Here's the first chapter of Chosen, the fourth instalment in the Alex Verux series by Benedict Jacka.
The night was warm and still. Through the open windows of my flat a gentle breeze blew, faint scents carrying on the air: tarmac, burnt rubber, the distant smell of a barbecue. The street outside was filled with the steady whisper of traffic, voices rising briefly above the background noise before fading into it again, and from two blocks over came the rhythmic thump of club music. A helicopter was prowling the skies above, tracking the wail of police sirens, and from time to time it would pass overhead in a clatter of rotors.
Inside, my flat was peaceful. Flies moved in lazy arcs under the light, and birds and animals looked quietly down from the pictures on the walls. The coffee table had been moved to the centre of the room; it was covered with cardboard hexes and wooden playing pieces, and four out of the five of us were sitting around it. Sonder and I were on chairs, Luna was sitting cross-legged on a beanbag and Variam was at one end of the sofa, scowling down at his cards. At the other end of the sofa and a little way from the game was Anne, curled up with her legs tucked under her.
‘Uh, Variam?’ Sonder said. Sonder has messy black hair and glasses, and always seems to have a permanent air of scruffiness about him as though he’s just slept in his clothes. ‘Your turn.’
Variam picked up the dice and threw them without looking. ‘Seven.’
Luna stretched to see. ‘That’s an eight, you idiot.’
Sonder perked up. ‘Awesome! Five ore, two grain.’
Variam ignored them both. ‘We should be practising,’ he told me.
‘You’ve been practising for weeks,’ I said, waiting for Sonder to finish scooping cards before taking my own.
‘It’s better than just sitting here.’
‘Are you done?’ Sonder asked Variam.
Variam nodded and Sonder picked up the dice. ‘We could do more combat drills,’ Variam said as Sonder made his roll.
‘You don’t need more combat drills.’
‘She does,’ Variam said, pointing at Anne.
Luna looked at Variam in annoyance. ‘Your appointment tomorrow’s for a consultation, not a battle,’ I said before Luna could start an argument. ‘She just wants to find out a bit about you. I’ll be surprised if she even asks you to cast a spell.’
Sonder hesitated, looking between us.
‘We might need to show her what we can do,’ Variam said.
‘Variam, she’s a little old lady,’ I said. ‘She lives in a terraced house in Brondesbury. She is not going to want you to show her how well you can incinerate things.’
Variam sat back with an aggravated look.
‘Um,’ Sonder said. ‘I’ll get a city and a development card.’ He pushed the dice over to Luna. ‘Your turn.’
Luna waited for Sonder to withdraw his hand before picking up the dice and rolling them. To my mage’s sight Luna’s curse appeared as a silvery aura, twining around her limbs and body like living mist. Silver tendrils played over the dice as they bounced and disappeared once the dice came to rest. ‘Seven,’ Luna said with satisfaction. ‘Let’s see, I think the robber can go . . .’ – she picked up the black piece and traced a circle with it over the board – ‘. . . there.’ She set it down in the middle of Variam’s settlements and held out a hand, fingers extended. ‘Gimme.’
Variam woke up. ‘What?’
‘Why are you going for me? They’re going to win!’
‘Annoying you is more fun. Card, please.’
Variam scowled and held his cards out with poor grace. Luna took her time over picking one, making Variam’s scowl deepen before she plucked one out. The silver mist of her curse pulled in close to her fingers as she did. Luna’s curse brings bad luck, and it’s quite lethal: even a strand of that mist is dangerous and skin-to-skin contact is deadly. Once upon a time Luna would never have been able to get so close to another person without putting them at risk, but she’s been training to control her curse for nearly a year and a half now and it’s paid off. The silver mist was layered near to her skin, bright and dense, and only a few faint traces had spread to the playing pieces, leaving them bathed in tiny silver auras. The auras around the items weren’t a problem: her curse doesn’t do much to objects. Living creatures are another story.
The dice came around to me, and after the resources had been counted out I looked at my hand. The first to ten points would win, and I had eight. Glancing into the future in which I turned over the top development card, I saw that it was a victory point. ‘Settlement,’ I said, placing the wooden playing piece down on the map, then rose to my feet. ‘I’m getting a drink; you guys want something?’
‘Could I have some water?’ Sonder asked.
‘I kind of want a drink but I’m not sure what,’ Luna said.
‘I think there’s some of the cordial I made yesterday left,’ Anne said in her soft voice. ‘The elderflower and lime?’
Luna perked up. ‘Oh, that was nice.’
I walked into the kitchen, took the bottle out of the fridge and was just filling a glass when I felt the presence behind me. I held out the drink without looking and it was taken from my hand after a moment’s pause. ‘Thank you,’ Anne said.
