the Institute – she wouldn’t be, but if she was – then she had a handy excuse for why that had nothing to do with ‘I’m investigating a potential terror plot instead of taking it to the police’.

She’d searched Mary’s house, and found it weird but not dangerous. No hidden explosives or folders full of secret plans or anything. Just… kind of sparse, without any computers and with a TV that was clearly barely used, but containing a frankly ridiculous amount of tea and books. Maybe she was just one of those tech-suspicious, pro-paper-book people who seemed to be all over Pinterest. She even had five houseplants lined up on a windowsill with little plaquards carefully hand-lettered with their names. Not their species; people names.

It was an intimidating place to search, because it was so picturesque that Basira felt like if she touched anything, Mary would know.

All in all, her case monitoring Mary Sue wasn’t proving as useful as she’d hoped. Yes, Mary was weird. No, she hadn’t seen any reason to believe she was stalking, or doing anything dangerous to, Melanie King, although it was a little early in her surveillance to be sure. And she definitely hadn’t found any connection to the missing stolen van full of C4 that was rather higher on her priority list than a client’s paranoia about their friend making other friends, even if those other friends did work for a building that was basically a freestanding Section 31 and were probably monsters and/or terrorists.

Maybe Daisy was having better luck.

--------------------------------



Sims spent several days at home after the incident at the Institute, but soon he was on his feet again, and Daisy was ready to tail him. It helped that he immediately did something suspicious, taking a bus to the outskirts of town late at night and sitting at a bus stop next to another man in the dark. With nobody else around, it was a little tricky for Daisy to sneak close enough to hear their conversation unnoticed, but this wasn’t her first monster hunt.

“Cold tonight, isn’t it?” Sims began.

“Ha, yeah. Hopefully the bus isn’t late.”

“I’m Jon.”

“Craig.”

“Are you Craig Bensen, who works for Miller Construction?”

“Yeah. How did you – ?”

“Do you know how to properly use C4 to take down buildings.”

“Yes. Who are you?”

“I told you. I’m Jon.” He took out a notebook. “And I’m very sorry about this. Normally I wouldn’t do something like this; I know it isn’t fair to you, but you have to understand that the stakes are very high and we’re simply out of time. So. What’s the most illegal thing you’ve ever done?”

“Um. The Hensen Street building. We switched out the support beams for a cheaper material, it should’ve been safe, but the owners later added more weight than it could take, assuming our work was up to code… it collapsed and killed three people.” Craig’s eyes widened. He leapt to his feet, but Sims fixed him with the most intense stare that Daisy had seen outside her dreams, and the man’s knee’s collapsed, forcing him back down.

“Please don’t go anywhere,” Sims continued, unblinking. Craig didn’t. He didn’t look to Daisy like he was being held down by invisible ropes, or struggling against anything, he was just… too terrified to move.

Without breaking eye contact, Sims asked for details about the building collapse, scribbling away in his little notebook. Then he asked for the second most illegal thing Craig had ever done. After going down the list far enough hat they were in the realm of parking tickets, Sims switched instead to asking Craig what he was most ashamed of. What were his darkest secrets. He stared, he listened, he wrote.

And Craig answered every question, clearly and concisely, while trembling head to toe.

After awhile, Sims said, “Sorry about all that. We’re very nearly done. Only two questions to go. First: if you had to choose between helping me illegally blow up a building, knowing it was for the greater good and would save more people than it hurt, or having everything you’ve told me revealed to the world, what would you choose?”

“I’d blow up the building,” Craig said without hesitation. “Wait, I can’t – ”

“But you will. Second question: what’s your phone number?”

Craig told him. He wrote it down, flipped the notebook closed, stood up.

“Thank you, Craig. You’ve been very helpful. I’ll probably be contacting you within the next couple of weeks, so keep your schedule open. And there’s nothing to worry about – help me out with this one little thing, and these secrets are safe with me. Have a good night.”

He walked away.

Daisy watched him go from her hiding place. She remained where she was until Craig’s bus arrived and he boarded, leaving her alone on the street. She thought about how Sims had asked her how she knew about the coffin, and how she’d just… told him. It had felt so normal at the time. She thought about those eyes, watching her ever since.

So this was what he could do. One of the things he could do. And he was going to need a demolitions guy ‘sometime within the next too weeks’.

Daisy had a lot of secrets of her own, and not nearly enough secrets of Jonathan Sims’. This was going to be dangerous.

------------------------------



Martin pulled the trapdoor shut above him and tried, unsuccessfully, to reassure himself that the tunnel was safe. Not straying from the stairs, he pulled out his torch (couldn’t handle the torch and the trapdoor at the same time, with his left hand almost completely paralysed) and swept the area of the cave-in.

Yep. There it was. A gaping hole where they’d been dropped through the ground. The cave-in had taken his concept map, too; a few notecards were scattered here and there over the ground, rendered meaningless by being torn from the network. Not a big deal; he should only really be focusing on the Unknowing at the moment, and the necessary tasks for that weren’t really complicated enough to need the map. Find out the exact time for the Unknowing, plant the bombs, blow it up. None of those things were simple, but still.

More interesting was the hole. The hole that had opened up just as he and Jon were in the tunnel. Directly under them, and not much further.

Possibilities:

1) Coincidence. Laughable.

2) Someone trying to kill Jon; off the Archivist before he got too powerful. That made sense. Jane Prentiss had attacked the Institute, the Circus had abducted him; it was reasonable that there’d be others out there who thought he was a threat. Martin and Jon had recorded statements of their experiences, and Martin had of course listened to Jon’s; he’d talked about feeling like something else was down there, hearing footsteps and the like. That might be the sorts of hallucinations you’d expect from someone in his position, or it might be some Buried monster making a play for him. Was that it? Did these tunnels belong to the Buried? Maybe that’s why Elias couldn’t See down there? (Important not to take that as unquestioned fact; he still wasn’t sure what Elias could or couldn’t See.) Worth investigating. But probably not from within the tunnels.

Martin retreated back up the stairs. He needed to talk through this with someone, sort it out with someone. Not Jon – the last thing that man needed was more inspiration to throw himself directly into danger. Not Tim – while he’d accepted Jon’s… eldritch condition… and even seemed to be tolerating Mary beyond continually reminding hem that she’d kill them without hesitation if it meant helping to end the world, Martin wasn’t about to push their luck by putting more close-to-home spooky weirdness on his shoulders. He’d probably assume Mary was involved, since she’d found Jon down there, in some kind of elaborate setup to kill them all. Could he talk it over with Mary? Maybe. It was always unpredictable, what Mary did or didn’t know, but she might know something useful. Especially since she’d digitised most of the statements in their electronic database, so probably had a lot of facts to hand that would otherwise require tedious searching. But her way of understanding the world was so off-the-wall that it was a chore just to get on the same page long enough to learn anything useful from her, and she was terrible at keeping secrets, so sharing anything with her was as good as sharing it with anyone in the office who cared to know. Well, that wasn’t true; Mary was great at keeping secrets. The problem was that she had to be specifically told that something was a secret, and then if anyone asked about it she’d announce to their face that it was a secret and expect them to accept that and back off. Martin had attempted to explain subtlety to her but just gotten baffled looks.

Melanie was out, too; she’d tried to kill Elias twice and wasn’t being as subtle as she thought she was about plotting a third attempt. Since her last assassination attempt had involved trying to run him down on a public street in her van, telling her about a new threat under their feet could go badly. Of course, she’d adapted to Mary well enough, but she’d found out about Mary while simultaneously finding out that Mary wasn’t all that much of a threat. And then she had run off with Mary, so… also not great.

Sasha, then. Bright, rational, not about to fly off the handle or throw herself into danger at the suspicion of there maybe being a monster underground who wants to kill her boss.

He pulled out his phone.

Chapter Text

Elias wasn’t surprised to check his locked office drawer and find the Seven Lamps of Architecture gone.

He did a quick check of his various anti-theft mechanisms to ensure nobody had been going through his things, but he already knew it hadn’t been stolen. The book could get nothing more out of him, and had moved on. He could’ve held onto it if he’d stocked it in The Library, but he’d already decided against that; he had no further use for it, and he didn’t want to concentrate too many books he didn’t need in there. It was critical that The Library remained powerful enough to use, but not so powerful that it would destroy the various systems he’d been using to bend its power to the service of the Eye for two hundred years. A book that could shift earth around was hardly worth the space.

Well, they should be getting some exciting new statements from the Buried soon, once some poor fool tried to read it. That should be fun.

He glanced out the window, at the hunter in the coffee shop across the road. He was a little surprised she hadn’t made her move on Jon yet, but he supposed that was a good thing; give Jon a little more time to recover from his underground adventure and increase his chances of surviving her. And Melanie, of course, should leave him alone now that she understood what was at stake if she stood against him, so it was only a matter of time before her anger was redirected at her immediate boss instead. That just left… what would that leave? The Flesh, the Dark, the Lonely, and the End. The end was always going to be a tricky one, but the others… yes, things were ticking along nicely.

It was probably time to make his pitch to Peter.

----------------------



Sasha kept pace with Martin as they walked to the cafe together and considered what he’d told her. “So you’re saying there’s some kind of Buried monster living under the Institute?”

“I’m not sure; I haven’t seen it. But that seems the most likely thing, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it does. I mean, we got chased into the tunnels by that table thing; who knows what else might have ended up in them through stuff like that?”

Martin paled. “I’d forgotten about that thing! It could have gotten us down – oh god, what if it did? What if Jon isn’t Jon?”

“I’m sure he is. He can still compel people, right?”

“So? Maybe the monster can do that once it’s taken him over, or whatever.”

“I don’t think so. Mary can’t do anything Eye-related; she can’t even ‘read’ the statements.”

“Yeah. Yeah; good point. Although he says he got secrets from the demolition guy; nobody actually saw us compel him. Maybe he’s the monster working against us. I’ll make sure to watch him compel someone next time.” He watched Sasha out of the corner of his eye. “Also, you should be suspicious that I might be a monster that ate Martin.”

Sasha had to concede that Martin’s paranoia, while annoying, was justified. But come on. “Well, you brought up the possibility,” She said playfully. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to throw suspicion on yourself, Monster Martin.”

“Unless that’s exactly what I want you to think, because I knew it’d occur to you eventually, so I decided to bring it up first and look less suspicious.”

Sasha rolled her eyes. “Fine. Two birds, one stone – when we get back to the office, we’ll ask Jon to compel you to tell us who you are. Alright?”

“That works.” Martin grinned mischeivously. “Unless we’re both Stranger monsters. Maybe a second one was hiding in the table…”

“You’re worse than Tim sometimes.”

“Not sure if I should be flattered or insulted.”

“Insulted. Definitely. So do we have a plan for dealing with our possibly-nonexistent-Buried-monster that might want to kill Jon?”

“I’m thinking we just… stay out of the tunnels.”

“Simple and direct. I like it.”

“Well, it’s not like we don’t have enough to worry about already.”

They ordered their food and sat at a table out front. Sasha thought she saw someone familiar at another table, but when she looked back, the woman was gone. Someone had, however, left something on their table – a small book. Sasha reached out to grab it.

Martin’s hand closed over her wrist. “Careful!”

She frowned, puzzled. “What?”

“You can’t just go touching it!” He used his own (gloved) hand to pick the book up himself and open the front cover. He didn’t look surprised to see the bookplate: From the Library of Jurgen Leitner.

Sasha and Martin’s eyes met.

“We should get that to artefact storage,” Sasha said.

“No kidding.”

“Do we need to… do we have something safe to put it in?”

Martin looked more closely at the book. “I think it’s safe, actually. So long as we don’t read it.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Well, maybe I’m wrong, but either way the safes thing to do is get it to artefact storage as soon as possible, right?” He stood up, while Sasha collected their food – no sense letting it go to waste.

“The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” Sasha murmured. “What do you think it’s about?”

“Don’t read it!”

“I just saw the title. I can’t exactly avoid the title!”

“Maybe the professionals will know. Let’s just… let’s just get this thing out of our hands as quickly as possible.”

So they headed back to the Institute. So much for a long, relaxing lunch break.

--------------------------



Martin let himself sound a bit more nervous and excited than he felt as he handed the Leitner over. He told the grinning lady who handed him the induction form that it was the first Leitner he’d ever actually seen (which was true), and was overly detailed in explaining the rather boring story of the ‘discovery’, so it wasn’t remotely surprising when he asked her to keep him informed of anything they found out about it, which she indulgently agreed to do. Of course the archives guy, who spent his days playing with paper instead of handling real supernatural artefacts, would want updates on ‘his’ Leitner. Give him something to brag to the other people in his department about. It was probably the most exciting thing to happen to him in his career so far.

Martin, for his part, immediately went back to the archives and started looking up the Seven Lamps of Architecture in their database. And on the internet. He also looked for statements involving unnamed Leitners that fit the book’s description, just in case. Because there was something about the book that he hadn’t told Sasha.

There’d been a tiny hole in his glove. And when his skin had touched the book in his hand. He’d learned something about how it was connected to the world – specifically he’d seen, just for a moment, who the last person to read the Leitner had been.

It was Elias.

The fact that he was apparently getting random bits of knowledge now was unexpected, but made sense, he supposed. None of the other assistants had mentioned any such thing, but if it was happening to Jon… well, he’d wait to see if it kept happening before comparing notes. The more interesting, and probably more immediately important question was: why was Elias reading Leitners and abandoning them at cafes?

A couple of hours’ research gave him very little. The Seven Lamps was one of those Leitners that shared a title and theme with a normal everyday book, apparently, which made things more difficult. It was affiliated with the Buried, tending to, well, bury its readers, and there were mentions of some kind of synergy with Smirke’s architecture.

Martin was used to the feeling of being watched at all times within the Institute, so he didn’t visibly react as he mentally reevaluated basically every conclusion he’d drawn over the past week or so. Most importantly, the cave-in.

Elias had gone into the tunnels when Martin had gone down there to set up his concept map. Martin had assumed that Elias was there specifically to see what he was doing, but what if he’d been there preparing something else with the tunnels? Preparing to collapse them on Jon? Maybe he could see in the tunnels perfectly fine… and the reason he hadn’t seen Prentiss’ worms was, well, that he had, Prentiss had been pretty direct about her pursuit for the Arhivist. And he’d watched Jon be kidnapped by clowns and not told the assistants about it, though he claimed he couldn’t See where they’d taken him…

And Elias had fed them the tapes that had put them on the trail of the Unknowing which, to be fair, did need to be stopped, but he was so insistent that Jon specifically would be needed…

Was Elias trying to kill Jon?

That… didn’t make much sense. He’d shot Gertrude, not played these weird cat-and-mouse games with her. And Elias had appointed Jon; why appoint an Archivist just to kill him? He’d left Gertrude alone for a good fifty years. Had Jon done or seen or found something dangerous to Elias, something that made him a threat to Elias? Possibly…

Martin was going to need more information. But if there was any chance that Elias was a threat to Jon, well. His intellectual exercise about bringing down someone who could see or know everything might have to get a whole lot less hypothetical.

Chapter Text

This was how to defeat somebody who could see anything.

1. Don’t be worth looking at. Martin was used to being the least competent person in the room; while other people went out and got useful things done, he’d be cleaning up or making the tea or caring for the injured. His social skills had never been fantastic, either. Being overlooked wasn’t hard. Of course, Elias had been giving him some attention – he’d gone down to see what he was doing in the tunnels, for instance, and might have even used him to lure on into the tunnel to try to kill him. Oh god, Jane Prentiss had followed him to the Institute, too – had Elias used him to lure her as well? Not immediately relevant. Put a pin in that one. The important thing was to remain unobtrusive while Sasha was out there being competent, and Tim was being angry, and Melanie was plotting murder, and Mary was being a monster, and Jon was being the Archivist. Give Elias plenty of things to monitor that weren’t Martin.

2. When possible, don’t make visibly suspicious moves. Don’t go into unmonitorable areas unnecessarily, don’t have unnecessary suspicious conversations, don’t look for information you don’t need or write things down you don’t have to. Better not to make moves you don’t have to. Which is why Martin was doing his thinking while he sat and sipped his tea, and not writing anything down.

3. When it is necessary to make a visibly suspicious move, make it appear that you’re doing it for a different reason. If you want to look up suspicious information, digitise a statement about that topic first, and pick up what you need while following up the statement. Check out library books that have the information you want only if they’re also related to work, or the Unknowing, or some hobby that you’ve manoeuvred somebody else (not you!) into suggesting to you. Anything potentially dangerous that you might do, do in a manner that a potential watcher will assume is for a different reason. Make them unsuspicious or, if suspicion is unavoidable, confidently suspicious about the wrong thing. If they’re sure in their conclusions, they won’t waste time and energy investigating – after all, there are so many more dangerous people to monitor than you.

4. When it is necessary to make a suspicious move and there’s no way to disguise it, time your actions so that the watcher has something far more important to monitor, and hope you slip by unnoticed. It’s best to avoid having to do this at all, or at least do it while your watcher still has time to become suspicious and react, but if it is necessary, do it when he’s busy.

These were the rules Martin ad developed for investigating and, if necessary, taking down Elias. He knew he should be terrified of Elias, of what he could do; he was, he had been since he’d found out about his abilities, but… well, the threat of retaliation was distant, because that meant Martin had screwed up, and Martin didn’t plan on screwing up.

Weird, to be operating under the assumption that he wouldn’t screw up for once. A trauma symptom, from being buried alive? Possible. Better keep an eye on that, see if it indicated something more harmful. Might also be temporary, so he should get as much done as he could while he had this distant sort of confidence, where everything felt safely at arm’s length.

He cracked his knuckles (that antifungal cream was finally working again and he had most of his left hand back; hopefully it’d kill off the fungus properly this time), washed his mug, and went back to work.

“How are things going?” he asked Sasha as he walked in. She had her work computer in front of her and a laptop on her lap, and earbuds connected to a different device in each ear, but still answered.

“We should have a new rule where we don’t send Tim and Melanie out together. Their ‘jokes’ about just cutting things short and burning the wax museum down now are getting worryingly serious.”

“If we did that, they’d just regroup and we’d have to do all this again later.”

“I mentioned that. Know what Tim said?”

“Was it something along the lines of ‘great, then we get to burn it all down again’?”

“Got it in one. Oh, and Mary’s nearly back from the Carter investigation, so we’re going to need some more statement follow-up to keep her out of the office.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got one that’ll send her to Northampton.”

“Nice.”

Jon poked his had out of his office. “Sasha, the Circus is getting a skin delivered from America.”

“For the Dancer?”

“I have to assume so.”

“Whose skin?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, when’s it arriving?”

“No idea.”

“How? By plane, I assume?”

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“You know, the Eye could stand to be a little more useful with its information.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” He shut the office door again.

“Do you ever think our workplace is kind of weird?” Martin asked.

Sasha shrugged. “Couldn’t say. Haven’t worked at enough evil fear temples to know how they normally work. But I guess I gotta illegally check for packages being sent from America now to give us a timeline on this skin, so can you take over talking Tim and Melanie out of going on a Circus killing spree?”

“I don’t think they’re really going to listen to – ”

“Thanks.” Sasha handed him a phone and the attached earbuds, then started typing at her computer.

Martin remembered when their jobs had mostly involved filing.

-----------------------



Melanie caught the stupid grin on Tim’s face and rolled her eyes. “If you make one joke about this being a date, Tim Stoker, I swear I’ll break your jaw.”

He held up both hands. “Wouldn’t dare, Mel. Would not dare.”

Melanie ignored the hated nickname, in the name of civility, and cocked her head. “Oh, you wouldn’t dare? Are you calling me intimidating, huh?” A cornered look flitted across his face, and she laughed. “You’re too easy, Tim.”

He gave a faux pout. “Next time, I’m doing stakeout with Sasha. Sasha isn’t mean to me.”

“Liar.”

“You can do it with Martin. Martin isn’t mean to anyone.”

“That’s not true. Once I nearly killed a spider before he could save it and he gave me tea without any sugar.”

“I can hear you, you know,” came Martin’s tinny voice through their earbuds.

“Yeah yeah.” Melanie raised her phone and tapped at the screen like she was playing a game to hide the fact that she was once again filming the street outside over Tim’s shoulder. Most of the people walked past looked normal, even the ones they’d identified as serving the Stranger, but a few showed up… oddly… on the feed. A lazy assumption would be that monsters didn’t show up right and human servants did, but she knew that was wrong because she’d experimentally filmed Mary before and she showed up fine. Yet the footage she’d taken of Sarah Baldwin on a camera all that time ago had turned out as corrupted as what her phone was currently showing her of the old man ambling slowly past. Had the corruption been because of Sarah, or the thing she’d spoken to? If only she’d thought to get some footage of Sarah in the van or something…

There was a whole world of paranormal research out here that Ghost Hunt UK had been completely blind to. They’d been chasing spectres in old hotels and factories, leaving well alone the proper, dangerous hauntings. And when Melanie had gone after those ones, even then she was playing in the kiddie pool with no real idea of what was happening; once she got to the Institute, and learned about the fears, she’d seen that the occasional haunted battlefield was such a minor sliver of what was going on as to be boring. And the Institute just… sat there, with everything, with the truth, and told no one, not even most of the researchers! They buried Smirke’s taxonomy on shelves of books of complete nonsense and just… let Elias and the archives and who knew who else quietly work with the truth while everyone else wasted their time on nonsense.

God, that pissed Melanie off. How much better could her pre-Institute life’s work have been if she’d actually known what was going on?

Come to think of it, what was stopping her from telling everyone how it worked? Start another youtube channel, lay out the fears, go hunt ghosts and spooky things on weekends. No one would stop her, right? Investigating the paranormal was what she was supposed to do. And then…

The internet would call her nuts and no one would watch her videos. Because the fear stuff all sounded stupid, unless you had access to a massive archive of supernatural occurrences and the research of a whole bunch of stored artefacts. As a paranormal investigator youtube channel, it would sound like fiction. And being headed by the GHOST FREAKOUT UK girl, who now worked at the joke that was the Magnus Institute, wouldn’t help.

Ugh. Why was her life LIKE this.

“So I’m thinking,” Tim said conversationally, “we just burn the building? Like… just go get a bunch of petrol or whatever, burn it right now.”

“I’m not going to jail for arson,” Melanie said, not looking up from the phone. “Also, this area’s probably full of Circus with weird powers we couldn’t take on.”

“Exactly,” Martin’s voice said. “See, Melanie’s – ”

“We need to organise this properly. Use Jon’s powers to blackmail some cops, shoot the place up.”

“Why do I bother?” replied Martin.

“Do you think bullets will work on these things? I could’ve sworn I just saw a mannequin walk past.”

“Nobody out there is freaking out, so you must’ve been seeing things. Unless you’re getting spooky powers like Jon.”

“Oh god, I hope not.”

“Well, we don’t know whether any of us are, y’know, involved enough to get them, so keep an eye out.”

“An eye out? Was that supposed to be a pun?”

“It wasn’t, but I can see that it annoys you so it is now, retroactively, a pun.”

“Oh, you do not want to start a pun war with me, Melanie King.”

“He’s right,” Martin’s voice said. “You don’t.”

“Thank you, Martin. Also, alternate mannequin proposal – I did see one, and nobody reacted because everyone in this area except us is involved.”

That was… an uncomfortable thought. Did that mean the Circus would know they were being monitored, simply because two people who weren’t with them were hanging around all day? Were they about to be attacked? Melanie’s hand went to her pocket, where she’d started keeping a knife.

Tim must have seen the change in her expression, because he quickly said “A joke! A joke. The cashier looks way too fed up to be part of an apocalypse. Jesus.”

Melanie tried to relax, but it had just hit home just how much danger they were in. She scanned the faces of the people in the coffee shop, the people walking by, the bored cashier.

And wondered how many of those people were involved in the Unknowing. How many of them the archives crew were going to have to kill.

Chapter Text

 

Contains police brutality

 

--------------------------

 

Jon had been expecting to die for awhile now. Not in a fatalistic way, just in the sense that of all the things that kept happening to him, one of them was eventually going to get him. He’d expected to be eaten by worms or killed by an evil mannequin or to die underground or some such thing; the only real question was when.

Being taken out by something so mundane as a random mugging in an alley on the way home from work at nearly midnight, though? That was a surprise.

This thought flashed through his mind as something heavy hit him on the back of the head. He stumbled, but didn’t get a chance to fall; someone was behind him, hand around his throat to hold him up, something cold and metal in his mouth…

A knife. They were holding a knife against his tongue to stop him from talking. Jon remained very, very still.

A vaguely familiar female voice spoke in his ear. “You are going to stay very still. You are not going to try to talk. If you do, I will kill you. Do you understand? Just nod.”

Jon nodded carefully, trying not to cut himself.

The hand around his throat disappeared. Jon couldn’t bring himself to feel relieved at this; he was pretty sure that a good thrust of the knife in his mouth could just as easily cut his throat open from the inside. His captor ran her free hand over him, searching him. She found his wallet and phone, extracted them, and dropped them on the ground.

Not a mugger, then. That was… a lot worse.

“You are going to answer my questions,” she said, “clearly and concisely. You are not going to say anything else. If you try to ask me a question, I will kill you. If you try to move, I will kill you. Do you understand?”

Jon nodded again. The knife was repositioned against his throat.

“Where is the C4?”

Fuck. It was one of the Stranger’s servants, and they knew about the C4. Hey needed the element of surprise to blow up –

The knife pressed into his throat, cutting skin.

“I don’t know!” he gasped, and the knife relented.

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t. I’m not handling… that part.”

“Who does know?”

Jon stayed silent. The knife pressed again; he hissed in pain, but said nothing.

“Answer the question.”

“No.”

“Answer the question,” his captor insisted, “or I will kill you.”

“Seems like you’ve made up your mind to kill me anyway. I’m not putting them in danger, too.”

“If I have to cut my way through your little posse of terrorists one by one I’ll – ”

Jon kicked her kneecap. He felt the knife slide across his throat as she stumbled and he pitched forward, but before he had a chance to run he found himself flat on the ground, face pressed to the concrete with his captor on his back. The knife was laid across the side of his neck, under his ear, where he knew there was an artery.

As for his current throat wound… he couldn’t inspect it, but it didn’t seem deep. He could breather, and the blood pooling under his face wasn’t an alarming amount. Even if he was dying, just what was he supposed to do about it?

“What is the C4 for?” the woman asked.

Wait, what? How could she not know… if she knew they had it, it should be obvious to the Circus what it was…?

The knife pressed, and he hurriedly answered. “It’s to blow up the wax museum.”

“What wax museum?”

“How can you not – ? No, sorry, I didn’t mean to – uh, Louis Toussad’s wax museum. In Yarmouth.”

“Why?”

“You’re not going to believe – ”

“Why?”

“To save the world. That’s the ritual site. For the, uh… for the apocalypse.” Jon winced as he said it.

The woman chuckled quietly. “So you’re not just a terrorist cell of weird researchers, you’re also somehow an apocalypse cult. Fantastic.”

“I guess we sort of are.”

“Right. Onto the next one, I suppose.”

Jon felt the knife press against his jugular and knew he was going to die.

“Daisy, stop.”

The blade stopped. Jon looked up. Was that Basira? Basira Hussain? And ‘Daisy’… yes, he could place the voice now. The detective who’d saved him from the van.

What in the hell was going on?!

“What are you doing here?” Daisy asked.

“You’ve got what you need. Let him go. You promised.”

“I promised I wouldn’t go after your pet monster for the dreams,” Daisy growled. “Now he’s part of a terrorist cell trying to blow up a wax museum. Unless he’s got any more useful information, there’s no reason to keep him alive.”

‘Onto the next one’, she’d said. Searching for the person who knew where the C4 was. Oh god, she was going to work her way through his staff…

The knife, at his jugular again. “I do know something else!” he gasped.

“Tell me.”

“I know… I can take you to my boss. He’ll tell you everything. You’ll know it’s true, because I can ask him, I can make him tell you… you won’t have to go after anyone else.”

There were several long seconds where nobody moved.

Then, the knife was removed. Daisy got off his back.

“Right. Get up. Don’t try to run.”

Jon didn’t think he could run. He got to his feet, trembling, and tried not to think about how much blood was plastered on his face and soaked into his shirt.

“Someone’s gonna call the cops if he walks out onto the streets like that,” Basira observed.

“Go get your car, then. We can keep him in your PI office until morning and question the boss then.”

“Don’t kill him when I’m gone.”

“If he doesn’t run, I won’t have to.”

Jon, for his part, stood still and shut up. That seemed to be the best survival tactic so far.

He was driven to Basira’s office. It was… well, fairly nice, for what he’d expect of a private investigator’s office. Little office bit up front, small private bathroom, storage closet where she’d put a cot ‘for when I have to work late’ (Jon had a similar setup in the archives), coffee station.

“I’ll get you some clothes for tomorrow so we don’t call the entire London police force down on us walking down the street,” Basira said. “If you try to run – ”

“I’m not going to run,” Jon said irritably. “Even if I thought I could – and that woman jumped out of a moving truck carrying me once, so I don’t fancy my chances against her – questioning Elias was my idea. If I escaped, she’d probably just start cutting up my assistants for information, wouldn’t she? I’m not letting that happen.”

“Daisy wouldn’t do that.”

“No? Would you have thought she’d do it to me?”

“Hey, you’re the nutters who are trying to blow up a building! You can’t judge her for trying to protect people.”

“I wasn’t judging… look. I’m not going to run. Okay?”

“Right.” She headed for the door.

“Basira.”

“Mmm?”

“Thank you.”

“… What?”

“This is the second time you’ve saved my life, by my count. And I haven’t… given you much reason to trust me. So, thanks. I owe you.”

“Yeah. You do.” She left.

Jon poked through her cabinets until he found a first aid kit, and went to clean up. Another hole on his Frequent Kidnapping Punch Card, he supposed.

---------------------------------



Martin had a plan.

It wasn’t a great plan, yet. There were too many possible points of failure. There were too many highly suspicious things he’d have to do. But it was a start.

He was going to send Elias to jail.

He needed to remove Elias as head of the Institute before Melanie managed to kill him, and therefore kill them all. He needed to stop Elias from trying to kill Jon (and buy himself some time to figure out what the hell was going on there). And it should be pretty doable; it wasn’t like Elias wasn’t guilty as hell of multiple crimes.

The obvious method was to have Jon force him to confess to Gertrude’s murder on tape, but Martin dismissed that strategy out of hand. It put Jon in danger, which wasn’t acceptable. Also, it wouldn’t work. A taped confession isn’t evidence when the confessor can just shrug and say it isn’t true, he was tricked, especially when he’s a wealthy man who the police would rather not bother with. If they had footage of the actual murder, that would be different, but that was unlikely to exist, and even if they proved Jon’s powers to the police, the whole trial would… well. Things would get messy and unpredictable.

There were better ways to do things. Ways that Elias wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of, and didn’t need to involve Jon at all. Once he worked out all the little kinks that doomed his plan to failure.

But hey, once he’d done that, no problem.

Chapter Text

Jon tried to make himself look presentable, but there’s only so much you can do with a badly sized shirt, a tiny bathroom sink, a very small first aid kit and multiple throat injuries. None of Daisy’s little warnings were deep enough to be dangerous, he didn’t think, but they sure looked startling. How was he supposed to explain this at the A&E later? Although they were used enough to him right now, they probably wouldn’t even question it. They probably had a “Code Sims” for whatever nonsense he brought them every month or so.

The trio swept past the front desk, with Jon sparing Rosie a little wave, first thing in the morning. Technically, Daisy and Basira shouldn’t be allowed through without signing in, but they both projected very strong We Belong Here vibes as they walked in with a well-known employee while Rosie was still setting up, so they weren’t stopped.

Jon knew that Elias, like him, tended to get in very early and start work immediately. Maybe being a workaholic was an Eye thing? No, Jon had been like that before becoming the Archivist.

They swept into Elias’ office without knocking. He looked up from some files, entirely unsurprised to see them. “Of course, come on in, Jon. Detectives.”

“I’m actually not a – ”

“Are you trying to blow up a wax museum?” Daisy asked.

“Me? No. I’m aware of the project, of course, but it’s in the hands of the Archivist here.”

Daisy rounded on Jon, who took several steps back, hands raised.

“I’ll ask you not to hurt him, Detective, or I shall have to call security. He’s cut up enough, don’t you think? Jon, you really should get that checked out at hospital.”

“Oh, you’re going to call security?” Daisy asked. “You’re trying to blow up a building! I should call the police!”

“I was under the impression that you were the police, Detective Tonner. Interesting that you’re here today without any backup, partnered with somebody who is in fact, not police. This is all going to be rather awkward for you to explain when it comes time to make the arrests, isn’t it?”

“You don’t know – ”

“Of course, silly me, making assumptions about arrests. I suppose you’re planning to handle this as more of a Calvin Benchley situation.”

“… How do you know that name?”

“I know a lot of things, Detective Tonner, and I endeavoured to find out more once you started skulking around my Institute like a starving stray mongrel. I know about Calvin, and Herrod, and Alina… and I know about Constable Curry. Sort of lost control of that one, didn’t you? Do a fellow officer, too. Terrible.”

“You didn’t see what he did to those girls!”

“I’ve seen what you’ve done, and not all of your victims turned out to be the monsters you thought they were, did they? Yet the state protects you, every time. You just couldn’t hold to the code with Curry.”

Daisy drew her gun and aimed it at Elias. Jon quickly stepped between them. “No!” He was not going to let himself and his staff die just because Elias wanted to piss off a cop with anger issues.

“Get out of the way,” Daisy growled.

