“The next day there was a weird mark on me. When I told Mae, she started asking some people questions.”
“When I was asking about magic, I started hanging out with people who have unusual interests,” said Mae. “There isn’t much of a Goth or Wicca scene in Exeter, but I went to a few places I know and asked around. A lot of people wouldn’t talk to me because the Goths think I’m a bit of a baby bat, and the Wiccans think I’m a playgan.”
“People think you’re — a bat,” Nick said slowly. “Well, of course. Many people think I’m a blueberry scone.”
She grinned a sudden, unexpected grin, and he almost smiled back at her, but then he recalled that she was invading his home and looked right through her until her smile melted away.
Unfortunately, the rest of her stayed put.
“It means they think I’m just playing around and not serious,” she continued in an even cooler tone. “Some of them listened to me, though, and there was one guy — a stranger — who told me that if I had a weird problem, I should come here.”
“Considerate of him,” Nick murmured.
He was icily furious. Forget the black arts, any magician could find them by asking a few questions down at the local, because the Goblin Market felt the need to spread the word. They said that it was their responsibility to protect normal people from the magicians. Nick thought it was their responsibility to remember that the magicians could be listening anywhere, at any time, and careless words could get them all killed.
Nick gave Alan a dark look, but Alan was not looking at him. His gaze was fixed on Mae.
“Was it an incubus?” Mae asked. Nick snorted.
Alan said, “There’s no such thing as an incubus. Not exactly. There are just demons, and demons will take any shape and offer anything to get what they want.”
A question broke from Jamie. “What did he want?”
Nick shifted his sword, laying it flat against his knees, and smiled when Mae’s and Jamie’s gazes were caught by the gleam and slid along the blade.
“He wanted what all demons want,” Nick said softly. “He wanted to come in out of the cold.”
“The demons live in another world,” Alan explained. “All the writings I’ve been able to get my hands on stress how different the worlds are. There are old legends that say humans were made of earth and demons of fire. It’s a metaphor, of course, but it’s a good one. They are made of entirely different materials from us. There is no description of the demon world available in the books. Maybe it can’t be described, but apparently it is so bleak that the demons are willing to do anything to leave it, even for a short time — and that is where the magicians come in.”
Mae reached over and took Jamie’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Jamie held on tight.
“There are magicians after Jamie?”
“Oh, sure,” said Nick. “After him. Or you. Magicians aren’t fussy. You’re all just meat to throw to the demons.”
“You’re not helping!” Mae exclaimed.
Nick leaned back against the sofa, crossing his legs and balancing the sword against one knee. He bared his teeth at her.
“I am helping. I’m telling you the truth. You don’t like it, that’s your problem.”
“Meat,” Jamie repeated, his voice trembling. “What does that mean?”
“Demons can only enter this world if they are summoned,” Alan answered. “The magicians summon them, so they can use the demons’ power as their own. You have to understand — people don’t ever have much magic of their own, but demons can control the elements. They can create illusions so real you can touch them. And they’re willing to give some of their power to the magicians, because they want entry into this world.” He looked at Jamie, his eyes wide and serious. “There must be magicians close by who called up a demon and let him go hunting for a body to possess. And you must be older than you look.”
“I’m — I’m sixteen,” Jamie said. “I was sixteen in October. What does that matter?”
He was almost six months older than Nick, then. Nick found that mildly amusing, since Jamie came up to his shoulder.
Then he remembered his birthday last month. Alan had made a cake and told him to make a wish, and he’d done it because ridiculous things like that made Alan happy. He’d closed his eyes and wished for a long time here in Exeter, safe and undisturbed.
Nick scowled. Look how well that had worked out for him.
“Demons won’t go after anyone younger than sixteen, not if they have a choice,” Alan explained. “They don’t like being in the bodies of animals or children. The brains aren’t developed enough to have proper control over their magic.”
“Children aren’t like animals,” said Mae, frowning.
“Demons aren’t PC,” Nick said. “Imagine that.”
Alan reached out and touched the back of Jamie’s hand. Alan was a great one for touching people.
“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “If you have a mark, we’ll bring you to the next Goblin Market and get it taken off. Mae has her talisman, and I can get you one as well. The demons will move on to easier prey.”
Jamie shifted on the sofa, as if he was not sure which way to move. Nick had become familiar with that kind of reaction. People were always upset to hear someone like Alan casually saying things like “easier prey.”
“I always thought that Mae talking about magic was sort of…silly,” he said, with an apologetic grimace at his sister. “The first time I found a mark, I didn’t even tell her, but—”
Nick’s sword point hit the carpet at the same time as he seized Jamie’s arm and yanked him to his feet. Jamie twisted in his grip for a startled instant, and then froze when he saw the look on Nick’s face.
“Exactly how many marks do you have?” Nick snarled.
“Let my brother go,” said Mae, who’d stood up at some point. Nick did not bother looking at her.
