DISCLAIMER: You're reading about detectives, aren't you? Detect!

Chapter 21. Understandably Exhausted

The world seemed to righten itself as Azzalyth pulled away slowly. Fletcher seemed about to complain for more, but with a firm yet gentle look, she shook her head and he quieted, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.

She tightened her arms around him, and she seemed to relax. A breath slipped out between her teeth, and as a lazy smile appeared on her face, Fletcher trailed his hands leisurely over her shoulders. Almost against her will, her eyes closed and she leaned down, burying her face in Fletcher's shoulder.

Braelyn stood weakly and stumbled over to her, catching one of Carma's hands and pulling her along. Azzalyth looked up, and a weak grin appeared, she held out one hand to Braelyn, and caught her friend as she started to stumble. Azzalyth, catching them with one hand, used her other arm to help Fletcher sit back up.

"Azzalyth," he said softly.

"Yes, Fletcher?" she asked.


A huge commotion upstairs echoed down through the corridor and bounced down the stairs.

Azzalyth's head flicked over to it, her hair flying around wildly, and what little colour was left completely drained out of it.

"Erskine," she whispered.

With barely any strength left, attempting to stand had disastrous results.

She flattened her palms against the ground and span her legs underneath her, trying to get to her feet. Her fine-muscle control had almost completely gone, so it was almost impossible for her to get up and stay up. When she got there, she couldn't stand still.

Skulduggery started towards her, concerned, but Valkyrie had other things on her mind.

"Skulduggery, we have to save Erskine!"

Skulduggery looked around, went to shake his head, and stopped.

"You go on ahead, I'll catch up."

She shook her head impatiently, and bolted up the stairs.

Skulduggery darted across the room and caught Azzalyth, just as she started to fall. He couldn't hold her up against the momentum she was building up, but he wrapped his arms gently around her shoulders and lowered her to the floor.

"Are you okay?" he asked worriedly.

Her face had gone a disgusting grey pallor, and she kept her lips clamped shut, but against all odds she nodded, motioning for him to continue after Valkyrie.

Skulduggery nodded back and turned to Ghastly. "Take them home." His tone of voice left no room for discussion, but he doubted Ghastly would have disagreed anyway.

Ghastly nodded, and walked over, wrapping an arm around Braelyn's and Carma's shoulders, sitting them down so they would stop swaying.

Not wanting to ask Fletcher to teleport, he removed his hands and went over to him, wrapping an arm around his chest and hauling him to his feet. He tried to get to Azzalyth, but she waved him off.

"Leave Fletcher here with me and take Braelyn and Carma home. If anything comes up I'll get Fletcher to teleport us back home, but I don't want him taking more than one person just yet."

"You sound like my mother," Fletcher complained.

Azzalyth couldn't seem to find the strength to laugh, but her body was wracked by a coughing fit and she rolled over onto her side, curling up in a ball. Ghastly, worried for a very long moment, felt a few seconds of doubt, but when Azzalyth stopped coughing, she hit him with a glare that would wilt flowers.

"Go," she ordered him, her voice starting to fail.

Unable to see a way out of it without getting into a fight with her, Ghastly shrugged helplessly and turned back to Braelyn and Carma, the latter of who had passed out.

"I'll be back soon," he called over his shoulder as he took off down the corridor, cradling Carma as if she weighed nothing.

Fletcher, struggling over to her, collapsed into a heap beside her still form, and draped his arms over her weakly. She didn't respond, and it took him a moment to realize that she had passed out from energy loss, and he wouldn't be getting any response from her any time soon.

He nuzzled his head gently in the crook of her neck, pulling her close to him. He took a deep breath and could still smell the acrid scent of burnt flesh and hair clinging to her. Her skin was insanely warm through her thin shirt and light jeans.

Her dark hair was matted with his blood, but with a careful, gentle movement, he pried it away from her face and caught a glimpse of her shoulder.

Charred, glossy, disfigured.

He stifled a gasp and gently pried her shirt away from her back. He almost cried out at seeing her – her back was shiny and red, burnt, scarred in a way that should have meant she should have had a skin graft. Fletcher was certain Nye could have fixed her is she'd bothered to stay a little longer.

If she's bother to stay a little longer…

She'd left Nye, leaving herself irrevocably scarred, to help them.

Fletcher trailer his fingers gently over the hot flesh, and he felt a few tears escape and trickle down his cheek.

He nuzzled his face into her neck once more, thinking about how much she sacrificed, how much she'd lost, and how much he loved her for it.