“You should listen to him,” Elias said. “He’s trying to save you. See, I’m not a fool, Detective Tonner. I’ve made records of your many, many crimes, complete with the various scraps of evidence you’re very sloppily left behind – although I did have to manufacture quite a bit of that myself, I’ll admit – and set it to be sent to your superiors if I don’t stop it in time. They won’t care about most of the crimes, of course – that’s what they employ you for, after all – but they will care about the evidence. They will care about the hints that someone might be about to tip off several news networks. And they will care about constable Curry. Pull that trigger if you like, but you know what cleanup of these sorts of operations looks like. Especially when it involves traitors. Say, you were partnered with Basira on a lot of these sorts of cases, weren’t you? You and I know that you always kept her out of your messier activities, but will the people they send after you believe that, I wonder?”

“I have no reason to believe you.”

Elias shrugged. “You brought the Archivist.”

Jon didn’t think this was a good time to voice his annoyance about being talked about like he wasn’t there. “Elias, ave you set up this evidence to be sent to the police if you don’t stop it?”

“Yes. I am, of course, willing to halt that and hand all copies of said evidence to you, detective, in exchange for some… alternate insurance.”

“What alternate insurance?” Jon asked.

“This.” He pulled a sheet of paper out from the pile of forms he was perusing. “For you, Miss Hussain. I’ve taken the liberty of filling most of the sheet out for you, so if you’re interested, all you need to do is sign.”

Basira skimmed the sheet, bafflement clear on her face. “An employment contract?”

“Don’t sign that, Basira,” Jon cut in.

Elias ignored him. “Your skills would make you an invaluable addition to the team.”

Basira and Daisy exchanged a confused look.

“I, um… I already have a job, actually?”

“I am aware. But it’s a tough world for small business owners, isn’t it? Is your little investigation firm really making enough to pay the bills? Surely a stable income would help. I wouldn’t even ask you to quit your current job; we can put you on part time hours here, if you like. I think you’ll find each job to be a huge advantage in the other, in fact.”

“Uh… right, but…”

“And of course, you and Daisy can avoid the fatal unpleasantness of her various crimes being found out.”

“Don’t sign it,” Jon said. “You don’t want to work here. I can just ask him where the evidence is and – ”

“Really, Jon, do you think I wouldn’t have taken precautions against that?” Elias asked impatiently. “I don’t see why you’re so dead-set against working with Basira. At this stage, you need all the help you can get, and her experience in investigation is a big asset. I understand the archives are getting a little crowded, so I’ll requisition your team some more space, but – ”

“You can’t just keep trapping people – ”

“Done,” Basira said, handing the form back to Elias.

“Capital!” Elias stood up and shook her hand. “Welcome aboard. Now, Detective Tonner – ”

“This evidence. Where is it?”

“Not within my immediate reach. I’ll get it for you tonight, when I don’t have a gun pointed at my face. In the meantime, though, I’d like to offer you the opportunity to work here, too. Should you wish. No threats attached, this time.”

“Why the hell would I want to do that?”

“Ah, my mistake. I assumed that this little… episode… might be indicative of a preference for working with Basira, rather than the police, since you don’t seem to have involved any of them. If you’re happy in your current line of work I won’t press you, but please consider the offer open indefinitely. I’m sure that once Basira is settled, she can bring you around to the numerous advantages that working in the archives could bring you, and perhaps we can reopen this discussion then.” He sat back down. “Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I am actually rather busy. Jon, why don’t you get your new assistant up to speed on the current situation? I’m sure she’ll be eager to get involved.”

So the three of them trailed out of Elias’ office. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives.

“What just happened?” Basira asked.

Jon shrugged. “Circumstances tend to change fast around here, when Elias is involved. You get used to it. Come on; I’ll update you on the archives. You should probably come too, Detective Tonner – ”

“I told you to call me Daisy.”

“Right. Well, I can show you the whole wax museum thing, and hopefully answer most of your questions.” He lead the way down to the archives.

This was not how he’d expected his morning to go.

-----------------------



This was not how Tim had expected his morning to go.

He got into work a little early to find Jon already there, cradling a cup of tea. That wasn’t unusual. Loitering in the corner in an ill-fitting shirt with blood starting to seep through the fresh bandages on his neck was a little weird, but it was the two police from the Gertrude murder reading stuff on Mary’s work computer and surrounded by paper statements that really threw him.

“Um,” he said.

“Good morning, Tim,” Jon said in the weary tones of one who’d run out of surprise and just decided to go with whatever the day threw at them. “Basira works here now. And we’re helping Daisy with her personal investigation into a stolen van full of C4.”

“… Oh. Are we?”

“I can set them,” Daisy spoke up.

“What?”

“The explosives. You don’t have to use your… construction worker.”

“How do you know – ?” Jon shut up at her glare. “Sorry. Didn’t think.”

“Seems pretty common for you.”

“You can use C4.”

“Yeah.”

“Right. Good. That… would be a lot easier. Thank you.”

“Not doing it for you.”

“Right.”

“What,” Tim cut in, “the hell is going on? Actually, no – don’t bother. You’re gonna have to explain this to everyone else too and I really don’t want to have to sit through it multiple times.”

Just then, he got a text. Martin.

Can you distract Elias for about 10 min? Don’t put yourself in danger.

He texted back.

Im not scared of Elias. Ill come up with smth.

Martin replied immediately.

Let me know when he’s distracted.

Tim almost asked what he needed the distraction for, then decided against it. When your mission is ‘distract the mind reader’, putting the thing you wanted to distract him from in your own brain was probably a terrible idea. The next question: what distraction?

He’d love to piss Elias off, but he had lied to Martin – he was scared of Elias. Of course he was. But Elias only really had one big thing to use against him, and he wasn’t going to waste it on something trivial. As soon as Elias showed him Danny’s death, he was out of ammo. So Tim just needed to stay under that line, and he’d be fine.

Yeah. Everything would be fine.

Chapter Text

Tim was still trying to jimmy open the safe in Elias’ office when Elias appeared in the doorway, scowling. Tim swore quietly.

“Just what is this about, Tim?”

“I sort of expected you to be evacuating with everyone.”

“Yes, well, the last time the fire alarm was pulled around here it turned out to be due to a worm invasion, so I thought it prudent to actually check for a fire. And I found you trying to break into my safe. What are you doing?”

“Can’t you just look into my mind and find out?”

Elias rubbed his temples. “Tim, I thought we were past this.”

“If you must know, I was trying to find out where you keep our employment contracts.”

“You thought the employment contracts for a research institute would be in my office?”

“Seemed the best place to start looking. If they’re powerful.”

“If they…? Ah. I see. You thought that if you destroyed your employment contract, it might break your tie to the Institute.”

Tim shrugged. “Worth a try.”

“They’re not in here, Tim. But don’t worry; it wouldn’t have worked. Things are rather more complicated than that, I’m afraid. Lawyers and soforth might use paper to prove your past actions, but the Watcher needs no such thing. Destroying something does not change the fact that you signed it.”

"Damn."

“I’m surprised you’re attempting this so close to the Unknowing. I would’ve thought you’d want to be around for that.”

“Yeah, well, I have my future after the Unknowing to think about. You know, assuming we don’t all die. And the world doesn’t end.”

“Is this going to be an ongoing problem again? Because I’d rather you didn’t force my hand against you, Tim.”

Tim threw up his own hands in a theatrical surrender. “I’m going, I’m going. So sorry for the lost productivity of a false fire alarm, boss.” He rolled his eyes.

“You also appear to have damaged my safe.”

“I’m sure the Institute’s incredibly suspicious funding streams can handle it.” He slipped past Elias and off down the hall before the man could read his mind. Or put anything into his mind.

Hopefully, he’d bought Martin enough time.

----------------------



Martin took a sip of tea and was surprised to find that it was, in fact, exceptional. “This is really good!”

“I’m always careful about my selection of tea,” Mike Crew said. “How can I help you? Your Archivist decide he needed more from me, but didn’t want to show up himself?”

Martin grimaced. “Sorry about him. He can be a bit… well. You saw.”

“Indeed.”

Martin’s phone beeped. He glanced at it.

“You need to get that?”

“No, it’s just a friend saying that the boss is sufficiently distracted. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming here. In fact, Mr Crew – ”

“Mike.”

“Right. I’m here to give information to you.”

Mike laughed. “A bit out of character for your lot, isn’t it?”

“Thus the distraction. We probably don’t have long, so I’ll get right to the point. Ex Altiora showed up in our collection the other day.”

“Huh. I was wondering where it had gotten to.”

“Quite. Our researchers have found something trapped inside it and, having the self-preservation skills typical to researchers, have decided to try to let it out.”

The change in Mike’s demeanour was immediate. He sat up, put his cup down, and paled significantly. “They can’t!”

“They rather think they can. Obviously, it’s a bad idea, and I thought that you in particular would want to know about it.”

“Why would you tell me, though?”

“Our Archivist was rude to you, and your response was… admirably restrained. I thought one good turn deserves another. I think things work better for everyone when we all get along, don’t you?”

“If you want to get along, can you help me get it out of their hands?”

“Maybe. I’ll see what I can find out, and keep you informed. We should have some time before they figure out how to release it, so there’s no need to panic yet.” Martin put his cup down and stood up. “I should go. I don’t know how long Elias is going to be distracted. Thank you for the tea, Mike.”

“Any time, Martin.”

There. One piece set up. Mike thought he’d learned more than Martin had meant to tell him, Elias probably hadn’t noticed a thing but if he had then he’d assume that Martin was recruiting allies for the Unknowing and had failed. The only potential point of weakness was if Elias realised he was being distracted and wondered why, but Martin could easily play up some nonsense about why he’d wanted to keep his recruiting a secret, if it came to that. It probably wouldn’t. He just hoped that Tim hadn’t put himself in danger.

Martin didn’t like that part. Part of not being worth looking at meant having other people do the flashy stuff, and sometimes that meant the dangerous stuff. He did not want Tim in danger on his behalf. Or at all. The archive crew were… well, friends, obviously. But also natural allies. They were trapped together; taking care of each other was the only option.

Tim was probably alright. Surely. But even if he was, Martin shouldn’t have put him in danger; he should’ve been smart enough to find another way. He should’ve been able to make a better strategy. If he could get better at that, he could take better care of everyone.

He needed to up his game.

------------------------

“So,” Jon said, looking around at the archives staff, minus Mary and plus Daisy. “Any questions?”

“I have one,” Martin said. “What happened to your neck?”

“He said I was investigating the stolen van,” Daisy pointed out.

You did that to him?”

Jon rubbed his temples. “Can we all just… can we all just get past that and focus on the Unknowing?”

“Just wondering, Jon,” Martins said, “whether you’ve got some kind of scar quota. Like, is there a rule that you need to have some kind of open wound at all times? Is that part of being the Archivist?”

“It’s really not a big deal.”

“Have you been to the hospital yet?”

“I was busy. It’s fine.”

“You’re going to the hospital. Right after this.”

“Fine, I’ll – ”

“I’ll come with you.”

“Martin, I can get myself to the hospital.”

“You sure about that?”

Jon sighed. “Any relevant questions?”

“Yeah,” Daisy said. “When do I get to meet your pet monster?”

“Ah. That… might not be the best idea. We’re keeping her out of the Unknowing stuff, for obvious reasons.”

“Could still just kill her,” Tim put in. “Or lock her up somewhere. Elias was kind enough to pay for this lovely secure safe.”

“Sounds like he’s got the right of it,” Daisy said. “Can’t just have a monster walking around trying to end the world while you’re trying to stop the end of the world.”

“You don’t even know her,” Melanie snapped. “She’s not trying to end the world.”

“Really? Then why isn’t she here in this room?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Yes it is,” Tim said.

“Okay,” Jon said, “that’s not… we’ll deal with Mary if we have to and when we have to. But she did save my life, okay? Her and Martin. Let’s not forget that.”

“I refrained from killing you,” Daisy said. “Same thing.”

“It really isn’t. Sasha, do we know anything about that American skin? Its arrival is sure to give us a better timeline for the Unknowing.”

“Nope. Sorry. I’m trying to monitor things, but unless the package is addressed to the museum there’s… not really that much I can do to find which one it is. There are a lot of packages being sent.”

“Why not just go to that taxidermy place?” Basira asked. “Find a taxidermied person and Archivist them about the end of the world.”

“Element of surprise,” Sasha said. “We don’t want them to know that we know when and where they are. Also, Jon would get murdered.”

“I can handle that,” Daisy said.

“Wasn’t looking for volunteer murderers,” Tim said.

“I meant, I can protect him. With Basira’s help. And if the monster doesn’t get to report back to the circus, then we don’t lose the element of surprise.”

Jon nodded, hesitantly. “Could work. But I’d, I’d rather not kill anyone.”

“Isn’t the whole plan to blow everyone up?” Basira asked. “Isn’t that what we’re doing all this for?”

“Okay, yeah. Good point.”

“Right. Come on, Basira; we’ve got some planning to do.”

“Don’t…” Jon hesitated. “I mean, I don’t want you to be late for your actual police job.”

Daisy gave him a pitying look and left the room, Basira behind her.

“So,” Sasha said, looking up from her phone. “I guess this is happening now.”

“Yeah. I guess it is.” Jon rubbed his temples. He couldn’t wait for the Unknowing to be over, so they could have some time and space to try to figure out what ‘normal’ was any more.

Chapter Text

Martin cupped his warm coffee cup in his cold hands and looked up at the Magnus Institute.

It was an old building, and suitably impressive, if a little anachronistic. Once, the unusually large windows that looked into every room (fitting for a place that served the Eye, he supposed) were probably covered in stately curtains, not cheap Venetian blinds that prevented anyone from seeing into the offices, and the grand facade wouldn’t have been partly hidden behind a filthy bus shelter advertising Burrito Wars II: The Taco’s Revenge. But it was still impressive, in its own way.

“Not tea today?” Mary asked from across the little cafe table.

“Didn’t get much sleep. Need the caffeine. You know, last time I was at this cafe, we found a Leitner.”

“Sasha said. I really hate those books.”

“I thought you couldn’t use them?”

“I can’t, but I’ve typed up enough statements of the awful things they do.”

Martin nodded and sipped his coffee. “End of the world soon, I guess.”

“Yeah.”

“Still not gonna tell us when, where or what they’re doing, huh?”

“I don’t know any of that.”

“I bet you could find out, though. If you wanted. Aren’t you curious?”

“Why? So Jon can pull the information out of me? Safer if I don’t know.”

“Mary…”

“Don’t. Don’t try to… convert me to the Eye.”

“I wasn’t. I was just trying to ‘convert’ you to, well, basic humanity. To save the world we’re in.”

“Same thing!” Mary snapped. “That’s exactly the same thing as serving the Eye or the Vast or anyone except the Stranger, because if the Dance fails, someone else will succeed. The world is going to end; I can’t stop that and neither can you. You’re asking me to let it end on someone else’s terms, so give up my only chance of seeing a tolerable future, and I can’t do that, okay? I’m not going to sell out the entire world for eternity just to buy another month or year or whatever of this world. I’m sorry.”

“Who says someone else will win? Maybe we’ll stop all the rituals.”

“I doubt it. And even if you did, this would happen again in another century or two, and we’d be having this same argument. So we’d only be buying a little time, and it’s still not worth the risk.”

A couple on a lunch date at the next table shot them strange looks. Martin wondered if this was an ideal conversation to be having in public.

“But you understand that we have to try to stop it,” he said.

“Yeah. I get it. I’ve been reading dramas.” She tapped her fingers restlessly on the table. A new little human affectation, Martin noticed; he wondered who she’d learned it from. “I’m scared, Martin.”

“You can feel fear?”

“I don’t know. It feels like fear to me. I hope you don’t find the ritual site. If you guys don’t know and I don’t know, the whole thing can just…”

“Succeed or fail on its own, and we don’t have to try to stop each other?”

“Yeah.”

Well, that wasn’t going to happen. They already knew where, what, and what to do. And they were prepared to do it.

They just needed a when.

--------------------



“You can come in,” Basira called.

The statement had been right; the taxidermist’s shop was creepy. Blank glass eyes stared at him from every surface, as well as the face of the young woman tied to a chair in the centre of the room.

He recognised her, of course. “Sarah.”

“Archivist.”

“We gonna do this or have a cheery reunion?” Daisy asked.

“Do we have to do it in here?” Jon asked. “I don’t like the way all those animals are looking at me.”

“Yes, we do. They’re dead.”

“We can’t be sure about that.”

“Well the longer we sit around chatting, the longer we have to deal with them.”

Jon sighed. “Sarah, when will the Unknowing take place?”

Sarah gritted her teeth against the question, but eventually relented. “Monday night, if the skin arrives on time.”

“Whose skin?”

“Johann Wolfgang’s.”

The Mechanical Turk guy? So far as Jon suddenly Knew, he’d died in Vienna. Why was his skin coming from America? How did… no, never mind. Stay on topic.

“How is the skin being shipped in?”

“I don’t know.”

“What time Monday night is the Unknowing going to start?”

“It depends. It’s hard to predict how long it will take to set everything up. I don’t know the details.”

“Alright. Thank you, Sarah; you’ve been very helpful.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“You two should clear out,” Daisy said.

Basira shook her head. “I’ll help you.”

“I’ve got it, Basira. Protect Sims.”

“Yeah,” Jon cut in. “We never know when some rogue police officer might jump me an an alley with a knife.”

“Get out of here, Sims.”

“Right you are.”

He left, Basira trailing reluctantly after him, leaving Daisy to a room of sawdust, dry skin and her stash of gasoline. He could almost make himself feel bad about Sarah Baldwin, even though she was a shell being worn by a world-ending monster, but then he recalled her arguing with Nikola in the delivery van that they could restrain him more securely with nails, and the feeling was gone.

And within the hour, so was the taxidermy shop.

-------------------------------



The great thing about texting was that people did it all the time. The archives crew texted each other all the time about work, about the Unknowing, about all kinds of stuff. It wasn’t a remotely suspicious activity, and the chances that Elias would be looking at what Martin, of all people, was texting, on the off-chance he might be planning something, was miniscule.

Nevertheless, he was sure to keep his text unsuspicious, just in case, and merely sent Mike Crew a short message saying ‘We can do it Monday night, keep your schedule open, we’re making a plan but it won’t work without your help’.

Anyone who saw that would obviously think that Martin was sneakily recruiting Mike’s help for the Unknowing behind Jon’s back. Probably for some silly personal reason.

“I’m going to get back to work,” Mary said. “I want to finish digitising 2003 today.”

Martin didn’t ask her why she was bothering, if she thought the world was going to end. He’d only get some response about how the world ending was in the future, and she was an archival assistant now.

“Mary,” he said.

“Hmm?”

“However this goes, I’m… glad we got to be friends.”

“Me, too,” she said with a sad little smile. She headed back towards the Institute, and Martin texted Tim. He watched Mary head into the building through the camera on his phone. The zoom on modern phone cameras was amazing. If you could see it, you could film it; often more clearly than the naked eye could see. He grinned. He was gonna point that out to Sasha, point out how advantageous that kind of vision was when, say, trying to bring down a building with an apocalypse ritual going on inside it.

The world may or may not end, but he was going out strong – he was gonna convince Sasha to buy herself a smartphone.

--------------------



“I’m just saying, why did you even buy a safe if we’re not going to put anything in it?” Melanie asked. “Isn’t it for… delicate historical documents, or whatever?”

“That’s what I put on the form, yeah. But not what it’s actually for.” Tim winked.

“What’s it for, then?”

“It’s for costing the Institute a stupid amount of money. This was the biggest one I could get installed on short notice, top of the line. It was so fucking expensive.”

Mary walked in. “Hello!”

“Hi, Mary. Have a nice lunch?” Melanie asked.

“Yes! You should eat something.”

“I ate a cupcake.”

“Overindulgence in sugar isn’t – ”

“I know, I know! But Tim, your idea of wasting Institute money is a safe?”

Tim shrugged. “He won’t get any major renovations done. Although now that we’ve got so many people, we’re apparently getting more space, so I bet we can find something expensive that our new room will absolutely need, like… a second safe!”

Melanie rolled her eyes.

“Seriously though,” Tim said, “this thing is massive. Show her your trick, Mary.”

Mary grinned and climbed into the safe.

Tim shut the door and spun the dial. Then he relaxed. “I was a bit worried that wouldn’t work. Oh, don’t look at me like that,” he said. “You can let your pet monster out after we’ve saved the world. Although I still think you shouldn’t.”

“You can’t stop me, though. You agreed not to.”

“Only because you wouldn’t help me get her in otherwise. I still think it’s a bad idea to have her around.”

“For the Unknowing… yeah, it is. But afterwards, if you try to – ”

Tim threw his hands up. “Jesus, why is everyone so aggressive around here these days? Two murdercops, you, and even Sasha and Martin still keep axes under their desks. The only people not on edge are me and Monsterboss.”

“You literally just locked a coworker in a safe. You’re on edge.”

“Oh god. Jon is the calm one. Oh god, no.”

“Is that bad?”

“It means our bar is set so fucking low. Remind me to tell you about his paranoid stalker phase sometime.”

“Worse than his current get-cut-up-by-everything phase?”

“They kind of overlapped. I mean, there were the worms.”

“You’re pretty scarred from those worms, too.”

“Yeah, but I can pull these scars off.” He gave an exaggerated model’s pose.

Melanie rolled her eyes. “The sad thing is, if we do save the world, I have to put up with this indefinitely. Which might be worse.”

“Actually I’m taking my annual leave right after this.”

“We get annual leave?”

“Uh, yeah. It’s the law. Elias might be an evil fuck who’s forcing us to work for a fear god but I’m sure even he fears the ombudsman. I’m gonna go kayaking.”

“Of course you are.”

Chapter Text

Jon stared at the detonator in his hand. “So we set up, everyone gets out, and when it’s time, I push this button.”

“That’s about it, yeah,” Daisy said. “Still think we’d be better with less people, but…”

“You want to bring less people to save the world?” Tim asked, knuckles white around his axe.

“More people means more chance of being discovered. Basira and I – ”

“Absolutely no fucking way am I not going in there.”

“Tim’s coming in,” Jon said. “He’s good to have at your back and, to be perfectly honest, I think if we tried to make him stay behind he’d sneak in anyway. Better to all be working together.”

“Aww, you know me so well, Monsterboss,” Tim said with a humourless grin.

Jon ignored this. “I’m going in, too. When the ritual starts, things are going to get confusing, and I’m the only one with any chance of seeing through it. Hopefully we can set up and get out and detonate from here, but if something goes wrong…”

“And I’m going in, too, obviously,” Basira said. “So this is the minimum number of people we can bring.”

“… Fine. Still don’t like it.”

“We’ll be quick as we can. In and out. Sasha, keep the engine warm.”

“No need to worry about that,” Sasha said from the driver’s seat. “The second you’re all back in this van we are out of here.”

“Right. Let’s do this, then.”

-----------------------



“You’re certain this will work?” Mike asked as Martin met him a block from the Institute.

“No. But it’s our best shot. You distract him, I get the book while he’s not looking, you can… honestly I don’t care what you do with it after that.”

“You’re just happy to ‘help out’ someone who’ll owe you a favour.”

“You seem suspicious.”

“You’re betraying your own people for this, so… yes.”

“Worried I might be trying to set you up in some way, Mike?”

Mike snorted. “What would you have to gain from that? I just don’t want to be involved in whatever nonsense your lot are fighting with each other over. Besides, you’d know better than to do something like that, because…”

Martin’s feet weren’t under him any more. He collapsed to the pavement, gasping. He was falling… he could feel the pavement under him, it was there, but he was falling…

Then it was over. He stood up and brushed himself off. “That wasn’t necessary.”

“It was funny, though.”

“Not really. You’ll want to save some of that juice for your distraction; I don’t know how long it will take to break the book out of storage.”

“I think I can handle your scary man who knows things just fine. Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”

“You know where to go once I get you past the front desk?”

“The building isn’t complicated.”

“Right. Just checking.”

------------------------------



Melanie had been expecting the text, but the still dreaded it.

We’re in. Get ready to do your part.

She brushed back her hair with one hand, restyled to how it used to be before everything went wrong, took a deep breath, and texted Martin back.

If this doesn’t work, I’m breaking your nose for humiliating me like this.

The reply was quick.

If this doesn’t work, Elias won’t leave enough of me behind for you to break. Good luck.

Melanie got in her van and started the engine. This was going to suck.

She almost wished she was off blowing up the circus.

----------------------------------



“Oh my god,” Jon gasped in horror. “They’re not waxworks.”

---------------------------------



Elias looked up from his desk and scowled at the sunlight.

Trying to keep an eye on the Unknowing was difficult enough in itself, and his day had not been improved by walking into his office that morning and seeing FIRE ME YOU DICK spraypainted across his office blinds. Tim, presumably. The blinds had been removed, but there was some complication about their replacement, so for today, the room was inconveniently bright.

No matter. It wasn’t as if he was going to get any work done anyway, with the Unknowing taking place. Bringing on Daisy and Basira had ultimately been a good call; they could die doing the dangerous part, and Jon had a better chance of surviving.

Just get him through this, have him pick up the last few marks bumbling about on the search for other rituals… yes. This was doable.

And that was when Michael Crew burst in.

Elias recognised him, of course, although he’d never met him in person. What was he doing here? Now? Elias was certain he didn’t have any meetings all day.

“Mr Crew,” he said, trying to keep one eye on Daisy setting up explosives. “While I’m sure that whatever you’re here for is very important, this isn’t the best time – ”

“Well,” Mike growled, storming into the room (and gravitating towards the window, of course, could he be any more cliché), “make time.”

------------------------------



Martin sat in the cafe, wearing an oversized hat and new jacket so that Mike wouldn’t recognise him if he did, by chance, happen to glance out the window. So far as Mike knew, Martin was breaking into artefact storage right now to retrieve a Leitner that artefact storage had never actually had, that had in fact been burned years ago by Gerard Keay, so Mike seeing him across the road watching the altercation on his phone would presumably make the man somewhat suspicious. Best to conceal himself.

But he did need to know what was going on. The timing here had to be perfect.

Now. Now was the time.

He texted Melanie again.

-----------------------------



The calliope music swelled, and throughout it wandered four saboteurs, lost. Except they weren’t saboteurs, they weren’t anything, they… I…

They wandered…

They…

-----------------------------



The Ghost Hunt UK van drove clumsily down the road and skidded to a halt right before hitting the bus stop. Everyone on the street pulled out their phones, of course, since a potentially exciting accident seemed to be happening, and a few chattered excitedly about how it was the same van that had run over a mailbox and nearly hit a guy a few weeks back. How did the driver still have her license?

Excitement only rose when the Ghost Freakout UK girl jumped out, looked around wild-eyed, and yelled that a ghost was following her.

------------------------



Good. The timing was good.

Martin sprinted back to the Institute. Next time he was making a plan that didn’t involve being in so many places at once.

------------------------



They hadn’t gotten out in time. Jon was going to have to detonate the explosives from inside the ritual, and Elias couldn’t see him properly.

“I have not seen any book,” Elias snapped. “And you are a distraction that I cannot currently afford. Get out now, or I’ll call security.” Things were really ramping up in the wax museum, and he’d lost Jon. Jon had lost Jon. He was going to need all his focus to keep an eye on –

“Oh, you’ll call security, will you?” Mike snarled.

And Elias was falling.

He gripped the side of his desk as he dropped through the floor to the level below. No; no, the floor was still there, he was still…

He couldn’t See, couldn’t breathe…

He should be stronger than this. He should be able to See through the stupid little party trick of a second-rate avatar like Mike Fucking Crew. But he couldn’t focus on his surroundings, couldn’t focus on Mike, couldn’t focus on the Unknowing and how his Archivist was doing, when he couldn’t convince his lungs to breathe.

He didn’t have time for this.

He was going to have to get his hands dirty.

He hated getting his hands dirty.

------------------------------------



Well, if I had any kind of credibility or respect left, it’s definitely gone now, Melanie thought distantly as she screamed about ghosts. Even if this does get rid of that evil bastard, Martin owes me bigtime.

How many cell phone cameras were pointed at her? A dozen, at least. Maybe two dozen. She pointed up at the window of the Magnus Institute, Elias Bouchard’s clear and open window, where a man she didn’t recognise stood dramatically in front of it pointing at Elias, who leaned on his desk.

“There!” she screamed. “There’s the ghost!”

Most of the cameras stayed on the crazy woman ranting in the street, of course.

But about a third of them moved up to the window.

------------------------------------



Elias pulled the small handgun from his bottom drawer and let go of the Unknowing long enough to focus all of his attention on Michael Crew, to see exactly where he was, to line up a single clear shot.

------------------------------------



Well, Melanie thought as the office window broke and people started shouting and screaming, that should overshadow any Ghost Freakout UK Sequel virality.

And she got back in the van and drove off before people recovered enough to ask her any awkward questions.

-------------------------------------



“You sound stressed. You know I hear the Great Grimaldi’s in town. You should go see it. Cheer yourself up.”

“That’s. Not. Funny.”

“I know.”

---------------------------



Sasha knew something had gone very, very wrong when the building came down, and no one except Basira had emerged. She was up, climbing out of the van, running towards the… no, no; don’t be stupid. It’s a collapsed building.

She forced herself to stop and dial emergency services.

----------------------------



Elias eyed the corpse on his floor with some distaste. Clear-headed, he took another Look at the Unknowing.

Jon was unconscious, but not dead. Emergency services were on their way. The fate of everyone else mattered a lot less than the annoyance on his floor, so he turned back to Michael Crew, already concocting the story in his mind… Michael had burst in with a gun, ranting about a book; there had been a brief struggle in self-defense; Michael had been shot…

Martin burst in. “Elias, I heard a – ”

He stared at the corpse, the blood, the shattered window. At Elias, gun in his hand. His eyes widened.

“Ah. Martin. Be so good and go tell Rosie to call the police, will you? As you can see, their services are rather urgently required.”

Martin fled.

Well, this was annoying. But perfectly recoverable. Mike Crew was a mass murderer who had snuck into the Institute, become very aggressive to Elias, and had to be killed in legitimate self-defense. The only lie Elias intended to tell was who had drawn the gun.

---------------------------



Martin felt kind of bad about sacrificing Mike Crew like that, until he remembered how many people Mike had killed. He wore his Totally Overwhelmed and Freaked Out face as he rounded the corner and, instead of going to Rosie, pulled out his own mobile to call the police. Let poor Martin, terrified and out of his depth, gibber to the police about how his boss had killed someone, how they needed to come now but be careful because Elias Bouchard could read minds and see everything that happened and was really dangerous… the whole phone call was a perfectly natural reaction to what he’d just seen. And if it happened to let the police know that they were about to get a prisoner that had skills they’d find extremely useful, well. That was just coincidence.

Martin figured that one way to help keep a guy in jail was to make sure that he was much more useful to his captors in there than outside. And ten or so clear videos of him shooting a guy who, for all intents and purposes, looked to just be standing on the other side of the room yelling at him, probably helped. It was hard to cover up that many videos taken by that many random civilians who were all, presumably, already sharing them on the internet, and it’d be a little while before youtube and facebook and soforth took the videos down for violation of their rules (you can’t just show a fucking MURDER).

Martin hung up the call, detoured to the archives to drop the burner phone Sasha had got him that he’d been using to text Mike and Melanie into a locked drawer in his desk to dispose of later, and went to wait for the police.

----------------------------



In the flaming wreckage of the wax museum, something stood up.

It was vaguely human-shaped, which felt right, because it was… a man. Yes. That was what it was. But it recalled looking different. It used to have a lot more skin – he used to have a lot more skin, rather than being coated in blood and debris and roiling waves of burning pain.

There was an axe, lying nearby. It didn’t belong to him, it belonged to Martin; but he’d been using it, hacking through wax figures, before the music had made him forget. The wax was liquid now, pooling between stone rubble and burning timber, but it was still cooler, more soothing, than his wounds, so he scooped up handfuls of it and slathered it on the parts of him that were missing skin.

There were sirens, in the distance. Sirens that would bring help. Tim didn’t need help.

That was his name. Tim.

He stumbled forward, and found a face, half-melted. A mask. A something. He’d snarled at it, at Grimaldi, at the thing that had killed his brother, and brought its entire world crashing down, and here it was, dead and gone forever, and all he could feel was…

Grief. He had failed.

This thing had died with the Circus, with the ritual, and that meant it would never know what Tim had taken from it. It hadn’t had to suffer through the pain of losing everything; it hadn’t had to face the knowledge that everything it had ever cared about was gone, burned to ash. Given how quickly things had progressed between him realising what the detonator was and using it, Grimaldi had barely even had a chance to fear the potential of that loss. It hadn’t felt what Tim had felt, what if deserved, and now, because Tim had killed it so quickly, it never would.

He’d screwed up. Years of working toward this revenge, and now, he’d never have it.

Still. Not bad for a first try. He’d learned from his mistake, and next time, he’d do better.

Tim dropped the scrap of plastic back into the ruins where it belonged, and walked out into the night.

Chapter Text

Mary leaned against the back of her cramped, dark space, and waited.

She didn’t know how long she’d been in there. She’d run out of air and stopped breathing some time ago, and now she had nothing else to track time. Was it time for the Unknowing yet? Because if it was past that time, then the Unknowing had either been delayed, or failed. And her friends had locked her in here, meaning they were probably going after the Unknowing, so… were they dead? Had the Circus killed them? Or had they succeeded in stopping it? Both bad outcomes.

They’d tricked her. Betrayed her. Smiled and laughed and joked and used her desire to play along to lock her in a safe. Maybe forever.

Mary didn’t know how to feel about that. What was the appropriate reaction to that? The human reaction?

She didn’t know. There was no one to copy, no one to ask. So what was her reaction?

