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FATED

1

It was a slow day, so I was reading a book at my desk and seeing into the future.

There were only two customers in the shop. One was a student with scraggly hair and a nervous way of glancing over his shoulder. He was standing by the herb and powder rack and had decided what to buy ten minutes ago but was still working up the nerve to ask me about it. The other customer was a kid wearing a Linkin Park T-shirt who’d picked out a crystal ball but wasn’t going to bring it to the counter until the other guy had left.

The kid had come on a bicycle, and in fifteen minutes a traffic warden was going to come by and ticket him for locking his bike to the railings. After that I was going to get a call I didn’t want to be disturbed for, so I set my paperback down on my desk and looked at the student. ‘Anything I can help you with?’

He started and came over, glancing back at the kid and dropping his voice slightly. ‘Um, hey. Do you—?’

‘No. I don’t sell spellbooks.’

‘Not even—?’

‘No.’

‘Is there, um, any way I could check?’

‘The spell you’re thinking of isn’t going to do any harm. Just try it and then go talk to the girl and see what happens.’

The student stared at me. ‘You knew that just from these?’

I hadn’t even been paying attention to the herbs in his hand, but that was as good an explanation as any. ‘Want a bag?’

He put verbena, myrrh and incense into the bag I gave him and paid for it while still giving me an awestruck look, then left. As soon as the door swung shut, the other kid came over and asked me the price for the second biggest crystal ball, trying to sound casual. I didn’t bother checking to see what he was going to use it for – about the only way you can hurt yourself with a crystal ball is by hitting yourself over the head with it, which is more than I can say for some of the things I sell. Once the kid had let himself out, hefting his paper bag, I got up, walked over and flipped the sign on the door from OPEN to CLOSED. Through the window, I saw the kid unlock his bike and ride off. About thirty seconds later a traffic warden walked by.

My shop is in a district in the north centre of London called Camden Town. There’s a spot where the canal, three bridges and two railway lines all meet and tangle together in a kind of urban reef-knot, and my street is right in the middle. The bridges and the canal do a good job of fencing the area in, making it into a kind of oasis in the middle of the city. Apart from the trains, it’s surprisingly quiet. I like to go up onto the roof sometimes and look around over the canal and the funny-shaped rooftops. Sometimes in the evenings and early mornings, when the traffic’s muted and the light’s faded, it feels almost like a gateway to another world.

The sign above my door says ‘Arcana Emporium’. Underneath is a smaller sign with some of the things I sell – implements, reagents, focus items, that sort of thing. You’d think it would be easier just to say ‘magic shop’, but I got sick of the endless stream of people asking for breakaway hoops and marked cards. Finally I worked out a deal with a stage magic store half a mile away, and now I keep a box of their business cards on the counter to hand out to anyone who comes in asking for the latest book by David Blaine. The kids go away happy, and I get some peace and quiet.

My name is Alex Verus. It’s not the name I was born with, but that’s another story. I’m a mage; a diviner. Some people call mages like me oracles, or seers, or probability mages if they want to be really wordy, and that’s fine too, just as long as they don’t call me a ‘fortune teller’. I’m not the only mage in the country, but as far as I know I’m the only one who runs a shop.

Mages like me aren’t common, but we aren’t as rare as you might think either. We look the same as anyone else, and if you passed one of us on the street odds are you’d never know it. Only if you were very observant would you notice something a little off, a little strange, and by the time you took another look, we’d be gone. It’s another world, hidden within your own, and most of those who live in it don’t like visitors.

Those of us who do like visitors have to advertise, and it’s tricky to find a way of doing it that doesn’t make you sound crazy. The majority rely on word of mouth, though younger mages use the internet. I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under ‘Wizard’, though that’s probably an urban legend. Me, I have my shop. Wiccans and pagans and New-Agers are common enough nowadays that people accept the idea of a magic shop, or at least they understand that the weirdos have to buy their stuff from somewhere. Of course, they take for granted that it’s all a con and that the stuff in my shop is no more magical than an old pair of socks, and for the most part they’re right. But the stuff in my shop that isn’t magical is good camouflage for the stuff that is, like the thing sitting upstairs in a little blue lacquered cylinder that can grant any five wishes you ask. If that ever got out, I’d  have much worse problems than the occasional snigger.