Anne is tall and slim, only an inch or so shorter than me, with black hair that brushes her shoulders and reddish-brown eyes. She looks striking, but she’s got a quiet, unobtrusive manner that tends not to draw attention. ‘What’s up?’ I asked, filling another glass.
‘You could have won that game, couldn’t you?’ Anne said.
I turned with a smile. ‘Guess I need a better poker face.’
Back in the living room I could hear raised voices: Variam and Luna had started arguing again. ‘Were you letting them win?’ Anne asked curiously.
‘To win I’d have needed Luna or Vari to trade me their cards,’ I said. ‘Probably could have convinced them but I’d have had to lie.’
‘You don’t think it’s worth it?’
‘I’ve done enough shady stuff,’ I said. ‘I’d rather stay friends unless I’ve got a really good reason not to.’
Anne gave a smile but it faded quickly. She glanced back over her shoulder, up at the cupboards.
‘Something wrong?’ I said.
‘There’s someone outside.’
I straightened, suddenly alert. ‘Where?’
Anne is a life mage, and a powerful one. Most people think ‘life mage’ means ‘healer’ and they’re half right, but life magic is far more than that – it gives control over every aspect of a living creature, healing or harming with a touch. Life mages can sense life, ‘seeing’ living creatures, and Anne’s particularly good at it. Her accuracy is amazing: she can learn more in a minute just by looking at you than a doctor could work out in twenty-four hours with a full hospital’s worth of equipment. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly how she does it, though she’s tried to explain it a couple of times. She just seems to read a person’s body in the same way that you or I can read the expression on someone’s face.
On a practical note, this makes Anne really, really good at spotting people – she can notice them through walls, floors and even solid rock if she feels like it, and if she’s ever met them she can recognise them with perfect accuracy. ‘He was down on the street,’ Anne said. ‘I didn’t pay any attention at first but . . . he moved away and came up to the rooftop. It looked like he was trying to watch us.’
‘Who is he?’
‘I’ve never met him before,’ Anne said. ‘He’s about eighteen years old, not very big or strong but he’s healthy, and he’s on his own.’ She pointed up through the wall at a slight angle. ‘About seventy feet that way.’
‘No one’s after you or Vari at the moment, are they?’
‘Not that I know of,’ Anne said simply.
There was a reason I was asking. Anne and Variam are what you might call very advanced apprentices: they aren’t mages but they’re experienced enough that they probably should be. Four years ago they got involved with a Dark mage called Sagash. The official story (at least, the story the Council believes) is that Anne and Variam entered Sagash’s service as apprentices before leaving nine months later. What actually happened was that Sagash kidnapped Anne and tortured her until she did what she was told. Variam went looking for her and when he tracked her down there was an almighty battle. Their next stop was a rakshasa named Jagadev, who arranged for their entry into the Light apprentice programme and took them into his household right up until last winter, when Anne got arrested by the Council on suspicion of being an accessory to murder. In the aftermath Jagadev kicked them out and I let them move into my flat. When you have a history like that you attract a lot of attention, and in the time I’d known Anne and Variam they’d been hunted by assassins, constructs, a pair of Council Keepers and two different Dark mages, just for starters. It’s not that they look for trouble but it does seem to follow them around.
Of course, Anne and Variam aren’t the only ones with a bad reputation. The Council thinks I was trained as a Dark apprentice too – the difference is, in my case they’re right, and if our mystery guest wasn’t after Anne or Variam there was a good chance he was after me. But while we’d been talking I’d had the time to confirm he was there and I’d gathered enough information to decide that he wasn’t any immediate threat. My abilities aren’t as good as Anne’s at analysing living creatures but they’re much better for sensing danger, and I’d already decided I could handle this on my own. ‘I’ll go have a chat,’ I told Anne.
Anne hesitated, glancing back at the living room.
‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘When Vari and Luna finish arguing and Sonder wins on his next turn, tell them I’ll be back in five minutes.’ Anne looked concerned but nodded. ‘Be careful.’
The roof of my flat has a great view. It’s not especially high, but it’s right in the middle of the densest part of Camden. Brickwork and bridges and parapets and aerials and chimneys reach up all around, surrounding you in a sea of buildings as though you’re looking out over a horizon made from the cityscape. It was a clear night and a few fuzzy stars shone down from above, struggling against the light pollution, while to the left a crescent moon was rising. The scent of food drifted on the warm air: Indian from the restaurants at the end of the street, Italian from the one a block over, barbecue from the gardens near the canal. I moved into a chimney’s shadow and let the darkness cover me.
The guy trying to spy on us was three rooftops over, and as I got a closer look I mentally changed his designation from ‘guy’ to ‘kid’. I could have snuck up on him without too much trouble, but as I looked into the future I saw that he was going to come my way before long. I settled down to wait.
