Flint and Monroe arrived just after sunrise. He walked into the dark club out of the bright morning sunlight projecting an air of tired authority, she looking as relaxed as she could with a hand on the hilt of the longsword which still hung from her hip. It was clear enough they knew that whatever had happened here was finished. They were followed in by three other wary looking Strawmen, some of whom Lyfantod recognized. Flint looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He seemed unsurprised to find the Weird Sisters in shambles: bodies scattered everywhere, and gnarled roots rising unnaturally from the dance floor—but an eyebrow rose when he spied Lyfantod across the room, seated at one of the few small round tables inside that hadn’t been reduced to kindling. Horse had coffee.
Flint spoke without turning, his heavy-lidded eyes slowly taking in the room. His hands were buried deep in the pockets of his long coat, his shoulders slumped. “Caird. Start interviewing people. Find out what happened here.” A grim-faced man with shoulder-length brown hair nodded—never mind that Flint couldn’t see it—and walked off with purpose, coat trailing behind him. “Gow. You and MacEwan go start cleaning things up.” The two remaining Strawmen, a man and a woman, walked off as well. “Lyfantod.” His eyes slid over to meet those of the waiting detective. “We need to talk. Outside.”
Lyfantod nodded and stood with a stiff grunt. His adrenaline had long since faded and he was feeling the lack of sleep as well. Flint disappeared out the open door without waiting to see if he would follow. Lyfantod followed Flint outside, Monroe trailing them both, occasionally sipping from her cup of coffee. Flint turned left and then walked a short distance to the mouth of an alley. He looked back and motioned, "in here," with a silent tip of his head, before vanishing into the alley. The Strawman was looking for a place they wouldn't be overheard.
It was around that moment in which Lyfantod started to feel as though he'd missed something. There was a grimace on the older Strawman's face, a sour twist to his mouth that said he was about to do or say something he didn't particularly want to. All the same, he gave a little nod. “Horse." She reached past Lyfantod and handed her coffee cup to her partner, and then she used her newly-freed appendage to punch Lyfantod right in the bread basket.
“Wha—oof!” Lyfantod doubled over, clutching his stomach, as Horse’s meaty fist barreled into his gut, apparently in search of his spinal column. Moving deliberately, she grabbed his collar and pushed, and at some point she'd gotten her left leg behind his right one, so that he fell onto his back in a wheezing ball. Her enormous frame was suspended over him by the same arm that held him pinned.
“What the hell!” he tried to say, and then there was a very sharp, very cold knife pressing into the stubbly flesh of his unshaven throat. The ground was icy and snowmelt quickly started to soak into Lyfantod’s coat. He lay there immobile, dying to cough but afraid that he’d end up slicing himself open on her knife.
Flint's voice was as cold as the winter air around them, and the moment he opened his mouth, Lyfantod knew that whatever rapport he'd thought they had was gone, if it had ever been there in the first place. “I need to know what you’re doing here.”
Fear and pain warred with indignation. Lyfantod's desire to wrap his hands around the bloody Scarecrow's throat and throttle him then and there held in check only by the knowledge that Horse would have him bled dry before he made it to his feet. “What I’m doing here? I’m working my god damned case! What the bloody hell do you think I’m doing here?” Horse didn’t look at him. Her eyes were flat.
Flint was pacing, the hard-packed early morning ice and gravel crunching under his boots. "You are either a better detective than you're given credit for, or you're lying to me." He regarded Lyfantod out of the corner of his eye, his expression calculating.
"I can tell you which," Lyfantod growled.
"Try to see it from my point of view." Flint nudged a bit of refuse out of his path with the toe of his boot and continued to pace. "This is the second time you've shown up inexplicably at a scene relevant to this case—"
"Because I'm bloody well investigating it, aren't I!"
"—before, as far as I can see, you could possibly know to be there. Now, maybe you've been telling the truth. Maybe you really do have some mysterious client who's sent you out to stop our rogue Necromancer. That you deduced the location of the single empty grave that anyone's found in any of the dozens of cemeteries in this city—which we only found thanks to a scrap of paper that you could never possibly have seen. That you somehow presupposed the attack on the Weird Sisters," he nodded back toward the club, stopped his pacing. "But there's another possibility as well."
