The eighth novel in the urban fantasy series which began with Fated: the Alex Verus novels are magic-filled fan favourites, perfect for readers of Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch.
Walking through Richard’s mansion felt like broken glass under my skin.
The inside was well lit, though the dark walls and floor made it feel shadowed. Candle-shaped bulbs in chandeliers shone down onto russet tiles, and thick rafters crossed the ceiling overhead. The walls were panelled, engraved in neat geometric patterns. Our footsteps echoed faintly off the wood, and from time to time a whisper of sound would hint at movement deeper within. Shades of brown and yellow blended into a dark gold.
For me, this was a place of horror and madness. It had been a little more than fourteen years since I’d first passed these doors, and on that day, Richard had introduced me to my fellow apprentices, Rachel and Tobruk and Shireen. He’d explained our duties, then left us to do as we pleased. After a while, there’d been a job. And then another job. And within two years Shireen and Tobruk were dead, Rachel was insane and I was half insane too, fleeing and hiding and trying to rebuild my shattered life. It had taken years, and once I was whole again, I’d sworn I’d never return. Now I was doing exactly that.
The creature leading us was walking two paces in front. To a casual glance it would have looked like a young woman, golden-haired and beautiful, dressed in white. Only the eyes gave it away: when it had greeted us at the door, I’d met its gaze, and the eyes looking back at me had been blank and empty. I’d heard of these kinds of constructs – they were called ‘dama’. They were physically weak and nearly mindless, with only enough intelligence to obey simple commands, but they did have one particular trait that certain mages valued highly. Dama had no long-term memory: any command given to them, once executed, faded from their minds. Back when I’d lived in this mansion, Richard had used house-slaves for these kinds of tasks. The fact that the slaves had apparently been replaced was an improvement from one point of view, but it had ominous implications.
I stole a glance at Anne, walking beside me. Her hair had grown out a little while we’d been on the run, and it brushed her shoulders now as she glanced from side to side, reddish-brown eyes searching the walls. I knew she was sensing the living creatures in the mansion, seeing them through the walls and doors, but I didn’t dare ask her about it, not here. Her weight was towards the balls of her feet, and she looked ready to fight or flee. I was glad she was there, and ashamed of that gladness. There are few people I’d rather have at my side in a tight spot than Anne, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was here because of me.
The construct led us into a sitting room, also panelled in wood, with red cushions and no windows. It turned to us with an empty smile. ‘Please wait here. You will be summoned soon.’
‘How soon is “soon”?’ Anne asked in her soft voice.
The construct’s smile didn’t change. ‘Please wait here. You will be summoned soon.’
Anne opened her mouth again. I caught her eye and gave a tiny shake of my head, and she stopped. The construct, still smiling, turned and left the room, shutting the door.
‘Feels like talking to the people at the Department of Work and Pensions,’ Anne said under her breath, then looked up sharply.
‘There you are!’ a voice said from my right. ‘I was wondering how long I’d have to wait.’
I was glad my precognition had given me some advance warning. The woman who’d just walked into the room wasn’t the person I least wanted to come face to face with, but she was definitely in the top five. ‘Vihaela,’ I said, turning.
‘Verus,’ the woman said with a slight smile. ‘You’re looking well, considering.’
Vihaela is one of the tallest women I know, taller even than Anne and able to stand eye to eye with me. She’s dark-haired and dark-skinned, with the build of an athlete and the grace of a raptor, and she dresses in brown and black and red. Vihaela draws attention from people who don’t know her, and draws even more attention from the ones who do. Like Anne, she’s a life magic user, but Vihaela’s magic is a blend of life and death and she puts it to much darker uses than Anne does. Right now, she looked happy. Vihaela often looks happy, though I get the impression that the things that make her happy aren’t so pleasant for the people around her.
‘Could say the same of you,’ I said. ‘Although that never seems to change very much.’
‘Was that a compliment? Points for trying, but I’m more interested in what you’ve brought me.’ Vihaela glided past, apparently forgetting I was there.
