She stumbled into the indicated meeting room for the Classics’ interview briefing with, according to her watch, thirty seconds to spare before she was late. The walk back to Canaan College had been dizzying, her mind whirling and relit even as Gideon complained at her that she should eat, that she was hurting herself.
The Bodleian - the strange teaching assistant had said that they would need Bodleian access, and not to open locked doors without ‘permission’, whatever that meant. But I already have at least one key, and isn’t a key in and of itself permission? The hubbub of the children around her was a grating thicket, but she forced her mind through it - the Bodleian would be closed by the time the meeting here finished, and she’d need to gain access with magic if she wanted to get started there tonight. Map out what I can of the place, see if I can find any of these locked doors, or indicators as to whether the Bodleian is the only location to look in - a professor was starting to speak, greeting them, but she couldn’t hear him - what are they looking for from us, what can I show I know.
Her mind was still so focused on what she would do that evening that it took her a few seconds to notice someone had slumped into the chair next to her. Not Gideon - Gideon had been sent back to their room to await her -
She looked over to glare at them and after a moment’s pause recognised the oily sensation on her skin and vibrant purple of the pale twin.
“Oh don’t look so alarmed.” She spoke quietly, but her voice was still thin, sneering, piercing. “I do actually have a reason to be here beyond you.”
Harrow blinked, sluggishly, trying to turn the ringing in her head into coherent thought. The rush of mental energy now seemed like a rut, the wheels of her mind spinning on thoughts and plans of the library and not the threat next to her.
“I’m one of the graduates meant to supervise the interviews, make notes for the proffs. Student helper and all that. Show you poor bastards around before you get kicked out.” Those bloodless lips stretched into something that might have been a smile. “Gods and kings but you look awful, don’t you? How big a lie did you tell to get into that state, hmm?”
Danger. One of the other professors was talking now, a woman with odd pinkish-yellow hair, coloured like the fuzz of a peach. The adrenaline of what the twin had said hit a second later, clarifying her, and Harrow’s eyes settled on that smirk.
Lowly, slowly, she said, “You are walking down a dangerous path.”
Her shrug was a wide, sweeping motion of thin shoulders and arms, one long hand coming uncomfortably into Harrow’s space accompanied by a fatty prickle of sensation on her upper lip. “Maybe. I’m Ianthe, by the by. Will you give me your name?”
Harrow could have laughed at how simple a ploy that was. ‘Give’ your name to a practitioner associating with a high court fae? “I could tell it to you.”
Another thin smirk. “It was worth a shot, you have to admit.”
Harrow tried to focus back in on the professors and ignore the woman beside her. Which was hard, given the oleaginous aura she produced and the sheer stretched volume of space she seemed to occupy in the right of Harrow’s vision, all butter-white skin and purple.
“So what is your name? I’m going to guess something distressingly gothic. Not that Ianthe is much better. Then again, it is quite apropos for a student of Classics.”
“Why are you - ” Harrow struggled to find a word to sum up the sheer, mind halting irritation that this person gave her. Like Gideon. “Why are you bothering me?”
“Because - if you’ll forgive the pop culture references - I think you and I are the only ones who realise that this isn’t Harry Potter; it’s the Hunger Games.” Harrow had no idea what the fuck that meant, and it must have showed on her expression because Ianthe - if that was her name - rolled her pale eyes dramatically. “Oh you sheltered little nitwit. I’m offering an alliance against the others.”
Something in Harrow’s mind screeched to a halt, the cogs grinding against each other and clattering off their spokes in sparking wheels of outrage. She wanted to call Gideon to her - have her devour this woman - she dared -
“Do you think I am so weak,” she managed to say through gritted teeth before one of those long, hideous hands waved her to silence.
“The opposite. You’re one of the few with any sense, and obviously we’d be trying to backstab each other. I mean, I know you left early to get here on time, but I could see your… interest, your plans forming around you while the others sat and chatted.” Her smile showed a hint of pale teeth behind the soft bruise of her lips. “Come on. Don’t you want to play Katniss to my… whatever that large violent idiot was called? If you’re really lucky, maybe I’ll die and become a hideous mutant hound.”
Well you’re already a bitch, spat a part of Harrow’s mind that sounded alarmingly like Gideon. “No.”