"Go on then. This ought to be entertaining."
"The other possibility," Flint looked Lyfantod dead in the eye, "the one that I have to consider, is that Aminus Bones isn't behind this at all. Perhaps his disappearance was a ruse. A clever misdirection. We know how interested you are in the school. Perhaps all these years of searching and no reward have turned you sour. Or," he shrugged, "it could be that the Bones case and this one are entirely unrelated. Other than timing, there really is nothing that clearly ties them together. In either case, unless you can give me a damned good explanation as to how you find yourself at the scene of a crime in the wee hours of the morning—by all appearances, having been embroiled in all of it—I'm going to have to take you in on suspicion."
“You want an explanation? It’s called detective work! If you were any good at it, maybe those children in there would still be alive!”
“The witches, you mean.” There was no sympathy there.
"Yes, the bloody witches. Perhaps you noticed that half of them are in their teens."
"They've made their choices."
"You're a hypocrite and a bigot, that's what you are," Lyfantod spat, his face red, and not just with the cold. "You bloody Strawmen, for all of your self-righteousness and bluster, you're just as destructive as any of the so-called criminals you so zealously pursue. How many homes have you burned to the ground, in the name of hiding evidence? How many memories have you erased, good as well as bad, to protect a secret that doesn't need protecting? Have you ever killed anyone, Laird? To protect that bloody secret? Have you ever taken the life of an innocent? Does it make you feel better that Garrick Small and those tossers on the City Council say it's the way it has to be?"
Lyfantod struggled under Horse's weight, his desire to punch Flint in the mouth overpowering reason. The infernal woman was monstrously heavy. She didn't budge an inch. Later, when he had time to reflect, Lyfantod would find himself grateful for her restraint. Flint was her partner, Strawman through and through, and Lyfantod was impugning her as much as him. Somehow though, the knife at his squirming throat never so much as nicked.
Flint gazed down at him, unmoved. "Come now, tell us what you really think."
Lyfantod snarled. "I think that if you were any bloody good at your job, you'd have seen the pattern that I did. The one that led me here last night. Perhaps if you had, that club wouldn't be littered with the bodies of teenagers and twenty-somethings, and you would have Aminus Bones in custody, ready to hand over to whichever gangster paid the most for the chance to tear off his fingernails."
"The pattern. You mean the fact that Bones is going after large, public gatherings."
"That's the bloody one."
"We saw that. Which was why we spent all of last night across town surveilling AA for werewolves, for all the good it did us. We didn't find out about this concert until it was too late."
"Well, then congratulations. Apparently the Guild are as good at detective work as the staff of The Oracle. I've got a hot tip for you if you're looking to nab yourself a mermaid cultist."
Flint ran a hand roughly over the stubble around his mouth. He let out a short breath and turned away. "Let him up."
The knife disappeared from Lyfantod's throat, and before he could properly register what was happening, Horse was dragging him bodily to his feet by the collar as though he weighed no more than a child. Icy water streamed bitingly down his back.
Flint handed back Horse her coffee, of which she took a long and grateful swig, and turned to Lyfantod. "Are you still wearing that ring?"
"Ring?" said Lyfantod, misunderstanding. "I don't have the—oh. That ring. Yeah, why?"
"Give it to Horse a minute."
"Just do it."
Lyfantod glanced at Horse apprehensively, wondering if Flint was preparing to burn him to cinders where he stood.
"If I wanted you dead, I'd've had her cut your throat." Flint's deep-creased scowl was impatience incarnate.
Lyfantod nodded grudgingly, and with a bit of twisting, removed the ring and deposited it in Horse's outstretched palm. He watched to see whether she pocketed it, but she merely closed her hand and let it fall to her side.
"Turn around," said Flint.
"Enough with the bloody questions! Just do it!"
It was Lyfantod's turn to scowl, but he did as he was told. Mostly. He glared dubiously over his shoulder as the Strawman came to stand just behind him. "What a mess," Flint muttered, referring to Lyfantod's back, which was not only wet, but covered with a scattering of gravel and urban grime. He rubbed his hands together, blowing into them as if to ward off the cold—but when he did, a powdery cloud of sparking flame came puffing out of his mouth. Lyfantod craned to see more clearly, and the Strawman barked, "Don't move!"