Anne stood her ground as Vihaela approached. Most mages won’t come close to a life mage, but if Vihaela was afraid of Anne, nothing in her movements showed it. She came to a stop within arm’s reach of the younger woman, looming so that Anne had to tilt her head up slightly. ‘I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,’ Vihaela said, her voice like silk. She reached up to stroke Anne’s cheek.
It’s easy to forget just how fast Anne can move. One moment her arms were by her sides, the next her left hand was clasped around Vihaela’s wrist, halting the older woman’s fingers just short of her face. ‘Please don’t do that,’ Anne said. Her voice was soft and clear.
‘Lovely,’ Vihaela said. She smiled at Anne. ‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a very beautiful young woman?’
‘A lot of Dark mages have.’ Anne held Vihaela’s gaze. ‘It was never for a reason I liked.’
‘So suspicious,’ Vihaela murmured. ‘How strong do you think those spells are?’
Vihaela’s smile widened. ‘Let’s find out.’
‘Anne!’ I snapped.
A wall of black energy flashed up, separating me from Anne, and green-black light leapt from Vihaela’s hand into Anne’s arm and down into her body. The spell was one I’d never seen before, malignant and deadly, and the attack was quick as lightning. Most mages would have been overwhelmed in the first second.
But Anne is almost as fast as Vihaela, and my shout had given her a heartbeat’s warning. A barrier of leaf-green light flashed into existence around Anne’s body, holding Vihaela’s magic back. Black tendrils twined and snapped, but that thin, fragile-seeming shield of green held them away.
Vihaela stared down at Anne. She’d twisted her hand around to grasp Anne’s wrist and now leant forward, bearing down on the younger woman. Anne slid back a step, then steadied, and for a moment the two of them were still, the muscles in Anne’s arm straining. Then slowly, gradually, the green light of Anne’s magic began to push Vihaela’s spell back. The green-black snakes receded, fighting every inch of the way. Soft green tendrils twined their way up to Anne’s elbow, then up her forearm. Anne’s eyes gleamed red in the light as she held Vihaela’s gaze. The tendrils of Anne’s magic reached for Vihaela’s fingers, and I saw a flash of surprise on Vihaela’s face, just before her eyes narrowed and black light burst outwards.
I stumbled back, shielding my eyes. My skin stung from the energy discharge, and I had a weapon in either hand, but as my eyesight cleared I saw that the fight was over. The wall was gone, as were Vihaela’s spells, and Vihaela was standing three steps back. From beginning to end the whole thing had taken less than ten seconds.
‘So Sagash did teach you something,’ Vihaela said.
‘Stay away from me,’ Anne said softly and clearly.
‘Vihaela?’ I said. I made an effort to make it sound like a suggestion rather than an order. ‘Maybe it might be a good idea if we left this for another time?’
‘Hm?’ Vihaela didn’t look at me. ‘Oh. I suppose.’ She looked at Anne for a moment longer, then gave her a smile. ‘Be seeing you.’ She walked past and out through the way we’d entered, both of us swivelling to watch her go. The door clicked shut behind her.
The room was silent. Ten seconds passed, then twenty. ‘Is she gone?’ I asked once I was sure Vihaela was out of earshot.
Anne nodded once.
I resheathed my weapons. In my left hand I’d drawn a dispel focus, a slender silvery wand able to neutralise a single spell. In my right hand I’d drawn my dagger. Neither would have been much use against Vihaela. ‘You okay?’
Anne didn’t answer for a second and I was about to ask again, but she took a deep breath and seemed to shake it off. When she turned to me she looked normal again, but there was a distant look in her eyes, and I wondered what she and Vihaela had shared in those few seconds. Life mages see the world very differently from other people. ‘Is she always like that?’
‘Only with the people she’s interested in.’
The far door opened and the dama reappeared. It was still wearing that same empty smile, and when I saw what it was going to say, Vihaela went right out of my mind. ‘Mage Drakh will see you now.’
* * *
Flashback fourteen years
‘. . . on the first floor,’ Richard was saying. ‘Pick an empty bedroom for your own. I believe the other three have already settled in.’
