Part of the reasons that magicians’ summoning circles were so powerful was that every group of magicians had a summoning circle built of huge, powerful stones. Every circle they made was a reflection of that one, and if the whole Obsidian Circle was really coming to London, they would have to bring their chunks of obsidian with them. Nick couldn’t imagine how any charm of Mum’s could have enough power to justify risking the circle the magicians were named after.
The Obsidian Circle was more committed to hunting them than he had dreamed.
“They’re coming in full force,” Nick continued. “They’re hunting us. How are we supposed to hunt them?”
Alan was as pale as he’d been when the messenger came, but he looked calm, and when he answered his voice was thoughtful.
“If Black Arthur is hunting us, his magicians should be easy to find.”
“And what’s to stop him getting to Mum while we go after his people?”
Nick would have sacrificed Mum to save Alan, every time. That wasn’t what was bothering him.
This was…all wrong. Less than a fortnight ago, Alan had said that no matter what he had to do, he would make Black Arthur pay, and now it looked as though he wanted to play right into Black Arthur’s hands. He should have suggested sending Mum away. He should be telling Nick his plans. He should stop hiding things from Nick!
“I have a plan,” said Alan, and did not say what it was.
Nick did not ask. He started to and then stopped, as it occurred to him that his brother might actually lie.
It had always been a comfort to him that Alan could lie so well. Nick could not do it; the world was complicated enough without making up another world of words that weren’t even true. He had always assumed that Alan never lied to him, and now the idea that Alan might lie, might already be lying, was like being asked to read in school. He felt panicked, not knowing what to say. He had a picture of words stacked up around him, caging him in, and not one of them could he trust.
He stood silent, feeling like an animal held at bay. Mae and Jamie were staring at him, their eyes traveling over his ripped and bloodstained clothes.
His brother looked sad and kind, but then, Alan never looked kinder than when he was lying to someone. “Will you just do what I ask you to for now, Nick?”
Nick remembered that hidden photograph, those hidden letters, and now this secret plan. He thought of Christmas in the dark, and Alan coming back, opening the door with the light behind him.
“Do I have any other choice?” he growled.
Alan nodded at him, and then let his gaze drop. The shallow gashes Liannan’s icicles had left in Nick’s shoulders stung, and his mouth ached with cold. He suddenly felt very tired. He’d done what he could, and he had no idea what Alan was doing.
He’d carry out Alan’s little plan, even if he was in the dark. This was his brother. He had no one else.
“So — can we stay?” asked Jamie tentatively, as if this was a visit instead of an invasion.
“Stay if you like,” Nick snarled, too tired to argue. He strode past them to the stairs, pulling off his bloody shirt as he went, and threw a warning over his shoulder. “Just make sure you keep away from me.”
NICK WAS NOT USED TO LIVING WITH ANYONE BUT ALAN. Mum hardly counted, since it was best if she never saw Nick.
He didn’t like it, even though Mae and Jamie proved to be quite useful. They were willing to pore over Alan’s books and scrolls for hours, trying to get information about the Obsidian Circle. They tried to memorize the few pictures of Obsidian Circle magicians that Alan had drawn from descriptions he’d been able to get from Market people. They chipped in for groceries, and Jamie honestly tried to help with the cooking. Alan offered to give up his own room to them, but Nick insisted that they take his instead. He wanted Alan to keep the bookcase.
Sharing a room was fine by Nick. The second mark meant that demons could send Alan dreams every night. Nick had to watch and wake Alan if he seemed restless.
The cloud of Black Arthur and his message hung over their house. He was coming for their mother, and their mother knew it.
There were small magical incidents throughout the house these days, lights unexpectedly coming on and strange noises. Alan said that it meant Mum was scared, but Nick didn’t care. He didn’t need these reminders of his magician mother everywhere in the house; the magic felt like another intruder.
Alan liked the human intrusions. Both of them.
Alan liked reading books with Mae, and he loved that she wanted to learn the Greek alphabet. He fancied her, Nick could understand that, and if it hadn’t been for Nick’s uneasiness about what idiot thing his brother might do next, he might have been all right with that. But Alan seemed to like having Jamie around too.
He and Jamie watched television and listened to music together, and Alan was trying to teach him the difference between cooking things and burning them.
Nick was not sure why that bothered him, and then he realized that if Alan was this ready to welcome strangers into their home, he must be very lonely.
Nick had no idea what to do about that. He just wanted them to go away.
“Won’t your parents be wanting you back?” he asked when he came home from school on the third day, slinging down his bag and pulling his horrible tie over his head.
Jamie, who was attempting chips and something that looked like French toast, gave Nick a slightly apprehensive glance as usual.
“Well,” he said cautiously, “they don’t know we’re gone.”
Nick strode over to the fridge, grabbed the milk, and took a swig. Alan would have seriously objected to him drinking out of the carton, but Jamie just kept watching him warily, as if he thought he might have to dodge at any moment.