Well… she didn’t have to kill them. And they hadn’t killed her. That must be why they’d done it. And it hurt, to be betrayed like that, but they all knew that there was going to have to be something. They weren’t going to agree on the Unknowing, so…

But if they had locked her in here and stopped the Unknowing, they’d doomed her. Doomed the world to fall to some other power to buy a little bit more of this, and she should be angry about that. Right? But…

Mary couldn’t stop thinking about Melanie, laughing along, about Tim smiling as he put his hand on the door and shut her in the safe. It was obvious what they were doing, right? It seemed obvious, in retrospect. Had Mary truly, genuinely not realised what was happening?

Or had she played along? Had she also thought that this was the best solution?

Humans couldn’t trust their memories. Mary didn’t know if she could trust her memory. She didn’t know if hers would do that thing humans’ did, where they reinterpreted everything that happened to line up better with the identities they’d built for themselves. If so, maybe she’d agreed to this, subconsciously. Or maybe she hadn’t, she’d been tricked. How could she know? How could she know what Mary had decided, for sure?

And now, she was… here. Maybe forever, or maybe not.

Mary leaned against the back of her cramped, dark space, and waited.

------------------------------



Elias lay back on his cot and decided that, all in all, things were working out exceptionally well.

He hadn’t exactly planned to go to jail, but he was going to need some excuse to put distance between himself and Jon as Jon’s powers grew, lest he see through Elias’ plot. The jail cell didn’t restrict his abilities at all (he missed being able to do Institute paperwork, but that was a sacrifice he would have sadly had to have made anyway); if anything, it gave him far more time to watch things. Of course he’d rather be at the Institute, where he could act if things went awry, but aside from his wager with Lukas (a danger he himself had invited and couldn’t really complain about), there wasn’t really much that could go wrong in any serious sense, especially not while his Archivist was comatose. Oh, The Library might eventually get restless without an active Archivist and cry for another if Jon took too long, but the universe had run out of Von Closen’s mysterious pseudolineage to plague Elias with when Gerard Keay had succumbed to his cancer, and nobody else but Elias himself was likely to even be able to find The Library. If anything, jail kept Elias safe from that potential fate.

And if it got hungry enough to pull someone else in beyond all of his defenses and balances? Well, it wouldn’t; it had survived inert in Wurttemberg’s tomb for ages. But if it did, hypothetically, then anyone responding to a draw that powerful would be driven insane and killed immediately. There was nothing at the Institute he needed to guard against. Well, except Peter, but again, Elias had invited him.

As for being uncomfortable, well, people who could consistently feed the police valuable information tended to be fairly well protected from the various physical dangers of prison from guard and fellow prisoner alike, and anybody who thought a cold room, an uncomfortable cot, bad food and hours with nothing to do were the height of discomfort hadn’t put themselves through half the things he’d had to go through in his pursuit of power and immortality. He could weather this.

Besides, with so very many eyes to see through, it wasn’t like he was ever going to get bored.

--------------------------------



When Tim woke up, he wasn’t alone.

“He’s a dud, Arthur,” said the familiar voice of Jude Perry. “He’s gonna burn out in like a week.”

“Give him a chance,” said a man’s voice that Tim didn’t know. “We need people, Jude.”

“Not this one, we don’t. There’s not a spot on Desolation in his soul.”

“You saw what I saw! You watched him walk out of the fire!”

Tim opened his eyes. He was lying in an alley, with Jude and the man, presumably Arthur, literally arguing over him, one on each side.

“Oh, so he fluked into about three minutes of divinity, good for him. I admit, those guys taking down the wax museum was hilarious, but it was a one-off. I know this guy, Arthur; I don’t know what his whole deal is but I know a revenge game when I see it. That was personal. He’s got no affinity for scouring in the bigger picture.”

“We all start personal, Jude. Even you. And you didn’t show the raw talent we both saw there.”

Tim though he should say something. “Hey – ”

“Shut up,” Jude snapped at him, before continuing to argue with Arthur as if he wasn’t there. “A flash in the pan doesn’t last long, you know that.”

“It does if you feed it. We all had to learn.”

“It won’t work. He doesn’t have what it takes. You’re going to waste your time and he’s going to burn out, and you’re going to look like even more of an idiot than everyone already thinks you are.”

“Look, Jude, random strays aren’t exactly my first choice either, but our numbers are dwindling and we need to do something. Thanks to Agnes’ sacrifice, we’re going to have another shot long before these other conquered powers and when she returns to scour the earth it would be nice if she actually had a congregation to support her. Most of us older ones aren’t going to live that long, so unless you want to be one of three or four people left trying to pull off the Scoured Earth on your own, we have to take new blood where we can get it.”

“Fine.” Jude threw her hands up. “I’ll back your play to the others. For now.”

“Glad you’ve seen things my way.”

“I haven’t. I just think it’ll be hilarious when this one burns out on you.” She walked away.

Arthur crouched down near Tim, apparently deciding to finally acknowledge his presence. “Hi. It’s Tim, right?”

“Who the hell are you and what the fuck is going on?”

“I’m Arthur, and I’m here to help you.” He offered Tim his hand. Tim, not being a complete idiot, didn’t take it.

“Really. Then perhaps you can explain to me why I’m out here, and not in my bed.”

“Ah, yeah. The hotel you were staying in suffered an… accident. We had to get you out.”

“You burned it down.”

“No. You did.”

Tim was not expecting that. “What?”

Arthur sighed. “Get up. I’ve got some friends to introduce you to.”

Tim got up, grumbling, “I already know I’m going to hate them.”

“Don’t worry,” Arthur said. “I’m certain that feeling will be mutual.”

-----------------------------------



Martin sat in the hospital chair and looked at the part of Jon’s face he could see around the ventilator. He looked peaceful, but given that he didn’t have enough muscle activity to breathe on his own, that probably didn’t mean anything.

“Hi again, Jon. They say they don’t know if you can hear me, but… well. An update can’t hurt, I guess.

“Elias is… I don’t know when his trial is coming up or, or how any of that works, but he seems tucked away for now. He’s put someone else in charge of the Institute – Peter Lukas, the ghost ship guy from those statements Elias never wanted you to look into? – so I guess he thinks he’s going to be away for awhile, too. Melanie’s not happy about him being alive, but she went along with putting him there and I guess that’s what matters. He can’t hurt y – anyone now, at least.”

Martin glanced around and wondered if Elias was watching them at the moment. He supposed it didn’t matter.

“They still haven’t found Tim’s body. Sasha keeps saying maybe he got out, but he would’ve shown up, or called us, or at least turned up at hospital. He wouldn’t just disappear. There’s so many… many bits of people and mannequins and rubble and…” Martin stopped and forced himself to take a few deep breaths. “Everyone else is safe, though Daisy broke a few bones in the collapse, but… I mean, I guess I knew that this was dangerous? That we were probably going to lose people? And, and really, this is a better outcome than we had any right to expect, but that doesn’t make it any better, you know? I don’t know who’s arranging his, his funeral, or whatever, but I guess he’s technically still a missing person until they find the… the, well. And other than that it’s really just you, so… come back to us soon, alright? We’re trying to get, you know, sort of back into the swing of things and it’s… everything’s different. Basira drops by to use the library but without a head archivist to actually give us tasks she spends most of her time at her other job, and Melanie’s always off chasing up whatever statement she feels like, and we haven’t really got Mary out yet because everyone’s kind of scared she might kill us all? So it’s just Sasha and me, most of the time, and I know it hasn’t even been a week yet but the whole place just feels so… empty. Without you. Not even just the archives, the whole Institute is… that’s what you get having a Lukas in charge, I guess. Come back to us soon, Jon, okay?” He squeezed Jon’s hand – a squeeze that was not returned, obviously – resisted the urge to kiss Jon’s forehead, and turned to leave.

He wasn’t crying.

He wasn’t.

Chapter Text

When the light poured in, it took Mary a moment to remember how the eyes worked.

The archives crew were standing around, watching her carefully. Sasha opened the door and backed away quickly. Martin watched from the far corner. Melanie and Basira stood near the door, not even hiding the fact that they were both holding axes. Nobody looked aggressive, though; just very defensive.

Mary stepped shakily out of the safe and reminded herself to start breathing again.

“So it’s over,” she said.

“Yeah,” Melanie said.

“Delayed, or…?”

“We blew it up,” Sasha said. “It’s well and truly over.”

“Well, then.” Just like that, the world was saved. Just like that, the world was over, prey for the first ritual that would succeed before the Strangers got another chance. At least, Mary supposed, they had the same goals now. Stop anyone else from destroying the world for a century or two. “Wait. Where are Tim and Jon?”

Mary wasn’t perfect with facial expressions yet. But the expressions on the faces around her told her everything she needed to know.

She didn’t even decide to cry. As she’d been refining her body, there were built-in reflexes to consider, and the tears were pouring down her face before she’d even known they were coming. Melanie dropped her axe and she and Sasha enveloped Mary in a hug, but she couldn’t stop crying.

Well, that wasn’t true. She could get rid of the tear ducts, curtail the reflex, as easy as she’d stopped breathing. But she didn’t.

Jon had always been a little distant. Things with Tim had been very tense, as the Unknowing had approached. But they were her friends. They’d made her feel welcome, when she’d arrived at the Institute, barely human; Tim had taken them drinking and introduced her to karaoke, Jon had shown her how to do follow-up research. They’d taken time to help her and she’d taken time to help them; whenever someone had needed somebody else to show them something, or tell them to go home and take a damn nap, or lighten the mood with a joke, someone was there. Like everyone else in the room (except maybe Basira, who Mary didn’t really know yet but was looking forward to getting to know), Jon and Tim had helped to build Mary. And Mary had helped to build Jon and Tim.

And now they didn’t exist.

Martin cleared his throat. “Jon’s not… I mean, Jon’s in a coma. At hospital. He’ll wake up.”

Mary heard the uncertainty in her voice. She’d studied human anatomy enough to know what the chances were of someone waking up from a coma, and how quickly those chances dropped off. But she nodded, and wiped her eyes.

“What cases need following up?” she asked.

And they got back to work.

-----------------------------



Elias was having a nap when everything went horribly wrong. He sat bolt upright in bed, forced himself not to panic, and double checked. Maybe he was misinterpreting, Maybe it had been a nightmare.

He closed his eyes to Look, and checked everything. It hadn’t been a nightmare.

The guard who happened to be walking past at that moment had never heard such a colourful combination of swear words from such a range of time periods all said in one breath before.

-------------------------------



Martin was walking alone down a corridor, lost in his thoughts, when he almost bumped into Peter Lukas.

“Martin!” The man grinned. “Just the man I was hoping to see.”

Obviously, or you wouldn’t have been where I could see you, Martin thought. He took a cautious step back. “How can I help you, Mr Lukas?”

“I was just wondering if you’d given any further thought to my offer.”

“Yes. I’m… flattered, but I’m really quite happy in the archives. Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of other people in the Institute more qualified than me.”

“On the contrary, Martin! I believe that you have the exact qualifications I’m looking for in an assistant.”

“Yeah, um… when you say ominous things like that it doesn’t make people more eager to work with you,” Martin said, taking another step back.

“Duly noted. Conversation has never been my strong suit, I’m afraid. But money has, so I feel I should remind you that the promotion comes with a quite significant pay rise. I’m sure you could do with a bit of extra money, Martin; your mother – ”

“It’s still a ‘no’, Mr Lukas,” Martin said firmly. “Again, I’m flattered, but I’d really rather stay where I am.”

Peter looked at him carefully. It was a dangerous look; not like Elias’ look, which gave the impression that he was dissecting your entire being and history right then and there, but still with a heavy implied threat. Martin was pretty sure that Peter wasn’t trying to be threatening, he was just looking. But he couldn’t help but think of the piles of statements in the archives that demonstrated exactly how dangerous Peter and his entire family was.

Eventually, Peter nodded. “Well. I still hope you change your mind. Good day, Martin.” He turned and walked around a corner.

When Martin peeked around the corner, he wasn’t at all surprised to see nobody there.

Martin couldn’t understand why Peter wanted him as an assistant. So far as he could tell, his decision was based on a five-minute conversation they’d had over a month ago, when Peter had come in for a meeting with Elias, but he couldn’t think of anything he’d done that would have made him memorable or interesting to Peter. He’d mostly just been… scared of him, and a bit nervous because everyone else was off doing things and he was having trouble trying to keep up or track anyone. Which he didn’t think was an unusual reaction to an office environment, or to Peter Lukas.

Even if a job out of the archives might have looked promising before, it was certainly off the table now. He’d made a commitment to the archives, he’d decided that they were in their predicament together, and he wasn’t going to walk out on them at such a rough time. If Mary could just… decide that her coworkers were her friends, then so could he. He could make sure that their network remained strong and that they could get each other through this, so when Jon returned, he’d be walking back into a smoothly running environment and he’d be able to get back into the flow of things easily.

Anyway, they had apocalypses to track. Martin had set up a concept map in Jon’s office for the moment, on one of those movable pin-up boards positioned so that the map wouldn’t be visible to any members of the public who came in. He’d probably have to move it when Jon needed the space again, but for now, it worked, and without the Unknowing or Elias to worry about, everything fit easily.

At the door to the archives, he ran into a woman he vaguely remembered from… right, he’d seen her at the hospital, also visiting Jon. Some kind of past relationship with Jon, now close to Melanie. “Georgie. Hi.”

“Hi. It’s Martin, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Are you here for Melanie?”

“No. I um, I was looking for you, actually. I just went to see Jon at the hospital, and… I thought you should be told, in person.”

“Told what?” Martin asked, but the expression on Melanie’s face answered the question for him. “No,” he said.

“Martin, I’m so sorr – ”

“No. You’re wrong.” Martin laughed a little, hysterically. “He wouldn’t… not after… they just made a mistake. They thought he was dead when they found him, remember? And they were wrong.”

“They did every scan they could think of. There’s nothing.”

“No. He wouldn’t just… he wouldn’t survive the explosion, only to die now!”

“The chances of waking up from a coma are – ”

“I don’t care! I have to… I have to go.”

Martin practically ran out of the Institute. The fastest route to the hospital was easy to find; it was a simple matter of observing the traffic and predicting the bus delays so that he would know which bus would drop him off just as another arrived to pick him up. He found the right doctor in the right mood and said the right words to be taken down to the morgue without anybody trying to stop him, and the mortician opened up the right locker and there was Jon.

And he looked dead, yes. But that didn’t mean anything. He’d looked dead on the respirator, too, lying there unmoving no matter how Martin begged. He didn’t look any different now, except for the lack of attached machines, so how could they be sure, hmm? He was the Archivist, he wasn’t supposed to just die. They should’ve done more scans.

Martin reached out to take his hand, and he knew.

He would always be connected to Jon, always. But there was nothing tying him to this cold piece of meat lying on the mortician’s slab. Because nobody was inside it.

Jon was gone. And he was never coming back.

Chapter Text

Peter Lukas had given the whole archive staff a full two weeks off work, saying they needed “a little distance”, and reminded them that they qualified for Institute-reimbursed therapy. All Martin could think of was the funeral looming a few days away. He didn’t even know who was organising it. Jon had been his… Jon, and Martin didn’t even know him well enough to know who was organising his funeral.

He couldn’t get over that. He sat in his cold and empty flat, silence broken only by the ticking of the clock, and turned the little invitation over and over in his hands, trying to puzzle out who had sent it, who Jon had had in his life who would be responsible for that kind of thing.

If Martin died suddenly, who would arrange his funeral? His mother couldn’t do it. His father… hell, he didn’t even remember his father’s name. Even his surname had been his mother’s. If he died, there would be no one to get a coffin, to arrange a viewing, to send out tasteful little cards with a date and an old photo on them.

There was something wrong with the tik of the clock. No; it was the door. Someone was knocking on the door. If he ignored them, they’d surely leave soon.

His phone buzzed. He turned it off. Jon had mentioned, once, being raised by his grandmother, but he’d also said his grandmother was dead. So he probably had no parents or grandparents, unless he’d been removed from his parents for some other reason, in which case they might still arrange a funeral. But Martin didn’t think so. He knew Jon didn’t have any siblings. Cousins?

The knocking had stopped, but some other noise was happening at his front door. He waited patiently for the person to go away.

The organiser had known who to invite. Unless they’d just gone to the Institute and invited all of Jon’s coworkers? That made sense, since Jon didn’t seem to have many friends outside the Institute. Or maybe he did; maybe he had a very active social life, and Martin just hadn’t been close enough to him to realise. Maybe the funeral would be full of dear, close friends from Jon’s normal life outside of work, the kind of life that people who weren’t Martin had.

Martin’s front door opened. He glanced up, annoyed, just in time to see Sasha pocket her lockpicks. Melanie marched in after her, strode over and grabbed Martin’s arm.

“This is bullshit,” she said. “We’re going out. Basira and Mary are already waiting for us.”

He tried to shake her off, but she wouldn’t let go. “I don’t feel like it.”

Of course you don’t fucking feel like it. Nobody does. We lost two people within one week fighting the clown apocalypse. But you’ve been sitting in here for three days not answering your phone and three days is quite long enough, I think, so we. Are. Going. Out. We’re going to go buy a bunch of vodka for me, and stupidly fancy coffee for Sasha and Basira, and whatever bullshit fancy tea you and Mary are into these days, and we’re going to sit down and be miserable together because frankly I am getting tired of this bullshit. Georgie is pissed at me for annoying her with how pissed I am at you and I’m not letting you fuck up my relationship, so get a damn coat.”

“I don’t see how I’m responsible for your relationship,” Martin grumbled, but it was obvious that his opinion didn’t matter here as Sasha dumped a coat into his arms and Melanie physically pulled him towards the door. “Can I at least go put some nicer clothes on? I’m not going out in sweatpants.”

“You should’ve thought of that before we broke in,” Sasha said cheerfully as he was pulled out the door, barely given time to grab his wallet and keys. “We’re having a sleepover at Mary’s; I’m sure she’ll have something you can borrow.”

“Mary didn’t own plates until I intervened so I really doubt that. What do you mean, a sleepover? I didn’t agree to a sleepover.”

“Luckily you didn’t agree to anything, so I guess it’s moot.”

Martin had to admit, there wasn’t a good way to fight that logic.

-----------------------------



“Hello, Elias!”

Elias didn’t bother sitting up. He didn’t even bother opening his eyes. “Peter.”

“How are you doing in here?”

“Marvellously, thanks for asking. I assume you came by to discuss something other than my health?”

“Ah, yes. About your Archivist. So sorry to hear what happened. Very unfortunate.”

Elias took a deep breath and unclenched his jaw. “It was always a risk.”

“Of course. It does raise the question, though, about our little wager. Where does this new development leave us, exactly?”

“What do you mean? I don’t see how one thing affects the other. There will be an Archivist, and they will, at some point, need to be marked by the Lonely. Feel free to make your seletion and proceed with your scheme. I’m sure I’ll have need of your services by the time you fail.”

“Hmm. In fact, I might hold off on making my selection until after you’ve made yours, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Yes, that’s probably wise.”

There was no reply, which probably meant that Peter was gone. Elias didn’t bother to check. He had far more important things to do; namely, select a new Archivist.

He’d been so sure with Jon, too. Well, there were always risks. It wasn’t unrecoverable.

Somebody already in the archives was probably the best bet. Melanie was out, of course; she was curious enough, but she’d tried to kill him multiple times and he didn’t think that tying her more tightly to the Institute and giving her a lot of extra power was a good move in terms of self preservation. Sasha was out for the same reason as last time; she was too damn smart, and there was a chance she’d see through his attempts to mark her. He had no hope of convincing Tim, who seemed a little busy with his Desolation dalliance anyway, so unless he wanted to look for an outsider, it was down to Martin or Basira. And he’d better make his choice quickly and get everyone’s signatures on fresh employment forms; every day without an Archivist was another day they might realise they were free of the Institute, and Elias preferred to keep people with grudges against him under his control.

So. Back to the task of investigating his options.

He wouldn’t fail a second time.

--------------------------------



“You know, I’ve been lookig at you for ten minutes, but every time I look away I still can’t remember what your face looks like,” Basira said, frowning at Mary. “But it does look different now than before. I’m just not sure how.”

“It’s the same for any part of me,” Mary said. “You only notice with the face because you expect to tell face apart, because that’s how human brains work.”

“But you can look like different people… put on different masks?”

“Oh, yes. I can look very different and still be Mary, if you want, but I’m not ready to not be Mary yet.”

“Right. Right. Of course. So can you look like things that aren’t people?”

“No. Well, yes. It’s complicated.”

“How?”

“I can’t… I mean, I imitate humans. So I mostly look like humans. But I can do nonhuman things if it’s human. Like this.” Bones cracked, and Mary’s arm was suddenly twice as long. “Having a sleepover and talking about our bodies and talents is a human thing that humans do, so I can demonstrate this for you. When I was underground looking for Jon, it was a very human thing to use what abolities I had to try to save my friend’s life, so I could put on more useful nonhuman features then. And when I didn’t know how humans worked, my insides were hooked up in all kinds of strange ways that I can’t bring myself to do now that I know better.”

“So it’s about intent. Your abilities aren’t confined by physical rules, but by intent.”

“Physical rules too. I have mass. But also intent. Being human is important, and fear is important.”

“Fear?”

“Yeah. That arm trick I just did, made you scared of me for a moment. That’s why it was so easy.”

“Fascinating.” Daisy would love to hear this. Should Basira be taking notes?

Just then, the front door opened. Sasha and Melanie entered, trailing a reluctant Martin. Mary actually squealed in delight and clapped her hands together. “We’re all here! Now we can order the pizza.”

“And we brought vodka and fancy coffee,” Melanie said. “Ever been drunk, Mary?”

“Oh, don’t you guys dare all get wasted and leave me the only sober person in the room,” Basira groaned. “I’m not sitting through that.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t be drinking,” Martin said.

“Me neither,” Sasha said. “If I get drunk tonight I’ll go too far and I do not want a hangover tomorrow.”

“None of you are any fun,” Melanie declared.

“We’ll have fun,” Mary said, “because that’s what sleepovers are for. I bought sleeping bags. Everyone wait here.” She headed out of the lounge room to get them. Martin, eyeing the stock photos still creepily hung on the walls, sidled up to Basira.

“What, exactly, are we doing here?” he asked.

“Either grieving our dead coworkers or indulging a horror monster’s desire for adolescent life experiences, I think? Maybe both. I’m just going with it.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. “At this stage that’s probably for the best.”

-------------------------



Elias sat up so quickly that he actually fell out of bed. He cracked his elbow and nose on the hard prison floor and just lay there for a bit, reviewing what he’d learned about Martin Blackwood, checking and rechecking. It all fit into place. And he hadn’t even noticed.

Blackwood. BLACK. WOOD. Right there under his very nose, completely unnoticed because he’d made stupid, lazy assumptions, long before he could ever have known they might be important.

But Martin? Really?

Well. At least now, he knew the path forward.

No more mistakes.

Chapter Text

“I’m just saying,” Melanie said, sitting cross-legged on one of the absurdly squishy bright blue sleeping bags that Mary had provided and sipping her vodka-and-vodka-and-coke, “we could make a killing making a haunted house for halloween. We’d be legendary.”

“I’m interested!” Mary said brightly, looking up from the houseplants she was carefully watering on the windowsill.

“Don’t encourage the monster,” Basira chided.

“Why not? Girl’s gotta eat,” Melanie said.

Do you eat fear?” Basira asked.

“I don’t know. Why does everyone think I know these things?”

“Well, you’re the monster. If anyone knew it’d be you, right?”

“You’re a human. Were you born knowing how your liver works?”

“I still don’t know how my liver works,” Melanie said.

“It works less well,” Martin said, “when you pour that much alcohol into it.”

“Hey, you’re on your third vodka-and-vodka-and-coke, Mr Hypocrite.”

“Mine is just a vodka and coke,” Martin said primly. “Because I’m not insane.”

“Coward.”

“At least I’m not ridiculously drunk.”

“Oh, you are,” Basira said. “You both are.”

“I’ll put some coffee on for both of you,” Sasha said, getting up.

“So they can be drunk and hyper?”

“Yeah. Best combination.”

“They should both drink water,” Mary said. “It will reduce the severity of the headaches tomorrow.”

“Mary. Mary.” Martin got up, put an arm on her elbow, and said with worrying intensity, “Your potted plants. Are very cute.”

“Thank you! They wilted a bit when I was in the safe, but they survived, and I’m bringing them back up to full health now.”

“This is a weird conversation,” Basira said. “You’re all weird.”

“You started working with us because a dream told you to find our kidnapped boss,” Sasha pointed out.

“Hey, a private investigator takes jobs where she can find them! It’s a tough market.”

“How’s that going?” Martin asked. “The private investigating thing?”

“It’s alright. Lost pets and cheating spouses, mostly. All my interesting gigs have been about you guys. I’m trying to convince Daisy to quit the force and go in as my partner in the firm; I don’t think the force is… good for her, you know?”

“She seems pretty good at her job to me,” Melanie said.

“She’s brave and skilled and can go after criminals like no one’s business, but some of her decisions… well… they’re using her to do dirty work that she shouldn’t have to do, and she’s started…”

“Noticing a potential terror plot and tackling it herself with the help of you, a non-cop, and not even telling the police about it?” Martin suggested.

“Yeah! Stuff like that. I don’t think it’s gonna end well for her.” Basira sipped her coffee. “Sorry,l you guys don’t want to hear about this.”

“Oh, we absolutely do,” Martin assured her.

“We do?” Sasha asked, puzzled.

“Yes. It’s very important.”

“She did save the world,” Melanie pointed out. “Setting the explosives and all.”

“Not just that,” Martin said. “It’s… okay, Basira was hired as a hostage and I don’t know why Elias put Mary here, but for the rest of us, you guys notice what we all have in common?”

“What?”

“Very few outside ties. Elias hired people who didn’t have anything outside the Institute. He hired me right after I put Mum in a home; I’m pretty sure Jon’s an orphan and he isn’t… wasn’t… very social; Melanie’s Ghost Hunt UK team was just about collapsed and her credibility in the toilet – ”

“Thank you so much.”

“ – Tim always seemed social, but his relationships outside the Institute were all really… what’s the word…”

“Transient?” Sasha suggested.

“Yeah. And your secret underground network of criminal hackers was probably buried too deep for even Elias to know about them so you looked alone, too.”

“I have a couple of old friends who know about phones, I’m not part of a secret underground network of criminal hackers,” Sasha said, rolling her eyes.

“I know you have to say that because if we knew the truth you’d have to kill us, and I respect that. Point is.” Martin paused to drink more alcohol. “We’re in this together, and we have to have each others’ backs, and that’s fine. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be totally cut of from anyone else. That’s what Elias wants, and we shouldn’t be trusting Elias. Basira, you don’t have to compartmentalise your life. Daisy’s important to you so you should talk about her. And you.” He pointed at Melanie. “You’re dating that girl Georgie, right? How’s that going?”

Melanie coloured. “How can you possibly know that? Have you been spying on me?”

“Uh, no? I saw her and I’ve seen you and it’s kind of obvious?”

“What about it is remotely obvious? Anyway, I don’t want to talk about it. It’s really not any of your business.”

“Fine. If you don’t want to talk about things, you shouldn’t talk about them.” He fixed Melanie with a worryingly intense stare. “But if you do want to talk about them, you have to talk about them. Okay? Networks are important.”

“How drunk are you?”

“I’ll get some water,” Mary said cheerfully, heading to the kitchen.

“New rule,” Basira proposed, “we don’t give Martin this much alcohol any more.”

“Or we give Martin alcohol all the time,” Sasha suggested. “This is hilarious.”

And that was why Martin was battling a terrible headache at 11am the next morning, when the prison called him to tell him that Mr Elias Bouchard wanted a meeting.

-----------------------------



Elias had worked in academia long enough to know the look of a man running entirely on painkillers and rage. As Martin grumpily stormed into the room, Elias gave him a proper Look over for the first time since hiring him and saw… just a man.

Admittedly a fairly traumatised one, with a couple of affects that had slipped under Elias’ radar. He had some kind of Spider-related infection eating its way up his arm, which explained rather a lot in retrospect, and Elias wasn’t sure where he’d picked up the starry-eyed look; probably ticked off Michael Crew during their scheming. But there was nothing about him that he wouldn’t expect from a man in Martin’s line of work, especially one so prone to throwing themselves into danger to protect or look after others.

But he’d never seen anything in the Keays or Von Closens either, no matter how hard he looked. That meant nothing.

“Martin,” he greeted him, with a friendly smile. “You’re looking well.”

“What do you want?”

“To offer my condolences. Jon was – ”

“Don’t.”

“Right. To business, then.” Elias clasped his hands, ignoring the weight of the cuffs, and leaned forward. “The Institute is, unfortunately, currently lacking a head archivist.”

Martin laughed disbelievingly. “You dragged me down here to talk administration? Isn’t this something you should be discussing with Peter?”

“I want to offer you the job.”

Martin stared. “What?”

“A promotion. To head archivist. There’s a pay increase, and I’m sure you’re already familiar with the metaphysical – ”

“Why does everyone keep trying to promote me? Why me? There’s no way I’m your first choice for this.”

“You are, in fact, my first choice for this. Of all the possible candidates, I believe that you are most likely to survive the position.”

Martin snorted. “Oh yeah, that makes a job sound fantastic. ‘You should take it because you’re more likely to survive’. You know, Elias, you could at least try to make your lies sound believable. No way you look at me and think ‘oh yeah, that guy’s tough, he’s got a good survival instinct’. Sasha – ”

“Sasha would throw herself into the role head first and burn herself out completely within six months, much as Jon would have if I hadn’t been there to protect him from himself, and you know it. But believe what you like, Martin. The fact is that I am offering you the job. If you’re that curious, then perhaps someday you’ll have enough power to make me tell you why. Won’t that be a fun goal to strive for?”

“You’re trying to convince me. Which means you can’t make me.”

“That’s true. Accepting this role has to be your choice.”

“What makes you think I’d ever even consider doing that? After everything, after seeing what it did to Jon?”

“Come on, Martin. You already know why you’re going to accept. Let’s not play games.”

“I don’t, uh, I don’t see any reason to accept, actually.”

Elias rubbed his temples. “Is that what you need, then? Me to be the bad guy? To explain things to you so that you can pretend you didn’t already run the numbers yourself, didn’t already see where this would go? Fine, if you really want me to hold you hand, I can do that for you.” He looked Martin in the eye.

“There will be an Archivist,” Elias said. “That is something that neither you nor I can control. What I do have some limited control over is who it is, and I’m offering it to you. You will accept, because if you don’t, I have to offer it to someone else. Perhaps, as you say, the best available choice – Sasha James. And then you’ll watch her take on the burden of this power, and burn out, and die, performing a duty that you should were too timid to save her from.”

“Sasha’s not an idiot. She’ll just refuse, too.”

“Perhaps she will. Perhaps Sasha and Melanie and Basira will all refuse, and I’m sure you can see what I’d have to do then.”

“You’d offer it to some poor outsider who has no idea what they’re getting into. Like Jon.”

“Don’t look at me like that – as I said, there will be an Archivist and I can’t stop that. If you force me to rope in another person, that’s on you. But yes. You’d have another unknown element on your hands, someone you’d have to adapt to the situation rather quickly while you track down the remaining rituals, a delay that could very well endanger the world. I should also point out that not everyone has the right… personality… to work well in the archives. I vetted all of you for that before hiring or transferring you, but, thanks in no small part to your actions, I’m not really in a position to vet new additions quite so thoroughly. I cannot guarantee that any outsider I choose would find the role quite so tolerable or survivable as any of you. So. Should I have Peter prepare the employment contract?”

“I need to talk this over with the others,” Martin said quietly.

“Ah. Yes; that’s probably very sensible! I knew you were the right choice!”

Martin looked at him in surprise. “What?”

“Assistant loyalty is a very important resource for an Archivist. You and I already know what the only logical choice is, but they could be upset if you seem to be going behind their backs, so by making them believe they had some input – ”

“That’s not what this is,” Martin snapped.

“If you say so. Good day, Martin.” Elias stood up and signalled the guard.

There. He’d handled that well.

Everything was going according to plan.

Chapter Text

The man’s legs were too badly burned to run properly, but he did his best, making for the safety of the alley. His pursuer followed at a walking pace, so maybe if he ran fast enough, it he hid cleverly enough…

“Where are you even running to, Harold?” the man called behind him. “You’ve got no home left to go to. And she’s not going to take you in, not after everything. What are you planning to do, shelter in a dumpster and crawl to work tomorrow begging them to take you back? It’s over. You have nothing.”

There; some garbage in the corner of the alley. The man scrambled under it and froze.

Tim stood in the mouth of the alley and shook his head, disappointed. “Come on, man. Haven’t we been through this? You chose the most flammable possible hiding place.”

The screams died down shortly before the flames did. Tim brushed some ash off his trousers and grimaced.

“A pretty good takedown,” Arthur’s voice said from behind him. “For a beginner.”

“Arthur. Short time, no see. So you’re still babysitting me, then?”

“Just seeing if you needed help with the cleanup. We do look after our own.”

“How kind. But I think I have this one handled.”

“Yes. A slow bleed over a few days, leaving behind a grieving mother and daughter. Very creative.”

“I do try.”

“Of course, you had plenty of time to observe him in planning this. I don’t think the daughter will be grieving all that hard.”

“So that’s what you’re here about? To tell me to leave evil fucking rapists alone when picking victims?”

“I’m just… concerned that your motivations may be corrupt.”

“You’re the only person in the world who would call saving a girl from her pervert rapist father ‘corrupt’.”

“You know what I meant.”

“You meant that you’re now thinking Jude was right about me.”

“No. If you didn’t feel the call of the Desolation in your soul, you wouldn’t still be here. You would’ve walked away. But I am concerned that if you don’t adapt quickly and commit properly, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Which would be super embarrassing for you.”

“To be perfectly honest, yes, it would.”