The futures had settled and the phone was going to ring in about thirty seconds. I settled down comfortably and, when the phone rang, let it go twice before picking up. ‘Hey.’

‘Hi, Alex,’ Luna’s voice said into my ear. ‘Are you busy?’

‘Not even a little. How’s it going?’

‘Can I ask a favour? I was going through a place in Clapham and found something. Can I bring it over?’

‘Right now?’

‘That’s not a problem, is it?’

‘Not really. Is there a rush?’

‘No. Well . . .’ Luna hesitated. ‘This thing makes me a bit nervous. I’d feel better if it was with you.’

I didn’t even have to think about it. Like I said, it was a slow day. ‘You remember the way to the park?’

‘The one near your shop?’

‘I’ll meet you there. Where are you?’

‘Still in Clapham. I’m just about to get on my bike.’

‘So one and a half hours. You can make it before sunset if you hurry.’

‘I think I am going to hurry. I’m not sure . . .’ Luna’s voice trailed off, then firmed. ‘Okay. See you soon.’

She broke the connection. I held the phone in my hand, looking at the display. Luna works for me on a part-time basis, finding items for me to sell, though I don’t think she does it for the money. Either way, I couldn’t remember her being this nervous about one. It made me wonder exactly what she was carrying.

You can think of magical talent as a pyramid. Making up the lowest and biggest layer are the normals. If magic is colours, these are the people born colour-blind: they don’t know anything about magic and they don’t want to, thank you very much. They’ve got plenty of things to deal with already, and if they do see anything that might shake the way they look at things, they convince themselves they didn’t see it double-quick. This is maybe ninety per cent of the adult civilised world.

Next up on the pyramid are the sensitives, the ones who aren’t colour-blind. Sensitives are blessed (or cursed, depending how you look at it) with a wider spectrum of vision than normals. They can feel the presence of magic, the distant power in the sun and the earth and the stars, the warmth and stability of an old family home, the lingering wisps of death and horror at a Dark ritual site. Most often they don’t have the words to describe what they feel, but two sensitives can recognise each other by a kind of empathy, and it makes a powerful bond. Have you ever felt a connection to someone, as though you shared something even though you didn’t know what it was? It’s like that.

Above the sensitives on the magical pecking order are the adepts. These guys are only one per cent or so, but unlike sensitives they can actually channel magic in a subtle way. Often it’s so subtle they don’t even know they’re doing it; they might be ‘lucky’ at cards, or very good at ‘guessing’ what’s on another person’s mind, but it’s mild enough that they just think they’re born lucky or perceptive. But sometimes they figure out what they’re doing and start developing it, and some of these guys can get pretty impressive within their specific field.

And then there are the mages.

Luna’s somewhere between sensitive and adept. It’s hard even for me to know which, as she has some . . . unique characteristics that make her difficult to categorise, not to mention dangerous. But she’s also one of my very few friends, and I was looking forward to seeing her. Her tone of voice had left me concerned so I looked into the future and was glad to see she was going to arrive in an hour and a half, right on time.

In the process, though, I noticed something that annoyed me: someone else was going to come through the door in a couple of minutes, despite the fact I’d just flipped my sign to say CLOSED. Camden gets a lot of tourists, and there’s always the one guy who figures opening hours don’t apply to him. I didn’t want to walk all the way over and lock the door, so I just sat watching the street grumpily until a figure appeared outside the door and pushed it open. It was a man wearing pressed trousers and a shirt with a tie. The bell above the door rang musically as he stepped inside and raised his eyebrows. ‘Hello, Alex.’

As soon as he spoke I recognised who it was. A rush of adrenaline went through me as I spread my senses out to cover the shop and the street outside. My right hand shifted down a few inches to rest on the shelf under my desk. I couldn’t sense any attack but that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

Lyle just stood there, looking at me. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘Aren’t you going to invite me in?’

It had been more than four years since I’d seen Lyle but he looked the same as I remembered. He was about as old as me, with a slim build, short black hair and a slight olive tint to his skin that hinted at a Mediterranean ancestor somewhere in his family tree. His clothes were expensive and he wore them with a sort of casual elegance I knew I’d never be able to match. Lyle had always known how to look good.

