Alan looked mildly amused. “We’re just going upstairs.”
“Yeah, we can handle this,” Mae said, her voice calmer than she looked, and Nick felt like admiration was being dragged out of him against his will. “Olivia will stay with us.”
She smiled at Nick, and he kept his face chill and expressionless so she would transfer her smile to Alan. She did transfer her smile to Alan, that was the thing: If there had been no hope for Alan at all, it would have been less of a dilemma.
Nick let them smile at each other and leaned back against the wall, examining the claw marks of the wolf. The deepest were on his stomach, on one side of his belly button. Nick looked at the red grooves and was distantly pleased that the wolf had been too busy trying to bite him to claw him open. Intestines belonged on the inside.
The room was a mess. Chains were scattered about the place, the rug was twisted like bedsheets after his fight with the wolf, and their prisoner seemed on the point of hysterics. The other magician lay crumpled at Gerald’s feet.
“We could just kill him now,” Nick said, and watched the slow shudder work its way through Gerald’s body, from shaking shoulders to trembling lips.
Alan looked impatient. “We can kill him for Jamie.”
“No,” Nick snarled.
Alan looked at him for a long moment, as if by making Nick his single focus he could somehow keep him safe, and then his strained face smoothed out. “We can talk about that later,” he said softly. “First let’s just go upstairs and get that talisman. We’ll only be gone a minute, and — I want you to have it. I don’t want you in any danger.”
“Good luck with that one. I just strangled a wolf to death five minutes ago,” Nick said gruffly. Alan smiled, and they both understood that Nick had given in.
Just on this one thing. He’d come and get a talisman if it made Alan feel better, but he wasn’t going to put up with any of this nonsense about Jamie going first. Alan had sacrificed enough for Jamie already.
“C’mon,” said Alan, and Nick moved to follow him.
“This is just a thought,” Jamie called after them. “But while you’re up there, you might see if you can find a shirt.”
When they went into Alan’s room, Nick could not help casting an uneasy eye over Alan’s bookshelves. He hadn’t had a chance to put Alan’s precious photo back in its hiding place yet, and he had a sudden moment of foreboding. If Alan tried to sneak a look at the stupid picture he liked gazing at so much, he’d find out what Nick had done.
It didn’t matter if he did find out. Nick had a right to discover the truth, but somehow he didn’t like the idea of how Alan would look at him if he knew.
He turned deliberately away from the bookcase and occupied himself shrugging into one of Alan’s baggy old T-shirts, lying slung over a chair. He went to lean against the wall, looking out of the window where the sun was going down, the sky brimming dark blue over the gray roofs of London.
Alan knelt down by his wardrobe and took out the box where he kept his protective charms, beginning to sift through them slowly and thoughtfully as if he was telling rosary beads. Or as if he was afraid to look up.
“I’m serious about taking Jamie’s mark off,” he said slowly.
“You’re being stupid.”
“You don’t understand—”
“Yeah, I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you’re being stupid!”
Nick’s voice rose in a shout, a harsh, flat sound like a whip cracking or a door slamming. If he’d been shouting at anyone but Alan he knew he would have seen the effect of the shout: seen the sound seep into their bones and make them shudder, make them give in.
It was different with Alan. Threatening him wouldn’t work; he didn’t seem to care about saving himself. He would have to find some other way to make Alan do what he wanted. Nick looked at his brother and suddenly felt icy calm.
He knew what threat to use.
“Here it is,” Alan said in a quiet, pleased voice, as if Nick hadn’t shouted at him a moment ago. He got to his feet with his usual care, a flash of pain drawing a deep line between his brows, then smiled and limped over to Nick.
The talisman was dangling from Alan’s left wrist like a bracelet. There was a crawling sensation of dread in Nick’s stomach just looking at it, but when Alan beckoned, he bowed his head and let his brother slip the talisman around his neck. He felt like an animal going back into harness.
The talisman burned where it touched his skin. Nick set his teeth at the return of the dull, constant pain and looked into Alan’s face, which showed uncomplicated relief.
“Do you know what I’ll do if you don’t take that mark off?” he asked. He did not shout this time. He lowered his voice so it was a very private and personal threat, a soft promise of pain.
Alan recognized it. “Nick,” he said, startled and a little pleading.
Nick had to make him understand.
“You care so much about Mum? She was an Obsidian Circle magician. She still has the sigil. Her lifeblood would save you.”
Alan took a quick, unsteady breath, his thin chest rising and falling sharply. He was trembling.
“I’d do it,” Nick swore to him. “I’d trade her for you. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I won’t let you die!”
Alan’s mouth twisted viciously. “Why not? More useful to you than Olivia, am I?”
He was watching Nick in the same hurt, horror-struck way he had when he’d seen Nick with the magician. Nick looked away and out of the window again, to where the sun was sinking, shadow closing its claws over the houses one by one. He fought with black incomprehension: Alan wanted a particular response from him, and he didn’t know what it was.
“Well — well, you are more useful than she is,” he said haltingly.