Ianthe clicked her tongue. “How rude of you. And without even giving me your name - sorry, telling me your name - first. You’re like a tiny victorian puppy, aren’t you?”
“I know things you may not even begin to comprehend, you margarine-haired simpleton.” Harrow’s hands clawed at her skirt, her voice a low hiss. “I could set such terrors on you that others would weep at the sight of your corpse if they could even remember you existed long enough to witness it. I could cause you such dreams - ”
“Yes, yes, you’re very spooky, I’m sure. You haven’t heard what happens if you don’t agree to my deal, however.”
She couldn’t even come up with a coherent response to that that didn’t involve fire and fury and magic that didn’t work on humans. She settled for a snarl so wide it was almost a smile, teeth and gums exposed. “Threatening me is a poor idea.”
“I’m not threatening you! Well, only a little. Blackmail is just being polite, really.” The look the hideous beast gave Harrow was indecipherable. “God you’re young, aren’t you? Anyway, you’ll know when I actually threaten you. This is me politely suggesting working together until one of us stabs the other in the back, or…” The smile tilted into a smirk as she leant distractingly forward, close to Harrow - she wanted to back away but she was frozen in her chair - “Or I tell everyone that that carrot-topped whatever-it-is you’re lugging around isn’t your familiar.”
Blank. That’s what she felt, blank. Only a few hours in, and already the worst case scenario, her deception discovered. From there - how to dispose of this one, she didn’t know about the diablerie but sharing her suspicions with others - especially if the fucking knight of St Lazarus was in earshot, fuck! - she could agree and then backstab her - Gideon had all sorts of methods of disposing of the body, or rendering a practitioner such that they were - and if she had noticed, had anyone else -
“Oh do stop panicking. Honestly, I don’t really care why the damn thing isn’t your familiar. You’ve certainly got a strong enough foundational bond.” Ianthe twisted her fingers like she was pulling thread, and Harrow felt her attention snap back to the woman beside her, like something yanked on a fish-hook buried under her navel. “It’s one of my specialities, spotting things like that. You couldn’t have known, though I have no idea what you think you’re doing applying for a course entirely based on work with familiars without an actual familiar.” She splayed her fingers and Harrow looked closer, seeing the threads she spun and spooled. Bonds, relationships, ties that link people - the kind of thing I made the ward around my room to prevent forming while I was inside it.
But then Harrow had lied in that space. And the forces within had - oh, this was her fuckup. That made it. More familiar.
The spider loosed its grip on the thread and smiled at Harrow politely. “Don’t give me an answer yet. You’re completely wrecked at the moment, barely human at all. And I don’t just mean spiritually.” One long hand patted at Harrow’s cheek. “Oh, and the meeting’s over, by the by.” She unfolded herself from the chair, smiled as Harrow looked around to find the room empty. How long - ?
She stumbled to her feet herself, ran from the room. Over her shoulder she heard, “We’ll speak tomorrow, Harrowhark,” and it wasn’t until she got halfway to her assigned room that she realised she had no idea how Ianthe knew her name.
One hundred wasn’t an inherently magical number. It had some level of symbolic significance, but only due to its cultural status. A representative of extreme liminality. You have passed from two digits into three. It contained two zeroes in its common written form, a broken infinity. But it wasn’t really magically important.
Perhaps that was why the hundredth time Harrowhark met Gideon, her Griddle, was so… mundane. She’d recently passed her own digit-increasing liminality, and was now ten.
Ten years. She’d existed for ten years. More, counting her time inside her mother. And what was it worth, in the end? The price that had been paid for her? Her existence was crushing, screaming debt against the world. A debt she increased with every bite of food, every sip of water, every thread of cloth. And that was before considering the weight of being a diabolist. Of knowing, each time you called forth a true demon, that you were carving scars on the flesh of existence itself.
Griddle found her in the study, with her knees curled to her chest in one of the armchairs.
It wasn’t even a day where the hollowness inside her chest made sense. She hadn’t failed at anything recently. She had reread The Black Sheep and quelled the part of her heart that hated diablerie. But it was a day that from the moment of waking had been heavy, a weight pressing down and splintering her bones. A greyness that prevented working, that left her staring at mathematics and languages and thinking I wish I could just sleep until there is no more left in me.