‘Who else is here?’ I said.

Lyle sighed. ‘No one. Good grief, Alex, have you really gotten this paranoid?’

I checked and rechecked and confirmed what he was saying. As far as I could tell, Lyle was the only other mage nearby. Besides, as my heartbeat began to slow, I realised that if the Council was planning an attack, Lyle was the last person they’d send. Suddenly I did feel paranoid.

Of course, that didn’t mean I was happy to see him or anything. Lyle began walking forward and I spoke sharply. ‘Stay there.’

Lyle stopped and looked quizzically at me. ‘So?’ he said when I didn’t react. He was standing in the middle of my shop in between the reagents and the shelves full of candles and bells. ‘Are we going to stand and stare at each other?’

‘How about you tell me why you’re here?’

‘I was hoping for a more comfortable place to talk.’ Lyle tilted his head. ‘What about upstairs?’

‘No.’

‘Were you about to eat?’

I pushed my chair back and rose to my feet. ‘Let’s go for a walk.’

Once we were outside I breathed a little easier. There’s a roped-off section to one side of my shop that contains actual magic items: focuses, residuals, and one-shots. They’d been out of sight from where Lyle had been standing, but a few more steps and he couldn’t have missed them. None were powerful enough to make him think twice, but it wouldn’t take him long to put two and two together and figure out that if I had that many minor items, then I ought to have some major ones too. And I’d just as soon that particular bit of information didn’t get back to the Council.

It was late spring and the London weather was mild enough to make walking a pleasure rather than a chore. Camden’s always busy, even when the market’s closed, but the buildings and bridges here have a dampening effect on stray sounds. I led Lyle down an alley to the canalside walk, and then stopped, leaning against the balustrade. As I walked I scanned the area thoroughly, both present and future, but came up empty. As far as I could tell, Lyle was on his own.

I’ve known Lyle for more than ten years. He was an apprentice when we first met, awkward and eager, hurrying along in the footsteps of his Council master. Even then there was never any question but that he’d try for the Council, but we were friends, if not close. At least for a little while. Then I had my falling out with Richard Drakh.

I don’t really like to think about what happened in the year after that. There are some things so horrible you never really get over them; they make a kind of burnt-out wasteland in your memory, and all you can do is try to move on. Lyle wasn’t directly responsible for the things that happened to me and the others in Richard’s mansion, but he had a pretty good idea of what was going on, just like the rest of the Council. At least, they would have had a good idea if they’d allowed themselves to think about it. Instead they avoided the subject and waited for me to do the convenient thing and vanish.

Lyle’s not my friend any more.

Now he was standing next to me, brushing off the balustrade before leaning on it, making sure none of the dirt got on his jacket. The walkway ran alongside the canal, following the curve of the canal out of sight. The water was dark and broken by choppy waves. It was an overcast day, the sunlight shining only dimly through the grey cloud.

‘Well,’ Lyle said eventually, ‘if you don’t want to chat, shall we get down to business?’

‘I don’t think we’ve got much to chat about, do you?’

‘The Council would like to employ your services.’

I blinked at that. ‘You’re here officially?’

‘Not exactly. There was some . . . disagreement on how best to proceed. The Council couldn’t come to a full agreement—’

‘The Council can’t come to a full agreement on when to have dinner.’

‘—on the best course of action,’ Lyle finished smoothly. ‘Consulting a diviner was considered as an interim measure.’

‘Consulting a divinder?’ I asked, suddenly suspicious. The Council and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms. ‘Me specifically?’

‘As you know, the Council rarely requests—’

‘What about Alaundo? I thought he was their go-to guy when they wanted a seer.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss closed Council proceedings.’

‘Once you start going door to door, it isn’t closed proceedings any more, is it? Come on, Lyle. I’m sure as hell not going to agree to anything unless I know why you’re here.’

Lyle blew out an irritated breath. ‘Master Alaundo is currently on extended research.’

‘So he turned you down? What about Helikaon?’

‘He’s otherwise occupied.’

