“The demon will not want him to die,” Alan answered. “The demon wants to possess him, but once it does, the strain of the human spirit and the demon struggling for possession of the same body will be too much. It will tear his body apart. It always does: The demon can’t make it last. And they won’t give a body up.”
“First he’ll be a demon,” Nick said. “Then he’ll die. Shouldn’t take more than a month.”
Jamie appeared to be on the verge of hyperventilating, to judge from his breathing. Nick did not look at him. There was nothing he or Alan could do, no matter how much Alan wants such Alaed to help. They had told them what was going on, and that it was bad. He didn’t know what these two expected.
It was because he was looking at the carpet that he saw it first.
Creeping from the small unused hearth, over the worn red rug, and spilling onto the carpet, came pale, almost invisible tendrils of mist.
“Mist inside,” Nick reported sharply.
Two attacks in one day, and a boy wearing the demon’s eye in their house. They were certainly getting a lot of attention.
“Out of striking range,” Alan ordered the others. “Get onto the chairs. Get your feet off the floor.”
“Striking range,” Jamie repeated, clambering onto the sofa even as he spoke, holding fast to the back. He was still trembling. “It’s mist. Does mist generally strike in this house? Is it attack mist?”
Nick picked up his sword and prowled around the circumference of the rug, hefting the hilt a little against his palm as the mist spread across the floor. You could hardly see it, and then the slow creep caught your eye, the wavering of the air at the edges of the room, and you realized the room was brimming with mist.
Mae had got up on a chair, but she was twisting where she stood to get a better view. “Mist,” she said. “Is it a vampire?”
“No, woman, it’s not a vampire,” Nick said scornfully. “It’s another stupid illusion from stupid magicians who think we’ll be too distracted by their first attack to notice it.”
He scanned the room from edge to edge, looking for the most likely sign of movement, holding his sword ready. The thin film of mist made the carpet blur a little before his eyes, everywhere he looked.
“Mist is a small magic,” Alan explained. “It usually resolves into a small animal that a demon’s possessing. Mist’s easy enough to deal with.”
The usual form the mist took was a rat. Once, though, Nick had been forced to try and stab a large spider. He hoped it would be something big this time; he could use some action. Thursday night had been ruined, his house had been invaded, but he could be calm about this. All he had to do was kill.
The two amateurs were up on the chairs, moving and making a racket. Alan, who knew better, stood perfectly still and never distracted Nick by stirring or speaking at all. Nick stalked around the perimeter of the room. He caught the shimmer of mist gathering and forming a shape the instant before it happened.
He would’ve had it, but he was not expecting something as long and twisty as a snake. There was just the mist and then suddenly it was there, a thin black stripe against the carpet, moving faster than Nick did, striking faster than Nick did. Nick was only a second behind it.
He sprang forward and brought the sword down hard.
He cut the snake in two bloody halves an instant after it had sunk its fangs into Alan’s leg.
For a moment he was not worried at all. Then he saw the expression on Alan’s face, and he remembered his brother saying, Mae has her talisman, and I can get you one as well.
Nick had not thought to wonder where Mae had got hers. He had not noticed the absence of the telltale bulge under Alan’s shirt.
“You’re wearing it,” Nick breathed, turning his eyes to Mae.
She put her hand to her throat, silent for once. She was smart to stay quiet. There was blood pounding in Nick’s ears. There was blood sliding down his sword. Alan knelt, quite calmly, and rolled up the leg of his jeans. Nick saw the mark, saw two red lines just above his ankle, saw the doorway of the demons on his brother.
This had never happened before.
“Nick, calm down,” Alan said, his own voice unacceptably calm. “It’s only a first-tier mark. We’ll take care of it. We’ll go to the Goblin Market and have it removed.”
Nick’s arm ached with the effort of not swinging his sword, not bringing it down anywhere, on anyone. His whole body felt run by cold rage, as if rage was flowing in his veins and the chill was stinging him into action.
“Shut up!” He wheeled on Mae and Jamie. “Get out,” he suggested. “Or get hurt. It’s your choice.”
His teeth ached, he was gritting them so hard, and Mae and Jamie scrambled away from him over the furniture. He had to lower the sword then, because the only target left was Alan.
Nick drew in a deep breath and threw his sword against the wall. It struck plaster with the ring of steel, and he shut his eyes at the sound.
“You gave your talisman away,” he said, hunting for words. He didn’t want to speak, but he had to; he could do nothing else, because what he wanted to do was hit Alan.
He paced, desperate and silent as an animal. Finally he found words, and threw them at his brother.
“I can’t believe you were so stupid. Not again!”
The Hidden Girl
NICK REMEMBERED THE FIRST TIME THE MAGICIANS HAD caught them.
He had always known they were there, a hunting presence like the sound of trumpets and dogs in the undergrowth must be for foxes, but that time was different. It was the difference between knowing they were there and having the dogs upon you, jaws snapping, with no chance to run.
Nick had been eight years old, and Alan eleven. Nothing had seemed serious then. Mum had always been strange, had never liked Nick, but it was Dad’s job to take care of Mum, just like it was Alan’s job to take care of Nick.