He caught another movement out of the corner of his eye, though, and did look. It was Alan, getting up with a great deal more difficulty than Mae had. Alan was never more obviously crippled than when he had to climb to his feet. He had to use the back of t
Seeing it never did anything to improve Nick’s mood.
“Nick. Take it easy. Put the sword down.”
“Yes!” Jamie said, arm trembling in Nick’s grasp. Nick could break it now, if he liked. “Yes, that’s an excellent idea. Why don’t you put the sword down?”
Mae hovered at Alan’s elbow, looking defiant but clearly unwilling to do anything that might put her brother at risk. Alan reached out and took hold of Nick’s wrist, his grip gentle but firm.
Nick let go of Jamie’s arm. He backed up a step, laid his sword carefully on the living room table, and stepped away from that as well. He swept his sword arm wide to display the vast emptiness of his hand, and then he looked expectantly at Jamie.
“Now,” he said. “Show me.”
Jamie swallowed and glanced nervously at his sister.
“It’s all right,” Alan told him. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
There was a pause in which Jamie carefully did not look at Nick, though Nick was waiting with his arms folded, promises in his eyes of what he’d do if this boy had endangered his family.
Slowly Jamie undid the buttons of his shirt, starting from the bottom. He fumbled with the buttons, fingers dragging as if weighed down by everyone’s stares, and then stopped when the shirt was halfway undone. His chest looked like any boy’s chest, any boy who didn’t eat or exercise enough. Pale, thin, and then high on his left hip, just above his jeans, there was…
Nick swore. “A third-tier mark. You came to us with a third-tier mark.”
“What does that mean?” Jamie asked in an agitated voice, which climbed higher with every word. “How many tiers are there? What d’you mean, tiers, like — tiers on a wedding cake?”
The windows of the sitting room showed nothing but blackness, but that was the problem with night. The demons could be on you before you had a chance to prepare yourself, and now there was a boy with a third-tier mark in Nick’s house. He glanced at Alan, and Alan looked so sorry. Alan was obviously trying to think of a way to tell the boy kindly, but with news like this it didn’t matter how you said it.
Besides, this was nothing to do with them. Except that the boy had brought it into their home.
Nick went and sat on the table beside his sword. He reached out and pointed, his finger tracing the air an inch from the mark on Jamie’s skin. The mark looked red at first, but after a moment looking at it your vision would blur, as if the mark was trying to slip out of sight. Even though the heart of the wound was red, the torn edges were black as shadows, black as blood in the night. There were two lines cut in Jamie’s skin, and within the two lines were three ragged puncture marks in the shape of a triangle.
Within the lines and the triangle, scarlet and shiny as a burn, was an open, staring eye.
“Three tiers,” he said curtly. “The first tier is the two slashes. They form the doorway. Once it’s made, the demons are aware there’s a weak spot, hira weak and they start to gather at the door between the worlds. They can track you once that first mark is made. Second tier is the triangle. Three equilateral points — three equilateral punctures — and once they’re made it means that someone has to die.”
Mae abruptly sat. She had been standing right behind Jamie, hovering protectively, and then suddenly she wasn’t. She had fallen backward into an armchair, her face white and her fingers gripping the arms of the chair.
“Die?” Jamie echoed.
“Someone has to die,” Alan repeated. “Either you or a magician: one of the magicians’ Circle that summoned the demon. Their blood could be used to wipe the second mark away.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Nick interrupted. “Because you have a third-tier mark. Inside the door, inside the triangle, is the eye. That’s the third tier. Once you have that, they have a fix on you. Eventually they will be able to break down the barriers in your mind, crawl inside you, and control everything you do. The demons are watching you now, and nobody but you will do.”
“Wait,” said Jamie, his voice trembling, his whole body trembling. “You can’t mean that. I thought the two slashes were just tiny cuts. I thought the triangle of puncture wounds were insect bites or something. I didn’t even tell Mae until there was a burn mark that looked like an eye. I didn’t even know if we should come here tonight, and now you’re saying that it’s too late already?”
Nick shrugged. “Yeah.”
He stopped pointing and clasped his hands loosely together, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. Jamie was just standing there, shirt crumpled and half-open, hands hanging empty and open at his sides. Both he and his sister were wearing blank, blind looks, as if the universe had been rearranged in front of their eyes and the new version hurt too much to look at properly.
It was the look on Alan’s face that unsettled Nick. He was obviously feeling something, something softer and more than pity, something that came naturally to Alan and that should probably come naturally to Nick. He felt somewhat at a loss. The doomed ones always upset Alan.
“There has to be something,” Mae protested, her voice on a hard edge between rage and fear. “There has to be something I can do, you can’t just tell us that there’s nothing—”
“I’m sorry,” Alan said. “I would help if I could.”
“Why would the demon just want him to—” Mae checked herself, clearly unable to say the word.