“Perhaps that’s the plan, then,” Tim said, stepping into Arthur’s personal space. “To feed the Desolation by bringing down what little respect you still have in the – ”

Arthur punched him in the stomach.

Tim, taken by surprise, dropped to his knees. He curled his hands into fists, but he didn’t hit back – Arthur was made of burning wax and Tim, after the wax and ash of the Unknowing had flaked off, was still made of miraculously healed but very human flesh. He wasn’t an idiot.

“Don’t be like that,” Arthur snapped. “I kept this congregation together for longer than you’ve been alive, and you are not the first bratty little upstart to test me. If you’re really that keep on making a nuisance of yourself, at least channel it towards – are you listening to me?”

Tim wasn’t. He was listening to something else.

“She’s here,” he breathed.

“Who?”

“That fucking murdercop! We have to get out of here!” And he was up and running, Arthur on his heels.

So when Daisy walked past the alley on her crutches and the smell of burning caught her attention, all she found was the badly charred corpse of the victim, trapped under still smouldering garbage.

------------------------------------



It had only been a couple of days and they were, once again, at Mary’s house. It made sense as a meeting point when Martin called them all, saying they had to talk; it was bigger than anyone else’s place, and they all knew where it was.

The same was true, of course, for the archives, but nobody suggested meeting there.

Sasha was the last to arrive, and Martin, nervous in a different way to how he was usually nervous, made them all tea and refused to let anyone help. Once they were all seated at Mary’s table, cradling various teas and herbal infusions, he cleared his throat. “I went to see Elias in jail yesterday.”

“Why?” Melanie asked.

“Because he asked me to?”

“What did he want?” Sasha asked.

“To talk about the archives. He’s appointing a new head archivist.”

“Huh. I suppose he eventually – ”

“He offered me the job.”

Everyone was silent. Sasha couldn’t help but note, wryly, that this was the second time she’d been passed over for that job for someone unqualified; the only man still on the team, she couldn’t help noticing. And Martin was even less qualified than Jon.

If she’d still thought this was about running an archive, she’d probably be pretty pissed about that.

“You didn’t take it,” Melanie said.

“Of course not.”

“So you turned him down.” Basira.

“I haven’t given him an answer yet. I wanted to talk it over as a group first. This affects all of us, so…”

“So the answer’s obvious,” Melanie said. “Don’t be the fucking Archivist.”

“Why you?” Basira asked.

“I asked him that. He says he thinks I have the temperament most likely to survive.”

“Ominous,” Sasha noted.

“That’s what I said! I think he’s lying, though. I think he thinks I’ll be the easiest for him to manipulate.”

“Didn’t you put him in jail?”

“That was a group effort.”

“And technically probably saved his life,” Melanie added. “He’s gonna be so much harder for me to kill with all those police in the way. Joking! Jesus Christ.”

That’s kind of my point,” Martin said. “Everyone else at this table is either super smart, really mysterious, literally inhuman, or has tried to kill him on more than one occasion. Of the lot, if you wanted to keep control of the person you were giving superpowers to…”

“Okay,” Basira said, “but doesn’t that also mean you should refuse? We can agree that being manipulated by Elias is bad, right?”

“I don’t think it’s relevant,” Mary said. “Martin said this should be a group decision, right? As a group, we’re a lot harder to manipulate, and if we keep making group decisions, it doesn’t matter who the Archivist is, for manipulation purposes.”

“What happens if you say no?” Sasha asked.

“He said he’d offer it to one of you. If no one takes it, he’ll have to bring in an outsider.”

“Fuck that,” Melanie said.

“Exactly.”

“I’ll do it,” Sasha said, surprising even herself. “It’s not something you should have to do, Martin.”

“It’s not something you should have to do either, Sasha.”

“Yeah, well, someone’s got to, and I’m not letting you sacrifice yourself to protect us.”

“But you can sacrifice yourself to protect us?”

“That’s different!”

“How?”

“I didn’t just lose Jon!”

Martin crossed his arms. “We both just lost Jon. And Tim.”

“You know what I meant.”

“Yeah. I do. You meant that Martin just lost the man he’s been pathetically crushing on for years and now he can’t be trusted to make his own decisions.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Sasha said, like a liar.

“Oh, isn’t it? Isn’t that exactly what you – ”

“Martin’s right,” Basira cut in. “Sasha shouldn’t do it.”

The pair stared at her until she continued.

“I’m sure there was a lot of weird spook stuff that Jon didn’t tell us about; nothing we can do to decide who’s the best for that. But we do know that people kept targeting him. He got kidnapped multiple times. So if we’re picking someone for this, and we’re making decisions as a group, then we should avoid picking people who are the best for actually rescuing our Archivist, if it comes down to it. Sasha’s the hacker and I’ve got investigative experience; we should be in reserve for any rescue missions. I don’t think it’s possible to pick Mary, so it’s between Martin and Melanie.”

“No fucking way am I doing it,” Melanie said.

“Guess that’s it then. Unless anyone’s got a better idea?”

Sasha clenched her fists. “I don’t like this,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to do this.”

“None of us should have to do any of this,” Martin said with a grim smile. “But here we are.”

“We should vote!” Mary said. “Who wants Martin to be the Archivist?”

Five hands were raised, some more reluctantly than others.

“You should move back in with me,” Mary said.

“What?”

“If you might be kidnapped, you shouldn’t live alone. I’m really hard to kill. I think? I don’t know for sure, I’ve never been killed, but I have a spare room and I can stop you being kidnapped. And I promise not to watch you sleep this time.”

“Oh. Well, uh. If you don’t mind.”

“It’ll be fun! Like a sleepover every night! And you can teach me to cook more things.”

“That sounds… great. Thanks.” Martin’s phone buzzed. He gave it a glance. “Oh. That was quick.”

“Who is it?”

“Peter Lukas. He wants us all to drop in and sign new employment contracts.”

---------------------------------------



Peter was not a manipulative person.

He made this admission to himself not out of any sort of moral conviction, but as an acknowledgement of his limitations. He had no desire or intention of learning enough about people to be able to accurately predict or control them, and had managed through life just fine without having to, for the most part.

Except, of course, when he decided to do something utterly foolish, like make a high-stakes wager with a two hundred year old nigh-omniscient bastard that relied specifically on him manipulating someone.

Peter looked over his options as they put pen to new contracts, considering. Martin was off the table now, a choice that he was sure Elias had made just to get in his way, but the joke was on Elias; while Martin had been Peter’s first choice based on their initial interaction, he’d formed some rather… sticky… social bonds with his coworkers since then, or at least decided to try to, which was just as much of a problem from Peter’s perspective. Nevertheless, when the others asked why they were signing new contracts when their jobs technically hadn’t changed, only Martin’s had, Peter briefly considered letting slip the truth, letting them realise they were free before they trapped themselves again, just to inconvenience Elias. He didn’t, of course; petty games like that would only delay things for them both. But the look on Elias’ face might almost have been worth it.

He watched them leave the building, dipping down to the archives to grab some reading material on the way out, and considered his options. They were sticking together for now, an understandable response to losing two of their number, but Peter had worked under worse conditions. He just needed to identify the weakest, sickest gazelle, cut them off from the herd, and… get to work.

He went back to his office and pulled up their employee files. He had some research to do.

Chapter Text

Jon’s funeral was… perfunctory.

Georgie recognised a couple of people from college, and assumed (knowing Jon) that basically everyone else was from his place of work. Aside from those from the archives, most people had the look of those attending an event they were supposed to be at, rather than those genuinely sad for someone close to them. The archives crew looked genuinely grief-stricken, so even the fucking monster was faking sadness better than half the front row, a hollow look in her eyes as she stared vacantly at the man spewing a bunch of bullshit about what a lovely person Jon had been, how he was a treasure to this world, yada yada.

Jon hadn’t been a lovely man, he’d been an emotionally constipated dipshit who got incredibly insecure about everything he did and projected that insecurity on the nearest soft target. He’d also once punched a guy for calling Georgie a slut, broke his hand, and insisted it was fine and spent an afternoon coming up with more and more ridiculous reasons he didn’t feel like using that hand right now until Georgie had physically dragged him into a doctor’s office. He’d been a guy who would spend an hour and a half discussing different kinds of trains with her nine-year-old cousin and later insist he didn’t like children and that didn’t count. He’d certainly never ‘brightened every room he walked into’ or ‘always had a kind word and a smile’. He had once learned how to darn socks, and refused to throw any socks out for over a year, until she ran the numbers, compared them to the price of new socks, and pointed out he was saving himself about fifteen cents per hour of labour. The darning tools went away after that; Jon had always bowed to mathematics.

Did the guy talking up there even know Jon?

Melanie must have felt the same, because she was gripping Georgie’s wrist hard enough to grind the bones together, teeth gritted hard. Georgie tried to pry her fingers open for a minute or so before giving up. She’d deal with it when her hand went purple.

Melanie did eventually let go, but not until it was time to head off for the wake. She stood nervously to one side and admitted, “I don’t want to go.”

“To the wake?”

“Yeah.”

Georgie nodded. “Let’s go get drunk then. We’ll get super drunk and bitch about the two brave dickhead heroes who dies saving the world. You’ll have to do most of the Tim bitching though; I only met him like once.”

“I think I can manage that.”

“Fantastic.”

----------------------------------



Daisy and Basira watched people filing off to the wake.

“We should get going,” Daisy said.

Basira shook her head. “I don’t feel right about it. Going to the wake, I mean. I don’t… the parts of Jon I knew, none of those people knew. We’re not mourning the same person.”

“We don’t have to go.”

“We can’t just not go.”

“Sure we can. It’s easy. We just turn around and head that way instead. Go for a walk in the park or something. You can mourn just as well there, and we don’t have to be polite to random suits who work for a monster.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”

---------------------------



Sasha wasn’t really a crier. Martin, she quickly noticed, was. Mary kept glancing worriedly between them, as if trying to best decide how to express a feeling of grief that must be frighteningly new to her. Sasha didn’t think that either Martin or Mary wanted to walk around making small talk with various Institute people in their current conditions, so after the funeral she suggested, “Let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t,” Martin said hollowly. “There’s the wake next.”

“We’ll skip it.”

“We can’t skip it. It’s a wake. You have to go to a wake.”

“Why?”

“That’s just what you do.”

“Why, ‘cause it’s tradition? I vote we start a new funeral tradition, for the archives. Movie night.”

Martin looked at her in confusion. “What?”

“We get drunk, watch all of Tim’s favourite movies, and figure out what parts Jon would loudly pull apart in that pretentious voice of his.”

There, on Martin’s face, a ghost of a smile.

“Sasha, we can’t just – ”

“Too late!” Sasha grabbed his arm. “You’re the Archivist now, it’s time for your first kidnapping! Mary, help me kidnap the Archivist! We need him for our nefarious plot of watching terrible movies!”

“You can’t use movie night to end the world,” Martin pointed out as he let them pull him away.

“Once you’ve seen the kind of garbage Tim liked, you’ll wish we could, though!”

So they didn’t go to the wake.

----------------------------------



Once upon a time, a man named Albrecht von Closen had found a tomb deep in the Schwartzwald Forest. He’d written a letter about it to his friend, Jonah Magnus, describing the unfortunately ruined state of the books and the spectre that had haunted him at the tomb.

Jonah had seen through the obvious lies in the letter. Presumably, he’d lied about the books because he’d believed Jonah would steal them – something Jonah couldn’t be too offended by, since he’d done exactly that many years later, after they’d poisoned Von Closen’s mind to the point where the Revelation was eating him from the inside out and sprouting as one of those damn apple trees in his yard – and as for the rest, well. When Albrecht and Carla had found themselves finally, after decades of trying, blessed with two sons, everyone politely ignored the way that their birthdates didn’t entirely make sense. It wasn’t unusual, among their class, for such ‘miscalculations’ to happen, usually involving an unmarried relative finding themselves needing a sudden nine month holiday immediately preceding the miracle of such children, and if Albrecht and Carla had decided to help somebody else and gain themselves a family in the process then it was really nobody else’s business. Jonah wouldn’t conect the Von Closen boys to The Library until he wasn’t jonah any more and they were long dead.

Because the elder son had had children, and those children kept showing up.

Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it meant nothing that Von Closens, and later Keays, kept getting jobs at the Institute, or marrying people at the Institute, or working peripherally to but not technically employed by the Institute. Certainly, he’d Looked at enough of them nice and hard and they’d all seemed perfectly normal and completely unaware of The Library or anything else that anyone else in their position wouldn’t be aware of. But they kept being around, and even the ones who didn’t work anywhere near him had a strange talent for finding, using and destroying the stray books. They seemed to track them down with unusual regularity, and suffered the worst effects of them far less than one would expect, almost like they had some kind of instinct for how dangerous each book was. Gerard Keay had destroyed over twenty Leitners in his day, most of them with fire, and not once had he put a match to one of the many, many books that would set you alight instead if you tried it.

The obvious conclusion was that Von Closen’s line had some kind of connection to The Library, like his connection to the Panopticon, but he’d never been able to See it, and if it factored into the way they seemed to gravitate to the Institute, none of them had seemed remotely aware of it. Once he’d become aware of the possible situation, he’d given their blessedly linear family tree a cursory examination to be sure who to look out for, and simply monitored the situation until they finally died out.

He’d never took it too seriously, because the concept was sort of ridiculous. Sure, Albrecht had been drawn to the tomb containing The Library, starving and desperate for an Archivist, been judged by an apparition that was quite probably the last remaining remnants of the previous Archivist (although it was hard to be certain), and gone home with The Library and two boys who seemed mysteriously linked to it, but… well, the obvious conclusion that The Library had become desperate for its missing third piece and had created itself a lineage of Archivists, only to be derailed by Jonah’s theft… that was a little fanciful, even for someone who’d seen so many strange things over the centuries. The library wasn’t sapient, it didn’t plan. Sure, some conscious holdover of the previous Archivist had probably been present, if he was interpreting Albrecht’s ghostly encounter correctly, but… still. It wasn’t something he’d ever really wanted to think about, and it wasn’t something he’d ever needed to take seriously, since none of them had shown awareness of or interest in his Library.

But maybe he should’ve taken things more seriously. Maybe he should have taken a more thorough look at the Von Closen family tree, and realised that just because the elder son was the only one to produce more Von Closens, didn’t mean that the younger didn’t have children. It might mean, for example, that he’d grown up, decided that as a foundling his claim of the Von Closen name was dishonest, and after his parents had passed decided to change it, in the old foundling tradition, to something related to the place he’d been found – a tomb deep in the Schwartzwald Forest. And that his descendants, when they immigrated to England in a time of a lot of anti-German sentiment, might decide to translate their surname into English.

Elias wondered vaguely if Martin, when his powers of understanding any language developed, might someday happen upon the word Schwartzwald in a statement, and chuckle a little at the coincidence, and move on.

Well. It was poetic, he supposed, that the last Archivist to grace this world would be one chosen two hundred years ago by The Library.

After everything that it had done for him, he probably owed it that much.

Chapter Text

Basira made sure that Georgie was home alone before knocking on her door. It could’ve been awkward if Melanie was around.

Georgie answered the door with a cat in her arms and blinked at Basira. “Hey.”

“This is for you.” Basira handed her a thumb drive. “Details of Mary Sue’s movements, known history, basic biology – such as it is – and anything else I could determine about her. There’s a lot detailing her general motivations and outlook on there, as well as some guessed I’ve made about her personality and nature, and recordings of several discussions with me while we talk about things you might find relevant. They’re a little meandering, since she doesn’t know she’s being recorded, but hopefully they contain the kind of information you’re looking for. I’ll send my invoice through tomorrow.”

“Oh. Thanks. So is Melanie…?”

“It’s my personal opinion that Melanie’s not in any danger from Mary, and neither are the rest of us. But if she does prove to be dangerous, well, I’m around her a lot now, so… you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Georgie nodded, clearly unconvinced. “Thanks for this.”

“Not a problem. If you ever need anyone else stalked for money, you have my number.”

When she got back to her office, Daisy was waiting for her. Her casts were off; Daisy had been a fast healer as long as Basira had known her.

“Hey,” Basira said.

“Hi. Need your eyes on something.”

“What is it?”

“I’m investigated a series of… arsons? People and things getting burned. But the way they’re catching fire, and the precision, is… odd. Know anything about something like that?”

“Maybe. What have you got?”

Daisy handed her a folder that definitely wasn’t allowed to leave the police precinct. Basira flipped through it.

“Hmm. Could be anything, really. I mean, to me it looks the most like the Cult of the Lightless Flame, from everything I’ve read about them, but they’re usually a lot more careful to clean up after themselves than this. They might be getting sloppy or rushed over something, or it might be something else. It’s not like the Desolation servants have exclusive dibs on fire or anything.”

“Okay, I understood about half of that. You can help?”

“Maybe. I’ll check things out when I’m back in the archives on Monday, see if I can dig up anything similar.”

“Is that safe?”

“What do you mean, safe?”

“I mean… you guys have a lot of stories of crimes, right? That the Institute doesn’t report to the police. I was wondering if there was a reason for that.”

“A reason?”

“Yeah. I mean, if I was a supernatural serial killer or something and there was a big research institute that all my witnesses and escaped victims went to to tell about me, I’d probably try to do something about that unless there was some kind o agreement in place about where that information went. I don’t want to… put you in the middle.”

“Oh. Well, there are a lot of secrecy and anonymity clauses and stuff, but I don’t know if there’s an unwritten ‘don’t tell the cops’ agreement. Nobody ever told me of anything like that. Anyway, we’re blowing up apocalypse rituals, so I think ‘police know of the time I magicked a guy off a skyscraper’ is pretty low on everyone’s list of priorities.”

“Yeah, maybe. Just… be careful, alright?”

“Hypocrite.”

---------------------------



Living with Mary was somehow weirder the second time around, knowing what she was. Martin couldn’t really put his finger on why, but it probably had something to do with the small unnerving things she’d do at random times, like take something off a shelf that should be out of her reach with unsettling bone snapping noises, or turn her head around further than she should be able to to talk to him. He knew she was just doing it to freak him out, he knew she was better at imitating humans than this, but it seemed rude to call her out on it.

If he hadn’t already been so used to the sense of low-level dread that permeated his workplace, it might’ve been a dealbreaker, but after thinking about the various aspects of his situation (not least of which, Mary had never asked him to pay any rent), he decided to treat it as an Annoying Roommate Habit, like living with someone who kept cooking elaborate meals and never washed their dishes. He’d tried to just decide not to be freaked out by it, in the hopes she’d get bored and stop, but it’s impossible to feel nothing when your roommate smiles brightly at you and you suddenly realise her entire mouth is full of just canines.

Weeks went by in the archives with nobody trying to kidnap him. Martin read statements, Mary typed them into the database, Sasha and Melanie worked on tagging, cross-referencing and statement follow-up, and Basira helped on Mondays and Tuesdays and was otherwise off being a private investigator. Only the ‘real’ statements, less than five per cent of them, went into the database, so the archives were mostly full of boxes of essentially useless paper, reports made by people who were mistaken, or delusional, or lying. Sasha, being the only person there qualified for real actual archival work, took charge in storing and organising those. She filed the original paper copies of the ‘real’ statements in among them, which seemed ridiculous to Martin, but when she started trying to explain how prior organisation preservation principles worked in archiving he quickly ran off to make everyone tea and left her to it before he could be subjected to an hour-long lecture on the history of library science.

Anyway, Martin was mostly concerned with mapping out the upcoming apocalypses. He’d expanded his movable pinup board to two movable pinup boards, charting the bare details of the few apocalypses they knew to be recently foiled (Buried, Flesh, Desolation, Stranger), and everything they could find about the ones they weren’t sure about (all the rest). The Beholding had, as before, its own little card with a black X through it, which Basira asked him about.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I’ve decided to just ignore that one.”

“You’re ignoring the Eyepocalypse?”

“First of all, hilarious name. Second, yes. I don’t know if the Beholding ritual is coming up soon or what, but if it is I think it’s safe to say Elias is probably behind it.”

“Oh, yeah, definitely.”

“And Elias hired us all to work in his Evil Temple of Being Watched all the Time, and can read minds, so I don’t think we could stop it if we wanted to. Anything we found out would probably be red herrings to get us out of the way, or actually manipulate us into participating.”

“So you’re hoping that if we stop all the other rituals, the other powers will be invested in stopping the Beholding, because we probably can’t.”

“Pretty much.”

“You realise they’re probably gonna do that by trying to kill us, right?”

“I… don’t really have a solution to that part right now. Except for us to try not to die, I guess? Has Peter properly, officially replaced Elias as head of the Institute? Because if so they can probably safely kill Elias.”

“Great. We should spread the word on the Secret Underground Spook Network. You have one of those?”

Martin blushed. “I don’t think they’d invite me if there was one. I don’t have any Archivist powers yet.”

“You looking forward to them?”

“Honestly? No. I don’t think they were very good for Jon. I’m… I’m a bit…”

“Scared?”

“Yeah.”

“I think that’s probably the idea. At least you know what to expect.”

“Heh. Yeah, I do.”

--------------------------



Tim stood across the street and looked into the office building with binoculars. There was his next sacrifice to the Flame; that smug wealthy man who’d built a fortune on the misfortune of others. He was going to learn how easily blood money burned.

But not right now, because Tim had to get back to the motel and check out. He hadn’t gone back home since the Unknowing, shuffling his way between other sleeping places instead. He hadn’t done anything that would let the others know he was alive.

He should. He really should. He should stop hiding and just go the fuck home. He’d watched Jon’s funeral from a distance, for Christ’s sake, not wanting to show up and risk getting recognised. A funeral! But…

But out here, for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel the Beholding over him. Aside from Arthur’s incessant nannying, he wasn’t watched. He wasn’t restricted by some stuck-up manager holding memories of his brother’s fate over his head as a constant threat. Except to offer him a couch to sleep on or some cleanup help or a bit of advice so far as his philosophical development went, the Lightless Flame mostly left him alone. And if he refused help, then with the exception of Arthur who was trying to use Tim as a personal project to boost his ruined reputation, they shrugged and let him be.

He really should let them help him more, he knew. He was leaving too much evidence behind, and the police had taken notice. It was just… the idea of being monitored, of needing to rely on monsters and being so involved, still left a bad taste in his mouth after all that Beholding nonsense. But he knew they didn’t mean anything by it. He’d spoken to enough of the other members to know that this was standard procedure; everyone who came to the Lightless Flame brought the person they used to be with them and went on some crusade motivated by personal gain, or religious fervour, or revenge, or justice, and the way to deal with it was to simply let them get it out of their system. Eventually, the joy of the sacrifice would grow and burn away such concerns until they were ready to set themselves alight and be reborn in wax… or it wouldn’t, and they died.

Tim figured it was probably too early to tell if it was working on him. He still felt like a good guy, occasional murders aside. He targeted the scum who deserved it and left the innocent alone; he hated the others for what they’d done to innocent people just for the joy of destruction, because targeting the weak and innocent was easy, when there were more justified and satisfying sacrifices right there for anyone willing to put in a little effort. Blood money burned as well as hard-gotten money, and there was more of it, so why break some old woman’s boiler or melt an immigrant when the world was full of those just begging to be burned?

His sense of justice still felt the same, at least to him, but there was something growing in him; a quiet satisfaction with the completion of every sacrifice. The more he took, the more despair his victims felt, the more challenging the plan, the neater the execution, the better that warm feeling of satisfaction that lived in his heart. Maybe it would, in time, burn away other motivations, and finish turning him into one of them.

He should probably feel worried about that.

He did feel worried, a little. He felt a lot of things. What he didn’t feel, though, was sick.

He’d been away from the Institute for nearly two months, and he didn’t feel its absence at all.

That had been the main reason he’d gone off-grid, initially. He felt like… like he was free, forgotten about, and that if he showed up again and let the Eye fix on him the spell would be broken and he’d be trapped once more. Which was bullshit, obviously; if Elias wanted to know where he was, Elias knew where he was. He couldn’t hide. But the denial had helped, for awhile, until he couldn’t ignore the obvious reason he was free. The only thing that made sense.

The Eye didn’t have him any more, because another power had a stronger claim on his soul.

That had to be it. Tim didn’t really understand how these things worked, but the timing was undeniable; he’d walked out of that place after achieving his revenge, fallen in with the Lightless Flame and healed his burns way too fast to be natural, and suddenly he didn’t belong to the Eye any more. And if he had to be bound to some power, if freedom wasn’t an option…

Well, he was doing good out here. He wasn’t being watched or controlled out here, except when Arthur got clingy. And the cult had never tried to trap him with threats or coercion or magical contracts; so far as any of them were concerned, if he didn’t want to get on board he could just fuck off. That wasn’t actually an option for him, because he sure as hell didn’t intend to return to the Institute, but they weren’t aware he was trapped and had no intention of trapping him, which he very much appreciated. They were a bunch of sadistic murderers, but it seemed like everyone was, these days.

Even Tim was, now. And that would either kill him or save him.

All in all, things could be a lot worse.

Chapter Text

Melanie stomped into Georgie’s house and put the takeaway down with rather more force than strictly necessary.

“You’re having a great day, then?” Georgie asked, looking up from the Admiral.

“I need another haircut.”

“Ah. Someone recognised you from – ”

“It’s all Martin’s fault! It had died down, mostly, then Martin was all, ‘oh, hey Melanie, you want to take down Elias, right? Well, I need a bunch of cameras pointed at this window so you should – ”

“Melanie.” Georgie got up and put an arm around her. “Breathe.”

“I am fucking breathing.”

“What did Martin make you do?”

“Nothing,” Melanie grumbled, defeated. “You’re right, I chose to get involved.”

“And you took down Elias!”

“I should’ve killed him. He’s still out there, being alive, with his stupid magic eyes and his smug… they’re all acting like it’s over, but it isn’t! He’s just harder to kill now! And we only went with this soft option because I was too incompetent to get the job done properly!”

“If you’d killed him, you’d be dead, right?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But everything we do ultimately makes the world worse anyway while we’re there, doesn’t it? The whole place is evil. So maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

“Yeah. It would.” Georgie wrapped her arms around her. “I don’t want you dead.”

“Well, that’s just being selfish,” Melanie joked.

“So I’m selfish. Fuck ‘em. You gonna serve up that Chinese or what?”

“I can’t, some cad is holding my arms hostage.”

“My arms now. Because I’m selfish.”

The standoff was resolved, of course, by the Admiral, who attempted to get into the takeout and required all four arms to restrain.

-----------------------------



Basira walked into work two weeks later with news for the archive crew, but was distracted by the much more important presence of cake.

“Someone’s birthday?” she asked, scanning the room. Her money was on Martin, who sat red as a tomato while Sasha took pictures of him and Mary (who was cheerfully posing, apparently oblivious to his mood) and Melanie (who was hungrily eyeing the cake).

“Better!” Sasha grinned. “Basira, get in the photo, we want memories of this.”

“What about you?”

“Oh no, I don’t like pictures.”

“What are we celebrating?” Basira asked, dutifully crouching to get in the frame.

Martin spoke up. “Nothing – ”

“Martin’s first Compulsion!” Mary said cheerfully. “He asked me about tea this morning and I was forced to answer.”

“Oh, That’s… fast, isn’t it?”

“Faster than Jon,” Martin said glumly. “We think. We can’t be sure when Jon started, but…”

“Is this… a good sign or a bad sign?” Basira asked. “Getting these powers faster than Jon?”

“I’m hoping neither. I’m hoping it’s just because we know what we’re doing this time? But knowing our luck, it’s probably a bad sign.”

“You should try them out more,” Sasha said. “See how strong you are. Ask me something and I’ll try to resist.”

“I am not going to do that.”

“You can try it on the People’s Church guys who are watching the Institute,” Basira suggested.

That got everyone’s attention. “What?”

“Yeah, that’s what I came to tell you guys. We’re under surveillance by the People’s Church.”

“Probably want to make sure we don’t interfere in their Dark ritual,” Melanie said. “That’s gotta be coming up soon.”

“Or maybe they think we’re going to do an Eye ritual,” Sasha said.

“Can’t we all just have an open agreement not to do any rituals?” Martin asked. “Everyone just signs a treaty or something? Save us all some time and lives?”

“We could suggest it,” Basira grinned. “Somehow I don’t think it’d catch on.”

“And even if you got all the humans and more, well, coherent manifestations like Mary on board, there are things out there that can’t be reasoned with that would probably keep trying,” Sasha said.

Mary shook her head. “No, that’s nothing to worry about. Only humans can do the rituals.”

“What? That can’t be right.” Melanie waved Sasha’s camera away and started cutting the cake. “There were tons of non-humans involved in the Unknowing. There was that ‘anglerfish’ thing and, and mannequins…”

“Yeah, twisted around the minds of the Circus,” Mary said. “But they couldn’t fuel it, any more than I’d have been able to. They could move stuff around and steal a skin and provide a chorus and all that, but we’re just scenery to… facilitate. Gregor Orsinov was human, and Nikola was made out of a human; all the drivers need to have the power only living animals like humans are born with.”

“Genuine fear,” Sasha said.

“Yeah!”

Basira accepted the plate of cake being pushed into her hands and thought, not for the first time, about how differently Mary seemed to conceive of the world to the rest of them. Once, out of curiosity, she’d had everyone on the team read the same statement about someone getting lost in an endless forest that had once been a small park, and discussed it with them, one by one. The humans had all had the same impression – the unfortunate guy had been marked by something, probably a manifestation of the Spiral, who’d drawn him in and attempted to devour him, and he’d had a lucky escape. Mary had told the opposite story, talking of the man taking his fear and wrapping himself up in it, drawing up the maze that other fearful humans had started building and adding his own fear onto it, but stopping before it killed him. The humans talked about the world of fear being something that happened to people; Mary talked about people’s fear as being something that happened to the world. Two perspectives that were functionally identical, except that they each put the burden of autonomy on the other side.

Basira didn’t waste her time trying to figure out which perspective, if either, was “true”. They were essentially different perspectives that described the exact same thing, so they were probably equally correct, and besides, they were all guessing how this fear thing worked anyway, just like the rest of the world was.

“So are we interrogating one of the People’s Church? I can probably go grab one.”

“Do they know you’ve spotted them?” Sasha asked.

“I doubt it.”

“Then maybe we shouldn’t do anything yet. Keep the element of surprise.”

“If they are doing their ritual soon, though, we should learn about it as quickly as possible,” Melanie said.

“But we might need the element of surprise to stop it,” Sasha said. “If there’s another way to learn…”

“I’ll just keep an eye on them for now,” Basira said. “We can always grab one later, if we have to. Mary, don’t let them kidnap Martin.”

“I’m on it!” Mary said, with a salute.

Just then, a stranger walked in; an old lady, looking uncertain. She glanced uncertainly at the group and said, “Uh, I’m looking for the head archivist?”

“How can I help you?” Martin asked wearily as Mary pushed a plate of cake into his hands and Sasha prepared one for the newcomer.

“I’m Eleanor. I’m uh, here to make a statement?”

Sasha grinned widely like a proud parent. “The Archivist would love to take your statement! Go on, Martin.”

“I should make some – ”

“I’ll make her a cup of tea! You should take her to your office.”

Thus Martin and Eleanor were ferried to the office, and Sasha bustled off to make tea. Basira glanced at Melanie, who shrugged. Mary stared at the now-closed head archivist office door with a sort of fierce determination.

“So,” Basira said, “you’re the Archivist’s bodyguard now?”

“Yes!”

“I could try to talk Daisy into teaching you some krav maga, if you want.”

The delighted smile on Mary’s face was all the answer she needed. Melanie, for her part, groaned and buried her face in her hands. “That’s going to go so badly.”

“I’ll learn it very well!”

“See, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

---------------------------



Peter hated the Magnus Institute.

For the most part, he didn’t need to be there, which was a blessing. He had arranged things so that a rotation of assistants handled most of the day-to-day running of the place, requiring little more from him than the occasional email, but sometimes it was still necessary to go in and endure the creepy-crawly feeling of being watched that started to creep in the moment he let his guard down.

Of course, he had become very good, over the years, at not letting his guard down. There was nobody to notice as he wandered up to Elias’ – his – office after closing. He’d had to learn more about the archive staff than he’d ever cared to know, and he was starting to think that even cotnrol of the Panopticon might not be worth all this nonsense.

He just wanted to go back to sea. Damn his love of a good wager.

But he had what he needed now, and soon enough he could go back to completely ignoring most of his employees like any decent manager. He was ready to make his selection.

The rest was just down to timing.

Chapter Text

Contains references to infant death.

-----------------------------

 

Harold Jackson was a dick.

He’d once found a woman who’d been trying to have a baby for almost ten years and finally succeeded, snuck into her house, and set the baby’s occupied crib alight in such a way that the mother would assume the fire was caused by the cheap baby monitor she’d been using.

Tim knew this because Harold had bragged about it at the last meeting of their congregation. So he didn’t feel remotely bad when Daisy Tonner, following his somewhat untidy trail of destruction, happened to track said destruction to Harold’s house and draw some wrong conclusions.

It was always a bit tricky to kill one of the congregation. Fire would usually stick, if it was hot enough, but sometimes wouldn’t. A bullet would sometimes kill them, but not always. Something about being part wax and carrying the flame of the Desolation in their hearts made their vulnerability… variable. Their faith, their self-conception, their feeding of the Desolation, what they believed themselves to be or be capable of, and much like Tim’s case in the Unknowing, just blind luck all seemed to play a part. If you waited long enough they’d eventually combust on their own, but babykillers didn’t deserve that kind of patience.

Anyway, Daisy didn’t seem to have any trouble with Harold. And she’d ‘solved’ her case, dispatched the evil cultist, so that should get her off Tim’s back, so long as he started being a bit more careful and didn’t give her reason to look closer.

