“Look,” Nick snapped. “I told you, I know everything. Stop playing games. I know that Alan isn’t my brother. I know what you’re capable of, and I know what I’m capable of. I know who I am.” He took a deep breath. “I know you’re my father.”
There was a long silence. Everyone had drawn in their breath, and there was nothing in the room but dead air. Nick could not look away from Arthur’s face. Black Arthur looked surprised, but after a moment he threw back his head and laughed.
“That’s what you know?” he asked. “And why would it matter to you who the father is?”
Nick stared. “What?”
“Why would you care who the father of the body is?” Arthur asked, eyes glittering and lingering on Nick’s face. “What does it matter? The body’s just a puppet. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it.”
The room was all shadows as the sun began its long descent, the windows full of grayness. Nick felt for an instant as if they were poised on the brink of a much colder world and perhaps had already started to fall. He looked at his hands in the slanting yellow rays shed by the lamps and saw the chalked lines of the circle below. He remembered the House of Mezentius, and a possessed man trapped in a circle just like this one.
“You are a demon I called into my son,” murmured Black Arthur. “You never had a father or a brother. You never had a heart.”
His gaze stroked possessively up and down Nick, and Nick finally understood why Black Arthur looked at him the way he did. He was not staring at a son. He was staring at an object, one that he had created and wanted to use.
Nick knew what he meant to Black Arthur now.
Arthur smiled again, slow, brilliant, and terribly amused.
“Did you really think you were human?”
“I — YOU’RE LYING,” NICK SAID. “YOU’RE LYING. DEMONS CAN’T live in the world that long. The bodies don’t last.”
There was a clock somewhere in this room, cutting time to pieces with a sharp knife. Nick hadn’t heard it before, hadn’t been aware of time passing until now. He needed Arthur to speak immediately and tell him that it was all a lie.
“Of course that’s true,” Arthur said thoughtfully. “That was always the problem. You give a body to a demon and a few weeks later, it’s all worn out and you’re back exactly where you started. I found that most annoying and so, of course, did the demons.”
The demons, thought Nick, and looked over at Anzu. Anzu was already looking at him with a mocking smile, dark wings outlined against the flame. He was a sinister figure, even in this room full of magic, and Nick stared into his night-dark eyes and knew it could not be true.
Then he wondered why Anzu had black eyes, when usually demons had eyes that were water-clear. Demons had black eyes only when they were possessing human bodies. Thomas in the House of Mezentius, and the dead woman in this house, both had black eyes. Nick knew that the possessed had black eyes, had always known that, and he had looked into the mirror a thousand times and never put it together.
Anzu’s eyes were a message.
Nick looked at his father’s eyes, and then looked at his mother’s, and saw nothing but blue, blue, blue. Nick’s own eyes were an endless, cold black.
“The problem with the bodies was that the souls were always in there fighting. The soul and the demon tear the body to pieces, like two dogs fighting over the same bone,” Arthur said. “I knew there had to be a way around that. Have you ever heard the superstition that a child’s soul enters its body with its first breath?”
Nick looked away from him and found he could not look at Alan. He looked at Mae and Jamie instead, standing behind Alan, and saw that Mae’s face wore an expression of horrified disbelief. When she met Nick’s eyes, she flinched.
Jamie looked upset, but he did not look surprised. Nick recalled Jamie saying that Nick reminded him of someone. Of course. He should have remembered that Jamie had looked into a demon’s face before.
He wrenched his eyes away.
“The demons only grant us so much power because we can only grant them so much time in this world,” Arthur went on, as if telling his son a bedtime story. “I knew that if I could give a demon a lifetime, the power I received would be unimaginable. I knew it was worth any sacrifice.”
Nick’s mother, the sacrifice, seemed unmoved. She was still staring at the floor and playing with her charms. Nick was surprised to see a shimmer of power running through the chains.
“I started to collect pregnant women,” Arthur said calmly. “I had them taken and kept here, but you cannot understand how difficult it is to open a way from the demon world inside a woman’s body. Too many of the women became possessed and died. I had to invent a charm to keep them safe from possession.”
Mum twirled the charm Arthur had kissed around one finger, and this time Nick saw a symbol on the silver disc as it whirled and caught the light. It was the symbol of a circle with a line straight through it, the meaning clear. It marked Mum as forbidden territory to the demons.
“The women kept dying,” Arthur said. “Opening their bodies to the demon world gave them terrible dreams. They went mad. They got sick. None of them survived to give birth. It was then that Livia became pregnant, and I realized what I had to do. I knew how strong she was.”
Nick remembered the days when Mum screamed all the time, her eyes fixed on something far away, something nobody else could see. He knew every line of pain on Mum’s face, and now he knew what had caused them.
“At first Livia did not realize what was happening, and when she did, she was…rather distressed. But I knew I couldn’t stop. I knew what was at stake. I kept on, and Livia survived, and then on one long day of blood and madness, you came into this world. You were a beautiful baby,” Arthur said, and his smile flashed again as if all this was irresistibly funny. “You had blank black demon’s eyes, and you never cried. You never made a sound.”