There had been a lot of moving, but always to houses that were warm, places with gardens and lots of room. Nick had never worried where his next meal was coming from, and never worried that someone might try to kill them. Nick had known the magicians were hunting them, and Dad had made sure they knew how to fight. It was just that Nick never really believed thoul„e magicians could get past Dad.
Dad could do anything. He could calm Mum in her wildest fits, and he could reassure anyone who ever got suspicious. He looked just like Alan except big, an enormously adult and comforting presence who could carry a tired boy anytime they had to move in the middle of the night. Nick remembered those midnight moves only as moments when he stirred to find his cheek pillowed against Dad’s broad shoulder.
“You’re mine,” Dad used to say. “And I’m going to take care of you.”
Back then wearing the talisman had just been a precaution, like Alan holding his hand when they crossed the road. Nick hated the talisman.
A talisman looked a lot like a dream catcher decorated with bones, which had crystals in the place of beads and salt and spells poured over the weave when they were made. Dad used to buy them both talismans at a stall in the Goblin Market, like a normal father buying his sons toffee apples. Wearing a great big dream catcher struck his eight-year-old self as stupid, and besides that it was uncomfortable.
It was always moving, always burning. It left a faint silvery scar on his chest where it usually rested. Nick understood what that meant now. He took after his mother. He wasn’t happy about it.
At the time it was simply a nuisance. Nick was forever leaving it on his bedside table or by the sink in the bathroom, and Alan was forever finding it and bothering him to keep it on.
The talisman was in the backseat of the car on the night Dad carried Nick right into a trap.
The magicians had got there first. They had laid a circle around the family’s new house that flared into the three points of a triangle once they’d all passed the threshold. Three equilateral points, like the Bermuda Triangle. The sign for death.
Dad had put Nick carefully down as they all looked at each other and knew what this meant. To break the circle would mean death. They were caught as neatly as animals in a snare, with no chance to run, and the magicians would be able to come and collect them without a fight.
Dad had not made a fuss at all. Nick had watched uncomprehendingly as his father walked across the floor and knelt down in front of Alan.
“You’ll look after your mother and your brother. You’ll do whatever you have to do. Swear to me.”
Alan whispered, “I swear.”
“That’s my boy,” Dad had said, and kissed Alan once, on the forehead. He took him by the shoulders and looked at him for another moment, and then he rose to his feet and ran at the circle.
His family stood and watched him burn as he crossed the magicians’ line, collapsing in on himself like a hot coal stabbed by a poker. There was nothing left of him after a moment but ashes and emptiness.
Dad was the one who gave them a chance to run, but Alan was the one who got them out. He grabbed Mum’s hand and asked Nick if he had his talisman. Nick remembered exactly how he had felt in that moment: empty of all words, hardly able to understand Alan’s question. He’d shaken his head, and Alan had paused and then tugged the talisman over his own head.
The magicians were lying in wait. Their demons were ready. The air had been thick with them: attacking birds, ice underfoot, licks of flame like whips leaping at them from empty air. Fire passed right through Mum’s wild black hair, and she sobbed and clutched at her talisman in gratitude.
Fire hit Alan’s leg and he cried out; he had to lean on Nick to get to the car, and tears had poured down his cheeks as he told Mum what to do and where to drive. They drove to Scotland, not even pausing to sleep, and it was not until days later that Alan decided it was safe to go to a hospital. By then infection had set in, and the muscles were damaged.
Nick never took his stupid talisman off again, no matter how uncomfortable it was.
It was only Alan and Nick from then on. Mum hardly counted.
It had been eight years. They had been running ever since, hardly able to keep themselves fed, hardly able to escape when they were cornered. It had been eight years and Alan, that idiot, had not learned that he should never give away his talisman again.
Alan fled upstairs to Mum the instant Mae and Jamie were gone, mumbling something about feeding her and meaning that he was a complete coward. Nick couldn’t follow Alan up to Mum. She’d be upset for days if Nick actually went into her room. When she had her bad days, she needed the security of knowing that if she stayed in her room, she wouldn’t have to see him.
They had some time to move out, at least. The magicians had lost one of their number and must have used up a lot of power with those ravens and the mist so soon afterward. Still, Nick knew he should stay inside tonight, stay close just in case of another attack.
Instead he went out and did exercises. He had to practice long hours with the sword, making sure he could move as if it were another, somewhat sharper limb — and besides, the kind of mood he was in, he was almost hoping the magicians would attack him. Let them try.
The night wind swept cool along his bare arms as he lunged and feinted, trying to stab shadows through the heart. The few teachers he’d had told him it was all about the moves, but Nick always had to imagine an opponent: someone he could hurt and whom he wanted to hurt badly. In order to really practice, he had to make a more deadly enemy than he’d ever faced out of the air. He had to be better than anyone he could imagine.
Especially since his stupid crippled brother was apparently determined to throw his life away.
Nick fought the air and thought about the night Dad had died. He only headed back to the house when it was past four in the morning, shrugging his shirt back on as he went. The material was chilled and damp from lying on the grass, wet with a night’s dewfall, and it stuck to his sweat-slick skin.