“How can you—,” Alan began in a furious voice.
He was interrupted by the sound of Mae screaming. It wasn’t a scream for help. It was the scream of someone in pain.
Alan palmed the knife from his wrist sheath and held it out before Nick could say a word. Nick closed his fingers around the hilt and ran, taking the stairs three at a time, and bolted into the sitting room, throwing open the door and running almost directly into Mum.
She flung up an arm as if Nick was the threat.
“Don’t touch me!”
“I don’t want to touch you!” Nick snarled. “What happened?”
Mum didn’t bother replying. It was pretty obvious what had happened. Their sitting room was torn apart. Someone had broken the window and shredded the rug. Mae was lying at an awkward angle on the floor with blood all over her face, struggling to get up as Jamie tried to push her down. The chair that had contained Gerald the magician was on its side, the chains that had bound him were a gleaming silver path that pointed to the shattered window.
Outside the window and utterly beyond reach was a huge bird, the curving shape of amber wings outlined in the setting sun, flaring gold as he flew. Nick imagined that its talons were fairly impressive as well, judging by what the creature had done to the rug and Mae’s face.
“Mae,” Nick said. “Are you—”
Alan stumbled down the last step on the stairs and was almost instantly at Mae’s side. Nick fell silent and went for the first-aid kit, passing it to Alan without a word. Alan accepted it with a nod, murmuring comforting nonsense to Mae as he taped the cut across her cheek carefully closed. Mae stopped fighting to get up and bore the taping without a sound, and Nick watched her whisper reassurance back to Alan, watched their shared smiles.
“I’m really okay. Thanks,” Mae murmured, low and grateful, Alan’s musician’s fingers held lightly against the curve of her jaw. “He turned into a freaking bird. I couldn’t believe it!” Her voice turned frustrated. “I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t do a thing.”
“It’s not your fault,” Alan assured her.
He was right. There was nothing she could have done. If Gerald could transform into an animal, he had a whole lot more power than Nick had thought. He had so much power that it must mean he’d wanted to be captured.
He’d wanted to be brought here.
They’d been played for fools. And that wasn’t even the worst part.
Nick gazed with building fury at his brother, bent solicitously over Mae and acting so very concerned.
He said, “You did this.”
Alan stood up at once. “Come outside,” he said, in that calm, reasonable voice of his. Nick strode forward and grabbed Alan’s elbow, dragging him to the front door and only stopping when his brother almost fell on the threshold.
He steadied Alan with his free hand and then stepped back. For a moment his throat was too tight to find words.
“You did this,” he repeated at last.
He remembered Alan’s face, smoothing into a bland mask when Nick refused to let him take Jamie’s mark off. We’ll only be gone a minute. I don’t want you in any danger. He’d been worried, and he’d used that to make Nick do exactly what he wanted. Once he’d brought Nick upstairs, he’d kept him upstairs with that little line about Jamie. He’d known Nick would argue with him.
He’d deliberately let the magician go, and now he was facing Nick with that careful look on his face, trying to calm Nick down without actually giving anything away, waiting to see what lie would work this time.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you got the only two people capable of restraining that magician out of the room! You did it, and you did it on purpose, because you wanted to keep the demon’s mark that is going to kill you. I know all that. I just don’t know why. And I want to know why, Alan. I’m going to know why.”
Alan looked at Nick’s face and obviously saw that denials weren’t going to do him any good.
“Because of what that messenger said,” he answered quietly. “Because I have a plan. Would you rather I didn’t have one?”
Nick grabbed the collar of Alan’s shirt and pushed him up against the door frame with one hand.
“I’d rather you didn’t get yourself killed!”
Alan looked up at him, pale and silent, and Nick realized how this would look to anyone watching. A crippled boy, stumbling and obviously upset, being menaced by a vicious thug. He felt vicious; he would’ve hit Alan if that would have made him stop.
Only he knew his brother. Pain didn’t scare him, and nothing could make him stop.
“Mum’s not worth this,” he snarled. “Nothing’s worth this.”
“Some things are.”
Nick did not shake him, no matter how much he was tempted. He let go of his brother’s shirt and stepped back. He thought Alan looked a little relieved.
“It won’t take long for Gerald to report back to the Obsidian Circle,” Nick said. “They’ll be coming soon. We can’t be here. Do you have a plan for that?”
He glared at his brother, and Alan looked back, pained but still calm, still plotting something.
“I do,” said Alan. “I told you I needed to see what Merris was experimenting with. She lives on the Isle of Wight. We can go there. We can escape the magicians that way.”
Nick looked away from him then, leaning his cheek against the steel door frame and looking out onto the narrow gray street, just another street among the hundreds of streets he had lived on and would never see again. Alan was still thinking about the best way to help Mum, and then it would be the best way to help Jamie, and all Nick wanted to do was take Alan and run. If they kept moving, maybe the magicians wouldn’t get a chance to put the last mark on Alan and finish him off. Nick didn’t care about anything else.
He opened his mouth and could not find words.