So looking up from the book she couldn’t focus on to read to see Gideon frowning at her was - her mind chorused, of course, and, the day is now complete as for ill, and, this malaise now has cause.
“You,” she sneered.
“Sup,” said Gideon. “Wow, that book looks incredibly boring. But also somehow stupendously evil. So a good fit.”
Gideon being here was dangerous - she hadn’t been called at all, or bound. Just showed up. Harrowhark knew the correct response would be to begin a banishment, or a binding. She’d even started carrying around appropriate materials to bind a being from the Choir of Madness (because honestly, what other kind of demon could Gideon be?) in case she needed them. An unbound demon could cause tremendous damage, and Gideon was strong - already Harrow could feel the universe breaking around her, in little ways, as the environment shifted to accommodate a being it couldn’t possibly contain.
Instead, Harrow snapped the book shut. “Griddle. How your voice fills me with apoplexy.”
“You’re too tiny and boney to be full of anything. And don’t call me that.”
The rage was a trembling, exhilarating rush that brought sensation back into her limbs. The tips of her fingers shook as they brushed the thick, white leather cover of the book as Harrowhark carefully sat it aside, and looked up at her demon. “Is there a reason for you to be bothering me on an otherwise pleasant afternoon? Or are you simply here to derange the study.”
A stack of books behind Griddle had turned to comics and manuscripts about swordplay between cartoonishly improbable looking women. “I mean, that’s reason enough to show up. Pissing you off is always a lark.” Cold flagstone was spreading from the demon’s feet through the carpet like ink. “... hey, Nonagesimus, are you sure you’re alright? You look a bit - ”
“Well, I was fine until you arrived, of course. Why wouldn’t I be? When you’re here, you’re irritating.” Her heart was thudding with the danger of it. I am baiting a demon with no protection. It could end here. It could all end here. It could be over and done. She tilted her head and tried to look playful. “When you’re not - well, I barely remember you at all.”
Gideon’s face set, and she came at Harrow, fast and unstoppable and glorious. And Harrowhark answered in kind.
“Wow, Nonagesimus, you look fucking awful,” were the words that greeted her as she slid into the room, still lit in dim hues of yellow and orange. Some sort of bag-chair had manifested from Gideon and she was perched on it, a stack of comics on her lap that she tossed over her shoulder to evaporate into nothingness. “Was the meeting about prepositions or whatever that bad?”
“Be silent.” Harrow definitely knelt down on the floor at that point not because her feet and legs were trembling and screaming, but to check the integrity of the special masking tape circle she’d laid around the room. If her lie had breached it she needed to know.
“Seriously, Harrow. I’m going to re-iterate that I’m meant to look after your physical health. You have only eaten dry toast today. And you’re… fiddling with your suitcase like you’re not planning on staying here.”
“I have work to do Gideon.” Work that was even more vital after the threats from the Ianthe woman. Did she have a last name? Could Harrow find an efficient way to block her that wouldn’t involve obvious diablerie? Or get ahead of the news somehow, imply Gideon was a decoy and she had a different familiar somewhere - she needed to do research, and she needed to map the Bodleian, and never had two goals been so serendipitously tied together. Her body’s screams were just weakness. It’s not like I’m a real person anyway. “Not that it’s likely you’d understand the concept of work. Given your laziness and demonic nature.”
“Fuck you, I work very hard to make sure this muscle’s 100% natural.”
“Nothing about you is natural.” Harrow hissed. Thumb to the ridge of her lacrimal bone, pressing against the building something inside. She just needed to get her books and get out of there. Without Gideon trying anything to get her to eat, and maybe without Gideon at all given how easily her stupid deception had been uncovered.
“Well it’s not like I have anything else to do around here when you’re gone.” Gideon’s foot shifted into view. “Is this about the magic people meeting thing? Cause I got some weird vibes from it, and - I dunno, maybe you were looking forward to giving a thirty minute lecture to Dr. DemonFace about the importance of proper bone magic or something.”
“Griddle.” She was overemphasising her words, she could feel it on her tongue, dry and heavy. Her body felt light and weighty all at once, shivers sliding down the sweat on her spine.
“Or if like - the other candidates were scary magic people. There was that thing with the arms, and douchebag whiteclean in the corner, and you really lost it about that dog for some reason - ”
Harrow almost laughed. “That thing was not a dog, Gideon.”