It was the beginning of winter. I was seventeen years old and had just left home, cutting ties with my mother to move into Richard’s mansion. I’d spent most of that first visit staring open-mouthed. I’d never seen a house so big. ‘This place is huge,’ I’d said.
‘How much did it cost?’
Richard smiled slightly. With hindsight, I know he was amused. ‘The value of money in the magical community is somewhat less than it was in your previous life.’
I looked at Richard. ‘How much do I get?’
‘As much as you need, within reason. What would you use it for?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There really isn’t much for you to buy. Food will be provided from the kitchen, and there is a selection of clothes and other necessities in the first-floor storeroom. Take what you need. If you need something else, ask Tristana or Zander. Oh, treat them with courtesy, please. I’ve instructed them to follow your orders, but if I discover you’ve harmed them, I’ll be upset.’
‘What if I want to go somewhere?’
‘You’re in the middle of Wales, Alex,’ Richard said. ‘You can’t exactly flag down a taxi. I suppose you could walk to the nearest bus stop, but it’s several miles of woods and fields and I doubt it would take you anywhere you especially wanted to go.’
‘Then how do I get anywhere?’
‘Use a gate stone.’
‘I don’t know how to use a gate stone.’
‘Then I suggest you learn.’
I paused again. Now that I look back on it, I can see that Richard had already started teaching us. Most of his lessons weren’t direct; it was all done by implication. Here’s the playing field; here are the rules. If you want anything more, get it yourself. ‘Your introduction and first lesson will be in the living room at eight o’clock,’ Richard said. ‘I’ll see you then.’
It was a dismissal, but I didn’t leave. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked.
‘You’re giving us all this, and you’re helping us,’ I said. ‘What do you get out of it?’
Richard smiled, and for the first time, he looked genuinely pleased, as though I was beginning to ask the right questions. ‘Everyone wants to leave something behind.’
I stared at him a moment longer before turning to go.
* * *
The whole memory flashed through my head as I stepped through the door of Richard’s study, there and gone in barely a second. Then it was forgotten as I focused on the man sitting behind the desk.
As far as looks go, Richard Drakh is average in almost every way. He’s neither short nor tall, neither thin nor fat, not particularly handsome or ugly or plain. His hair is medium brown, his eyes don’t draw attention and he wears an understated suit that doesn’t look especially cheap or expensive. Put him on a London train, and he’d disappear into the crowd without a ripple. In the stories, the greatest Dark mages are always terrifying to look at, tall or striking or monstrous or all three at once. Richard was none of those things – in fact, Vihaela looked the part of a Dark master mage far more than he did. Yet it was Vihaela who obeyed Richard, not the other way around, and Richard struck more fear into me than she ever could. It was Richard who’d recruited me and trained me and taught me to be a Dark mage, and it had been Richard who’d watched as I’d fallen from grace and been dragged away by Tobruk to the cells below.
Richard was writing in a plain black notebook, and he kept writing as we walked in and stopped in front of his desk while the door swung silently back behind us. Only when it closed with a soft click did he close the book and look up. ‘Alex.’ He nodded to me. ‘Anne. How was your trip?’
Anne and I stared at him.
‘I asked you to visit today to give you an overview of your duties,’ Richard said. ‘I understand you’ve been somewhat out of the loop, so I thought it best to give you the opportunity to ask any questions.’ He looked between us, his eyebrows raised. ‘Before we begin, is there anything you’d like to bring up?’
Richard’s voice is deep and powerful, almost hypnotic. Standing, he blends into the background, but when he speaks he dominates any room he’s in. Sometimes, back when I was an apprentice, I’d go into a session with Richard meaning to argue with him, then come out an hour later thinking about everything he’d told us, and only afterwards would I remember what I’d planned to say.
But I wasn’t an apprentice any more. ‘We aren’t here because we want to be,’ I said.
Richard paused. ‘Excuse me?’
A part of me – actually, most of me – didn’t want to say anything. I was still terrified of Richard, and the part of me that remembered being his apprentice wanted to avoid anything that would provoke him. But if I stayed silent, I’d be accepting his authority. There wasn’t much I could do, but I could do this.