This was fine. This Desolation thing was easy.

Everything would be fine.

----------------------------



Martin got in to work late Monday morning. Mary had texted everyone to assure them he was not kidnapped, so nobody was particularly concerned until he stomped into the office with her looking like a zombie, jimmied Tim’s desk open and retrieved a bottle of vodka, which he used to top up a half-empty cup of tea to swig from.

“Everything okay there?” Basira asked.

“Yeah. Great. Life’s great. Why would you ask?” He added more vodka. Sasha carefully pried the bottle from his hands.

“Martin hasn’t been sleeping well,” Mary told them.

“Yeah, I wonder why that might be,” Martin snapped. “Would’ve been nice, maybe, for someone to warn me about the dreams.”

Silence.

“Oh,” Basira said.

“Wait, you didn’t know?” Melanie asked.

“No! How would I have known?”

“What dreams?” Sasha asked.

“Oh, just the horrible nightmares of that lady Eleanor who came in Friday, which I apparently witness every night with no ability to help now. So that was a fun discovery.”

“When you give a statement to the Archivist he silently haunts recurring nightmares of your trauma,” Basira explained. “Sorry. I thought you guys all knew.”

“Well I didn’t!”

“Wait,” Sasha said. “Martin and I both gave statements to Jon, and that never happened.”

“It stops when you work here,” Melanie said wearily. “I don’t know why.”

“Fantastic,” Martin snapped. “So we can save her a bunch of nightmares by tying her to a fear god instead. Any other ways to stop them?”

“I only know of the obvious,” Basira shrugged.

“The obvious?”

“You know.” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Daisy’s dreams stopped after Jon, um, passed away.”

“Great backup plan. Good to know. I’ll be in the office.” He snatched the vodka out of Sasha’s hand. She immediately snatched it back.

“Not with that. We’re not losing you to alcohol poisoning.”

He glowered at her. “I’m technically your boss now, you know,” he said, unconvincingly.

Sasha just laughed.

She let him stew alone in the office for about ten minutes before going in with a fresh up of tea. Martin was behind his Weird Conspiracy Wall, staring not at the elaborate map of rituals, but a blanks space where he’d pinned a single card reading NIGHTMARES.

“Trying to make a plan?” Sasha asked.

“Does this make sense to you?”

“The… the word ‘nightmares’?”

“All of it. I can’t… I can’t think today.”

“You’re drunk and sleep deprived,” she pointed out, setting the cup of tea on his desk.

“I’m not drunk. You won’t let me be.”

“Shouldn’t drink at work. Don’t want to get fired.”

He laughed a little at that.

“Look,” Sasha said. “It sucks that this is happening. We knew there’s probably be some… unexpected surprises with this whole Archivist thing – ”

“It’s not that,” Martin said. “I don’t like the idea that I’m apparently not going to get another restful night of sleep and neither is my victim – ”

“She’s not your victim, you dind’t do this.”

“ – but what gets me is that it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

“Melanie and Basira didn’t know that we didn’t – ”

“Jon should have told us.”

“Oh.”

Martin sighed, and reached around her for the tea. “He must have been having these nightmares for months, at least. And he took so many statements! No wonder he was always so tired! He was going through this the whole time and he… we never noticed. He never said anything. And now that whole world of his experience is just… gone, with him.” Martin carefully sipped the tea, and put it back down before his shaking hands could spill too much of it. “We could have helped. We could have found a way to help. I tried! We tried! We kept Tim together, I got rid of Elias before Melanie could kill him and kill us all and before he could kill Jon – ”

“Wait, Elias was trying to kill Jon?”

“I think so? It doesn’t make any sense but there was this thing with that Leitner… it doesn’t matter right now. Point is, after everything, they both died anyway, and if we had’ve managed to do better – ”

“No amount of emotional support or cups of tea would’ve saved either of them from a collapsing building,” Sasha pointed out.

“I know! I know. But it’s just not fair that after everything, I wasn’t even there.”

“How do you think I feel. I was the getaway driver. When they didn’t come out of the building, I could have – ”

“If you’d gone in after them you’d probably be dead, too. Anything you could’ve done walking into that could only have made things worse, not better.”

“I know. But that doesn’t change what happened.”

The two sat in silence for a little while, until Martin ventured, “I can’t stop thinking that he went through this, you know? This whole Archivist thing. And I know I’m just starting out, I don’t really have much in the way of, of Archivist powers yet, but every time something happens I keep thinking that he went through this. Like it, it should make me feel closer to him, but it doesn’t. If just makes me realise how distant he was, because he was changing and not only did he not tell us about a lot of it, but we didn’t notice. And everything we do, to try to track new apocalypses, or learn more about any of this, it… takes us further away from how I feel like things are supposed to be, you know? It feels wrong. It takes us further from what we would be doing, if he were here, because if I’d managed to actually protect him then he’d be doing this and I wouldn’t.”

“It wasn’t your job to protect him.”

“You all seem to have decided that it’s your job to protect me.”

“Yeah. We’re in this together, as a group; that’s what we decided.”

“We should have been doing that for them, too.”

“Yeah. Look, should we get out of the office? Find somewhere else to – ”

“No, I… I think I should record a statement. And then look into these apocalypses a bit more. Maybe we should interrogate one of those People’s Church stalkers after all? Or try to track down Peter Lukas. I’m sure he’d know if a Lonely ritual were coming up.”

“That sounds like a great way to ingratiate ourselves to the new boss.”

“What’s he gonna do, fire us?”

“Or cast us into the Lonely.”

“… yeah, okay. Point.”

Sasha headed for the door. “Mary found a record of the failed Slaughter ritual. I’ll go get it, so you can… update your weird conspiracy wall.”

“Thanks.”

Sasha left, shaking her head. This wasn’t what she’d signed up for, accepting an archiving job.

-----------------------------



Daisy strode into Basira’s PI office, sat down heavily and announced, “I quit the Force.”

“Oh! Uh… good. I mean, assuming you wanted to – ”

“Yeah. It was getting a bit too much. Too many cases, too much weird stuff ending up in my lap. I’m trying to concentrate on this murder-arsonist.

“The one you already… caught?”

“It’s more complicated. Feels like a setup. I think someone else is behind it, and when they screw up again and leave something for me to track, I’ll have them.”

“Oh. Right. I mean, you were pretty thorough in chasing down the guy you got, I’m sure you’d have noticed if – ”

“The chase isn’t over. Believe me. But there’s nothing I can do right now. Got any… lost cats that need finding, or whatever you usually get?”

“Actually, you’ll like this.” Basira grinned. “Seems I’ve already got a bit of a reputation for being the one you can take your weird cases to. Helps that I can check their validity and use the Institute library and all that, y’know? So if you’re still up for a partnership in this little business – ”

“Then after all this, our jobs really haven’t changed much. Fantastic.”

“Of course they have! Now we have no backup and make way less money.”

“Sounds about right. Sign me up.”

--------------------------



After interviewing Basira and Melanie about their dreams, Martin went through his closet until he found an old, oversized shirt that looked comfortable.

“Congratulations, you’re my new pyjamas,” he told the shirt, before grabbing a permanent marker and writing on it THIS IS JUST A DREAM. YOU ARE SAFE.

He wasn’t sure how to stop the dreams. But he was going to do everything he could to mitigate them.

Chapter Text

“It was that cop,” one of them – Tim hadn’t bothered to remember everyone’s names – snarled, pointing accusingly at him. “The one that’s been after him.”

“We have no reason to believe that,” Arthur insisted. “Any number of things could’ve gotten Harold.”

“He’s right, for once,” Jude said. “If that cop had gotten anywhere near this dickhead, she would’ve gotten this dickhead. Harold was way better at avoiding attention than him.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Jude,” Tim said.

“Any time.”

“If you’re so scared of one feral mongrel,” Tim said, “I’ll get rid of her for you. Alright? I’ve been watching her, and she’s got one thing, one person, tying her to her humanity. If you’re that bothered, I can take her down using Basira, and you can do what you like with what’s left.”

“You’re going to kill her little partner? How orig – ”

“No, Jude, I’m not that fucking crude at this. I’m going to make the cop kill her little partner, and I’m gonna make her think it was her fault.”

Jude, reluctantly, nodded. “Okay, that might be fun to watch.”

“I’ll try to arrange it so there can be an audience. Just for you, Jude. Alright?”

“Do we have anything important to discuss here, or have we just become a fan club of Arthur’s new pet?” someone snapped. “Only I’d like to get to the matter of that church at some point tonight.”

“Just fucking burn it down, Niamh, you don’t need anyone else for that,” someone else snapped.

Tim tuned out and waited until it was polite to leave. The group’s other business didn’t really concern him.

He needed to plan something special for dealing with Daisy Tonner.

----------------------------

 

Martin attended his mother’s funeral alone. Mary, devoted to her self-appointed role as his bodyguard, travelled to the funeral with him and returned later to come home with him (“In case those People’s Church people make a grab for you,” thought they’d never done anything more than watch), but he didn’t want any of his friends actually there. He didn’t want them involved in that part of his life.

On the way home, Mary wasn’t… well, she tried to keep people happy, but she was still having trouble with how grief worked. Martin didn’t want to have to explain to her that no, she couldn’t make him feel better, and no, trying to cheer him up all night wouldn’t help. He still wasn’t sleeping properly, having altered his sleep schedule to match up with Eleanor’s as little as possible, and it was hard not to accidentally ask questions, and the whole thing was just… how had Jon dealt with it? Well. He hadn’t been mourning two friends, one of whom was… and also his mother at the same time, he supposed.

“I want to drop by the Institute and get some work done,” he told Mary on their way home.

“You have the day off. Compassionate leave.”

Yes, but I don’t want to sit in a big house and be sad while you try to figure out what kind of tea will make everything okay, he didn’t say. God, this was what he was like, wasn’t it? No wonder people got snappy with him.

Instead he just said, “I have some stuff to chase up. It’s fine.” The others would be there, working, but he could shut himself in his office for a bit, record a statement, just… try to be normal. He put a smile on his face for Rosie at the front desk, headed down the stairs, opened the door to the archives, made it halfway to his office, and screamed as something made of hair and teeth bit his face.

---------------------------

 

Ten minutes ago, Melanie had been filing dud statements with Sasha, her friend. Now, things like ‘filing’ and ‘statements’ and ‘Sasha’ had far less meaning. She was on the high peak of an adrenaline rush, where only the most pertinent information existed – that is an inert object, that is a pile of meat that isn’t a target, that is a pile of meat that is. Cut the things that are targets until they are inert objects.

She couldn’t remember how the knife had gotten in her hand, but it was more effective at parting meat from meat than her fingernails had been. A simple metal plane that glided through the target, tearing it, incidentally, from the screaming not-target. The thing behind the not-target, she thought was a target for a second, but it wasn’t attacking and others were, so they were prioritised.

Beside her, somebody else was fighting with a gun. Other not-targets were pushing in a direction that she dimly recognised at containing the escape up the stairs, which was the correct way to go because that’s where all the targets were gathering. Right now, they weren’t fleeing; they were gathered as if to stop somebody from fleeing, which was alright, because there might be enough time to render them inert. But she didn’t like them blocking the exit in case they changed their mind and started to flee. She might not get them all.

She attacked faster, before they could change their minds.

The not-target who’d just entered was picked up by the maybe-target and carried away from the blocked exit, deeper into the archives instead. That made the maybe-target even lower priority since it couldn’t flee that way, so Melanie discounted it and focused on the others. They were trying to render her inert, too, but if she was lucky and careful, she should be able to get a lot of them before her knife stopped working. She still had enough blood inside to power her muscles, bones in a rigid enough order to swing her arm.

One of the targets had an unusual knot of bone that caught her knife and pulled it out of her grasp, and then it was gone before she could retrieve it. Another clawed at her face with a hand full of sharpened bone claws. She tore the hand off; now she had five knives.

Melanie fought.

----------------------------

 

Martin barely registered the thing that took a chunk out of his cheek before it was in two pieces, courtesy of Melanie, and he was being thrown over Mary’s shoulder and sped into the office. Another grabbed for his arm, carving deep slashes with too many oddly-placed fingernails before it was slowed by a bullet to the chest from somewhere behind them. And then Martin was carried down through the trapdoor, into the dark of the tunnels.

Mary put him down, and he pulled out his phone for some light. Martin had avoided the tunnels since getting buried alive, but in his absence someone had made some minor changes. The patch of floor that had previously been caved in was whole again, which he didn’t have the energy to be surprised by, and the little room that he’d previously used for his concept map was instead half-full of… well, supplies. Crates of water, some dry food, and torch batteries seemed to make up the bulk of the supplies, along with about fifteen torches, but there were also small stashes of rope, chalk, and clothing; the sorts of things someone might see and think ‘oh, that’d be useful in a tunnel’ were dotted everywhere. It was immediately clear that the purpose of all this stuff was to refill the ten stuffed backpacks lined against the wall outide the little room, all ready for adventure.

Clearly someone on the archives team had seen the secret tunnels below the archives and thought ‘oh hey, a secret escape tunnel, let’s be ready to use that if we need to’. Martin felt like an idiot for not doing it himself. Whoever had arranged it seemed to think they were going to need enough supplies for a seige, but hey, if you’ve got the storage space.

Mary shoved a torch and bag into his arms and grabbed some for herself.

“We can’t just leave!” Martin protested. “The others are up there fighting a dozen monsters!”

“Five.”

“What?”

“Five, not a dozen. And they’re not monsters. Can you help them in any way?”

“No – ”

“Then we should go!” she grabbed his wrist and started pulling him down the tunnel. Just then, the trapdoor opened again, and Mary put herself defensively between Martin and the invader, but it was only Sasha.

“Let’s go!” she gasped, grabbing a bag.

“The oth – ”

“Right behind me!”

And no sooner had the three started to head down the tunnel again than Basira backed into the tunnel, basically tossing Melanie down the stairs ahead of her.

“There’s still one up there,” Melanie growled, getting to her feet. “The big guy!”

“We’ve put bullets and knives in three of his hearts,” Basira said. “How many more do you want to go looking for?”

“He’ll run out eventually!” She bolted back upstairs. Basira, swearing at her, drew her gun once more and followed.

Martin knew there was nothing he could do to help, he knew that trying to follow them back up would only put both of them in more danger, giving them someone else to keep an eye on, but he still felt like a coward as he bolted down the tunnel with Sasha and Mary.

“If they get down here,” he gasped, trying to ignore the stitch he was developing and the blood pouting down his face and arm, “can you fight them?”

“I can distract them while you run,” Mary said. “I can’t win. They are the opposite of me; they’re made for this and I’m not.”

The things attacking were obviously of the Flesh or the Slaughter, neither of which sounded like an opposite to the Stranger to Martin, but he didn’t have the breath for a metaphysical conversation. He followed Sasha as she gasped, “I think artefact storage should still be this way!” and tried to ignore the fact that every time he’d been in artefact storage in the past things had gone very badly.

They didn’t find artefact storage, in the end. With how the tunnels seemed to change, martin wasn’t surprised. They pulled themselves into a narrow side tunnel and martin tried very hard to keep breathing and not think about enclosed spaces and digging, digging through soft earth in search of the next air pocket.

“What did you mean about those things being the opposite of you, Mary?” Sasha asked. “Why does that make them stronger?”

“They are stronger at this. At deconstruction and devouring. I am the other, constructed to be human. They are human, deconstructed to become other. I am the parts that you fear coalescing into a whole; they are born whole, and feared for their decoalescence into parts. It’s frankly absurd that humans are afraid of both of those things. Is there anything you’re not afraid of?”

“Not all that much, no,” Martin admitted. “Give a human five minutes to think and I swear they just come up with something else to be afraid of.”

“Ah.” Mary nodded. “Building your Tower of Babel.”

Martin laughed wearily. “I don’t think that story’s supposed to be about fear. We build a lot of other important stuff, you know.” But he supposed that to something like Mary, the fear was probably the important part.

Sasha had pulled a first aid kit out of her bag and started bandaging his bleeding arm. He let her work in silence, after which point she bandaged her own bloody leg, and then dressed the bite on Martin’s face. He didn’t want to think about how badly that one was going to scar. Assuming he lived long enough for it to scar.

“Any spooky Archivist powers that can help us here?” Sasha asked.

“Sure. When the meat things follow us down, I’ll ask them invasive questions and get them caught in an awkward conversation. They’ll be so embarrassed, they’ll leave us alone.”

Sasha laughed.

“I’m still not a fan of this whole evil fear power thing,” Martin continued, “but even for this deal, we got cheated. There are people out there who can set stuff on fire or cast you into isolated alternate dimensions. What am I supposed to do, know people to death?”

“Well, if you could ‘know’ when it’s safe to leave the tunnels at least, that would be a big help,” Sasha said. “We’re not getting any phone signal down here.”

“Ha. Give me another six months and I might get that power.”

"Only six months? You ARE ambitious."

Chapter Text

When the three ventured back up, everything was over. Apparently the screaming, crashing and gunshots from the archives had attracted security, who had of course immediately called the police, but by the time they’d scraped together enough Sectioned officers to respond to a Magnus Institute issue, all of the attackers except one were dead, and he’d fled. Through the front door. Which must have been very entertaining to the various Definitely Not Dark Cultists who were still casually hanging about the Institute every day.

Martin mentally prepared for the inevitable stream of statement givers they could expect over the next week describing a blood-streaked meat man charging out a door he could barely fit through into the street. They should probably dig up Gertrude’s old statement forms and get them to write them down, save having to explain that no, the head archivist can’t take your statement in person, and we’re not going to answer any questions about why we had a Giant Meat Man here.

When Martin, Sasha and Mary stumbled into A&E (Basira and Melanie had been taken in by an ambulance some time ago), the nurse on reception actually rolled her eyes and called “It’s more from the Magnus Institute!” in sight. It… probably wasn’t a great sign when the emergency room staff could not only recognise everyone from your workplace on sight, but had seen you enough to be actually fed up with you.

At least they had fantastic health insurance.

Various wounds treated, the group gathered in Basira’s private hospital room. Mary was of course fine, as was, miraculously, Melanie, and Martin and Sasha’s wounds were superficial, but Basira had broken two arms and a leg before managing to gently convince their final assailant to flee, with the assistance of a lot of bullets and a screaming, blood-soaked Melanie.

“They came up through the pipes,” Melanie said. “Through the fucking plumbing. Weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.”

“You’re a professional ghost hunter who works at the Supernatural Trauma Factory,” Basira pointed out. “Didn’t you get shot by a ghost once?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never seen a guy dislocate every joint in his body so he could ooze his massive fleshy body through a pipe barely the size of his skull like a twitchy, bleeding string of play-dough. Well, I have now, I guess.”

“I’m still trying to figure out what we did to attract their attention,” Martin said, speaking slowly so as to avoid exacerbating the chunk of flesh missing from his cheek. “The Last Feast was ages ago and we’ve had basically nothing to do with the Flesh; what did they want from us?”

“They probably think we’re going to try our apocalypse next,” Sasha said. “We should find some way to deal with that, with… everyone, I guess. You know, I did not think my library science degree was going to lead to this kind of work.”

------------------------------------------



“You were attacked by meat people?!”

“There were only five of them,” Melanie shrugged, like it was nothing.

“Oh, well, that’s okay then. Only five meat people.” Georgie shook her head. “That whole place is so…”

“Believe me, I know. Anyway, I gotta get back in later today, catch up on some – ”

“Back to the archives?”

“Yeah.”

“The place you got attacked by meat people.”

“Yeah. It’s… where I work, so…”

Georgie narrowed her eyes. “Why are you really going back?”

“I told you, I’ve got some paperwork to tie up,” said Melanie, the World’s Most Terrible Liar.

“At the job you hate and can’t leave.”

“Yes.”

“Hmm. I’ll come with you. Give you a lift.”

“I don’t need babysitting, Georgie.”

“I know, but forgive me for being a bit worried about you going back to do some ‘paperwork’ in a place where you were just attacked by a bunch of meat men.”

“Okay, fine! You caught me! I want to scout the archives and make sure there’s no more waiting for us.”

“Doesn’t the Institute have security for that?”

“Security weren’t exactly helpful last time. I have to go.”

“You should rest. You’ve been through – ”

“Stop telling me what to do! I’m already trapped in that fucking place with Elias out of my reach, and people on the street treat me like a crazy idiot, I don’t need it from you, too!”

“Melanie, that’s not what I – ”

“Yes, it is! Just… just stay out of my way, okay? I have to go check for threats. Just… wait at home and stay out of my way.”

Melanie stormed off before Georgie could reply.

---------------------------------



The archives smelled of blood.

Of course they did. There was blood everywhere, and bits of meat. Melanie had the distinct sense that in a decently run workplace, someone would have stopped her from returning. There would still be police, cleaners, guards… something. Instead she just tore through the police tape, propped the dislodged door back up in its frame, and took a look around.

It was just how she remembered, except for the little police markers everywhere and the rather worse smell of ageing blood. The archives were sealed for humidity control, which would’ve been great if the humidity controls still worked; instead, it just trapped the miasma in, stinking up everything. Several of Sasha’s carefully organised boxes of statements were scattered everywhere and covered in blood. She was going to hate that.

Melanie picked up a chair leg as an impromptu weapon, cursing herself for not bringing a knife, and began to search. She kept her eyes on the corners, over the shelves, on the ceiling (people generally didn’t look up, making above an excellent ambush position), and nearly walked right into the tall gentleman who had appeared in the middle of the room.

She recognised him just in time to avoid clubbing him over the head with her chair leg – Peter Lukas. Not an attacking flesh monster.

That didn’t make her want to attack him any less, but something distant and dangerous in his gaze stayed her hand.

“It’s Melanie, right? Working alone today?”

“Uh, yeah. Can I… help you?” she asked awkwardly, hiding her bloodstained impromptu weapon behind her back.

“Indeed! Actually, there’s been a bit of a paperwork issue regarding archival staff employment. Nothing major, I assure you! But I need someone from the archives team to look through these papers and make sure the names line up, and since you’re the only one here… would you mind?” He held out a folder, which Melanie cautiously took.

“Uh… sure. I can do that.”

“Much appreciated! I’d have one of my assistants do it, but apparently there’s some sort of information privacy issue and it has to be one of you. I need this by five o’clock, will that be a problem?”

“I can try to – ”

“Excellent! Good day, Melanie.”

She glanced down at the folder, and when she looked up, he was gone. Which was kind of a relief, honestly.

Well, I guess this is how my day is going now, Melanie shrugged. She pushed a few teeth off her desk, put down some scrap paper to protect Lukas’ files from the blood, and got to work.

It really was just… nonsense paperwork. Photocopies of everyone’s employment contracts had been provided, and apparently she was supposed to compare the names on the forms to the names in a more detailed document about archival employment policies and verify that they were the same. Melanie didn’t understand why they had to be named in the second document – wouldn’t that mean it had to be altered every time the archive employment roster changed? – but it was probably to do with some mystical binding bullshit. God, she hated being trapped here.

Skimming the document for names wasn’t exactly riveting. The policies were at least written in plain English, so she wasn’t wading through mind-numbing legalese, but legalese might’ve been preferable since she could tune it out and focus on the names. She kept catching herself actually reading the document, meaning she quickly learned that they had a tea and lunch allowance that she hadn’t known about before, and she could make the Institute pay for her pastries. Nice.

It was on the second page of the document that she found the clause that changed everything.



CONTRACT DURATION OF ARCHIVAL ASSISTANTS

An Archivist is entitled to employ assistants at the discretion of the Institute, whose contracts are to remain in effect for the duration of the Archivist’s contract and automatically terminated upon the Archivist’s termination. In the event of –



Melanie couldn’t focus enough to read any further. She didn’t have to. Because if she was reading that right… that meant…

Fuck.

Well, this put everything in a new light, didn’t it? Oh, she could see the game now – they’d been free, in the clear, and the Martin had gathered them all and put on his little act and pulled them right back in. His act didn’t fool her. She’d helped put Elias away, she knew how manipulative Martin was. Oh god, did it go that far back? It did, didn’t it – she could just picture it, her out there trying to kill Elias, and Martin must have seen the perfect opportunity. Help me, Elias, and I’ll help you.

Nobody seemed to care that a prison wouldn’t mean anything to someone with Elias’ powers, that all putting him away had done was protect him from Melanie. But that was by design, wasn’t it? Keep Elias safe, remove Jon, Martin could slip into Jon’s role and re-entrap them before anyone knew what was going on and cart around his fucking monster bodyguard to protect him if they figured it out; oh, and she’d fooled Melanie for so long, too, god that pissed her off. Mary didn’t have to be there; Melanie knew that, even if the others weren’t sure. Melanie knew because when they’d been away, and Melanie had gotten sick from staying away from the Institute, Mary hadn’t had any problems. She’d been fine.

She was here by choice, as part of some deal with Martin.

It was so obvious, now. Martin had made a big show of hating Elias and then put together a plan that perfectly protected him; as soon as Jon was out of the way, Elias held up his end of the bargain and gave Martin the Archivist position. And since then the rest of them were just being put in danger, fighting goddamned meat monsters to protect their precious Archivist. Martin had been so quick to work to convince everyone he should take Elias’ offer, hadn’t he? And so eager to get everyone to sign new contracts.

Melanie had even thought it weird, at the time, that everyone had to sign new contracts when only Martin’s position was changing. And Martin had dismissed her concerns.

Well. Melanie saw a way out of this hellhole now, for herself and Basira and Sasha. Even if killing Elias would’ve killed them all, which maybe would have been worth it… they had a better option, now. Jon’s death hadn’t killed them. Neither would Martin’s.

It was time to cut their ties with the Institute.

Chapter Text

“So can I watch? When you take on the cop?”

“Trying to sabotage me, Jude?”

“Fuck no. I wouldn’t need to if I wanted to. She’s going to rip you to pieces and it’s going to be fucking hilarious.”

“Appreciate the vote of confidence, as ever. Why are we burning down this church again?”

“In theory it’s because Niamh has some beef with the People’s Church group running out of it.”

“And in practice?”

“I owe Niamh a favour and I’m sick of hearing her whine about it.”

“And now you can owe me a favour instead!”

“Yeah, I’m not worried. You’ll get yourself killed before you have a chance to call it in. Think you’ve got enough juice in you to light up a little dry wood, Stoker?”

“I think, somehow, I might be able to manage that difficult task. You take the front, I take the back?”

“I’m giving the orders here, Stoker.”

“Of course, Your Great Majesty. What’s the plan?”

“I take the front, you take the back.”

Tim bowed mockingly and headed for the back of the church. Inside, people were singing. He waited until Jude was well and truly gone before kicking aside most of the rubble they’d used to block the back door and checking to make sure it wasn’t locked. Then he headed well away from the door to start his fire further along the wall.

His line of sight to Jude’s inferno was blocked by the building itself, but he could see the orange haze, hear the screams. The panicked throng of churchgoers headed for the back door, threw their bodies against it until it burst open, and ran out into the night just as Tim’s fire got going.

“The door barricade didn’t hold,” he told Jude as she rounded the corner.

“And you didn’t stop anyone?”

“You said the priority was taking down the building. Some of us aren’t as powerful in the fire front as you.”

She looked at his efforts and rolled her eyes. “You’re fucking pathetic, Stoker. I might as well have done the job alone. At this rate you really aren’t going to survive.”

“Is that actual worry in your voice? Miss Perry, are you actually concerned for my welfare?”

“What? No.”

“Oh my god, you are! I didn’t think you had it in you! I’m touched; I’ve never had a big sister before!”

“If you ever call me your big sister again I will burn your face off, Stoker. I just want you to live long enough to get ripped apart by that cop. It’ll be the funniest thing ever and it’ll be so embarrassing for Arthur.”

“Oh, I definitely believe you, Jude.”

“You fucking better.”

--------------------------



The archives were mostly cleaned by the time Martin and Mary got into work the next day, although the air smelled unnervingly like blood and several gore-stained boxes of statements had been stacked in a corner under a tarp made from a biohazard bag. (In any normal place, Martin couldn’t help thinking, those statements would have to be disposed of, but the cleaners must have had previous tangles with management on the sanctity of statements in the Magnus Institute. God this place was an OHSW nightmare.)

Sasha wasn’t in yet (it was early) and Basira was still in hospital, but Melanie sat at her desk, dutifully typing away at her computer. She didn’t look like she’d slept. Or showered. Or ate anything.

“What time did you get in?” Martin asked, and only realised he’d accidentally Compelled again when she answered “About six last night.”

“You’ve been here all night?!”

“Yes.”

Right. Uh. He should… watch how he phrased things, firstly. And also probably make some tea. Usually he made tea for the whole crew every morning, so he’d wait for Sasha, but Melanie definitely needed tea right now. He left Mary to her favourite task of bullying a friend into basic self care and went to put the kettle on.

Chamomile, normally, for something like this, because Melanie hated lavender. Yes. And with an extra spoon of sugar that she’d pretend not to notice, because Melanie liked her tea sweeter than she’d admit to. He should probably replace the vodka he’d taken from Tim’s desk… from the spare desk… for situations like this, or perhaps not, since giving Melanie access to vodka right now was probably a bad idea.

Stupid, stupid. He’d said they were all in this together, that was the agreement, and they’d been attacked by meat monsters and he’d just let her leave the hospital alone, obviously traumatised. He’d assumed she’d go off to Georgie or some friend or something, but she shouldn’t have had to. They should’ve made sure she was okay, so she wouldn’t come into work and just work all night in a bloody room as some kind of weird trauma reaction. Had it even been cleaned yet when she’d gotten in? Or had she just sat among the bloody mess and started doing fucking paperwork?

God. He owed her, and everyone, such an apology, when they were all in the right mind to discuss it. He was a bad coworker, a bad boss, and a bad friend. How was he screwing this up?

He settled tea on Mary’s desk and handed Melanie’s to her.

“Melanie, are you – I mean, I would like to know if you’re okay.”

“Mm.” She set the tea down carefully.

“I see Mary’s gone somewhere.”

“I sent her to artefact storage for something. It should take a while for her to get back.” Her voice was strangely neutral, hollow. She stood up. “Are you at least going to tell me why you did it?”

“Why I did what?”

“Why you teamed up with Elias! Why you killed Jon! Why you trapped us here!” she snarled. “It must’ve been a long time in the making, since you had to fake being smitten – ”

“Melanie, what are you talking about?!”

“Your whole Archivist power play! Did you really think we wouldn’t figure it out eventually? You might have saved Elias from me, but there’s another way out, and you’ve only yourself to blame!”

The weapon in her hand was just a butter knife, but as she leapt over the table she thrust it toward his throat with such force that it drove right into the arm he flung up to protect himself. Had said arm not been wrapped in bandages due to the claw cuts on it, it would’ve slipped right between the bones; as it was, it cut most of the way through, then she pulled it out to stab again, toward his throat.

Martin had had just about enough of this.

Martin had put everything he had into protecting the love of his life, only for him to die. He’d sacrificed his humanity to protect these people and the world. He’d gone to the funeral of his only surviving family member, only to come home and be attacked by meat monsters in his own workplace, had come back to work the very next day trying really hard not to think about it, and now one of the people he’d sacrificed himself to the Institute for was accusing him of killing Jon and trying to kill him! Martin had no idea what was going on, but he’d had enough of it.

Blood was dripping from the knife wound in his arm, and coming towards his face was the weapon that had made it and a mouth full of teeth. Martin ducked, twisted to protect his face, and saw a vulnerable spot in his attacker that he could reach, so he lashed out with the only weapon he had.

And sank his teeth into Melanie’s throat.

He managed to break the skin, but he knew it was a hopeless move. Some kind of deep, manic rage had gripped her, and this was the same woman who’d torn those meat monsters apart the previous day, so there was nothing he could really do as the knife came down. But then Melanie wasn’t on him; he was pushed back, and she was on the other side of the room, and Mary was standing between them.

Martin spat out a strip of human flesh, incredibly grossed out, and got up, ready to run. But apparently it was already over; Melanie was unconscious, blood dripping from her head, and Mary was calling an ambulance.

So they went back to the hospital. Mary, once she’d determined that Martin wasn’t dying, kept apologising to the unconscious Melanie over and over, saying she hadn’t expected her to hit her head like that, begging her to wake up. Martin hoped that Melanie was okay, but he also kind of hoped she wouldn’t wake up until they were in separate rooms. He didn’t want to be attacked again.

His wounds were stitched up by the same doctor as last time, who looked incredibly ticked off that he was back again, and then he had to wait around until some Sectioned police could question him about why his coworker had tried to kill him with a butter knife. He didn’t know.

Then he got a call from Sasha, asking why nobody was in the office, and decided that Mary could deal with explaining that. He needed some air. And space. And people not trying to kill him.

What the fuck had that been about?

A woman waiting in her car in the hospital parking lot was wearing a necklace with a People’s Church insignia. Got, they were bad at spying on people.

Still. Team Archives should probably deal with the People’s Church sooner, rather than later.

They should make a plan for that.

Chapter Text

“She attacked me,” Martin explained to Basira.

“She what? No, that doesn’t make sense. She saved your life the day before.”

“I know! But unless the person in the bed down the hall is some Stranger disguised as her or something… she was ranting, didn’t really make sense, but she accused me of killing Jon.”

“Did she think you were someone else?”

“No. No, she knew it was me. I think something must have influenced her mind? Maybe she found a Leitner or something?”

“Melanie’s not stupid. She wouldn’t read a book without checking for a bookplate.”

“Some other artefact, then. She sent Mary down to artefact storage, I thought to get her out of the way so she could kill me, but maybe she was trying to infet her with something? We don’t know what Mary is or isn’t immune to down there…”

“You’re jumping to a lot of conclusions based on no evidence.”

“I know. I just wish I knew what was going on! I hate not knowing or understanding any of this!”