‘And that guy from the Netherlands? Dutch Jake or whatever he was called. I’m pretty sure he did divination work for—’

‘Alex,’ Lyle said. ‘Don’t run through every diviner in the British Isles. I know the list as well as you do.’

I grinned. ‘I’m the only one you can find, aren’t I? That’s why you’re coming here.’ My eyes narrowed. ‘And the Council doesn’t even know. They wouldn’t have agreed to trust me with official business.’

‘I don’t appreciate threats,’ Lyle said stiffly. ‘And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use your abilities for these matters.’

‘You think I needed magic to figure that out?’ Annoying Lyle was satisfying, but I knew it was risky to push him too far. ‘Okay. So what does the Council want so badly you’re willing to risk coming to me?’

Lyle took a moment to straighten his tie. ‘I assume you’re aware of the Arrancar ruling?’

I looked at him blankly.

‘It’s been common knowledge for months.’

‘Common knowledge to whom?’

Lyle let out an irritated breath. ‘As a consequence of the Arrancar conclave, mages are required to report all significant archaeological discoveries of arcana to the Council. Recently, a new discovery was reported—’

‘Reported?’

‘—and subjected to a preliminary investigation. The investigation team have concluded quite definitely that it’s a Precursor relic.’

I looked up at that. ‘Functional?’

‘Yes.’

‘What kind?’

‘They weren’t able to determine.’

‘It’s sealed? I’m surprised they didn’t just force it.’

Lyle hesitated.

‘Oh,’ I said, catching on. ‘They did try to force it. What happene

‘I’m afraid that’s confidential.’

‘A ward? Guardian?’

‘In any case, a new investigation team is being formed. It was . . . considered necessary for them to have access to the abilities of a diviner.’

‘And you want me on the team?’

‘Not exactly.’ Lyle paused. ‘You’ll be an independent agent, reporting to me. I’ll pass on your recommendations to the investigators.’

I frowned. ‘What?’

Lyle cleared his throat. ‘Unfortunately it wouldn’t be feasible for you to join the team directly. The Council wouldn’t be able to clear you. But if you accept, I can promise I’ll tell you everything you need to know.’

I turned away from Lyle, looking out over the canal. The rumble of an engine echoed around the brick walls from downstream and a barge came into view, chugging along. It was painted yellow and red. The man at the tiller didn’t give us a glance as he passed. Lyle stayed quiet as the barge went by and disappeared around the bend of the canal. A breeze blew along the pathway, ruffling my hair.

I still didn’t speak. Lyle coughed. A pair of seagulls flew overhead, after the barge, calling with loud, discordant voices: arrrh, arrrh.

‘Alex?’ Lyle asked.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Not interested.’

‘If it’s a question of money . . .’

‘No, I just don’t like the deal.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it stinks.’

‘Look, you have to be realistic. There’s no way the Council would give you clearance to—’

‘If the Council doesn’t want to give me clearance, you shouldn’t be coming to me in the first place.’ I turned to look at Lyle. ‘What’s your idea? They need the information badly enough that they won’t care about where you’re getting it? I think sooner or later they’d start asking questions, and you’d cut me loose to avoid the flak. I’m not interested in being your fall guy.’

Lyle blew out a breath. ‘Why are you being so irrational about this? I’m giving you a chance to get back into the Council’s favour.’ He glanced around at the concrete and the grey skies. ‘Given the alternative . . .’

‘Well, since you bring it up, it just so happens that I’m not especially interested in getting back into the Council’s favour.’

‘That’s ridiculous. The Council represents all of the mages in the country.’

‘Yeah, all the mages. That’s the problem.’

‘This is about that business with Drakh, isn’t it?’ Lyle said. He rolled his eyes. ‘Jesus, Alex, it was ten years ago. Get over it.’

‘It doesn’t matter when it was,’ I said tightly. ‘The Council haven’t gotten better. They’ve gotten worse.’

‘We’ve had ten years of peace. That’s your idea of “worse”?’

‘The reason you’ve had peace is because you and the Council let the Dark mages do whatever they want.’ I glared at Lyle. ‘You know what they do to the people in their power. Why don’t you ask them how good a deal they think it is?’