“Yeah, somehow I figured that out when it spoke.” Gideon’s horrible face, frowning, smile something so soft it felt like sandpaper on Harrow’s skin, as she knelt beside her. “Seriously. You’re going to kick their ass at this weird treasure hunt or whatever it is. But only if you get some damn food and - were you even planning on sleeping?”
“And some sleep, for fuck’s sake.”
“No, you - ” Words swelled in her throat and she couldn’t force them out. “No, you.”
“No, no me. I don’t need to sleep, you doofus.” Gideon’s face set and then - a surge of motion, Harrow trying to get her hands in position before they were pinned, trying to yelp -
“Put me down!”
“No.” Gideon approached the bed and hissed as the barrier stopped her. Surely she’d put her down now - wait, what was -
Harrow gave an entirely reasonable and dignified noise that was not a yelp as Gideon - the idiot, the utter, brainless, over-muscled simpleton - hurled her the two foot distance to the bed. It screeched and creaked under her as she rolled upright and glared. “Griddle.”
Gideon folded her arms on the other side of the barrier. “I can throw you back onto that bed all night.”
Harrow ignored the rush of something she felt at that and stood up off the bed, frowning as Gideon moved to match her. “I’m not going to be able to sleep if you’re looming over me.”
“Harrow, in this room I’m always going to be - ” She blinked, paused. “Harrow. Were you planning on sleeping at all while you were up in Oxford?”
“I - ” Harrow frowned. She couldn’t afford a half truth. “I hadn’t made specific plans for sleeping, no.”
“What the fuck.”
“It’s a waste of time.”
“It’s literally necessary for humans to survive, you utter - you mad, pruned up - ” Gideon took a deep, unnecessary breath through her nose. “Fine. You don’t want to go to sleep. Okay.”
“Finally you understand.” Harrow shifted sideways to move past Gideon, and was blocked again. “Get out of my way, Griddle.”
“I’m not going to say make me, because you absolutely will, you evil ghoul. How about a deal, then?”
“I’m not making another - ”
“This is part of my previous deal with you because physical safety. You stay in bed and rest. I’ll get some food for you. As soon as I’ve got you the food, you can fuck off and get us both severely injured in that library you desperately want to get to. Alright?”
There were still options. She could move Gideon aside with force. But then she would respond in kind, and what little reserves of energy she had left would be wasted on this - oh, she wanted to fight Gideon so badly, it would be so good for her soul, but she didn’t have the time right now. Acquiescing would likely lead to Gideon insisting on accompanying her to the Bodleian, which could prove useful, but would also likely be a distraction and slow her down immensely while she explained obvious things to the idiot demon.
Harrow gritted her teeth. “I need remain in bed only while you get me food?”
“That’s the offer I’m making. I won’t be more than half an hour.”
She resisted the urge to cast a nasty punishment evocation right into that smirking face. Griddle probably thinks I’m so exhausted I’ll be asleep by then and she can either let me slumber or rouse me loudly and rudely. She wasn’t sure which option was worse. “Then. When you return with food to this room, I will be within the bed.”
“Too narrow, even I can see the holes in it.”
Harrow made a face like she’d been caught. Which she technically had been - if Gideon had accepted this iteration things would be easier. “While you retrieve me sustenance, my hair shall not leave the bed nor shall my head cleave from the pillowcase.” She hurled herself a little dramatically onto the bed, pressed her ear against the pillow. “Is that suitable?”
Gideon frowned. “I’d better not come back and find you bald.”
“I have no appropriate incinerator to dispose of that much hair. I won’t shave my head until I have such a thing.”
Her eyes gleamed gold behind the stupid sunglasses. “... fine. Okay. I’m setting off now. Don’t do anything stupid, Nonagesimus.”
Harrow waited thirty long seconds until after Gideon’s footsteps had clattered away down the stairs, then sprung into action. Removing a pillow from a pillowcase without taking your head off it proved to be challenging, but doable - she plucked a single hair from her head and placed it under the pillow, then tied the case tightly around her neck and the back of her skull. She likely looked an utter buffoon, but it was necessary.
As long as there were threats like Ianthe, or anything the others might be capable of - the hound and its fisher queen mistress - she needed to get to work.