‘You know how Morden motivated us,’ I said. ‘We didn’t come because we wanted to work for you. We’re here because Morden told us that if we didn’t, he’d kill our entire families.’
‘You have some quarrel with Morden?’ Richard asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We have a quarrel with Morden.’ At my side, Anne nodded.
‘And yet it’s because of Morden that you’re alive.’
‘That doesn’t matter!’
‘Really?’ Richard said. ‘As I understand it, without Morden’s intervention, you would have been turned into a fine mist of blood and body parts approximately two days ago. Assuming Levistus’s men didn’t manage to take you alive, in which case your death would have been considerably slower.’ Richard looked at Anne. ‘Not you, of course. Though I believe you have reason to owe Alex some loyalty. Which suggests to me that both of you should be grateful to Morden rather than the reverse.’
Anne was silent, and I knew why. I’d had to trick her to get her to go along with that plan, and that conversation was one that was still hanging over my head. But I wasn’t going to let Richard deflect this onto her. ‘Morden didn’t help us to be nice,’ I said.
Richard shrugged. ‘He is entitled to a measure of payment.’
I remembered Morden’s words, how he’d explained in detail that if I refused, he’d kill everyone I knew or cared about, one by one, saving the closest for last, and white-hot anger flooded through me. ‘Screw his payment,’ I said through clenched teeth.
‘You’d prefer that Morden had stayed uninvolved?’
I glared at Richard silently.
‘As you wish,’ Richard said.
I flinched, but all Richard had done was to reach down into a drawer. His hand came back into view holding a dagger. It was a short, heavy-bladed fighting knife with a hilt wrapped in black leather, and my mind raced as I looked through the futures. I couldn’t see any trace of combat, but—
Richard laid the dagger down on the desk, pointing towards me, and withdrew his hand. He nodded down at the blade. ‘Take it.’
I stared at Richard.
‘I’m sure you know where to strike,’ Richard said. ‘Though I’d appreciate it if you picked somewhere neat. Opening the throat or the wrists tends to make a mess, and I’d rather not replace the carpet.’
‘You expect me—’
‘To kill yourself?’ Richard said. ‘If that’s what you want.’
‘Why would you—?’
‘You would prefer to die than be in Morden’s debt?’ All of a sudden Richard’s voice was cold and hard. ‘Then here is your chance. Take that blade and turn it on yourself. There will be no retaliation, no reprisal killings. All that will happen is that you will be dead – exactly as you would have been had Morden left you alone.’
‘That’s your idea of a choice?’ I demanded.
‘What did you expect, Alex? That Morden would solve your problems for free? And make no mistake, they are your problems. Your enmity with Levistus is entirely of your own making. You chose to provoke him, expecting . . . what? That there would be no consequences? There are always consequences. This is one of them.’ Richard’s eyes held mine as he reached out to tap the dagger. ‘I have no use for children, nor for those without the will to live. Choose.’
Anger flashed up inside me, both for the tone of Richard’s words, and for the fact that I didn’t have an answer. Because I’d already understood what he was saying, and he was right. Only a few days ago, I’d been about to let Levistus’s men kill me. Oh, I’d have made a fight of it, but there was only one way that it could have ended. If I used that knife on myself, all I’d be doing would be resetting the status quo.
But there was no way I was going to do it, and Richard knew that. And the anger had done one useful thing: it had burned away most of my fear. Right now I wasn’t seeing Richard as the teacher out of my nightmares; he was just another Dark mage, and I looked into the future to see what would happen if I turned that knife on him instead.
It was . . . closer than I’d expected. Much closer. In fact, to my surprise, as I looked at the futures of combat playing out before us, I actually thought that I might win. It was true that Richard wasn’t as defenceless as he looked, and I knew his reactions would be lightning-quick, but none of the futures ended with him simply blasting me with magic. He would use weapons and tricks and combat skill, and those were all things I could counter.
For the first time, I let myself wonder if I should be so scared of Richard. When I’d fled this mansion I’d still been a child. I’d had a long time to grow stronger. Maybe it was all in my head . . .