A few minutes passed. The helicopter that had been buzzing around the council estate to the south passed overhead again, the discordant clatter of the rotors drowning out everything else until it lost interest and flew away north, its lights blinking white-green-red in the night. A pack of teenagers in hoodies swaggered down the street below us, shouting drunkenly; there was the tinkling crash of a bottle breaking followed by a scuffle and a yell. Once the street was quiet again the kid left the cover of his rooftop and crept towards my hiding place.
Divination magic works by sensing probabilities. To me, potential futures appear as lines of light against the darkness – the brighter and more vivid, the more likely. By glancing over the futures in which I stepped out into the kid’s line of sight I could watch him despite the objects between us, and as I did I kept an eye on the futures of the kid’s actions. Most of them showed a sudden flurry of movement as he saw me, while in a few he continued to move steadily, unaware. I saw that the futures in which he stayed unaware of me were the ones in which I moved left around the chimney and I did just that, matching my actions to the futures in which I was undetected. I hardly had to pay attention to do it; I’ve had so much practice at using my divination for stealth that it’s become automatic. The kid passed by, oblivious, and walked onto the roof of my flat.
I’d had time to do a fairly thorough scan of the rooftops around us, flicking through the futures in which I went searching in different directions, and I was pretty sure the kid was alone. As I watched, he moved to the ladder leading down to my balcony and crouched, peering over the edge. I rose silently from behind the chimney and walked quietly up behind him, stopping ten feet away. ‘Looking for someone?’ I said to his back.
The kid jumped, trying to leap up, spin around and look in every direction all at once. He nearly fell over the edge, and as he saw me he scrambled to reach into his jacket, fumbling out a weapon. It was a short combat knife, about the length of his hand, and he promptly dropped it with a clatter. He bent down to grab it, nearly fell off the roof again and finally got it pointing in my direction, breathing fast.
I watched the whole thing with an expression of mild interest. ‘Finished?’
The kid didn’t answer, staring at me with wide eyes.
‘So I’m guessing you’re looking for me?’ I said.
Silence. The kid was Chinese, though looking through the futures I could tell he spoke with a London accent: I pegged him as British-born. He was small and wiry, and looked quick. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘if you’re just going to stand there staring this is going to be a really one-sided conversation.’
Yet more silence. I opened my mouth to make another snarky comment and stopped as I suddenly recognised the emotion in the kid’s eyes. He was terrified – not just jumpy but scared out of his wits. And the person he was terrified of was me.
I’m really not used to people being afraid of me. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of mages get uneasy around diviners, but it’s because they think you might dig out their secrets – they know a diviner’s no physical threat. And while secrets can be as deadly as any other weapon in the magical world, fear is an instinctual thing. When you know you can beat someone up it’s a lot harder to be scared of them.
Obviously this kid hadn’t gotten that particular memo. He was practically paralysed, to the point where it looked like he could barely move. I wasn’t worried about the knife – from what I could see he looked more likely to stab himself than anyone else. ‘Who sent you?’ I said, my voice sharp and commanding. I didn’t ask who he was – this guy was a pawn, not a king.
The tone of voice worked and the kid mumbled an answer before he could stop himself. ‘Will.’
‘You his apprentice?’ I asked. The kid stared at me in obvious confusion and I cocked my head. He wasn’t acting like a mage. ‘Adept, then?’
He started and I nodded to myself. ‘Okay, what do you want to know?’
I shrugged. ‘You came here to find something out, right? Let’s hear it.’
The kid continued to stare at me. Apparently this hadn’t been in the script.
‘Okay, look,’ I said. ‘Could we speed this up? I’ve got company over and don’t take this personally, but you’re not turning out to be the most fascinating conversation partner.’
‘Are—’ The kid’s voice wavered and he swallowed. ‘You’re Verus, aren’t you?’
‘Yes. I’m the big bad scary Verus.’
‘What were you doing?’ the kid said.
I stared at him for a second before answering slowly and carefully. ‘I was playing a board game.’
The kid hesitated. ‘So you’ve discovered my secret,’ I said. ‘Congrats.’ I nodded to the knife. ‘Now put that away. You obviously don’t have a clue how to use it.’
By the way, just in case any of you are thinking about trying this at home, this is not how you’re supposed to handle a nervous guy with a knife. If someone pulls a weapon on you, the correct response is to run – or if you can’t manage that, to deck them before they get the chance to draw it. But I’d been looking into the futures in which I engaged the kid and it was woefully obvious that he had absolutely no idea how to use the thing. If I went for him it was three to one that he’d fall off the roof and probably stab himself in the process.
The kid started and looked down at the blade – he’d obviously forgotten he was holding it – but didn’t lower the weapon. I sighed, suddenly running out of patience. Oh, screw this. I walked to one side. ‘Get out of here.’