“How did you pull that one off? If you have an evil twin, you should send him over,” Nick said, leaning against the fridge. “I might like him.”
Jamie’s face closed down in what Nick could tell was a trained performance, telling a story he’d had to tell a lot and pretending he didn’t care. Nick didn’t lie, but he’d learned to recognize the signs of lies in others. The world was filled with clumsy liars, amateurs who didn’t realize how they looked to other people and didn’t work to perfect the act.
Nick could always tell, except with Alan.
“Our parents are divorced,” Jamie said with false airiness. “They split up about seven years ago, but it took a while for the divorce to come through. They’re both…society types; they have a lot of money and it was all tangled up. It was a pretty acrimonious divorce. They both wanted most of the assets and less time with the kids.”
Jamie tried to smile. Apparently he made jokes when he was upset as well as when he was afraid. Nick just stared at him, and after a moment Jamie started talking again.
“Mum got the house, Dad got the holiday home, and they got joint custody. They both thought they got ripped off. It’s easy enough to call them and say you’re spending extra time with the other one. They can’t check. They don’t talk, and anyway — they’re glad to be rid of us. Even if they did find out we were gone, they’d think Mae took me to one of the raves she sneaks off to sometimes. So.”
So that explained some things. It explained why the demon had gone for Jamie in the first place. The magicians didn’t dare let the demons out often or at random, since secrecy was as important to them as it was to the Market. Demons had to choose victims who were alone and unprotected, whose disappearance would not be noticed soon, and parents usually noticed rather quickly if a child disappeared or turned up possessed. Not these parents, obviously.
It explained Mae’s rebellion, created to punish her parents or get their attention, and explained the way Jamie was, caught young in the middle of a domestic war, just trying to stay out of trouble. Look how well that had worked out for him.
Nick could understand it, but he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond to it.
“So the magicians knew you wouldn’t be missed,” he said.
That didn’t seem to be right. Jamie went very white.
“I suppose they might think that,” he said. “Mum’s very busy, and I don’t think being a single parent is the type of life she had planned. I don’t think we’re the type of kids she wanted. She never means to be unkind.”
When Mum was in her screaming fits, she sometimes hit out. Alan had gotten black eyes that way. Mum never meant to hurt him, but there it was.
“What is that?” Nick asked abruptly, staring at the pan.
“I don’t know,” Jamie answered, stirring the unidentifiable mass with a helpless air. “It was meant to be omelets.”
“I thought it was French toast.”
“It sort of looks like brains,” Jamie remarked sadly.
They both regarded the pan for a moment, and then Nick came to a decision.
“All right, push over. I can fix this. You go grate some cheese.”
Jamie squinted up at him. “You’re going to fix this?” he repeated, and looked extremely doubtful.
“Yes,” Nick said. “All this and I can cook, too. Get out of my way.”
He pushed Jamie aside, lightly enough because Jamie was so little that a rough push from Nick might have sent him through the window. Jamie still looked unsure, but he went over to the fridge and got some cheese in an obvious effort to look willing.
“Can I ask you something?” he asked.
Nick looked up from chopping onions. “In the sense that I won’t stop you with actual violence,” he said in a guarded voice, “yes.”
“What do magicians want?”
“And why would you ask me that?” Nick said, and watched Jamie flinch at his tone. “I’m not a magician.”
He refused to think of Mum and how like her he was. He glared at Jamie and was amazed when Jamie did not look away.
“I–I didn’t think you were,” Jamie said, obviously lying. “I just meant — they kill all these people. Why do they do that? What could possibly be worth that?”
It was clear he thought that Nick had some kind of dark insight into a magician’s psyche. Nick wondered why he didn’t just go to Mum if he was so curious, but it wouldn’t do any real harm to answer him.
“Power,” he said. “As I understand it, just using the power makes you want more. It’s a rush; it’s addictive, and it’s not just that. Once you have enough power, you can have anything you want. Some magicians are successful politicians. Some are actors. Some are completely normal people, people you see at the bank and the post office, who just happen to have the ability to change shape or control the weather. Some magicians are rich, some are famous, some are stupidly good-looking.”
Jamie gave Nick a rather complicated look.
Nick raised an eyebrow. “Some of us manage to be stupidly good-looking on our own.”
“Er,” said Jamie, and cut himself on the cheese grater.
“I have changed my mind,” Nick announced. “You can help cook by standing in a corner and not touching anything. Do it carefully.”
He said it without heat. The omelets were starting to resemble omelets, and he hoped the subject of magicians was closed. Most conversations he had with people from school went a lot worse than this.
Jamie was quiet, fidgeting with an oven glove on the countertop.
“Don’t hurt yourself with that,” Nick advised.
Jamie grinned. “Okay.” He kept fidgeting while Nick went to the fridge for some peppers, and then asked suddenly, “So — where’s your dad?”
Nick slammed the fridge door. “He died.”
“Oh.” Now Jamie had the look of a deer caught in the headlights, who for some reason was feeling really sad for the car. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”