‘We’re not starting another war, Alex. The Council isn’t going anywhere, and neither are the mages that are a part of it, Light or Dark. You’re just going to have to accept that.’

I took a breath and looked out over the canal, listening to the distant cries of the seagulls. When I spoke again my voice was steady. ‘The answer’s no. Find someone else.’

Lyle made a disgusted noise. ‘I should have known.’ He stepped away and gave me a look. ‘You’re living in the past. Grow up.’

I watched Lyle walk off. He didn’t look back. Once he’d disappeared around the corner I turned back to the canal.

So long as magic has existed, there’s been a split between the two paths: the Light mages and the Dark. Sometimes they’ve existed in uneasy truce; sometimes there have been conflicts. The last and greatest was called the Gate Rune War, and it happened forty years before I was born. It was a faction of the Dark mages against almost all of the Light, and the prize to the winner was total dominion over Earth. The Light side won – sort of. They stopped the Dark mages and killed their leaders, but by the time it was over most of the Light battle mages were dead as well. The Light survivors didn’t want to fight any more wars, and the surviving Dark mages were allowed to regroup. Years passed. The old warriors were replaced by a new generation of mages who thought that peace was the natural order of things.

By the time I arrived on the scene, Council policy was ‘live and let live’. Dark mages were tolerated so long as they didn’t go after Light mages, and vice versa. There was a set of rules called the Concord that governed how mages could and couldn’t act towards each other. The Concord didn’t draw any distinction between Light and Dark, and there was a growing feeling that the division between Light and Dark was out-of-date. At the time, I thought it made a lot of sense. My own master, Richard Drakh, was a Dark mage, and I didn’t see why Light and Dark mages couldn’t get along.

I changed my mind after I had my falling-out with Richard, but by then it was too late. That was when I discovered that while the Concord had all sorts of rules for how mages were allowed to treat each other, it didn’t have any rules at all for how they were allowed to treat their apprentices. After I escapted, I went to Lyle and the Council. They didn’t want to know. I was left alone, with an angry Dark mage after me.

Even now if I close my eyes I can still remember that time, the horrible paralysing fear. It’s impossible to understand unless you’ve experienced it – the terror of being hunted by something crueller and stronger than you. I was barely out of my teens, hardly able to look after myself, much less go face to face with someone like Richard. Now I look back on it I can see the Council was really just waiting for Richard to get rid of me and remove the whole embarrassing mess. Instead I survived.

So you can see why I’m not the Council’s favourite person. And why I’ve no desire to get into their good books, either. I knew that Lyle was gone and wasn’t coming back, but I stayed where I was for another twenty minutes, watching the reflections in the dark water and waiting for the ugly memories to settle. When I was calm again, I put Lyle and everything he stood for out of my mind and went home. I didn’t feel like doing any more work that day, so I left for the park, locking the shop behind me.

***

London is an old city. Even visitors can feel it – the sense of history, the weight of thousands of years. To a sensitive it’s even stronger, like a physical presence embedded into the earth and stone. Over the centuries pockets have developed, little enclaves in the jungle of buildings, and the place I was going to is one of them.

The park is about ten minutes’ walk from my shop, tucked down a twisting backstreet that nobody ever uses. It’s overgrown to the point of being nearly invisible behind the fence and trees. There are construction vehicles parked outside – officially the park’s supposed to be closed for redevelopment, but somehow the work never seems to get done. There are buildings all around, but leaves and branches shelter you from watching eyes.

I was sitting on a blanket with my back against a beech tree when I heard the faint rattle of a bicycle on the road outside. A moment later a girl appeared through the trees, ducking under the branches. I waved and she changed direction, walking across the grass towards me.

A glance at Luna would show you a girl in her early twenties, with blue eyes, fair skin and wavy light brown hair worn up in two bunches. She moves very carefully, always looking where she places her hands and feet, and often she seems as though her body’s there while her mind’s somewhere far away. She hardly ever smiles and I’ve never seen her laugh, but apart from that you could talk to her without noticing anything strange . . . at least to begin with.