It was a straw to a drowning man. Even when he grabbed it, breathless and desperate, he knew it would not save him.
“That’s right,” Nick said. “Dem£aids aons don’t — they don’t talk. I can talk.”
“I know,” Arthur breathed. “I couldn’t believe it when Gerald told me. I think that’s amazing.”
“It’s not amazing,” Nick bit out. “It’s not true. I can talk, so it’s not true.”
“Do you find words difficult?” Arthur asked. “I can’t imagine that you’re any good at reading or writing, and as for lying — Words are so alien to your kind. They can’t come easily to you.”
Nick remembered the night he had come back from Natasha’s house to confront Alan and had been confronted by Mae. He had tried to talk and nothing had come out but hoarse croaking, a sound that could never have been language, that did not belong in a human throat.
“Do you know what you remind me of? There are children in this world brought up by animals. There were once two girls brought up by wolves, who thought they were wolves. They howled and they walked on four legs and when people captured them, for a long time they were unable to speak. A baby’s mind is a small, blank thing, and too impressionable. You couldn’t remember what you were; the baby mind was too limited. And then as you grew, the same mind was flexible enough, young enough, to actually take in human speech. The wild girls could howl, but that didn’t make them wolves. And you can speak, but that doesn’t make you human.” Arthur’s voice was almost tender. “Nothing can make you human.”
Nick thought about animals. They had never liked him. Even Alan’s kitten had bitten him. The animals had known.
Then he thought of the boat, and the way he had felt as soon as he had walked onto it: as if his body did not belong to him. He should have remembered that running water was meant to keep the body safe from demons. He should have known.
“I understand that this is difficult for you. It’s a lot to grasp all at once. I knew you wouldn’t remember everything when you were put in the child’s mind. I meant to bring you up and tell you everything. I meant you to be aware of your power. I meant us to have the world, but — well.” Arthur shrugged. “Livia was strange, after you were born. She was so quiet, I thought — we all thought her mind had broken. We thought she was neutralized. We left her alone with you, and one day she was gone. She took you from where you belonged, and then that man and his son tried to take from you what you are.”
Nick opened his mouth and then shut it. He was suddenly and desperately unsure of what would happen if he tried to speak.
Arthur smiled. “They all failed. You’re here now, and you’re mine. I made you. What do you think you owe me for that?”
Nick swallowed. There seemed to be barbed wire in his throat, and he thought that if he spoke, the words would come out mangled and torn.
If he didn’t speak, Arthur would win. He would just be a demon standing imprisoned in his circle, silently waiting for his magician’s command. He had to say something.
“Nothing,” said Nick, and was surprised to hear his own voice. “I owe you nothing,” he continued, and actually listened to his voice, flat and cold as a sheet of ice. He did not sound human. “I owe you nothing,” he insisted. “Because I don’t believe you.”
A car horn screamed outside in a long cry for help that went unanswered.
“That reminds me,” said Arthur. “Those girls who thought they were wolves? They had a mother. The people who found the den had to shoot the wolf before they could get at the girls. An animal might make that sort of mistake, but a human should know his own kind!” He raised his voice. “Wouldn’t you agree, Alan?”
Alan lifted his head. The last color had drained away from his face, leaving it a terrible stony white. His eyes were dark with fury, so dark that they looked almost black.
“Bring him to me,” ordered Black Arthur, and then turned back to Nick. “If you won’t believe me,” he said, “will you believe him?”
The male magician with the knife seized hold of the ropes binding Alan’s wrists and practically threw him in front of Arthur, with enough force that Alan stumbled and had to put his weight on his bad leg to keep himself upright. Nick saw his teeth sink into his lower lip, but he didn’t make a sound.
“Alan,” Arthur said in the tone of a warm, welcoming host. “I think I’ve worked out all that happened once Livia ran, but I’d be very interested to get an insider’s point of view. Go on, don’t be shy.”
Alan tilted his chin up to meet the magician’s eyes.
“Go to hell,” he said, and spat in Arthur’s face.
There was instant chaos. Every magician but Gerald moved forward or spoke angrily. Mae shouted Alan’s name, and the magician holding her thrust the knife back up to her throat. Black Arthur lifted a fist with magical fire sizzling inside it, and Mum lunged forward and caught his wrist.
“Arthur, no! He’s a stupid boy. He’s lonely and desperate, and he got fond of it. He had nothing else. Don’t hurt him.”
Arthur lowered his fist, and Nick slowly unclenched his own. Arthur made a small gesture and his face was clean and smiling once more. He stepped into Alan’s space, and Nick looked at the breadth of Arthur’s shoulders. He was even bigger than Nick; he could snap Alan in two.
He was a magician. He could do a lot worse than that.
“Alan,” Nick said, and on that name of all the words in the world, his voice cracked and emerged as a guttural, inhuman croak. He swallowed and forced out, “I want to know. Please.”
Alan’s mouth twisted. “It’s true,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”