Lyfantod allowed himself to be commanded and settled scowling back into a grumbling, shivering slouch. The warmth appeared first at the base of his neck and rolled downwards. It spread across his shoulders, flowed down his back, along the backs of his arms and legs and even to his feet. An involuntary gasp left his mouth as a tingle of pleasure ran through him. It was like standing in a ray of summer sunshine. It was hot. Not painfully, but just a hair shy of being so. The warmth enveloped him, and he watched in something approaching awe as a wreath of smoke-like flame floated under his arms and across his chest and belly, slowly roiling and spitting out minuscule flecks of pure white.
It lasted long enough for the last drop of moisture that had seeped into his clothes to melt away to join the morning fog, and then, as quickly as it had come, the flame vanished, leaving Lyfantod feeling as though he'd just stepped out of a steaming shower. He twitched his coat experimentally. Dry bits of dust and pebbles pattered lightly to the ground.
Horse handed back his ring and rubbed her hands against the front of her pant legs. "It's cold as a witch’s tit out here,” she said sourly.
"Come on," said Flint. "Let's go back inside and see what Caird and the others have managed to find out. Lyfantod. Hang round a bit." And with that, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and stalked off without another word. Lyfantod watched as he disappeared around the corner in the direction of the club.
“Sorry ‘bout the rough handling." Horse took a long swig of her coffee. “And Laird. He's tired and frustrated, 'n he doesn't mean most of what he says. For what it's worth, I didn't think you had anything to do with any of it.”
“It’s... fine." Lyfantod dusted himself awkwardly. "You had to do what you had to do. Sorry about what I said about the Guild.”
Horse shrugged. "Probably not too far off. Here.” She held out a second coffee cup that had at some point, inexplicably appeared in her other hand—paper, plastic lid, and cardboard sleeve like you'd find at any corner cafe.
“Where did you…?” Lyfantod trailed off, momentarily speechless. Sometimes it was the little things that really got you. He accepted the coffee gingerly and took a sip. It was scalding.
“Had it in my back pocket.” Horse winked at him and walked away.
Lyfantod stood, holding the cup in both hands for nearly a minute, watching the steam rise from the lid. He took another cautious sip. It was rich and delicious. He savored the sensation of the liquid streaming down into his gut and warm him from the inside. It was an elixir, returning to him some semblance of his humanity after a very long night. Shaking his head in quiet bewilderment, he went to follow Flint and the now significantly curiouser Horse Monroe.
When he got inside, there were more Strawmen than there had been before. They appeared to be variously trying to clean up the mess—corpses—and to convince the remaining Daughters of Hecate not to go out looking for Aminus Bones—to leave it to the Authorities. Lyfantod thought that might be a losing battle, considering who they were talking to.
Even if the girls did agree, chances were they’d go after him anyway as soon as the Strawmen weren’t looking. Just like naughty children in that regard. Or hardened criminals. And if the Strawmen tried to post a guard… well Lyfantod felt sorry for whoever got stuck with that job. In any case it seemed that Bones was getting what he wanted. Every mess he made was more work for the Guild. Every hornet's nest he kicked was another thing for them to worry about. If Flint and Monroe were any indication, the Guild was being pushed to its very limits: sleepless nights, long stakeouts, hurried cleanups, and arguments with angry troublemakers, on the receiving side of trouble for once. The Strawmen would be down a few more men after this. And they didn’t have a huge number to begin with. How many more before they were overwhelmed entirely?
Flint was leaning on the bar, heads together in intense conversation with the man he’d called Caird. More than once he made small gestures in Lyfantod’s direction. Lyfantod would have liked to know what they were saying, but he didn’t imagine they’d take well to his asking. Monroe was, improbably enough, over by the stage with Em and Lia, standing over the girl with the short white hair. Mo, her name had been. She wasn’t dead, but she seemed to be having trouble breathing. If he’d known more about medicine than how to use peroxide and bandages he’d have offered to help. Perhaps she'd like some orange juice.