No. Richard wouldn’t have handed me a weapon if he hadn’t been prepared for me to use it. Besides, even if I could beat him, what then? Richard could have his victory of words. I could wait.
‘Good,’ Richard said when I stayed silent. He glanced at Anne. ‘I assume your answer is the same? Yes?’ He put the knife back in the drawer and shut it. That’s that, his manner seemed to say. We’ve settled who’s in charge.
We hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
‘Now as to your duties,’ Richard said. ‘For the moment, both of you will be assigned to Morden. You’re now his liaisons to the Keepers and to the medical corps, respectively. As I’m sure you know, Morden has been working to expand the recognition and acceptance of Dark mages within the Light Council. I expect you both to act in accordance with that.’
‘How?’ I said.
‘I am sure you are both quite able to figure that out for yourselves.’
‘Where are we supposed to be staying?’
‘Wherever you like.’
That wasn’t what I’d expected, and it must have shown because Richard raised an eyebrow. ‘Neither of you are apprentices. I’m not responsible for your accommodation.’ Richard turned to Anne. ‘You’ve been quiet so far. Do you have any questions?’
‘Just one,’ Anne said in her soft voice. ‘What do you want?’
‘As I said, you’re to work with Morden.’
‘You could have recruited a Dark healer or a Dark diviner,’ Anne said. She didn’t raise her voice but her eyes stayed steady, and I had the feeling she was watching Richard very closely. ‘Why us?’
‘Competent life mages and diviners are rarer than you might think.’
‘That’s not an answer.’
For the first time, Richard smiled. ‘How long has it been since you joined the Light apprentice programme, Anne?’
‘I’m not a member any more.’
‘Regardless, how long ago did you join?’
‘How many years would you say a Light mage usually spends as an apprentice before graduation?’
‘Three to seven.’
‘But the only Light apprentices who spend the full seven years are those who join the programme in their mid-teens,’ Richard said. ‘The seven-year-apprenticeship tradition is rare nowadays. Almost all Light mages graduate by twenty-one, twenty-two at the latest. You are . . . twenty-four, was it?’
‘There are apprentices in the programme older than me.’
‘Let me put this another way,’ Richard said. ‘You spent a little over three years in the apprentice programme. After the first six months, how often were you taught anything about the use of your magic that was genuinely new?’
Anne was silent. I looked at her, slightly puzzled. Somehow Richard had her off-balance. ‘What’s your point?’ I asked Richard.
‘The point is that she should have been raised to journeyman rank within three months,’ Richard said. ‘Instead she was required to waste her time in classes far below her level of ability. I expect that it wasn’t uncommon for her to know more about life magic than her teachers.’ Richard turned back to Anne. ‘Do you know why they resented you so much?’
Anne didn’t answer.
‘Because you were an embarrassment,’ Richard said. ‘Apprentices aren’t supposed to outperform their masters, especially apprentices trained outside the programme. They were never going to let you graduate. Your argument with that apprentice was simply a pretext. If they hadn’t expelled you for that, it would have been something else.’ Richard looked back at me. ‘A similar story with you. You only achieved the status of auxiliary because of your friends in the Order of the Star. They would never have allowed you to become a full Keeper.’
‘The Council doesn’t like us,’ I said. ‘What are you getting at?’
‘Unlike the Council, I do not believe in wasting talent,’ Richard said. ‘The two of you are highly competent. Your skills were being under-utilised. I viewed that as an opportunity.’ He looked at Anne. ‘I hope that answers your question.’
Anne hesitated. ‘I suppose.’
‘Good. One last thing.’
Here it comes, I thought.
‘From time to time, I will have additional tasks for you. When I do, I will send someone with instructions. I will expect them to be carried out promptly and thoroughly. Is that understood?’
It was what I’d been afraid of, and I didn’t have an answer. There was no point arguing. I stayed silent, and so did Anne.
‘Then if there’s nothing else, you’re free to go.’
I looked at Richard.
Richard sighed. ‘Yes, Alex, you are free to go wherever you wish. Stay in Wales, return to London, travel to another country if you like. As long as you fulfil the duties assigned to you, then where you spend your time is your own decision.’ Richard glanced at the clock. ‘Morden will be expecting the two of you at the War Rooms tomorrow at nine a.m. In the meantime, I have another appointment.’