“Does Martin hate that, or does the Archivist hate it?”

“Oh, don’t start with that. Yes, I’m sure the spooky metaphysical eyeball is making me want to know more stuff, but even if I wasn’t the Archivist I’m pretty sure I’d want to know why one of my own friends tried to kill me with a butter knife.”

“And now she’s… ?”

“In a medically induced coma. Mary used some trick Daisy taught her and messed up Melanie a bit more than she meant to.”

“I should never have asked Daisy to teach her.”

“It’s fine, Melanie will heal fine, it’s just that when she’s awake she’s… unreasonable… and hurts herself more. So they’re keeping her asleep.” He chewed his lip. “I hope it’s just her normal anger management problems and she didn’t read a Leitner or anything, because if something’s killing her brain or whatever while she’s asleep…”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine. As you said, she’s always had anger management problems, and she’d hate being bedridden even more than I do.”

“Ha, yeah. Two broken elbows looks…”

“Inconvenient. It’s very fucking inconvenient. Sasha set up this computer thing for me so I can read books on the screen, but I can’t wait until I can do, y’know, absolutely anything else.”

“Everything was normal last week, and now we’re down two people and the archives smell like rotting blood. How did things change so quickly?”

“Eh, being police was the same, a lot of the time. You think you’re frustrated; I just convinced Daisy to go into business with me and ended up in hospital. She’s just got her PI license and she is not a customer oriented person.”

“Well, on the bright side, any really dumb or annoying clients you have, you won’t ever have to deal with again after you get out of here. They’ll have one conversation with her and never come back.”

“You’ve described very nearly all of my clients.”

“Great, you’ll have more free time to protect me from meat monsters.”

“A noble calling. Will you still be alive to protect when I have working elbows and ankles again?”

“I’ll make sure to be. Just for you, Basira.”

----------------------



Sasha sipped the tea that Martin had put in front of her on his way to his office and wondered if she should go check on him. She wasn’t being protective or overly clingy or anything; it wasn’t like she was worried something was going to jump out and grab him the instant he was out of sight. And it wasn’t that she needed to get out from under the gaze of Mary, who kept looking at her like… well, Sasha didn’t know if Mary was overly concerned about Sasha’s mental health as a result of the Meat Thing Attack (since her experience with human responses to things was still pretty limited), or if she was studying her to determine the response she, Mary should portray. Or maybe Mary was being completely normal and it was just her vgue aura of Stranger creepiness mixed with the Institute’s general feeling of being watched that was putting Sasha on edge.

No, none of those things could be why she wanted to go talk to Martin instead of sitting in the suddenly very empty room with Mary. Becaue she trusted Martin, and she trusted Mary, and she’d always been the laid-back one, dammit; those sorts of things couldn’t put her on edge, she was the chill person in the office.

She just wanted to go talk to him because… she wanted to procrastinate for a bit, before getting into re-sorting all the files that had been knocked off the shelves in the fighting. Yeah.

Martin’s office was arranged so that his Weird Conspiracy Wall wasn’t visible from the visitor side of his desk, so as not to freak out guests to the archives. This also meant it wasn’t visible from his desk, so he was leaning against the back wall, hands curled around a cup, staring at said wall, as she walked in.

“Hey,” she said, walking over. He flinched noticeably when she got within arm’s reach – right, right; he’d been attacked by someone he trusted yesterday – so she backed up and casually sat on the edge of his desk instead. “What’s up?”

“Do you think the Eye makes people stupid?” he asked.

Sasha blinked. “What?”

“Just a thought. Some of the stuff written about it, they call it things like ‘that which sees all and comprehends none’, things like that. And I, I haven’t really got enough flashes of information myself to be sure yet, but Jon used to say that most of what he got was useless, like there was no sense of control of what might be useful or relevant, no curation of the information before putting it in his head. And in the nightmares, when I’m watching Eleanor suffer? it’s not… it’s not like I can’t move, necessarily, to help her; it’s more that it can’t occur to me to, like there’s just no way to arrange things in logical steps to help, so I can’t act.”

“You think the Eye’s making you dumber?”

“Yeah. it’s harder to… my thinking’s very linear, these days. This doesn’t make proper sense.” He gestured to his concept map. Sasha risked getting close enough to look. It looked how it always did to her.

“I thought,” Martin continued, “that it was the lack of sleep. But I got a good night’s sleep last night, ate a nutritious breakfast, drank water, did all that. And I still can’t see most of what’s on this wall.”

“That might be a trauma response. You’ve had a lot of trauma recently.”

“Yeah. Maybe. But it… it honestly hasn’t made sense for awhile, since I became the Archivist, so…”

“So, since Jon and Tim died, you mean?”

“Hmm. Yeah. Good point.”

Sasha looked at the wall more closely. “What do you mean, you can’t see it?”

“I mean just that. I don’t see the pattern. It’s just notecards and string and I can only see it linearly. Like… okay, here. This card: The Buried. Linked to one listing the date and location of the ritual, and this one here with how we think Gertrude foiled it. I look at it, and that’s all I see; the when, the where, the possible how. Just what the string leads to. It’s not invisibly connected to anything else; I’m not seeing the second and third order connections that aren’t worth marking; I’m not seeing the implications. It’s like there’s no pattern to intuit – the only information here is what’s marked with string.”

“Is that… not how these things work? I’d never actually seen one of these in real life until you started doing it.”

“No, it isn’t! This was informative when I started building it. The whole point of noting and connecting the main nodes was to make it easier to see the other connections in the noise. The strings are just a, a scaffold; I should be able to look at them and see into the intricate web of infor…” Martin trailed off, and thoughtfully sipped his tea. He put his cup down, frowning, and curled his left hand into a fist, rubbing the knuckles.

Then he laughed.

“Um,” Sasha said. “Are you okay?”

“Okay? Yeah. I’m a fucking idiot, is what I am. It was even under my fingernails, that’s insultingly on the nose.” He shook his head. “I think I just figured out why Elias picked me for Archivist.”

“Yeah?”

“He stole me. From the Web.”

“Wait, what?”

“Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you’ve got a little Spider making mischief in your archives, you can put up with him or kill him, but if you so happen to have a vacancy for a position that’ll connect him much more deeply to the Eye instead, well, that’s a problem that solves itself, isn’t it?” He frowned at his own fist. “At least, I think that’s how this works. Plenty of statements have people marked by more than one of the entities, but usually just as, y’know, victims. I’d assume that for things that require commitment… ugh, I wish we had more solid information on how any of this works.”

“You served the Web?”

“I… think so? I wasn’t lying to you about it or anything, I’m literally only figuring this out now. There was a thing with a spider film and cobwebs in my hand and paralysis and…”

“And a weird fucking conspiracy wall, yeah. Martin, all or those things are extremely obvious signs, how did you not… ugh, stupid question. Web. You were being controlled.”

“I don’t think I was. I mean, it’s the Web, so we can’t be sure, but I think it was just kind of an accident? Like people surviving Leitners. Wrong artefact, right choices, and suddenly you’re caught up in it. Until you give yourself to the Eye instead, I guess.”

“Is this something we should… worry about?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, won’t the Web be angry? That you were stolen?”

“I don’t think the Web can feel things like anger or make plans for people, it’s a primal fear.”

“You know what I meant! Its servants. It’s the Web, so you might call it an accident but I think it’s far more likely you were someone’s pawn, and if Elias stole you – ”

“Then if I had a puppetteer, they either wanted me stolen, or they were terrible at their job and probably not a problem,” Martin pointed out. “But I don’t that’s it. I don’t think anyone’s using Martin Blackwood as the lynchpin of their evil plans. If someone wanted to put a pawn here on purpose they would’ve used you, or maybe Tim; definitely not me. I’m mostly scared because it looks like two primal fear entities were having a metaphysical fist fight in my brain and I didn’t even notice. If I didn’t even realise what was happening, how can I know how much of me is actually me, and how much is the Archivist? Especially since the Archivist part of me is only going to get stronger?”

I knew I should’ve pushed harder to be the Archivist, Sasha thought to herself. But maybe not, because then, logically…

“Well,” she said, “you’re in a much better position this time.”

“I am?”

“Yeah. You were in the dark last time. You know you’ve got the Eye, and it’s a choice you made on purpose, so if it does change you, you’ll be more likely to notice. And you’ve got us to keep an eye out.”

“Ha, yeah. That’s true. We agreed to do this as a group.”

"We did indeed."

Chapter Text

Peter looked down at Melanie’s unconscious form, scalpel in hand.

“I am quite sorry about this,” he explained, “but this might get a little messy, I’m afraid. I’m only guessing that what I’m looking for is even there, and if it is, there is still no guarantee that I, without the gifts of your patron, will be able to see it. But here we are.”

He stepped forward and pulled the sheets back to reveal the bullet scar on her leg. The tip of the scalpel went in easily and he slowly, carefully pushed further in, waiting for it to hit the hard pellet.

Movement. Melanie’s eyes flew open, bloodshot with rage. She raised some kind of heavy monitoring device over her head, prepared to slam it down on him.

“Oh, shi – ”

When staff responded to the ruckus in Melanie’s room, they found a lot of ruined equipment, but no intruder. And no patient.

----------------------------



Sasha made sure that no one else was within hearing range before sitting next to the young man at the bus stop.

“Hi,” she said. “Waiting long?”

He shrugged.

“I’m Sasha.”

“Joe,” he said, gruffly.

“You’re with the People’s Church of the Divine Host, right? I’m not looking for trouble,” she added quickly as Joe looked panicked. “I’m here with a message.” She handed Joe a notecard. “The Archivist wants to talk to your boss, whenever’s convenient. This is his phone number. You’ll make sure it gets to the right person?”

“… Yeah.”

“Right. Have a great day, Joe.”

---------------------------



One thing that Tim had noticed about the cult was that once their leaders had committed to an idea, they didn’t back down. Admitting being wrong was seen as a sign of weakness, resulting in a group where the majority would move back and forth between supporting the conflicting opinions of a handful of self-styled leaders, who would double down on their positions no matter what. So, somehow, Arthur’s impulse decision of bringing aboard a random guy with potential as the start of a bid to boost their numbers had become An Issue. It wasn’t just Arthur any more; a good quarter of the cult were somehow deeply invested in Tim, specifically, because they wanted to see if Arthur would regain any credibility.

Personally, Tim didn’t see what the big deal was. It was pretty common for the cult to grow by bringing in someone with a spark of potential and seeing whether or not they survived. The only difference between him and most of the congregation was that he’d gotten unwittingly caught up in Arthur’s pissing contest. And man, was Arthur desperate; the whole Agnes thing had not left him with much power, and his little spell away landlording and Corruption-fighting arson hadn’t done much to dull the scorn against him.

So he, and half the congregation, were really invested in Tim’s ongoing skirmish with the ex-cop that was still stalking him. It didn’t help that Jude had started a betting pool. People who didn’t give a shit about Tim sure cared about 10-to-1 odds on “Tim bleeds out after she breaks his spine”.

“Jude. Jude. I need your help,” Tim said, climbing into her window.

“You’re not sleeping on my couch, Stoker. Kill someone and squat in their apartment like a normal person.”

“It’s not that. I need to lure Daisy to this house I found in the middle of this forest for – ”

“You already know I’m not getting involved in that bullshit, Stoker. I do the books, I have to be neutral.”

“No, no; it’s not like that. I know what I’m doing, I just wanna do it there. This is about location, it shouldn’t affect the success.”

“Why?”

“You wanted to watch. This house is in the middle of nowhere and has a massive basement. You and as many of your freak friends as you want can hide out there without getting involved.”

“Hmm. I’ll think about it. If I have room in my schedule.”

“If I die, you can have my stash of stolen beer.”

“Okay, deal. What do you need me to do?”

--------------------------



Martin picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Is this the Archivist?”

“Ah. You must be with the Church.”

“What do you want?”

“I think maybe I should be asking you that question. You’ve been watching us for weeks. Who are – I mean, I’d like to know who I’m speaking to.” Experiments had shown that Martin couldn’t Compel over the phone, but this man was unlikely to know that, and Martin didn’t want to come off as threatening if he didn’t have to.

“Richard.”

“I’m Martin.”

“Right. Why am I calling you?”

Martin could’ve given a smartarse reply, but decided to get to the point. “You’ve been watching our Institute for weeks. It’s getting really annoying. I don’t know what you could possibly want to know about us that would take weeks to figure out, but I thought if you had the opportunity to ask directly, it would save both of our people a lot of time.”

“You want to know what we want to know.”

“Pretty much.”

“Fine. We want to know when you plan to blight the whole world with the gaze of your voyeur.”

“I don’t know what – oh, you mean an apocalypse ritual. We’re not doing one.”

“Bullshit.”

“Seriously, we don’t want to end – ”

“Why kill Raynor then?”

“What?”

“You killed the Divine Host last year. Why?”

“I’ve been doing this job for less than six months, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’re going to tell me that one of the police from the raid that killed him isn’t in and out of your Institute all the time, always hanging around you and the rest of your group? That she hasn’t been reporting to your Institute since before the raid?”

Basira. He must mean Basira. Martin didn’t know what raid he was talking about, but she wasn’t around to ask. He’d have to work with what he had.

“If you’ve had trouble with the police, that isn’t anything to do with us. But I can guarantee we’re not trying to end the world.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

Martin sighed. “Do you want access to our CCTV footage?”

“… What?”

“The Institute has external cameras to watch people come in and out. If you want to save your people the trouble of hanging around cafes and bus stops all day, I can text you the link to the feed. I don’t know how often security checks whose using it but you’ll be able to get some use out of it, at least.”

“… Why?”

“Because we got ambushed by meat monsters recently so I’m not comfortable with people just hanging around the Institute like this. If you want to watch, I sympathise, but I’d prefer not to have people physically crowding the Institute. Expect my text.” He hung up, then texted a link to the number that had called him.

About 3 minutes later, he got a text from Sasha: Success! <3

Martin expected that Richard would get access o the camera feed for a few days before IT noticed. That didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he’d downloaded the software to view the feed, and with it, a bit of malware cooked up by one of Sasha’s friends that allowed them to track his phone, as well as use the microphone and camera. That might come in handy, for learning about their ritual. Or for if they ever did have trouble with the People’s Church.

Part of Martin wanted to just go outside and ask one of them about the ritual, but he remembered how things like that had tended to work out for Jon, and how many enemies Gertrude had made. It was better not to start trouble unless they absolutely had to. Until they had a better idea of what was going on, just in general, it was best not to ruffle feathers.

Martin suspected that all the Beholding powers in the world wouldn’t give him a better idea of what was going on.

--------------------------



Melanie climbed slowly to her feet, alone.

She was slow, probably because of the wound in her leg, and the drugs she still vaguely recognised as being in her system. They had made her sleep, but now, they were wearing off. In her hand was her knife; in this case, a long, partly rusted bayonet. Whenever she picked up a knife, it looked different, but it became her knife the moment her fingers curled around it.

She wasn’t thinking straight. The drugs, probably. Not blood loss; the cut on her leg was barely a scratch. She’d gotten her assailant off before he could cut too deep.

The bayonet had come from the rifle lying in the mud beside her. Clutched in the hands of a corpse in a military uniform she didn’t recognise. Had she killed him for it? Probably. She was on a battlefield; if she needed a weapon, killing an enemy for one was a logical choice. And she didn’t recognise the uniform, so he must have been an enemy.

She started walking. Before her, the battlefield stretched out, littered with more corpses. It was bigger than she’d pictured battlefields in her mind, when she had cause to visualise them. Sometimes she’d come across clusters of three or four bodies together; sometimes she’d walk for five or ten minutes without seeing a body. She wasn’t sure what felt lonelier; the periods of being alone, or the periods of being surrounded by the dead.

Because these had been people, once. Before she’d gotten to them. That was what must have happened, right? She was the only here, and they were dead, and it fit the pattern of her whole life. People got close to her and she tried to be nice, but it just wasn’t possible; she had to fight her way up, all the time, through the people in her way, and eventually, that was everyone. Everyone who got close to her she’d kill, attack, threaten, shout at, push away. It was best to push them away, so things didn’t escalate further. She was too dangerous, too toxic, to be around. She’d killed Martin! Martin had been the nicest person in the world and she’d read something given to her by Peter Fucking Lukas, of all people, and the rage had overtaken her and just like that…

And now she was alone. Of course she was; people would want to avoid her, and they’d be right to do so. Those that hadn’t, well, that was probably who all these corpses were. At least, alone, she was safe from everyone. And they were safe from her.

Melanie stumbled forward, into the quiet peace of the battlefield.



Chapter Text

“Where’s Melanie?” Georgie demanded, storming into the archives and immediately screwing her face up at the faint scent of blood that still remained. Sasha and Mary looked up from their computers, startled.

“In hospital,” Sasha said, puzzled.

“No she fucking isn’t. There was some kind of disturbance in her room last night. When they went to check, the room was wrecked and she was gone. No way to get in or out, so some spooky shit must’ve gotten her.”

“Oh, shit,” Sasha said. “That’s not good.”

“No! It’s not! Meat guys here put her in hospital and then she vanishes from the hospital. Something very bad is going on here and we have to find her.”

Sasha went to exchange a glance with Mary, but the gesture might have been too subtle for Mary. Didn’t matter. Georgie thought that the Flesh had put Melanie in hospital? She didn’t know that she’d attacked Martin?

Probably best not to mention it for now. It could only complicate the issue.

“We should check it out. I’ll get Martin.”

“So,” Georgie said when Sasha and Martin had returned, “which of your fear entities can just steal someone out of their bed?”

“All of them, probably,” Martin said. “Different people have different… I mean, we know there are servants of the Spiral, Vast, or Lonely who could do it. Probably not Buried since she was nowhere near the ground floor, but she could’ve been trapped inside something for that one. Stranger, End or Dark, maybe, in theory, but I don’t know of any examples. Web could probably – ”

“Okay, okay; anyone could have done it and we have no leads and no witnesses. Can’t you use your spooky eye powers to find out what happened?”

Martin shook his head. “I can try, but it won’t work. All I can do so far is ask questions. Jon could see other stuff, but he’d been doing this for a lot longer than me. Without anyone to question…”

“Well we have to be able to do something!”

“We start by compiling a list,” Sasha said, “of possible suspects, then go through them one by one. It’s all we can do unless we get more information. Mary? To the database!”

“I’m helping,” Georgie said.

Martin shook his head. “You shouldn’t really be going through – ”

“I’m. Helping.”

-------------------------------------



“Come on in, Miss… uh…”

“Call me Jude.” The woman in Basira’s doorway flashed her a bright smile and sauntered in. “You’re Basira Hussain, then?”

“That’s what it says on the door,” Basira said cautiously. There were plenty of Jude’s in the world, of course, but the way this woman leaned on the doorframe and left scorch marks behind gave Basira the distinct impression that she knew who this particular Jude was. It would take her one and a half seconds to be out the window behind her under normal circumstances, but she’d only just gotten her casts off; she shouldn’t even be in the office yet. There was no way she could get out before Jude could kill her.

But Jude just walked over and sat down, for all the world as if she wasn’t a superpowered serial killer who fed on the despair of others.

“How can I help you, Jude?”

“You can tell your pet murderous bitch to stop killing my friends.”

“Is this a threat?” Basira asked, not really sure how to proceed if the answer was ‘yes’.

But Jude just shook her head. “Not a threat, not a warning. I know what you must think of us, but I’m not an idiot. Killing you would be signing my own death warrant, wouldn’t it? I’m here to help.”

“Help.”

“The fucker your friend is after is getting my friends killed. He’s nothing but a nuisance. I know where he’s hiding out.” She grabbed a random letter off Basira’s desk without asking, snatched up a pen, and scrawled something down. “Time and place. He’ll be there. Let your friend know so she can take him out and leave the rest of us the hell alone.”

---------------------



Martin handed out cups of tea and asked, again, the dreaded question. “So… what do we have?”

“Nothing,” Georgie said despondently. “Still nothing.”

“The closest we’ve got,” Sasha added, “is Simon Fairchild, maybe?”

“The mountain lift guy?”

“Yeah. He can throw people into the sky and stuff, and apparently he hung out with Mike Crew sometimes, who you had killed by Elias, so…”

“So maybe he took Melanie in revenge against me?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s… thin.”

“Yeah,” Sasha agreed. “Really thin.” She chewed her lip. “We have absolutely nothing.”

“And you still can’t…?” Georgie began.

“No, I can’t Know anything, let alone on demand! I can’t… Jon had these for a couple of years, okay? It takes time to sacrifice yourself to an ancient fear god in exchange for arcane powers that make you a toxic blight on the world, so I’m sorry if I’m not omniscient yet!”

Georgie raised her hands. “Sorry, sorry! I didn’t mean… that.”

“I know. You’re worried. I’m worried. I just… I’m going to go record a statement, I think.” He swept into his office. Ugh, why was he so useless?! His job was to know stuff and he couldn’t do it!By now, everyone had gotten hurt protecting him, some people multiple times, and he couldn’t even pay them back by doing the thing he was supposed to do! Melanie was lost or in trouble or dead because she’d been… well, trying to kill him. But that had been out of nowhere, and was probably related to the meat attack thing; who wouldn’t have a psychotic break after experiencing that kind of violence just to protect some useless, talentless hack who couldn’t do anything except wring his hands and make tea? Martin needed to get stronger, if he wanted to protect anyone. And he needed to calm down. He needed… he needed to record a statement. They always helped.

He pulled one out, and turned on the recorder.

---------------------



“Did she buy it?”

“Of course she fucking did. I can’t believe you had me pretend to be scared of a cop. ‘Oooh, I won’t hurt you, because I don’t want your big bad friend to be mean to me…’ I sounded pathetic.”

“I’m sure you were very convincing. I’ve always thought you are an Oscar-worthy actress, Jude.”

“Shut the fuck up, Stoker.”

---------------------



How long had it been?

Melanie… it would be wrong to say that she liked the battlefield. It was an unsettling place, and the idea of eventually dying here alone, having made no impact and with no one to miss her, was terrifying. What would be left of her? A string of painful relationships with people she’d driven away, and the occasional revival of a meme online, where people remembered the Ghost Freakout UK Girl under the false impression that that half-minute of footage was somehow her.

Melanie didn’t like the battlefield, but it was safe. It was the best place for her to be, where she couldn’t hurt anyone and no one could hurt her. Oh, and she’d been such a horrible person before, hadn’t she? Pushing thoughts like that away with more anger, blaming everything on everyone else. But there was only one person to be angry at, here. There was only one target for her ire; finally, the right target. Finally, she could be honest with herself.

Maybe that was why she was here. She was a servant of the Eye, right? Even if she was an unwilling one. Maybe she’d retreated here where she could avoid distractions and confront the truth about herself. That being kept away from everyone else was what she deserved. That a future without her was what they deserved. That was what was best for everyone.

Melanie was not cold, hungry or thirsty. While many of the clothes on the corpses were torn or bloodstained, the sheer number of them made it easy to scavenge as many outfits in her size and in good repair as she could want. They wore such an array of uniforms and carried so many different inds of weapons that it was impossible to even guess what army they’d been part of, but this also meant that she had access to pretty much any weapon she could use, and stocked up accordingly, just in case. They carried no personal effects she could use to identify them, not even dogtags, but many of their faces looked… vaguely familiar. She wasn’t sure if she recognised them, as individuals, or if all human faces were just starting to look alike, without a human inside.

As for food and water, they were also easy to access. Occasionally, Melanie would happen upon a bunker or trench or tent with rations, and eat her fill before moving on. She was never entirely sure if she was hungry, or how hungry she was; it was hard to keep time on the monotony of the battlefield and she’d long since learned to ignore what her own body told her. She was as much a danger to herself as anyone else, after all, so why try to stay connected if all she could do was hurt it?

She found a first aid kit, once, but by that time the scalpel wound on her leg had long since scarred over with angry, stubborn tissue, protecting what was inside from any thief. She left the kit behind.

How long had it been? The battlefield couldn’t be that big, surely. She had to reach the end of it at some point, so she’d been moving for… less time than it should take to cross a battlefield. Come to think of it, maybe she had reached the end, because she hadn’t seen a body for… some time. Just the rusted-out hulls of old tanks, the occasional trench or bunker, sometimes a camp with no people, corpses or personal effects. Just tents, linens and food, sitting in the desert or beach or mud. And that was a relief, really. It meant she couldn’t disgrace the dead with her robbery any more. And it meant that she didn’t have to look at their faces, be reminded of what they once were. She didn’t have to think of anything here as ‘they’.

When the corpses were left far behind, she started to feel safe enough to stop. Occasionally. She’d spend one or even two nights in the same tent, occasionally scrounge a notebook and start to mark the days, before deciding it was pointless and abandoning it. But once the tents started to be used, started to feel like a home for a person – her – they became unbearable. She’d spend a few hours erasing as many traces of her presence as possible, and move on.

Not that there was anywhere to go, really. Had she had a destination in mind, when she’d come here? She must have. She just needed to keep going until she found a landmark, or something. Something to tell her why she was where she was. Some kind of anchor.

Then everything would be okay.



Chapter Text

Martin, Sasha, Mary and Basira stared down at the innocuous cardboard delivery box sitting on the desk. It sat there, a normal-looking, innocuous box, addressed to Martin Blackwood, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute.

Martin broke the silence. “Do we know who signed for it?”

“Rosie, apparently,” Basira said.

“And it was definitely…?”

“From Breekon and Hope Deliveries, yes.”

They stared some more, until Sasha finally pulled out a stanley knife and cut the tape. Everyone else stood well out of the way, and Basira handed her a pair of gloves for actually opening the box.

They all peeked inside.

“That’s a Leitner,” Martin said.

“You think?” Basira asked. “Weird wrinkly leather book with some kind of ancient foreign writing all over it, covered in weird tiny bones? You think that might be a Leitner?”

Mary pulled the book out, brushing aside bones, and checked inside the front cover. “No bookplate.” She flipped through a few pages while everyone else tried not to look directly at, or touch, or breathe too close to, the book.

“What’s it about?” Sasha asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t read any of this. I think it’s in several different languages. The pages were all written and added at different times, so…”

“How can you tell?” Basira asked.

“Oh, from the skin.”

“… Skin?”

“Yes, it really has not been tanned properly! I think only the magic of the book is stopping it from rotting.”

“When you say ‘skin’…”

“These pages are made from human skin. Some of them are centuries old! Near the end they’re much fresher… oh, English!” She skimmed a page. Frowned, turned the page, skimmed another. “They’re descriptions of deaths. I think we have this book in the database. Statement by Mary somebody. I remember because of the name.”

“Mary Keay,” Martin said wearily. “That’s Mary Keay’s book. It’s safe to hold and read; give it here.”

Martin flicked though the book, careful not to read an entire page and accidentally summon anybody. It was basically what he’d expected; descriptions of deaths in various languages, scrawled with carious degrees of care on thick ‘paper’ that felt… not fresh, not rotten, but not tanned, either. What bothered him most was how badly some of the pages were bound, like the creators just didn’t know how to make books. Then he was bothered by the fact that that bothered him more than the pages being made of skin.

“Who would send this to us? And… why?”

“Should we take it to artefact storage?” Basira asked.

“No. No, it’s not dangerous enough to need to be contained, and if we… do need it for something, we should have it.”

“By it’s not dangerous, you meant the crazy murderwitch didn’t mention any dangers in her brief statement, right? Because I’m sure there’s a lot about this she didn’t mention.”

“Also,” Sasha put in, “the last thing Breekon and Hope sent us did try to kill us.”

“It’s, what, a Leitner connected to the End, right?” Basira asked.

“Yeah. At least, Mary Keay said it was,” Martin agreed. “Seems like a… well, a perversion of the End, to me, you know? I mean, it holds pieces of people, or memories of people or, or something, after they die. That’s the opposite of the End, isn’t it? Aren’t we supposed to be afraid of not being here, for that?”

“It makes sense to me,” Mary said. “A lot of the statements in the database are like that. Lots of people cheating death, holding on as immortal shades, that kind of thing. So far as I can tell, you guys can’t decide whether you’re afraid of death, or not getting to have it. You seemed equally bothered by infinity and finity.”

“Good point,” Sasha said. “Grim, but good. Makes you wonder what future we’re actually striving for, if we’re afraid of both.”

“Humans are afraid of everything. If someone wanted to build and refine something to be a perfect producer of fear, they’d make a human.”

“We feel other things,” Martin said defensively.

“Most of which help your ability to feel fear, or at least don’t get in its way.”

“You’re biased, being a fear monster,” Basira said. “I’m sure if we had a manifestation of the expression of love here, they’d say the same thing about love.”

“Let me know if you meet one.”

Martin turned the book over in his hands. Where the hell had it come from?

And why?

-----------------------------



“So I guess we’re all here to make a big fucking song and dance over whether you can take down a single cop, Stoker. Don’t most of these people have better things to be doing?”

“You’re the one who wanted to watch, Jude. I promised a place that could house an audience. Now get in the basement and keep quiet; Basira’s going to arrive to try to ‘protect’ Daisy from her own investigation soon enough and if she sees anyone this whole thing is blown.”

“Still don’t see how you’re so sure any of this will work. Sounds flimsy to me.”

“Because I’m a fucking genius. Also Arthur’s following her and texting me updates.”

“You’ve got someone on Basira, but who’s following the target to make sure she’s following your trail of breadcrumbs on time?”

“Nobody’s that fucking suicidal. But I know what I’m doing, Jude, because I’m smarter than you.”

“Well that’s just fucking bullshit.”

“Oh, yeah? Then why did so many people come to see my dazzling brilliance? You’re the one who said there was a big crowd.”

I was exaggerating. There’s only sixteen people and most of them are just here to witness so nobody lies and cheats them in the betting pool.”

“Kerry didn’t bet on me.”

Kerry hates Arthur and wants to make sure your little ember daddy doesn’t do the deed for you and give you credit.”

“What about Sean?”

“Sean wants to make sure Kerry doesn’t just kill you to make Arthur look bad.”

“Well, both of them are going to have to wait in the basement. As are you. Hope you brought a pack of cards.”

“I’m sure we’ll find something to do. Why do you have a fire axe?”

“I like axes. They seem to have become my signature weapon. If this goes south – ”

“You’re going to take them on with an axe? God you’re so weird. Just set them on fire like a normal person.”

“In this dry wooden house in the middle of a dry wooden forest? Real galaxy brain take there, Jude.”

“What the fuck is a galaxy – no, you know what, I don’t care. I really don’t fucking care. I hope she rips your spine out while she’s still alive. I lose money if she does, but it’ll be worth it.”He glanced at his phone. “Shit, they’re close! Everyone – ”

“I’m getting in the fucking basement, Jesus!” Jude threw up her hands and walked down. Clearly Tim wasn’t the only one being updated on Basira’s location, because a couple of other people glanced at their phones and waved their friends down with them.

The basement was a bit small for the size of the house, but all seventeen people, including Jude, fit inside. Tim eyed the cheap plasterboard walls that had been erected over the concrete and reminded Jude not to set the place alight. She flipped him off.

He closed the basement door, dragged an abandoned sofa over it, and got the hell out of the house. It was raining heavily, despite what he’d said to Jude about a ‘dry’ forest, and that was probably for the best – there would almost definitely be fire tonight. The moon was full, providing at least some light among the trees, so he was able to move quite quickly. Things were about to get super dangerous, and he didn’t want to be nearby.

He kept an eye on his phone, on updates from Arthur, as he walked. It was gonna be close, but… there. He was at a safe distance, and Basira and Arthur were still approaching.

He clicked the button on the remote detonator. And the explosives surrounding the cultists, hidden between the strong concrete exterior walls and the new flimsy plasterboard walls of the basement, exploded.

The children of the Lightless Flame could survive a lot of things, with enough luck and faith, but he doubted very much that any of them could have survived that.

The sound of the explosion reverberated through the forest. Tim stayed long enough to make sure that the surrounding forest wasn’t going to catch fire, then turned and almost walked into Arthur, who put a hand around his throat.

“What the fuck did you do?!” he snarled, as Tim’s skin began to blister. Basira appeared behind Arthur and kicked the back of his knee; his legs buckled and Tim was able to jerk out of his grip before the burning reached muscle.

“Isn’t it obvious? I took out about a third of your little congregation. Maybe a quarter? I could never really keep count.”

“Why? I believed in you!”

“Really? Well, that was a dumb decision. Sounds like a ‘you’ problem, though.”

“You were one of us! They were your brothers and sisters!”

I thought so too, at first. You told me the thing growing in my heart was the blessing of the flame, and I believed you for awhile. But no. They weren’t my brothers and sisters; they were a pack of sadistic torturers and murderers of the innocent, and the world is better off without them. If it makes you feel better, that look on your face right now? Knowing you’ve lost everything, that some of your best friends are dead in there and that everyone will lay their lives firmly at your feet and there’s no way any of them will ever accept you again now? Very Desolation. I bet your god’s eating well tonight.”

Arthur took a step towards Tim, who backed away, raising his axe, while behind him, Basira cocked her gun.

You’ll burn for this,” Arthur growled. “I’ll turn you to fucking ash.”

“You’ll wanna be quick,” Tim said, “because I hear footsteps.”

Just then, Daisy appeared. She looked Arthur up and down. “This the guy, then?”

Daisy, Arthur Nolan, evil murderous fucker who tried to end the world awhile back. Arthur, meet Daisy Tonner, who left Harold how you found him.”

Terror briefly eclipsed the rage on Arthur’s face. Tim grinned, the moonlight glinting off his teeth and eyes in a predatory way.

“Yeah, Arthur,” he said. “You should probably run.”

Chapter Text

Tim expected Arthur to use fire. They were in a forest, after all. But apparently he wasn’t a complete idiot – the forest was muddy and it was still raining, and the light and smell of smoke would give away his position. He was fast, though, especially considering his age, and hard to hear through the rain, which had become a torrent.