Lyfantod leaned against a wall and sipped his coffee. It ate at him that he hadn’t been faster. That he’d been right was little comfort. He'd failed. People had died. People he'd been determined to protect. As much as he tried to fight it, his failure, perceived or not, put him in mind of another night. The worst single night of his life. That terrible night appeared determined to dominate his thoughts. It was so long ago that the memory felt like it belonged to another lifetime. To another man. But Lyfantod knew that it must be his own, for he still bore the scars.
Between his fingers, the coffee lay forgotten. Lyfantod was far away now. The waking world faded, and in his sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden state, it did not take much for the memory to take on the qualities of dream. Or nightmare.
There were three of them. They were underwater. Deep. Yet somehow insulated from the wet and the cold. Dark was all around them, impenetrable, save for a sphere of ethereal light. A starless void, with no moon. Inexplicably, there was music: a trio of tremulous voices, one of which Lyfantod could no longer recognize as his own. The weight of dread sat in the pit of his belly. Heavy with the knowledge that if the singing faltered even for an instant, all would be lost. Most unfair, the biting certainty that it would.
It was an alien world, cruel and merciless, greedy for life to snuff out. To erase entire. This danger was part of the appeal, of course. This was the stuff of heroic tales. They knew, all of them, that they were well on their way to becoming legends. This was a grand adventure, only one test of many. The hardest yes—but they had not yet fallen short. The possibility of failure was as real to them now as the vaguely remembered world above the waterline. They were fools, and Lyfantod was the greatest fool of all.
Down they went. Deeper and deeper, into the Abyss, guided by instinct and something more. Shadows flitted past them in the dark. Brief glimpses of oily rainbow hue. It was tranquil here, where the light and the wind did not reach. Beneath the waves. How far till the bottom? Would they see that impossible, telltale flame? Would He be waiting for them? Servant, guide, prisoner? Or mentor, and master, and reverence manifest? They had loved him, for he had given them transcendent purpose. That love was corrupted now, for all had been taken away. Any moment...
Lyfantod's heart sped and his eyes glazed, unseeing. Remembering what happened next, his mouth went dry, and his throat constricted. He was hot and cold. Neither here nor there. He could not stop, in either time. The story would play itself out, and once more he would be forced to watch helpless till the end.
Unexpectedly, inevitably, the void shrank before them as something appeared to halt them in their path. Something that should not have been there. Something that should not Be. Lyfantod could still see it. It was indelible. He was haunted by the fear that it could still see him. A great Eye. Unfathomable. Large enough to consume them all, resolved out of darkness, glassy and black, reflecting back at them their own faces. His own he hardly recognized, unworn as it had been, by all the years since. He was forced to watch as expressions of surprise transformed into those of horror. The music stopped.
“Lyfantod.” Flint was striding over to him. His face was still grim. He still looked tired, overworked, and angry, though the anger no longer appeared to be directed at Lyfantod, and there was a trace of contrition as well. Lyfantod blinked dumbly, unsure of where he was, or how long he'd been standing there. His skin prickled with sweat. He took a shaky sip of coffee to calm his nerves, an automatic gesture. It had gone cold.
"You look like you've seen a ghost." Flint's expression was hard to read. Was that confusion, or concern?
Flint leaned against the wall beside him, gazing out at the disarray. “The witches corroborated your story." It was as close to an apology as he was going to get.
Lyfantod grunted. He was exhausted, frustrated, and at that moment he didn't think that there was much that the Strawman could do or say that would move him.
"I'll bet you imagine we never think about it." Flint's voice was low enough that Lyfantod wondered for an instant whether the man might be talking to himself. "That it never occurred to any of us that all we do might be for nothing. That we might be doing more harm than good. It stands to reason, doesn't it? There are no chapters of the Guild, after all. We've got no brothers in Glasgow, or down in London. No comrades across the pond. Not that I know of. I'm sure we're not the only ones. Secret—keeping secrets, as we do. But they can't be everywhere, can they? This conspiracy can't really be playing itself out in every city across the globe."
"What then, are we left to believe? That the existence of magic and all that comes with it would be common knowledge but for the dedicated efforts of a few men and women in a single northern city on a great bloody island in the middle of the sea? We're not fools, Lyfantod, for all that we may fool ourselves."
Lyfantod glanced up, taken by surprise by the stoic Strawman's candor. He asked the only question that made any sense. "Why do it, then?"