Valkyrie's feet pounded along the corridor, her body twisting and turning in time with the bends in the path. She heard Skulduggery behind her, could almost sense his footsteps. Part of her mind was mulling over what had transpired between them, but the majority of her brain was more focused on finding Erskine.

Alive. Hopefully.

If he's gotten himself murdered, she thought angrily, I'm going to kill him.

She twisted around another corner and found the bodies of five unconscious Cleavers, scattered, their bodies piled up like they'd been cast aside carelessly.

"Judging by the amount of noise, the amount he's taken down, and the marks on the wall, there must have been at least a dozen of them."

"Either that," Valkyrie said, "Or you could just count the amount of scythes on the floor."

"Yes," Skulduggery admitted, "I guess you could do that too."

Valkyrie's gaze flicked around the room, and she got a rough guesstimate.

"Fourteen," she counted. "Well, fourteen left. Not all of them would have dropped their weapons."

"More than fourteen," Skulduggery said, his voice empty.

Valkyrie nodded. "Let's get to it."

Ghastly ran back through the corridors, breathing heavily, dragging Braelyn along and cradling an unconscious Carma in his arms. Every now and again he'd look back down at her; her long, red-gold hair, her delicate features, her millions of freckles. He felt his heart wrench every time he thought of her incredible powers, and again with pity when he'd though of what she'd been through.

Kidnapped and tortured by her own brother.

While keeping a solid grip on Braelyn, he had a strong urge to scoop her up as well and take off running down the hallway, just to get them all the more quickly to safety.

I hope she's okay

The though sprang to his mind, and he didn't even know where it came from. He felt a strong urge to protect her, this small, unconscious girl with the tremendous power that had just been to Hell and back.

Braelyn, gasping for breath, tugged on his arm.

"Slow… down!" she managed. "I need… air!"

Ghastly slowed down significantly and turned back to her.

"Here," he said. He held Carma's light body out, holding her carefully. Braelyn wrapped her arms around her friend's torso and held her tightly. Her chest heaved with gasps, but Ghastly simply picked Braelyn up, and for that, Carma as well, and took off again.

Valkyrie surveyed the crime scene for a second, then turned down the corridor the Cleavers had inevitably taken Erskine.

"You ready?" she asked.

"Always," Skulduggery replied, taking her hand and sprinting alongside her down the hall.

Without a second thought, they'd linked their fingers together and taken off, grinning like idiots. Skulduggery could feel the warmth of Valkyrie's hand and the pressure she was exerting every time her feet hit the ground.

"Run, Skulduggery," Valkyrie huffed, pushing herself further, running faster, trying to catch up with the Cleavers.

"I'm running," he complained.

"Well, run faster!"

Not bothering to argue, he picked up the pace, almost dragging Valkyrie behind him.

"What are we doing?" he asked.

"What?" she huffed back.

"Why are we running when–"

The floor disappeared from under her feet, and Valkyrie let out a small, startled shriek before everything turned right side up and she could see again.

"–we can fly?" Skulduggery finished.

He'd wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in close, and he was manipulating the air to propel himself forwards, flying through the air.

Valkyrie groaned. "Why didn't… I think of this… earlier?"

He laughed lightly. "I don't know."

Valkyrie wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. She hadn't even realized she'd tapped his facade tattoos until the skin started flowing.

She let out a surprised exclamation and pulled back to look at it. She blanched a little.

"What?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

Valkyrie let her hands move to his skin. It felt so real. She trailed her fingers lightly across it and he blushed, shivering.

"It's the same," she whispered, awed.

"Repeat that?"

She trailed her fingers through the raven-black hair. "It's identical to last time," she explained. "Your facade. It's like it's… stuck."

He grunted. "Must be a glitch or something. I'll get China to look at it later."

"No," she said, suddenly struck by an impulse. "Don't. I like it."

He smiled at her. "Ah," he said gently, "but do I like it?"

God, she thought, men can be so thick.

"You will," she said clearly. The confusion in his face lifted, and he grinned.

"Why, yes," he said. "I'm sure I will."


You know how I know she's started reading it? Because she's complaining to me. That's how XD.

Back on subject... Once again, chapter, fun, busy, stuff, assessment, musical... You get the gist of it. So sorry it took me so long, but I had to get everything done. After that skating on the weekend, I could not physically sit down on Monday. Or Tuesday. It hurt.

Back on subject. Stay this time, Amillea! Okay. Everyone knows that Braelyn is my bestest friend ever although she is halfway across the country. We still talk every week, and via the internet and everything, so yeah... Dedicated to you, m'dear!

Oh, and also dedicated to everyone who's reviewed. Thank you, my lovelies!

Shall update when I can find time...