Luna’s one of those people who was born into the world of magic without ever really getting a choice. Adepts and even mages can choose to abandon their power if they want to, bury their talents in the sand and walk away, but for Luna it’s different. A few hundred years ago in Sicily, one of Luna’s ancestors made the mistake of upsetting a powerful strega. Back country witches have a reputation for being vicious, but this one was mean even by witch standards. Instead of just killing the man, she put a curse on him that would strike his youngest daughter, and his daughter’s daughter, and her daughter after that, following his children down and down through the generations until his descendants died out or the world ended, whichever came first.

I don’t know how that long-dead witch managed to bind the curse so tightly to the family line, but she did a hell of a thorough job. She’s been dust and bones for centuries but the curse is just as strong as ever, and Luna’s the one in this generation who inherited it. Part of the reason the curse is so nasty is that it’s almost impossible to tell it’s there. Even a mage wouldn’t notice it unless he knew exactly what to look for. If I concentrate I can see it around Luna as a kind of silvery-grey mist, but I only have the vaguest idea how it does what it does.

‘Hey,’ Luna said as she reached me, slinging her backpack off her shoulder. Instead of sitting on the blanket she picked a spot on the grass, a few yards away from me. ‘Are you all right?’

‘Sure. Why?’

‘You look as if something’s bothering you.’

I shook my head in annoyance. I’d thought I’d concealed it better than that, but I always have trouble hiding things from Luna. ‘Unwelcome visitor. How’s things?’

Luna hesitated. ‘Can you . . .?’

‘Let’s have a look at it.’

Luna had been only waiting for me to ask; she unzipped her backpack and took out something wrapped in a cotton scarf. She leant forward to place it onto the edge of the blanket and unwrapped it, staying as far away as possible. The scarf fell away, Luna scooted back, and I leant forward in interest. Sitting in the folds of the scarf was what looked like a cube of red crystal.

The thing was about three inches square and deep crimson, the colour of red stained glass. As I looked more closely, though, I saw it wasn’t transparent enough to be glass; I should have been able to see through it, but I couldn’t. Instead, if I looked closely, I could see what looked like tiny white sparks held in the cube’s depths. ‘Huh,’ I said, sitting up. ‘Where’d you find it?’

‘It was in the attic of a house in Clapham West. But . . .’ Luna paused. ‘There’s something strange. I went to the same house three weeks ago and didn’t find anything. But this time it was sitting on a shelf, right out in the open. And when I went to the owner, he couldn’t remember owning it. He let me have it for free.’ Luna frowned. ‘I’ve been wondering if I just missed it, but I don’t see how. You can feel it, can’t you?’

I nodded. The cube radiated the distinct sense of otherness that all magic items do. This one wasn’t flashy, but it was strong; someone sensitive like Luna couldn’t have walked by without noticing. ‘Did you touch it?’

Luna nodded.

‘What happened?’

‘It glowed,’ Luna said. ‘Just for a second, and—’ She hesitated. ‘Well, I put it down, and it stopped. Then I wrapped it up and brought it here.’

The cube wasn’t glowing now so I focused on it and concentrated. All mages can see into the magical spectrum to some degree, but as a diviner I’m a lot better at it than most. A mage’s sight isn’t really sight – it’s more like a sixth sense – but the easiest way to interpret it is visually. It gives a sense of what the magic is, where it came from, and what it can do. If you’re skilled enough you can pick up the thoughts the magic was shaped out of and the kind of personality that created it. On a good day I can read an item’s whole history just from looking at it.

Today wasn’t one of those days. Not only could I not read the item’s aura, I couldn’t read any aura on it at all. Which made no sense, because there should have been at least one aura, namely Luna’s. To my eyes Luna glowed a clear silver, wisps of mist constantly drifting away and being renewed. A residue of it clung to everything she touched: her pack glowed silver, the scarf glowed silver, even the grass she was sitting on glowed silver. But the cube itself radiated nothing at all. The thing was like a black hole.