Flint's meandering reply began with a heavy sigh. "The Guild is old. From a time when the world operated on an entirely different scale. When, for the most part, a man didn't worry about what happened beyond the walls of his home, and the queen was little more than a crude face stamped on his money. Founded during the Inquisition, at the height of fear and persecution of magic—regardless of whether it was as dangerous as raising the dead or as innocuous as freeing yourself from household chores. It's a schizophrenic institution, with more in common with those buffoons down at the Hayword Community Center than we'd like to admit. Are we witch hunters or witches, and what's the bloody difference?"
"What is the difference?"
Flint looked over at Lyfantod. "Do you remember last October? When these innocent children of yours started a riot that killed twelve people?"
"I remember. And you're conveniently ignoring the fact that it was at Saughton Prison, and that those men were all criminals, and at least one of them a rapist, who was in that prison in the first place for assaulting one of these girls."
"And was being punished for it. That is only one example of many. They have no regard for the system—any system. Mundane or otherwise. They would burn society to the ground given the chance, and dance upon the ashes."
"So that gives you the right to lock them up? To kill them, if need be? What makes your justice any different from theirs? In the eyes of the world, you're just as much vigilantes as they are."
"You know we're not the same. And what of you? Aren't you in the same line of work as we are? Is that not how you think of yourself? A righter of wrongs? A protector of the innocent?"
"I'm an investigator," said Lyfantod somewhat defensively. "Besides. I'm licensed."
Flint scoffed. "And how many of the cases you've taken have come to stand before the Shrievalty? You know as well as I do that there are people in our dungeons who'd like nothing more than to see you dead, and would do if their holding was left to the Scottish Prison System. In the end, we draw our own lines between right and wrong. We decide what causes deserve our support, and we try to leave the world a better place than we found it. If we make mistakes along the way, then we know we're still only human. I can't see a better way forward than that."
Lyfantod let a breath out through his nose, but other than that, he had no reply.
"Imagine how much easier my life would be if I could simply let Bones go about his business. Let him go on killing. At the rate he's going, before long, there' ll be no criminals left. Yet here I am, cleaning up his messes." Flint shook his head. "It's a damn muddled world. I wish this weren't my case."
"But it is."
"But it is." The two of them stood silent for some time, watching the Daughters try to clean up, and the other Strawmen go about their work.
"Listen," Flint said at length, "I want to apologize for having Horse pummel you. It seemed necessary at the time. Now... Maybe the lack of sleep has affected my judgment."
"It's fine," said Lyfantod with a sigh. He was surprised to find that he meant it.
"I'd like to make it up to you."
"What, you think coffee's not enough?" Lyfantod held up his half-empty cup.
"Well if you don't want it—"
"I was only joking!"
"Hard to tell." Flint stared off into the distance. "I want to help you. But I can’t be seen helping you. You understand? And I can’t be seen working with you, but I think you’d be a… a valuable addition to this case.”
"I'm honored," Lyfantod replied, with perhaps too much irony in his voice.
Flint glared at him. "Don't make me regret this."
"Regret wha—?" Lyfantod was cut short as Flint shoved a cream white envelope under his chin.
"If word gets back to Small about this, I'll make sure you're not wearing that ring next time. Burn it, as soon as you're finished." With that, looking more tired than ever and in addition rather queasy, Flint pushed away from the wall and walked away. Lyfantod got the impression the Strawman was trying to put as much distance between the two of them as possible.
Lyfantod turned over the envelope in his hands. It was entirely unmarked, sealed only insofar as the closing flap was tucked inside the lip. Lyfantod worked it open and slid out a single rectangle of parchment paper. The note upon it was handwritten in black ink, in precise, flowing letters. It said:
I hereby authorize the Private Investigator P.T. Lyfantod to independently investigate the case of Aminus Bones on behalf of The Guild.
Laird Flint, G.D.
Lyfantod stared at the words, a buoyant feeling lifting his his stomach toward his throat. His heart fluttered. His mouth crinkled at the corners. It was happening. It was really happening. He’d finally done it. He was going to Barrows School, and this time even the indomitable Mrs. McMorran couldn’t keep him out. He was fairly certain that he was not going to cry.