Tim tried to track him via the scant traces he left in his wake, but the rain washed them away immediately. Besides, Tim wasn’t a tracker. He knew that he was going in vaguely the right direction, that Arthur would be running for his car, but he wouldn’t know exactly where the man was unless…

There! A stumble, a gasp of pain. Tim zeroed in on the sound and charged through the trees.

Just in time to hear Daisy’s gunshot, and see Arthur collapse.

Tim dropped his axe and scowled. “He was mine!”

“You were too slow.” She holstered her gun. “I still can’t believe this worked. They honestly thought we were being manipulated? Basira’s real annoyed that your little cult thought she was this stupid.”

“They think everyone’s stupider than them, it’s kind of endearing.” Tim stepped closer to get a look at the body, but just then, Arthur rolled onto his back and threw an arm out towards him. Tim felt heat blossom over his shoulder, singing his hair, the sudden temperature increase causing the burns on his throat to scream in pain. Then Arthur was up and running again.

Tim looked at Daisy hopefully.

“I’ll give you a head start,” she allowed. “Because you’re new.”

And with a dopey grin that wouldn’t be out of place on a labrador, Tim picked up his axe and loped off between the trees.

------------------------



Martin had always hated the giant portrait of Jonah Magnus in the reception area, but today in particular it felt like the man’s piercing hazel eyes were boring directly into his bag.

To be fair, everyone seemed to be staring at his bag as he left for the day with Mary, like they knew he’d lied about locking the Leitner in his desk and was smuggling it home to look at alone. But he had to know why it had been sent to him. So much was going on and everyone kept relying on him and he never knew anything, and it was his whole job to know things. He couldn’t find Melanie, he couldn’t determine what apocalypse rituals were coming up… he had to make progress somewhere, find something. Do something.

So he would study this book. He knew it was on the safe end of the Leitner danger spectrum, so much as any Leitner could be considered safe. Well… he knew it wasn’t dangerous so long as he didn’t start skinning people and tying their skin in the book or anything. He didn’t even know how to bind ghosts, nor did he have any intention of ever trying. And there was so much knowledge in there, so much more than the pages themselves could hold… information that he could find. That would be useful, that would be best for everyone.

So he took it home.

Mary had recently been trying to decide what music she should like, so Martin waited until Abba’s Greatest Hits started blasting from her room before opening the book again. Most of the pages were in languages he didn’t speak. He flipped through until he found one in English and read quietly.

“As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he’d gone too far. His captor hit him again, and again, and again, no longer seeming to care if he was capable of answering his questions. Through the pain, all he could wonder was whether he’d know which blow would be the final, decisive blow, whether there’d be some monumental hit that was just too far, after which he’d know he was done for, the point of no return. But aside from the increasing pain, every hit felt identical.

“And so Leopold Montgomery ended.”

Martin looked up. The man before him obviously wasn’t actually there, not in a full, physical sense, but he was distinct enough to see clearly as he glared at Martin and said, “I’m still not saying anything. Wait, where am I?”

“London. Who are you? What do you last remember?”

“None of your business. Why am I here?”

Didn’t answer the question. Interesting. Could Martin not compel a ghost? Maybe. Or maybe he just wasn’t strong enough yet.

“Honestly,” Martin said, “I’m trying to figure out the same thing.” He held up the book. “Do you know what this is?”

“I don’t know anything about your cursed artefacts.”

“I’m not… look. This isn’t an interrogation. Somebody sent me this book. I don’t know who or why. I’m trying to figure it out and I just want to know if you’re aware of your… situation.”

“That I’m dead.”

“Well. Yeah.”

Leopold nodded. “I did notice that.”

“Right.” There was an awkward pause. “What’s it like?”

“Not great. Wouldn’t recommend trying it. Of course, I can’t know properly while I’m still in this thing, can I? Can’t go to heaven while your cursed toy has me trapped.”

“Do you want to? Do you want me to… let you out?” Martin swallowed. “Destroy your page?”

“Please.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. It’s… wrong, to be like this. It’s like being slowly ripped in half by two forces that shouldn’t exist, but knowing that they’ll never actually succeed in pulling you apart, it’s like… it’s like a horrible infection on the universe, but you don’t have the infection, you are it. It’s awful, being something that was never meant to exist in God’s earth, so was never designed to have a tolerable existence. I just want to go.”

“Right. I’ll do that, then. Is there anything else you need done, any final requests, or whatever? I can’t promise anything, but – ”

“No. I had… my family are gone, now. My cat would have to be dead by now. There’s nothing left that I need to do. God, that’s depressing, isn’t it? This I the last piece of me, and I know I’ll see them in heaven, but just thinking that my influence here is over, that no one will even know my story or think about me ever again… well, that’s just pride talking, isn’t it.”

“I can, if you want.”

“What?”

“You can tell me your story. I’m a very good listener.”

“Ha. You know what? Fine. If it’s the last thing I’m going to do. You ready?”

Martin picked up his tea. “Yes.”

So Leopold told him about his life. About the years in the steel mill, meeting his wife and having a daughter, losing that daughter and shortly after his job and turning to mob work. About the weirdos trafficking artefacts that people said were cursed, about them trying to muscle in on his gang’s territory and Leopold being grabbed for information and refusing to talk. About finally dying, only to wake up in the book, but his wife had moved on and his daughter was dead and with him already dead they had nothing left to threaten him with.

And Martin, of course, drank in every word.

He dismissed Leopold, carefully cut his page out of the book, and lit a candle to burn the old, dry skin over. Trying not to think about how ‘evil horror movie witch’ the whole thing looked, he brought the page closer to the flame.

Then hesitated.

What if he needed to know more? What if Leopold knew something important? He wouldn’t tell him, probably, if Martin broke his promise like this, but… but information didn’t stop existing just because it wasn’t accessible. Destroying it like this was…

Martin put the page down, and immediately felt better.

He knew what this was, of course. This was why Elias had hidden incriminating evidence instead of destroying it, why he’d seen Jon nervously hide away reports he shouldn’t have in drawers, and probably why (according to Sasha at least) the Institute’s library was terribly curated. This was the Beholding, lying to him. Changing him. Telling him that the concept of whatever he hadn’t yet witnessed in that page was somehow more important than ending Leopold’s suffering and giving him control over his own fate.

He knew that, in the same way that he knew he couldn’t quit. That didn’t mean he could do anything about it.

He was pretty sure he could bring himself to destroy the page. Eventually. When he was a bit stronger. But… Leopold’s story had been emotionally taxing, and it had been a long day, and it was so hard to summon up the will…

Tomorrow. He’d destroy it tomorrow.

Martin blew out the candle and went to bed.

-----------------------



“Knock, knock.” Basira neglected to actually knock, or indeed wait for a reply, before walking into Tim’s ‘home’ in an isolated corner of the Millbank tunnel system. She eyed the head of Arthur Nolan, sitting on a little shelf above his bed, with distaste. “You’re keeping that?”

“Yeah! Trophy!”

“Is it… dead?”

“I think so? It’s not moving. It does feel like it’s looking at me sometimes, but I got a blindfold for it, just in case. Anyway, I’m used to that.”

Yes, I know the feeling. So you’re going to tell them now? You’ve had me lying about you for a whole week, but there’s no excuses now, right?”

“You didn’t have to lie. You just had to not tell them you’d found out I was alive.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s so much better. I feel really great about that.”

“If they’d known, they might have gotten involved, and the cult – ”

“I know. But it’s over now, right? So there’s no more need for secrecy.”

“Yeah. I’ll… go tell them.”

Great. Let’s go. We’ll stop for breakfast and go in together when the Institute opens.”

“Does it have to be right now?”

“Yeah. It does.”

“But I have to – ”

Whatever you’ve got on can wait. This can’t. Come on.”

So at 9:05am, Basira dragged a dishevelled Timothy Stoker through the front door of the Magnus Institute and up to the front desk. Tim fixed Rosie with a lopsided smile. Her eyes widened.

“Timothy! You’re… you…”

“Not here to work, Rosie. Just passing through. I need to get down to the archives. I, uh… I want to make a statement.”

Chapter Text

Tim entered the archives several steps ahead of Basira, which he only realised was a mistake when something heavy slammed down on his head and knocked him to the floor. He heard Sasha yell “Mary!” and, before he could get his bearings, he was picked up and pushed over a desk, arms held at his back at an uncomfortable angle so he couldn’t move without severe pain.

“What the hell – ”

“Don’t move,” Mary said.

“Is he…?” Sasha began.

“Fear feels pretty human. Isn’t doing anything dangerous. Probably safe enough to get Martin.”

Basira entered, but didn’t seem inclined to help him as Sasha fetched Martin. Martin paled at the sight of him. “Who are you?”

“I’m Tim. Timothy Stoker. Who the hell else would I be? Are you alright?”

“Are you the same Timothy Stoker I’ve known for years, who used to work here?”

“Yes! I mean, as much as you’re the same Martin. Everyone changes. What’s – ?”

“Do you mean anyone in this room any harm?”

“No!”

Mary let him up. Tim rubbed his shoulders, wincing. “Was hoping for a happier reunion, but – ”

Sasha punched him in the stomach.

“You arsehole!” she screamed. “We all thought you were dead! You just fucking disappeared, no word, no – we mourned you, and you couldn’t even be fucking bothered to tell us you were alive!”

“It’s not like that!” Tim gasped.

“Oh, isn’t it? Is it not fucking like that? Well then what is it like, Tim?!”

“Okay, it is like that. But I… I’m sorry, okay? I had my reasons, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just… look, I can explain.”

“Please. Fucking. Do.”

“Not to you. To him.” He nodded at Martin. “I came to make a statement.”

“I don’t take live statements,” Martin said. “There are consequences.”

“Basira already told me about the dreams.”

Everyone turned to look at Basira.

“You knew?” Sasha asked.

“No!” Basira said. “I mean, not until this week. He came to me and Daisy, said he needed our help to take down a bunch of cultists, swore me to secrecy for the week so it wouldn’t jeopardise the plan and get him killed. That’s all.”

“I didn’t exactly mean to disappear,” Tim said. “I just kind of… kept putting off making contact. It was nice to not feel like I was being watched for once. And then I was in way too deep with the Cult of the Lightess Flame, and – ”

“You were with the Desolation cult?!” Sasha asked.

“Oh, yeah. I – ”

“Hang on,” Martin said. “I should leave the room before this turns into a statement. Everyone will have to fill me in later.”

“Martin, the whole reason I’m here is to – ”

“I’m not condemning you to a life of horrible nightmares over this.”

Tim cocked a grin. “You’re not curious?”

Martin crossed his arms. “That’s not fair.”

“I know. Just a joke. Martin, can we talk about this alone?”

“No,” all three women said. They looked defensive.

Tim stared in surprise. “You think I’m going to hurt him?”

“No,” Basira said, “but we can’t be too careful.”

“He did his spook question thing on me. I said I wouldn’t.”

“You might be some kind of shapeshifter here to attack him, who’s immune to compulsion,” Sasha said. “We’re not certain it works on everything.”

“Or you might be Tim, but might become dangerous at any moment,” Mary added. “Like Melanie.”

“Like… what’s been happening while I’ve been gone?”

“A lot,” Sasha said shortly. “Also, just so you know, you look and smell terrible.”

“I spent a lot of last night running through the pouring rain in a forest,” Tim admitted.

“And didn’t shower when you got home?”

“Don’t have one. I’m living in a tunnel right now. It’s alright.”

“Fucking hell.”

“Look,” Tim said. “I’m not coming back here. I’m not. But I should have told you I was alive right away, instead of… especially since we lost Jon. I’m sorry. Hate me if you want, but I’m here now.”

“To give a statement and leave.”

“Yeah. Basira’s found some kind of group in New Zealand that might be trying to end the world. Daisy and I are going to go check it out in a couple of weeks, and it’s going to be really dangerous.”

“Oh, so you came here to tell us surprise, you’re alive, but I might not be soon and you won’t know again,” Sasha snapped. “Real thoughtful.”

“From now on, you’ll know when I die.” He looked at Martin. “At least, he will.”

Martin looked puzzled. Then his eyes widened. “You want to use the nightmares as a communication system?”

“The nightmares are what told me when Jon needed help, when he got kidnapped,” Basira pointed out. “Daisy and Tim might be out of conventional communication for awhile, but if Tim and Martin can see each other…”

“All for the low, low price of a lifetime of nightmares,” Martin pointed out.

“I already get nightmares,” Tim said. “And so do you. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, I’ll think of something else. But if you’re trying to protect me, don’t. I want to do this, Martin.”

Martin hesitated, but eventually shrugged. “Fine.”

“I’m coming,” Mary said. “Just in case.”

Tim couldn’t help but notice that apparently he was a potential danger, but the literal manifestation of fear in the room was totally fine. He tried not to look too visibly annoyed by that. He didn’t know what the archive crew had been through since the Unknowing, and he didn’t think starting shit with Mary right now would earn him many friends.

So everyone crowded into Martin’s office. Tim sat down and make awkward small talk while Martin went to make tea. Then he sat down across from Tim, turned a tape recorder on, and asked him, calmly, for his story.

So Tim told him.

He started with stumbling out of the Unknowing, injured, dazed and confused. Not wanting to go back to the Institute and subject himself to the gaze of the Watcher right away, not ready for that, he booked a hotel room and, the net morning, was approached by Arthur.

He talked about the cult, about waiting until the day he’d start to get sick and have to drag himself back to the Institute, but how the sickness never came. About the freedom afforded by the Lightless Flame, about his adventures carefully vetting victims to make sure he was removing the worst of society and improving the world, and Arthur’s concerns that his motivations were wrong, and that he was going to die if he didn’t sort himself out. About a long conversation he’d had with Arthur about Tim’s habit of always killing his victims when he was done with the drawn-out takedown, instead of ever leaving them to suffer and feed the Desolation as they withered away. About the day he’d stopped being able to set anything alight as, he suspected, the last bit of influence from what Jude had called his ‘three minutes of divinity’ had finally worn off. The rest of the congregation had assured him that instability was normal, that beginners could never do it all the time; that he just needed to get his head right, to serve properly, and that it would come back. That he’d know he was on the right track when it came back.

He’d started using a cigarette lighter and lighter fluid. With habits formed operating under the Ceaseless Watcher, it was easy to be subtle. None of them ever noticed him using it.

He talked about having Daisy on his tail, about trying to lose her by framing Harold; about how it hadn’t worked but it had gotten rid of Harold and made the world a better place, which gave him an idea. About approaching Daisy, explaining the situation, proposing a plan. About Daisy roping Basira in to be ‘tricked’ by Jude, so they could get as many cultists as possible into that basement that Daisy had rigged with explosives they’d covered in drywall.

“So,” Tim finished, “that’s about it. Statement ends I guess. Any questions?”

“Yeah,” Basira said. “How are you free of this place?”

“I’m… not entirely sure, actually? At first I thought maybe the Lightless Flame had a greater claim over me, but I’m definitely not one of them, so…”

“You’re something,” Mary said. “You’ve tangled fear around you in a… stable way. Like they do.”

Tim nodded, unsurprised. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really understand the taxonomy you guys use, I don’t know where the borders between your fears are or which aspects you think are more important for drawing them. It’s something that isn’t vulnerable to me; that’s all I know.”

“But I’m becoming some kind of spook? Like Martin?”

“Hey!”

Mary just shrugged. “I don’t really know what that means. I can’t tell if you’re bound to anything, like Martin is to this place; I don’t have any special knowledge or senses for that kind of thing. Elias might know. All I can tell you is that your fear is very different to how it used to be.”

“Unsettling to know,” Tim remarked, still not surprised.

“So that’s how we can get free?” Basira asked. “Just tangle ourselves up in a different fear?”

Mary shook her head. “If that worked, Melanie wouldn’t be trapped.”

“Wait, Melanie is tangled up with one of these things?!” Sasha asked. Then she thought for a minute. “Actually, that makes a lot of sense.”

“She did rip apart four attacking flesh monsters,” Basira pointed out.

“And put a butter knife through my arm,” Martin added.

“She what? What the hell did I miss?!”

“While you were off blowing up cultists, we were keeping busy, too,” Sasha said primly.

“Is that why this place stinks of blood?”

“Does it? Dammit, I thought we’d finally gotten rid of that smell.”

“I think we just got used to it,” Basira shrugged. “This place isn’t very well ventilated, and it’d probably be easier to just replace a lot of the pipes than get that stuff out of them.”

“What the fuck happened here?!”

“Drinks,” Sasha snapped. “Not here. You and I and whoever else wants to come are going out, and I am going to get extremely fucking drunk, and we are going to catch up properly, you arsehole.”

“Okay, I – ”

“And you’re buying.”

“Why am I – ?”

“Because you let us believe you were dead!”

“Right. Right. Yeah. I’m buying.”

Chapter Text

Martin lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling, ignoring the sound of Shania Twain blasting from Mary’s room.

Tim.

Tim was alive.

Tim was alive, and Jon wasn’t.

Martin wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that. Or it might be more accurate to say that he felt lots of things about that. Guilt, mostly. Tim had been alive this whole time and they’d gave up on him. Now Melanie was missing; was she alive? How long until they gave up on her? Now Tim was leaving again, and he’d specifically subjected himself to nightmares so that he and Martin could keep tabs on each other – he was being nice about it, but did he not trust them not to give up on him again? That must be why. Martin couldn’t blame him.

It was probably a good thing that his assistants were immune to the nightmares, or they’d all want nightmare ties. For a moment, Martin worried about what would happen if he went to sleep and didn’t see Tim. Maybe Tim was still tied to the Institute and hadn’t gotten sick for some other reason, in which case this would be a pretty bad way to find out about it. He supposed they’d know for sure once the two of them fell asleep (which could take a long time, if Tim was drinking with Sasha). But it really did seem like Tim was free, meaning that Martin would have some new fire-based nightmares to enjoy tonight. The Unknowing, at the very least. Fun.

He hadn’t told Tim, but so far as injuries went, Martin wasn’t really a fan of burns.

Had Tim’s new allegiance to whatever was inside him (Hunt, surely? Dangerous to draw conclusions, but most likely Hunt) severed him from the Eye, in the same way that Martin seemed to have been stolen from the spider? Martin didn’t think it was likely; surely Tim was more like Melanie than like Martin, who’d actually signed a contract. Right? And Melanie most definitely hadn’t been free. She’d attacked Martin over it, after accusing him of…

Hmm.

Martin knocked on Mary’s door loudly enough to be heard over It’s Raining Men (Hallelujah) and was promptly answered. “I want to talk to everyone,” he said. “Are you happy to come out and meet the others?”

“Of course! It’ll be fun!”

“Hopefully. Can you find out where Sasha and Tim are while I call Basira?”

Twenty minutes later the archive crew, Tim, and Daisy (whom Basira had brought) were crowded around a small table in a somewhat noisy bar. Martin didn’t waste any time.

“When Melanie attacked me, she accused me of killing Jon,” he said.

“You weren’t to blame for any of that,” Sasha said immediately. “She wasn’t in her right – ”

Martin waved her protest down. “I know, I know. That’s not what this is about. But it’s what she thought. She thought I’d worked with Elias to put him in prison, out of her reach, and killed Jon, and accused me of ‘trapping us here’. Then she said she mightn’t be able to kill Elias, but there was another way out, and attacked me.”

Everyone was silent.

“Holy shit,” Sasha said. “Tim…”

“The timing doesn’t work out,” Basira said. “Jon dies a couple of weeks after the Unknowing. Tim should’ve gotten sick by then.”

“I was on leave,” Tim said. “It’s planned a kayaking trip before all this happened. My leave was up very shortly before he passed away, too soon for symptoms.”

More silence.

“Well,” Basira said, “this is… good information to have.”

Martin nodded. “If we ever – ”

“No,” Sasha said.

“What?”

“You’re going to say something about how if our backs are ever really against the wall, we can save everyone except one person. Or you’re about to give some stupid apology for something that’s not remotely your fault. Don’t. We’re in this together and this changes nothing. If you even think of taking more risks, treating yourself as more expendable after this, I will lock you in a panic room with Mary and give her every self-care book ever written, and that is a promise.”

“We don’t even know anyone with a panic room.”

You don’t know anyone with a panic room.”

“I knew it!” Tim exclaimed. “Sasha’s some kind of superspy with a secret spy panic room!”

“Why would a superspy have – ? Whatever. I just want to be very clear here. Elias trapped us. Peter was probably in on it too. You didn’t, and you’re not a barrier to our freedom or anything.”

“I mean, I quite literally am.”

“Not really,” Basira said. “I don’t mind working for the Institute part-time. The statements and library access is actually really useful; my private investigator business has gotten a bit of a reputation for taking weird cases and that information really helps. Mary’s not trapped, so until we find Melanie this is only really a problem for you and Sasha.”

“And I’m not leaving,” Sasha said. “Even if something happens to you, Martin, I intend to stay with the Institute.”

“What? Why?”

“Same reason you became the Archivist. Somebody has to. If we all leave, some other group will be roped in, and they’d have to learn all over again, and until we’re sure nobody else is trying to end the world we can’t afford to waste that kind of time. They’d need me there to be the Archivist, or at least be able to train and advise a new clueless Archivist. If something happens to you, I’m still here and my job is harder and more dangerous. In fact, if you hadn’t taken this job, I would have, and my position would already be worse. I just want to make sure you remember that before you go into one of your guilt spirals.”

“I don’t go into guilt spirals!”

“Yes you do,” Basira said.

“Fine,” Martin groused. “I’ll try not to feel guilty about being the thing trapping – ”

“You’re already doing it. Give me a reason to think you might do something stupid or risky with your life and I will call my panic room friend.”

“Fine, fine, I get your point.”

“I think you’re all missing the more important point here,” Daisy cut in.

Basira frowned at her. “There’s a more important point than learning about the supernatural tether binding us in service to an ancient fear god?”

“Yeah. The last person who found out about it tried to kill Martin. So, how did she find out about it?”

That was a really good question.

“We should try to find out if she’d spoken to Elias at all,” Martin said.

“Elias?” Tim asked. “She hates Elias. What’s he got to do with anything?”

So Martin explained his ‘Elias is trying to kill Jon’ theory, remembering to point out that Elias did kill Gertrude, and they only had his word that she was trying to destroy the archive at the time.

“Why, though?” Tim asked. “He appointed Jon and you as head archivists. Why would he do that if he wanted to kill you?”

“Sacrifices, would be my guess,” Basira said.

“What?”

“Well, the Eye. It’s about the fear of being watched, being judged, having your secrets revealed, right? But it’s also the opposite. It’s got the fear of seeing and knowing terrible things in there, too.”

“Yeah, that always puzzled me,” Sasha said, frowning. “Just because it’s about information, I don’t see why they’re the same fear?”

“It makes sense that they’re the same to me,” Martin said. “I mean, a lot of the fear of being witnessed can also be the fear of self-knowledge, right? Besides, the End is about finality but some of its manifestations are about infinity, and if it can be two sides of the same coin – ”

“By that logic, though, the Buried and the Vast should be two sides of the same coin,” Tim said, “and that just throws the whole taxonomy – ”

“No, I think they’re different,” said Sasha. “They might be opposites in many ways in theme, but not spirit. I don’t think the pressure of crushing confinement and the innavigable space of the vast are two sides of – ”

My point is,” Basira cut in before the discussion could get entirely out of control, “that that’s what the Archivist basically is, right? Someone who takes in these awful stories and causes nightmares about them. So to outsiders, yeah, that’s the fear of being watched, but the Archivist themself is experiencing the other side. So what if that’s the point? You designate someone, fill them up with terrible knowledge, and then kill them in the temple for… power, or whatever. Gertrude was killed in the Institute. Jon was buried in, or at least right under, the Institute. Melanie and the meat people came for Martin in the Institute.”

“But Gertrude was the Archivist for fifty years,” Martin pointed out. “Would she have lived that long if she was a sacrifice?”

Mary spoke up. “Gertrude wasn’t a very good Archivist. At least, that’s what they say. She was a scary person, who managed to disrupt a lot of plans, but she had trouble actually developing her power.”

“Or was smart enough not to,” Basira muttered.

“Still though. Waiting fifty years to sacrifice her and going for me after one? Doesn’t sound likely.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Basira said. “Still, something to keep in mind. Maybe fifty years was too long to wait, and Elias is desperate. Jon died well outside the Institute, so he might not have counted.” She shrugged. “We don’t really know enough to say anything definite, but…”

“But we know enough to take some precautions,” Sasha said. “From now on, Martin should spend as little time in the Institute as possible. Just in case.”

“Do I get a say in this?” Martin asked.

“No,” Sasha said.

“If you disagree, you’ll be outvoted,” Mary added, to which Basira nodded.

Tim skulled his beer. “I’ll be glad to get to New Zealand and get away from all this drama.”

“Aren’t you hunting apocalypse cultists?” Martin asked.

“Yeah. Way less dramatic.”

“How are you paying for that?” Sasha asked. “You don’t look… financially secure, right now.”

“I’m hiring him and Daisy as independent contractors for our apocalypse-destroying efforts,” Basira explained. “Claiming their tickets and lodging as expenses.”

“Will that work?”

“You know, I don’t think Peter actually reads the expense claims before he approves them? For a rich guy he’s terrible at money.”

“Or maybe he just likes to waste Elias’.”

“So we’re on the same page,” Tim said. “I’m telling you, Basira, you should spring for first class tickets. We can bankrupt the Institute through petty luxuries and they won’t be able to afford to kill Martin.”

“I’m not killing this golden goose, Tim. The longer we only claim reasonable stuff, the less likely he is to look too closely.”

“You’re no fun.”

“For the length of this trip, I’m your boss.”

“Being the boss means nothing to these people,” Martin said gloomily. “Nothing.”

“Damn straight it doesn’t, boss,” Sasha said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You want a beer? Tim’s paying.”

Chapter Text

Melanie woke up with the sun, such as it was in her new world, and took an hour or so to erase all signs that she’d spent any time in the green canvas tent. There was no one to hurt here, but this world didn’t deserve her toxic touch any more than that other place full of people had. If she was careful not to leave a mark, it wouldn’t get a chance to reject her, and she could spare everyone some pain and trouble.

She wasn’t alone. A man stood in the mouth of the tent, blocking the sunlight. A man she knew, or did she? Maybe it was just the sight of another human face; maybe any face would be familiar… no; she knew him. They’d been in hospital and something had happened, and she’d attacked him, the very last person she’d had to drive away. And now he was here?! She’d attacked him! She’d driven him away! She’d acted, and he was here, and that shouldn’t happen! How dare he?!

With a snarl, Melanie was on her feet, machete in hand, charging forward. The man stepped sideways, putting the fabric of the tent between them; she slashed at it as she bolted out of the tent but… he was gone.

She was alone again.

Everyone was safe again.

She could relax.

--------------------------



For the first time in a long time, Sasha felt sympathy for Elias Bouchard.

Sure, he was an evil arsehole. But she’d just spent four hours going through the phone data of Richard Sanderson, Local Spooky Cult Leader, and was developing a keep appreciation for how much mundane garbage Elias must have to filter through to find anything remotely useful. She was sitting in Martin’s office (Martin was only coming in one randomly-determined day a week for his own safety, at Basira’s insistence), staring at the Weird Conspiracy Map that he still insisted on using to track things even though her carefully constructed electronic database was perfectly fine. ‘I just like to see things laid out, Sasha, even if I don’t have spider intuition any more’. Does your conspiracy wall have a search function, Martin?? No, it doesn’t!

Sasha knew what dry cleaner Richard sent his suits to. She knew what he got on his occasional takeout pizzas. She knew when a couple of meetings, that may or may not have been Divine Host meetings, had taken place. She knew nothing of use.

She wondered how Tim and Daisy were doing on their own little cult investigation mission. She knew that Tim was alive, because he was still appearing in Martin’s dreams, but the pair had gone mostly dark. Basira didn’t seem worried, so Sasha supposed she shouldn’t be worried either. Anyway, Tim had blown up a building with himself still inside it, and survived. And then taken down a bunch of Desolation cultists.

He was fine. He’d be fine.

She was supposed to be focusing on the Divine Host.

Speaking of which, it was about time for one of Richard’s meetings that may or may not be a church thing to start. She made his phone call her, started recording that call, and sat back to listen to a bunch more mundane drama in the hopes of picking out something important.

She was just in time to hear half a conversation between Richard and another church member she’d heard him speak to occasionally, Greg.

“We have the camera footage, but the Archivist is still avoiding the building,” Richard was explaining. “We’ve got eyes on him, but why is he avoiding the building? He’s been doing it ever since that sabateur visited them, and we haven’t seen him since, either. What do the Washington chapter think?”

“They’re still broken after the ritual. Only six survivors, and two of them have lost faith. Nobody’s coordinated enough yet.”

“Well, the Watcher’s going to make a move soon. Has anyone checked in with Manuela?”

“We can’t risk bringing their attention to – ”

“Right, right. I just wish we had her advice. She’d know how to blind the Eye.”

“A direct attack? Whatever they’re doing, we could disrupt it.”

“We don’t have the strength. And we don’t know how dangerous their Archivist is. Without Raynor or Manuela to shield us, he might see us coming. No, we… we need to recover our strength for now. And hope we have time. Come on, the ceremony’s about to start.”

Sasha left the ceremony recording, just in case something important happened, but put the phone down. She didn’t like the way they chanted; their cadence gave her the creeps.

Well, if she were in a movie, she wouldn’t have had to spend literal weeks listening in on garbage to get something, but the important thing was that she finally did have something. The cult’s continued suspicion of them was… not great. Sasha wanted peace with the cult, but they were going to have to do something before the People’s Church panicked and kidnapped Martin.

As for the rest, well. Talking about people losing faith after ‘the ritual failed’ was… not confirmation of a failed apocalypse, not something she wanted to read too much into, but promising. And she’d definitely heard the name ‘Manuela’ in conjunction with the Dark before. Which would be very easy to track down, in her well-constructed database with excellent searching and cross-referencing capabilities.

So much more useful than a stupid pinboard covered in notecards and red string.

----------------------



One advantage of working from home, Martin reflected, was that strangely enough, Mary was around less.

He liked Mary just fine, but he’d been worried that after the recent attacks she’d double down on her self-appointed role as his bodyguard and never let him out of her sight. This, as it turned out, hadn’t been a problem. Mary seemed to have decided that her job involved protecting him to, from and at work, and being around to protect him at home, so if he went anywhere else it wasn’t her problem. Meaning he could go to cafes and soforth as much as he liked without having to fend off a cheerful, overprotective monster. Martin wasn’t sure he entirely understood this logic, but didn’t want to question it in case she changed her mind.

So it was just him and the ghost of Eileen Marckle loitering behind a storage shed at the edge of a playground.

“Ooh, look!” Eileen cooed. “There she is, she looks so happy… two kids! Martin, I have two grandchildren – they’re adorable!”

“I’m very happy for you,” Martin said, trying to sound sincere and not like he was worried that someone would notice a childless man hiding out near a playground with a ghost or, perhaps more worryingly, without noticing the ghost.

“Oh, that stuffed rabbit! That’s Manny Rabbit, that was mine when I was young… oh, they’re so beautiful.” Eileen stood back and wiped virtual tears from her eyes. “Okay. I’m ready.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. That’s all I wanted. To see her one last time, to see how she was doing. I’m ready to go now. Thank you, Martin.”

“Rest well, Eileen. I dismiss you.”

Once Eileen was gone, Martin put the skin page carefully in his jacket pocket and left. This had become a pattern for him, now that he was out of the office all the time and had so much time on his hands – every few days he’d summon someone from the book, hear their story, fulfil any last requests that were reasonable and he had the means to do, and offer them permanent destruction, if they wanted it. Eileen was the sixth he’d summoned, and the fifth to ask to be burned.

She’d be the fifth page added to the little pile that he couldn’t quite yet summon the energy to burn. A growing debt, that was only going to grow greater, if he didn’t start dealing with it.

He knew the book ghosts weren’t people, not really. They seemed to have all the knowledge and awareness of the people they were copied from, or at least enough of it that they were about the same to talk to except for the rather muted sense of emotion, but the information they gave was less… rich, less complex… than the statements he’d taken from Eleanor or Tim. A fair bit moreso than written statements, of course. He knew they weren’t real people, or at least weren’t the humans they were copied from, but that didn’t matter. After all, Mary wasn’t a real person, either, and there was no question that her rights, her safety, her emotions were important. Nobody sat around debating whether she really had emotions and wants that needed to be respected, because it was accepted that they were real to her. Same with the ghosts. He owed them the release they wanted.

And someday very soon, he’d start giving it to them.

--------------------------



“I’m starting to think it’s just an everyday apocalypse cult, Daisy,” Tim said, trudging into their room at the hostel and tossing his binoculars onto his bed. “Y’know, a normal people one.”

Daisy cursed quietly. “So this is a waste of time, then. Ah well. Bad luck, I guess.”

“I’m not sure someone not ending the world is bad – ”

“Seems like someone’s always trying to end the world, or do something bad to it. It’s bad luck that we’re here, instead of stopping them, when people could be getting hurt elsewhere. We’ll double-check tomorrow, then head back. I don’t like leaving Basira unguarded like this.”

“You think she’s in danger?”

“When the rest of your little cult see the spot that house used to be, it’ll be very obvious it was a trap. They’ll probably want revenge.”

“Oh. I didn’t realise – I didn’t mean to put you two in danger…”

Daisy waved his words away. “We knew what we were getting into. When we get back to England, we can deal with the rest. She can take care of herself until then, I’m sure.” She lay back on her bed and stared up at the ceiling, conversation apparently over.