We looked at Richard, then at each other.
‘You can go now,’ Richard said.
We left. The construct was waiting for us in the next room, empty eyes and an unchanging smile. ‘Please follow me.’
* * *
As we walked back through the corridors, I searched through futures of us staying in the mansion, scanning for any signs of danger. Nothing showed, but I still couldn’t help wonder whether Richard was going to just let us walk away.
‘Is that it?’ Anne asked.
We passed an intersection and I glanced left and right. ‘For now,’ I said, keeping my voice down.
‘I was expecting . . .’ Anne said.
‘I don’t know. Something worse.’
‘We’re not out yet,’ I said. Ahead of us, the dama kept to its steady pace. I wasn’t sure if it was even hearing us at all.
The dama reached the front door, opened it, then stood with its hands clasped, looking at us with its empty smile. Through the open doorway I could see green grass and trees. The cold January air blew in, making me shiver.
I walked out through the door. The front of the mansion held a porch, with three concentric steps leading up to the doorway and pillars supporting a balcony above. Beyond the porch was nothing, not even a path. A grassy slope dipped down into a valley before rising up to a treeline. Around us, the green hills of Wales rose up into an overcast sky.
Anne followed me out and I walked down the steps. I was still looking through the futures in which I turned and went back inside, looking for any signs of danger in the mansion behind us.
The attack came from ahead.
A green ray stabbed from the trees on the other side of the valley, down towards where I would have been if I’d taken that last step onto the grass. I jerked back just in time, seeing the air flash sea-green an arm’s length away, and I had an instant to identify the spell before I was darting back for the cover of the doorway. A second ray cut me off, passing between us to strike the side of the door, and I saw Anne’s eyes go wide as a whole section of the masonry puffed into nothingness, then Anne jumped back and I had to twist to dodge another ray which hit the pillar supporting the left-hand side of the porch and turned the bottom half of it to dust.
With a creaking groan, the porch collapsed. The natural reaction would have been to jump backwards, but I knew that would leave me exposed to my attacker so instead I darted forward under the falling stone. Bricks smashed onto the steps all around, then I was through just as an avalanche of stone and masonry crashed down behind me.
All of a sudden everything was still. Choking dust filled the air. ‘Alex!’ Anne shouted from inside.
‘I’m okay!’ I shouted back. ‘Stay there!’
Anne stayed quiet. The left side of the porch was a pile of broken rubble, shielding me from the line of fire, and the jagged remains of the balcony ended abruptly overhead. I crouched behind the debris, looking ahead to see if I’d get shot at if I stuck my head up. For a moment, shadowy images of violence played through the futures, then they were gone.
I checked again, then stood up with a grunt. ‘We’re clear.’
Anne appeared in what was left of the doorway. She’d dodged back into the entrance hall when the balcony had fallen, and now picked her way over the rubble. ‘Look,’ she said, nodding back into the hall.
I did. The dama was still standing there, still looking at us, still smiling. The balcony’s collapse had ripped one of the double doors off its hinges, but the rubble had missed the dama by a few feet. ‘Why’s it just standing there?’ Anne asked.
‘It’s programmed to wait for us to leave, then close the door,’ I said. I pointed at the remains of the door beneath the rubble. ‘It’ll sit there until someone gives it new orders or until it runs out of batteries.’
Anne looked at the construct and shivered.
A movement in the futures made me turn. Richard had appeared in the hallway. He looked at the ruins of his front porch, then up at me. ‘Your doing?’
I wanted to ask if he didn’t know everything already, but thought better of it. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Who lives around here, uses disintegration spells and really doesn’t like me?’
Richard’s eyes narrowed and I felt a flash of fear, but the next moment his face was smooth again. ‘Move along, please.’
‘Are you going to—?’
‘You are not my Chosen, Alex.’ Richard’s voice was level, but his eyes stayed fixed on me. ‘Do not take liberties.’
Anne looked at me, and I held my tongue. We walked away down the hillside. The dama watched us go.