Left to their own devices magic items give off an aura, and the more powerful the item, the more powerful that aura is. This was why I’d had Luna bring the thing out here; if I’d tried to examine the cube in my shop I’d have had a hundred other auras distracting me. The park is a natural oasis, a kind of grounding circle which keeps other energies out, allowing me to concentrate on just one thing at a time. It’s possible to design an item so as to minimise its signature, but no matter how carefully you design a one-shot or a focus, something’s going to be visible. The only way to mask a magical aura completely is to do it actively, which left only one thing this could be. I dropped my concentration and looked up at Luna. ‘You’ve found something special, all right.’

‘Do you know what it is?’ Luna asked.

I shook my head and thought for a moment. ‘What happened when you touched it?’

‘The sparks inside lit up and it glowed. Just for a second. Then it went dark again.’ Luna seemed about to say something else, then stopped.

‘After that? Did it do anything else?’

‘Well . . .’ Luna hesitated. ‘It might be nothing.’

‘Tell me.’

‘It felt like it was looking at me. Even after I put it away. I know that sounds weird.’

I sat back against the tree, looking down at the cube. I didn’t like this at all. ‘Alex?’ Luna asked. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘This is going to be trouble.’

‘Why?’

I hesitated. I’d been teaching Luna about magic for a few months, but so far I’d avoided telling her much about the people who use it. I know Luna wants to be accepted into the magical world, and I also know there’s not much chance of it happening. Mage society is based on a hierarchy of power: the stronger your magic, the more status you have. Sensitives like Luna are second-class citizens at best.

‘Look, there’s a reason not many mages run shops,’ I said at last. ‘They’ve never bought in to the whole idea of yours and mine. A mage sees a magic item, his first reaction is to take it. Now, a minor item you can keep out of sight, but something really powerful . . .that’s different. Any mage who finds out about this thing is going to be willing to take time off his schedule and track you down to take it, and he might not be gentle about how. Just owning a major item is dangerous.’

Luna was quiet. ‘But you don’t do that,’ she said at last.

I sighed. ‘No.’

Luna looked at me, then turned away. We sat for a little while in silence.

Luna’s curse is a spell of chance magic. Chance magic affects luck, bending probability so that something that might happen one time in a thousand, or a million, happens at just the right time – or the wrong one. The spell around Luna does both. It pulls bad luck away from her, and brings it to everyone nearby.

The really twisted thing is that from what I’ve learned the spell was originally invented by Dark mages as a protection, not a curse, because it makes you as safe from accidents as a person can possibly be. You can run across a motorway in rush hour, climb a tree in a lightning storm, walk through a battlefield with bombs going off all around you, all without taking a scratch.

But the accidents don’t go away; they just get redirected to everyone nearby, and when the spell is laid permanently, the results are horrible. The closer Luna gets to another person, the more the curse affects them. She can’t live in the same house as anyone else, because something terrible would happen within a month. She can’t keep pets, or they die. Even having friends is dangerous. The closer other people are to her, and the longer they stay near, the worse the result. Whenever Luna comes to care about any other human being, she knows that the more time she spends with them, the more they’re going to be hurt. She told me once that the first boy she kissed ended up in a coma.

I’ve spent some time researching Luna’s curse, trying to find a way to break it, but haven’t gotten anywhere. I might be able to get somewhere if I studied her intensively, but Luna’s life is hard enough without being treated like some kind of science project. Still . . . ‘Luna?’

‘Hm?’

‘There’s something I was . . .’ Something brushed against my senses, and I stopped. I looked into the future and my stomach suddenly went cold.

Luna was watching in puzzlement. She could tell from my expression that something was going on, but she didn’t know what. ‘Alex?’

I jumped to my feet. ‘Get away!’

Luna started to rise, confused. ‘What’s going on?’

‘There’s no time!’ I was desperate; we had only seconds.

‘Behind the tree, hide! Hurry!’

Luna hesitated an instant longer, then moved quickly behind the beech. ‘Stay there,’ I said, my voice low and urgent. ‘Don’t make a sound.’ I turned back just as a man stepped from the trees in front of me.

He was powerfully built, with a thick neck and wide hands, and muscles that bulged through the lines of his black coat. He might have looked like a bouncer or a bodyguard, maybe even a friendly one, if you didn’t look too closely at his eyes. ‘Verus, right?’ the Dark mage said, regarding me steadily. ‘Don’t think we’ve met.