Tim headed into their little bathroom to clean up. He’d made a conscious decision not to make any stupid jokes about them sharing a room on this adventure because he didn’t want his jawbone removed by a terrifying murderer with a stricter sense of ‘funny’ than his own. Working with Daisy was great; she was very skilled, very focused, seemed to know exactly what to do at any time. There was just the slight problem of all the time that they weren’t working, which was… well.

He was scared of Daisy, alright? Nothing wrong with admitting that. It was just sensible. He was pretty sure that the only person who wasn’t scared of Daisy was Basira. Maybe, when they could be reunited and didn’t have to worry about each other any more, everyone could be a little less scared of Daisy.

God, he couldn’t wait to get home.

Chapter Text

The thing about being alone, Melanie reflected as she climbed a hill, was that it was kind of like being dead.

She wasn’t suicidal or anything. She wanted to live. It was just… a person’s life was marked and measured by their impact on other people, so to be someone who would never impact another person again was just… waiting down the clock. Everything seemed numb. Pointless. She couldn’t even feel sorry for herself any more. The only thing left was the hollow ache of isolation, and anger at the only available target.

Someone had described this to her once, hadn’t they? They hadn’t had anger or loneliness; they’d had nothing, and they’d… what had they done? What was their name?

On top of the hill stood the man again, derailing Melanie’s train of thought. Now she’d never remember, and it was important! It was important, and it was gone!

“Go away!” she snarled at him.

“As you like.” He turned and walked down the other side of the hill, out of sight, but at his words, Melanie felt a stab of panic. She’d spoken to someone, and they’d responded! They’d spoken back! She was here, she was alive, she –

“Wait! Come back!” She sprinted up the hill.

But he was gone. She was alone, once again.

Melanie sat on the damp grass, and cried.

Someone had been here, and she’d chased them away. Like always. Because of who she was.

A distant memory arose. Someone eating pizza with her, and saying in a puzzled voice, “Then just be somebody else.”

Ha! But it wasn’t that easy, was it? You couldn’t just throw out who you were and start again with –

Georgie had.

Georgie! Georgie was important. The others had been forced to work with Melanie, but Georgie had chosen her, and Georgie… had been broken down all the way by something and rebuilt herself. She thought she was incomplete, that she was missing a piece, because she compared herself to the old Georgie who could feel fear, but Melanie had only known the new one and thought she was perfect. And Melanie had yelled at her and –

No, no; don’t worry about that right now. Don’t listen to the anger right now. That isn’t helpful. Melanie got to her feet, and kept walking, and tried to remember.

She had a girlfriend. She had friends. Friends she’d driven away – no, no; not now – friends who would have useful advice right now. Who was there? What would they say?

Martin would make her a cup of tea, and listen to her. He’d nod sympathetically and non-judgementally while she explained the problem, how the anger had helped her in every success she’d ever ha, how she’d latched onto the winning strategy until everything unexpected became an attack and every obstacle was a fight and the pieces of her that weren’t anger started to atrophy. He’d let her say what she needed to say, feel what she needed to feel, and he’d try to make her feel better, which he wasn’t all that great at – but Sasha was. Sasha would take her out to get drunk and share an amusing personal anecdote or two, and make Melanie feel normal.

Basira would ask questions. She wouldn’t be friendly about it, like Martin; her old police interrogation habits tended to crop up when she was trying to figure something out. But she’d be well meaning about it. She’d want to find out exactly what Melanie was talking about, how she specifically felt; try to pin down what the problem was so that Melanie would have the tools to solve it, because to Basira, bad things were problems that could, with thought, be solved.

And this one could; at least, Mary would tell her it could. She’d tell Melanie that she could simply make different choices; discard the old mask for a new one and be a person who wouldn’t yell or attack people or get angry, by simply choosing not to do those things when they came up. And she’d say it with such certainty and sincerity that Melanie would believe her.

And Georgie would hold her close, and help her through her breathing exercises, and explain how she had rebuilt herself, and how much she was looking forward to Melanie being whoever she wanted to be. Being someone who was happy with herself, whoever that was.

Melanie knew they’d probably all given up on her. That she didn’t deserve their support. But. But maybe she could become someone who did. She had nothing to lose if she tried. Yeah. That’s what she was going to do; she was going to be a good person, and she was going to live again. She wasn’t going to be violent any more; she –

A wave of agony rolled up her leg, and she collapsed to the ground. The whole limb had cramped up. She gritted her teeth and waited it out, rubbing at the muscles. No stupid cramp could distract her now.

She was going to find her way home.

-----------------



“Do you have anything?” Georgie demanded. “Anything at all?”

Basira rubbed her temples. “Georgie, I guarantee that the moment I find any fragment of a clue about what might have happened to Melanie, you will absolutely be the first person to know.”

“There’s got to be something we can do; some avenue to – ”

An alarm beeped softly on Basira’s phone. She glanced at it and immediately leapt to her feet. “Time to go!”

“Wha – ?” but before Georgie could respond, Basira had bodily picked her up and leapt out the back window. She rolled, got to her feet, and helped Georgie up.

“We gotta go!”

Georgie didn’t waste breath asking questions. She just followed Basira down the street and into a more crowded one. Only when they were surrounded by people did Basira stop.

“What was that about?” Georgie asked, breathing hard. Being an office worker and podcaster did not promote the same level of physical fitness as Basira’s career path.

“Lightless Flame,” Basira said, like that was some kind of explanation. She pulled out her phone and stared at it a bit more. “The fire will start… oh, there it goes. I have to call the fire department.”

Georgie waited for her to hang up before asking the obvious question. “What the fuck is a Lightless Flame?”

“It’s our nickname for the Desolation cult who I’ve been expecting to make a move since we blew up about a third of their congregation,” she said.

“You guys blew up – ”

“Oh, no, not the archive crew,” Basira said reassuringly. “I don’t think the cult care about the Institute right now. This was a side project; just me, Daisy, and Tim. The only cult we know of that have it out for the archive crew right now are the People’s Church, and we’re pretty sure they think we’re allied with the Lightless Flame, because of Tim. And the Dark aren’t going to launch an assault on the Eye’s centre of power any time soon, given how weak they seem to be right now, so the archive crew should be safe.”

Georgie tried to assemble a list of questions that would help her make sense of any of that, and immediately gave up. If she needed to know who Tim was or what the Dark had to do with anything, someone would tell her. Instead she said, “Safe except for meat monsters?”

“Yeah. But I think – although it’s an unproven hypothesis at this point – that we shouldn’t have those kinds of problems so long as we keep Martin out of the archives so he can’t be sacrificed.”

This, too, was something Georgie resolutely decided that she didn’t need to know more about. “So right now you’re being hunted by a magic cult?”

“A pyromaniac magic cult. Yeah.” She frowned at her phone. “This attack makes no sense, though.”

“It… doesn’t?”

“I expected them to try to kill me. Or hurt me, at least.”

“They set your building on fire with you inside, right?”

“If they wanted to hurt me, I wouldn’t have escaped without injuries. They didn’t have someone outside the window, they didn’t move with any speed, they didn’t simply find me as I left at the end of the day and melt my flesh.”

“Ew.”

“Yeah. This was a warning. Or they just wanted to take something important from me. They do that. But I’m not particularly attached to my office, so I’m going with ‘warning’.”

“… Right. And these guys definitely didn’t take Melanie?”

Basira shook her head. “They have no reason to have problems with the Institute. They take a lot of random victims, to feed their god, but they’re not known for subtlety. If they’d… taken… her, we would’ve found the signs.”

“Right. If this cult’s hunting you, do you need somewhere to stay, or anything?”

“Oh, no. That would just put more people in danger. I’ll just steal Tim’s hideout until he comes back; it’s well hidden. If he has a problem with it he can take it up with the evil cult his plan put on my tail.”

“Right.” Georgie glanced around at the people surrounding them, all studiously ignoring their Very Weird Conversation. People who presumably had no idea that the world was full of fear powers being used by evil cults in their struggles against each other to control or end the world, and that anyone could be snatched up at any time by some eldritch force or one of their servants. Just going through life, clueless about the danger they were all in.

God, she envied them.

---------------------



Melanie crawled on her elbows into the house.

The cramping in her leg hadn’t let up, and as the sun had begun to sink she’d had no choice but to press on regardless. As she’d crawled laboriously through the hills until she’d spied the abandoned house, walls and windows torn by gunfire, she’d found the source of the pain cramping her leg, a pinpoint of origin for the agony where some alien thing was fighting her. Or trying to hold on, while she fought it. She pushed the door shut behind her and made her way to the kitchen, where she found a vegetable knife; much better for the task at hand than her rusty machete. She sterilised it in vodka and got to work. Leaning back against the stained kitchen cabinets, she gritted her teeth against the pain and sliced into the bullet scar on her leg.

There, down there; near the bone. That was the source of her problems. An infection, a foreign invader to remove, and then everything…

That was a lie, of course. The anger was hers, and had been a part of her for far longer than the bullet that she’d welcomed into her flesh as flimsy justification for her actions. The bullet might worsen things, but she had made the decision. For now, though… there was a difference between what was True and what was accurate, and for now, what needed to be True was that the problem was foreign, tied up in that stealthy little metal parasite. She cut until she felt the metal, then she grabbed the kitchen scissors to act as tweezers and carefully drew it out.

The sense of relief was overwhelming. The pain of the incision was nothing compared to the cramping that had stopped the moment the bullet was pulled free from her flesh, and Melanie sank back against the cabinets, just sobbing and breathing for awhile, before coming back to herself enough to realise that she should probably treat the wound.

She found a first aid kit in the bathroom, and cursed herself for not finding one before performing amateur surgery on herself. Probably would’ve made the process a lot neater. With the kit and a sewing needle from the master bedroom, she treated the wounds as best she knew how before crawling, exhausted, into a bed.

The fight wasn’t over. It probably wouldn’t ever be over. But she’d taken the first step. And tomorrow, she could figure out what the next step was.

After she’d had some rest.

Chapter Text

Melanie sat back on the couch and wondered, not for the first time, whether she should keep some kind of diary.

There wasn’t all that much to do in this place. The house she was resting in while her leg recovered didn’t have a television, or even electricity. She’d idly thought about scrounging up something to fix the walls and windows, but she didn’t want to overuse her injured leg. She had managed to scrub a lot of the bloodstains from the floors (there had been no bodies, only blood, like every other place she’d stopped for a long time), and rearranged things so that the stuff she tended to use was close at hand; the place was starting to feel like hers. When she moved on, she would have left some mark.

Did she need to move on?

Obviously, she would have to move on eventually. She had to get home, after all. And sometimes, when she managed to make herself believe that it was possible to go home, that she wanted to, that she deserved to, that the people out there still wanted her… it felt like she knew the way, knew which direction to walk. And then she’d have a moment of doubt, and lose it.

But there seemed no point in continuing until she could hold onto that. So why not stay until she could? Fix up this house, take this ruined place she’d found and make it a little bit better. She could do that; she could make the world a little bit better. There was no food here, but she hadn’t even noticed that for a couple of days, so clearly she didn’t need it. Anyway, if she wanted food, some of the other places she’d passed had had fresh fruit and vegetables (how had they stayed fresh?), so she could scavenge for things to grow a garden. And after she’d found her way out, maybe the next lost person to stumble upon this house would find it nicer than she had, with clean floors and intact windows and a garden growing well outside.

Maybe she should keep a diary. She could leave it behind, to help them. After she left.

After she learned to hold onto the desire, and the knowledge that she deserved, to leave.

-------------------



Something had gone wrong, and Peter wasn’t sure how.

Melanie had been the perfect candidate. She still was, but what had been so simple had… somehow become complicated. Give her the little push she needed to attack someone close to her, leave her alone so that all that rage and hate had nowhere to go but inward, let her stew in her loneliness until she got used to it until the idea of having to deal with people, to hold herself in, to face judgement ever again, became unbearable, until the hollow fear of isolation became relief by comparison. Until she had no one to listen to but him, and the voices in her own mind. Then simply offer her the chance to stay alone and protected somewhere more interesting where she could still watch, where she could be a safe and silent observer forever, along with the chance to kill the very man she’d been wanting to kill for years. It was clear. It was simple. It was perfect.

But something, suddenly, had changed. Melanie had, out of nowhere, summoned the will to hold on. Decided not to be alone; a nonsensical choice when anyone made it, but doubly so for her. At least she’d finally gotten that bullet out that he hadn’t managed to extract; he needed her angry and wanting to kill Elias, but intact as a person. It would have been beyond frustrating for that thing to destroy her before he had a chance at the Panopticon.

What to do now? He could leave her until this new desire faded away. Let her become content in her little cottage and embrace a peaceful solitude. That would work just fine. Except there was a very real risk that she might find her way out before that happened; that whatever determination she’d found to tether herself to the world of people would strengthen over time instead of fade. He didn’t understand how that ever happened, but he’d seen it happen for some people. They held on to others and pulled themselves out. And if she escaped under her own power, she’d be almost impossible to isolate again.

He was going to have to take control of this before it got out of hand.

Damn Elias and his stupid wager. Damn himself for accepting. He could be at sea right now, but no…

And now, things would have to get complicated. He was going to have to lie. A lot. Peter hated lying; it meant he had to keep track of what he’d told people. The sooner all this was over, the better.

---------------------



“They what?!” Daisy growled, eyes scanning the streets as if expecting cultists to leap out at them at any moment.

“It was just a little fire,” Basira said placatingly. “I wasn’t hurt. But the office doesn’t exist any more, so we’ll have to meet somewhere else.”

“Are you safe? Did they follow you home?”

“No, no; I’ve been laying low.”

Tim’s eyes widened. “That’s why I’m out of prawn chips! You broke into my place and ate all my prawn chips!”

“It doesn’t count as breaking in if you live in a tunnel and your door’s an old sheet.”

“But you did eat my prawn chips, didn’t you?”

“They were stale.”

“They were premium aged.”

“You’re staying with me,” Daisy said firmly, “until we deal with the rest of this cult. I knew we shouldn’t have left the job half finished.”

“The whole end of the world thing could’ve been time sensitive,” Basira said.

“But it wasn’t. Now, we deal with the Lightless Flame. I’m not leaving you again while they’re still around. Tim, we’re going to need everything you know about their members, where they live, all that. We’ll deal with this problem once and for all.”

“On it. Basira, you owe me chips.”

“Timothy, you owe me a new office.”

“… Let’s call it even.”

-------------------



Melanie froze at the sight of the man in her doorway. What was his name again? She was sure she knew…

Peter. Peter Lukas.

“You’re back,” she said.

“And you seem to have finally calmed down. Excellent.”

“You trapped me here!”

“If I recall correctly, you attacked me.”

“You… I woke up, and you were cutting into my leg!”

“And I would’ve done it more cleanly than that hack job. You’re welcome.”

“Sorry,” Melanie said quietly. “I… I just…”

“Jumped immediately to violence, as seems to be a pattern for you. I doubt the Archivist will ever forgive you for what you did to him.”

“He’s alive?”

“He’s alive. No thanks to you.”

“I thought… I mean, you tricked me! You made me think he’d trapped us! You tricked me into attacking him!” Melanie heard the spark of anger in her own voice and reigned it in, breathed deep, let it bleed away. Peter barely reacted.

“Did I? How so?”

“Those files you gave me to go through. About our contracts.”

Peter sighed impatiently. “As you well know, I gave you files to go through because neither I nor my assistants were legally allowed to look at them. Had Elias still been here, it wouldn’t have been necessary, but as it is whatever’s in those pages is between you, the files, and that soap opera of an archive. My stake in all this is a concern over an employee who tried, for some reason to kill the Archivist, and while I personally don’t much care if he lives or dies, having to explain that death to Elias would be an incredibly awkward conversation I’d just as soon avoid. Now, are you finished with your temper tantrum and ready to return to work, or would you like a bit more time here to calm down?”

Ready to return to work…

“I didn’t get sick here,” Melanie realised.

“What?”

“Being away from the Institute. We usually get sick if we try to leave. I’ve been here for ages, and I didn’t get sick.”

“Interesting. You’re welcome to stay, if you want to explore that further.”

“No! No, I’m… I’m ready to leave.”

Peter looked disappointed in her answer, but he reluctantly held his hand out for hers. Stiffening a little at the human contact, he opened the front door, and they both stepped through it, into the real world.

Chapter Text

Martin’s next big breakthrough came at a time that wasn’t poetic, or tense, or remarkable in any way. He had a crick in his neck, and he stretched it left, then right, then pressed on the back of it with his fingers until it clicked.

Then he froze for a few seconds, nodded, and went to knock on Mary’s door loud enough to be heard over the ska music. It inched open, and a pair of eyes peered around the frame. Martin stubbornly ignored the weird way she was holding her fingers around the door and how she’d made them just long enough to be unnerving. She could tell it bothered him, of course, but he wasn’t going to cave and actually show it.

“How many cervical vertebrae does a human have?” he asked. “Is it seven?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.” He went back to his room and called Basira.

Basira’s voice was strangely echoey. “Daisy! I’ve got a lead on one of Nolan’s flunkies. There’s a laundromat – ”

“It’s me.”

“Oh! What’s up?”

“Is this a bad time?”

“No, it’s fine. Daisy’s not actually supposed to call for another fifteen minutes; I thought maybe she and Tim had just got done with pest control early. What do you need?”

Martin considered asking what ‘pest control’ was, but decided against it. He’d get a more complete picture if he got Tim to tell him in more comfortable circumstances. “Humans have seven cervical vertebrae.”

“Uh… okay. Why are you telling me?”

“Because I didn’t know that five minutes ago.”

A pause. “You mean, you know-know it?”

“I think so. I mean, I might’ve just read it somewhere and forgot, but – ”

“Is there a way to know for sure?”

“I don’t know? Jon never told me any of this stuff, and I’d rather not ask Elias if we don’t have to, since we think he might be trying to sacrifice me.”

“Yeah, best to keep away from him. I’ll make a note of it, and we’ll know if it happens again. Oh, we are going to do so many experiments…”

“You’re already getting the ESP deck, aren’t you.”

“Of course not! I don’t have it here. You’ve gotta pack light when crawling through a sewer.”

That explained the echoey sound on the call. He could ask about that, but… no, she was probably rushed and wouldn’t give as thorough an answer as he’d get if he waited. He could get the whole story together later, and it’d be more complete and coherent. “I wish you didn’t have that deck.”

“It was so useful when we were testing your compulsion questions!”

“I remember. You’d test me every morning until I could make you tell me what every single card was. It was exhausting.”

“It’s only forty five cards!”

“I will burn them, if you bring them back. I’ll bring an ignition source into the archive and burn them.”

“Ha. You just don’t understand the fun of science. Oh, things are – I gotta go!” She hung up.

Well. Someone was having an exciting day.

For now, Martin had another page of the ghost book to read. He was getting very close to the end of the book; that is, he’d read most of the pages that were in English, which were less than a quarter of the whole thing. The others, he… he wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with them. Maybe he could find a translator for some of the more modern ones, but some of the pages were in languages he didn’t think existed any more. Or maybe they did, and he’d just never seen anything like them in his narrow life experience. He’d figure it out when he got to them.

He’d summoned twenty one ghosts. Three of them wanted to stay in the book. So he had eighteen pages set aside, ready to burn.

He looked at his book, sighed, and put it away. He picked up his stack of skin pages, and went to knock on Mary’s door again.

“I need your help.”

“What is it, Martin?”

“It’s…” not a secret, not really; he wasn’t… he wasn’t hiding his use of the book from the others. Was he? No. He wasn’t hiding it, he just… didn’t want to bring it up and make them worry over nothing. Not a big deal. But how could he explain that to someone like Mary?

He gave up. “I need to you keep it a secret.”

She nodded, then narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “If the secret puts you in danger…”

“It’s not dangerous. It’s just… there’s something I can’t do, and I think you can, but it isn’t dangerous.”

“Okay.”

Martin didn’t make her promise to keep it to herself. Mary had always respected the sanctity of secrets, and if she decided to tell this one then that probably meant she’d recognised a danger in the book that he hadn’t. The whole point of having a group was to be able to rely on more than one person’s judgement.

Of course, by that logic, he should’ve told everyone when he started reading from the book, but…

He held out the pages in trembling hands. “Take these,” he managed to gasp.

She did. “Are you okay?”

He nodded, which was a lie. He didn’t like this. The… the unease, the inclinations to not do certain things was subtle enough that he could usually ignore it. He could treat his growing need for information as an unusual addiction, he could treat his general desire to not destroy the pages as an ominous but expected change in himself, but when it became physically hard to do things, that he hated. He hated the feeling of actually being controlled.

Then he remembered rubbing life into a recently paralysed hand and moving the pieces in place to sacrifice one man to send another to jail, fully convinced he was alone in his mind, and felt sick. Actually, no; knowing he was being controlled was better.

“You have to…” he clenched is teeth. This wasn’t going to work. He had to be more circumspect.

Not a command or a request. Just truth. Just share information. That might work.

“Those are pages from the book of ghosts,” he said slowly, trying to approach the issue from the side. This felt… weird, but was a lot easier. “The ghosts in them don’t want to exist. They’re not having a good experience. It’s painful, and it feels wrong for them.”

“You want me to destroy these.”

He nodded.

“How? It’s okay, I’ll figure it out!” she added hurriedly at the nausea that flashed across his face. “I can do it. You don’t need to worry about it any more.”

Martin nodded gratefully, and ran to the bathroom to throw up.

He was going to have to do that again, when he got more pages. Would he get away with asking her a second time? With handing them over? Had the Eye ‘learned’ from this not to…

No, no; the Eye wasn’t like that. He had to stop personifying these entitites. It didn’t have wants or motivations or plans, just an essential nature… but it sure felt like it did, when things like this happened. It felt like something out there with a malevolent intelligence was targeting him. Maybe it was; maybe the collective fear that human societies had wrapped up into this construct acted in ways that could be called intelligent, like an AI. Or, for that matter, like Mary.

It didn’t matter. Point was, he was going to end up with more pages; the last couple of pages he could read, at the very least. And he might be able to hand them off to Mary, or the part of him that didn’t want information destroyed might stop him. He’d have to deal with the issue when it came, like he’d have to find a way to read the other pages. They didn’t deserve to remain trapped in agony just because he couldn’t read them.

That was a later problem. For now, he had another page to read. He flipped to near the end of the book, found and English page, and got going. Martin wasn’t in the habit of peeking at the names ahead of time, so he was surprised to get to the end and read, “And then Gerard Keay ended.”

The man who appeared before him was basically what Martin had expected, from the statements. A 30-ish year old man with long hair that was probably black (it was difficult to tell, through the muted transparency of the ghosts, whether it was ‘poorly dyed’), clunky silver jewellery and a black shirt with a band name written on it in letter so spiky that Martin couldn’t read it. He looked entirely unsurprised to be summoned back into existence, although a little puzzled to see Martin.

“Are they dead, then?” he asked.

“Who?” Martin asked, although he already knew the answer. The two most common questions the ghosts opened with were ‘where am I?’ or ‘are they dead?’, which… said some depressing things about how most people treated them when using the book, Martin supposed.

“The hunters. Who had this book.”

“I don’t know. I, uh… it was delivered to us. At the Institute. We don’t know where it came from.”

“Breekon and Hope?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll want to watch out for that. Magnus Institute, I’m guessing?”

Martin nodded. “I’m Martin. I’m the Archivist.”

“When did she die?”

“A few years ago.”

“Was it peaceful?”

“No. It wasn’t.”

“Ha. Good. She’d have hated to go peacefully, I think.”

“She was shot in the chest three times by the head of the Institute while she tried to burn down the Archives.”

Gerard laughed at that. “Sound like Gertrude. Pyromaniac with a cause.”

“So you… you knew Gertrude, then?”

“Yeah. We worked together for a few years. Until…” he gestured broadly at himself.

“Right.” Martin swallowed. “Well, um. The reason I’ve called you is to ask you if there’s… if there’s anything else you’d like to say, and any last requests I might be able to fill. And whether… whether you want me to burn this.” He gestured at the page.

“Ah. A charitable necromancer.”

“I’m not a necromancer!”

“You’re literally summoning the dead and talking to them right now.”

“Okay, point.”

“What’s that awful racket?”

“Oh, Mary’s music? She’s uh, she’s trying to find new music she likes. This is called ska, I think?”

“It’s terrible.”

“Last week she was into opening intros for old sitcoms.”

“Ew. Okay; I’ve got a last request. Grab a pen. I need you to list some bands that you need to convince your housemate to listen to. Because this is a travesty.”

Martin did so. Once he had a short list of bands with weird names he’d never heard of, he looked up. “Anything else?”

“Nah. That’s it. I didn’t exactly leave a lot of loose ends when I died.” He chewed his lip. “You’ll be wanting my story, I guess. Being the Archivist and all.”

“Only if you want to,” Martin said, in a tone that couldn’t help implying that he definitely did.

“Yeah. It’ll be nice to be remembered by someone when I’m gone. So. To understand this, you’ve got to understand about my Mum…”

Chapter Text

One thing that Melanie had forgotten about the real world was the noise. There was a sense of everyone everywhere, of everything happening all at once, and with it, it brought noise; the sounds of people walking past Peter’s office, the… the sense that the building was full of others, and that horribly familiar feeling of being watched. Even just standing in the small room with Peter felt like being in a crowd. Even just staying present long enough to track what he was saying, being forced to live on a timescale compromised with another person to have a basic interaction, took so much effort.

“Obviously,” Peter was saying, “sending you back to the archives right away would be a bad idea. The last those people saw you, you separated one of them from his bodyguard and tried to kill him.”

“That won’t happen again.”

“I believe you, Melanie. But will they? Besides, how can you be sure? You saved the Archivist’s life the day before you decided to kill him. How do you know that won’t happen again?”

“The, the bullet’s gone now, so…”

“And that’s all it was, was it?”

Melanie didn’t have an answer for that.

“It might be prudent to give you a bit of time to adjust. And give them a bit of time to adjust, too, don’t you think?”

“Y-yeah.”

“Wonderful. I’m sure we can find something else to occupy your time. Tell me, how much do you know about computers?”

---------------------



“And now I’m dead.” Gerard shrugged. “Funny how things work out, I guess.”

“Do you think Gertrude knew? About the cancer?”

“No. No; even she wouldn’t have – she wouldn’t have. She mustn’t have known.”

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right,” Martin lied. “Did she ever just, um, know things? Without having to find them out?”

“Dunno. She never mentioned anything like that, but she never really talked about Archivist stuff. The whole thing made her uncomfortable, I think. She could make people tell her stuff, sometimes.”

“Only sometimes? Did the power not always work?”

“I don’t know? She didn’t like doing it. Tried to avoid it when she could. She always said that using powers you didn’t understand came with a price, and if they seemed cheap it just meant you hadn’t noticed the cost.”

Martin nodded. Ominous, that. Maybe he should be slowing down; using his powers and taking statements as little as possible. Try to stunt his growth. Did it even work like that? He wished he knew more about all this.

“I should… probably watch out for that,” Martin said.

Gerard shrugged. “Maybe. I never pledged myself to any power and I still ended up here in my thirties, so maybe it doesn’t matter.”

“You were covered in eye tattoos. I have a description of it in the statements.”

“Oh, right.” Gerard laughed. “That little turf war. Just a bit of extra protection. Better than being burned to ash, let me tell you.” He looked at his own semi-translucent hands. The tiny eyes that Lesere Saraki had described weren’t visible to Martin in Gerard’s current form; it was hard to pick out minute details in the ghosts.

“There’s one thing I don’t get,” Martin said. “Why did Gertrude to this to you? The people I’ve spoken to in here don’t make it seem, um…”

“Pleasant?”

“Yeah.”

“Heh. I’ve been wondering that for years. I figured at first she might still need me for something; the Unknowing, probably. But she left me behind, so…” he shrugged. “Has that happened yet, by the way?”

“Yeah. We let them get going and blew it up with a bunch of C4.”

“Ha! Very Gertrude move. Maybe being the Archivist makes someone a pyromaniac. Well. You didn’t need me, so I honestly don’t know why she did this.”

“Maybe for this reason? I mean, this book was sent to us. Maybe she thought you had some important information for the next Archivist, which she couldn’t give since she’s, you know. Dead.”

He shrugged. “If so, she never told me what it was. Anyway, I’ve been in the hand of a pair of obsessive hunters, and I doubt they were part of Gertrude’s book delivery plan. Meaning this has to be someone else’s scheme.”

“Any idea whose?”

“None. All my life, this was my Mum’s book, then Gertrude’s after she told me she could get rid of my Mum. I didn’t know Mum had taught her how to use the book, until…” he gestured at himself. “But whatever. If anyone else had designs on it, it was after my death, so I can’t really tell you anything about it. If you can find out who got it off the hunters, that’d probably give you your answer, but I don’t know how you’d do that.”

“Do you know their names?”

“Trevor and Julia. One of them has the surname ‘Montauk,’ but I don’t know which one.”

“Wait, Julia Montauk? The serial killer’s daughter?”

Gerard shrugged.

“That might be something. We have a statement from her. Although they’re both common names, so… guess you didn’t like them much, huh?”

“You try being a monster manual for a couple of killer hobos for a few years. Whatever the person who stole this book did to them to get it, I don’t feel bad for them. They’re not in here, are they?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve been through most of the pages written in English and haven’t found anyone like that.”

“Well if they are in here, they deserve it.”

“I still can’t believe that Gertrude did this to you.”

“If you’d ever met her, you’d believe it. It was all about the work with her, just like Mum. I mean, it’s hard to argue with someone over that when the world is saving the entire world, but it did make it kind of hard to trust her. Sacrificing other people for the greater good was kind of her go-to move, when fire wasn’t an option.”

“She sacrificed a lot of people?”

“Let’s just say that she ran out of assistants long before I came on the scene. She’d talk about them sometimes. Not often; she wasn’t the kind of person to talk about the past much. But when you got her in the right mood. She lost one of them stopping the Spiral’s ritual; I don’t know how but I think it was her fault. Burned another one alive after they got corrupted by the Spider, but I don’t know if that was ritual-related. She was never much for giving details, but let’s just say I wasn’t completely surprised to wake up in here.”

So the Spiral’s ritual had been stopped. Good to know. “Oh, the rituals! Do you know what other rituals she stopped? We know about the Flesh and the Buried, and the Spiral now, I guess; the Desolation lost their power with Agnes and we blew up the Unknowing, and stopped the Corruption a few years back. And apparently the Slaughter was decades ago. Did Gertrude stop any others?”

Gerard shrugged. “Couldn’t help you there. She was always focused on the future. Planning for the Unknowing, for most of the time I was with her. She also said she had something for the Watcher’s Crown – you know, the Eye’s ritual – but she never explained what.”

“So we do have a ritual coming up,” Martin said, heart sinking.

“Guess so. You gonna help end the world?”

“No! I just… don’t know how to stop it. I work for a manipulative mind reader who can see whatever he wants at any time. He’s said Gertrude got good at hiding things from him, but I don’t know how to do that.”

“Hmm. The Dark helps, I think. The Stranger or the Spiral can confuse the Eye, of the practitioner’s not experienced or strong enough, but the Dark’s a straight-up blind spot. If you can make allies there, that’ll probably help.”

“The People’s Church are pretty weak right now. We think their ritual failed recently and killed a lot of them, but we’re not certain.”

“Hmm. Pity. About them being weak, I mean. Might be hard for them to help.”

“It’s a bit of a blessing, since due to some complicated coincidences involving some of my friends they think we’ve allied with a Desolation cult to wipe them out.”

“That’s unfortunate. Are you allied with a Desolation cult?”

“No. Said friends are in the sewers working on wiping that cult out right now.”

“… Huh. Things have become pretty dramatic since I’ve been gone, huh?”

“They’re not completely out of control, but…”

“They sound pretty out of control.”

“I mean, yeah, they’re not in my control, exactly. But we’re surviving. She only talked about the Unknowing and the watcher’s Crown? Wasn’t working against any other rituals?”

“Not that I know of.”

Hmm. That might mean the world was safe. Well, except from the Eye, which… maybe he should’ve just let Melanie kill Elias. They’d all die, but the world would be safe.

Which ones were they still on the lookout for? The Vast, the Lonely, the Web, the End, and the Hunt. Better tick them off the list for certain before doing anything… extreme. Maybe Martin should visit Elias in prison and force him to tell about his ritual.

“Anything else you need?” Gerry asked.

“No. No, I think that’s about it. Except for… do you want me to burn this? Or would you rather stick around? I assume you at least want to find out why Gertrude bound you to – ”

“No. I’m done living on Gertrude’s terms, or my mum’s. I’m… I’m done, I think. Burn it.”

“Right. Okay.”

“And for everyone’s sake, give that list of bands to your housemate! This music is embarrassing.”

Martin laughed. “I will.”

“’Bye, Martin. Good luck saving the world.”

“Goodbye, Gerard.”

“Gerry.”

“What?”

“I always… wanted my friends to call me Gerry.”

“Goodbye Gerry. Uh… I dismiss you.”

Gerry left, and Martin carefully cut his page out of the book. He set it aside. Already, his debt to the ghosts was mounting again… he probably should’ve done this before handing the pages over to Mary. Could he just slide this one under her door? Would that be hard for him to do?

No; he should find the strength to do this one himself, somehow. He needed to be able to do this sort of thing himself; he couldn’t let the Eye win. And Gerry, who’d spent a lifetime as a pawn for his mother and then a pawn for Gertrude, and then an afterlife as a pawn for hunters… a no-strings-attached death was something that Martin should be able to give him, without handing the job off to someone else. He’d do it himself, tomorrow. Now, it was time for bed.

Well, now it was time to give Mary Gerry’s list. Then it was time for bed. Martin would tolerate a lot from a housemate, but he drew the line at having to fall asleep to ska music.