The kid stared at me again. ‘Beat it,’ I said, gesturing. I’d left the kid a clear path back where he came. ‘If your boss wants to spy on me, tell him to come do it himself.’
The kid looked from me to the empty darkness and began slowly moving away, trying to retreat and watch me at the same time. I took another look into the futures and saw how easy it would be to take him down. Lunge, grab, twist and he’d be on the ground. The knife would be out of his hand and into mine, and then we could have a nice long chat about exactly who’d sent him here.
I didn’t do it. I would have, once. A spy usually just means someone’s being nosy but it can also mean they’re thinking about making a move on you, which means that it’s fairly common for mages who realise they’re being spied on to shoot first and ask questions later. On top of that, the kind of people I used to hang out with tended to assume that not reacting to a potential threat with immediate violence was a sign of weakness. It might be nothing but why take the chance?
But here’s the thing about living like a paranoid hermit: it sucks. It’s impossible to explain just how tired you can get of violence; that weary feeling where you see someone who’s looking for trouble and want to ask, ‘Do we really have to do this?’ The more time I spent with Luna and Sonder and Variam and Anne, the more I realised that I liked not treating everyone I met as a potential threat. Going after the kid and interrogating him felt like stepping away from that, and I didn’t want to do it. So I stood and watched as he edged around me. Once he had a clear line of retreat he turned and ran into the darkness. The sound of racing footsteps faded and I was alone.
Now that I look back, I wonder what would have happened if I’d done things differently. If I’d spoken or acted another way, could I have avoided the whole ugly mess? Or would it just have made things worse? Maybe someone else could have managed it. I don’t know.
But at the time I had no idea what was coming. I just waited to make sure the kid was gone, then headed back down to my flat to tell Anne and the others the story.
I woke the next morning to the pleasant feeling of light and warmth. From long habit the first thing I did was scan the future for danger, looking for the tell-tale flashes of threats and violence. Absolutely nothing came up and I stayed relaxed, turning to get my head out of the light before opening my eyes. The sun was streaming into my bedroom, the rays lighting up my bed and carpet in brilliant colour and, glancing up through the window, I could see a bright blue sky. It was going to be a clear summer’s day.
My bedroom’s a comfortable size, with two tall windows that let in the morning sun and give a view out onto the rooftops of Camden. The walls are white and bare except for a couple of pictures I inherited from the previous owner, and there’s a long desk that’s usually cluttered with whatever magic items I’m working on at the moment. A door leads into the living room. From under the door I could smell something tasty coming from the kitchen and I didn’t even need to look to know that Anne was there. I wasn’t in a hurry so I just lay there in my bed, enjoying the sun and quiet while lazily looking through the futures ahead of me. Once I was completely awake I got up and took a few steps on the carpet in my bare feet, stretching my legs before dressing and opening the door.
The living room was neat and clean except for the corner with Variam’s camp-bed, which looked as though it had been converted into a nest for a medium-sized tornado.
Variam has a ridiculous amount of energy and only sleeps about six hours a night, which usually means that by the time I’m up he’s already left the house. I washed, shaved and wandered into the kitchen where Anne was making breakfast.
Since Anne and Variam had moved in last winter, my home had gone from a fairly lonely place to something more like a shared house. It had been eight months since Anne and Variam had arrived, and between seeing them and taking lessons from me Luna was spending so much time here that she might as well be living here too. We’d all had plenty of time to learn each other’s quirks, and one of the first things we’d found out was everyone else’s cooking styles. My cooking can be best described as functional. I’m one of those people who doesn’t care much about food – I like it enough to appreciate it when it’s done well, but not enough to learn to get really good. The end result is edible, but I don’t think there’s much chance anyone’s ever going to get excited about eating it.
Anne’s a superb cook. She told us that she grew up doing the cooking for her house and it shows – she can make a meal out of literally anything and it’ll taste good. Luna isn’t bad but she’s accident-prone. The bad luck from her curse might not affect her but it works just fine on everything else, and putting her in an environment filled with lit fires, sharp knives and potentially poisonous substances is just a really bad idea. Her last attempt at oil-frying is the reason I’ve got a CO2 extinguisher mounted on the wall. Variam is terrible. His dishes come in three flavours: scorched, charred and burnt to a crisp. I have the suspicion that he makes it awful on purpose just so he doesn’t get asked to do it again, but I can’t prove it.
Anne met me with a smile and a plate of delicious fried stuff. ‘Anne, I love you,’ I said as I took it from her.
Anne laughed. ‘You probably say that to any woman who feeds you.’
‘I didn’t say it to the last woman who used this kitchen before you and Luna.’ I sat down at the table and started eating. It tasted as good as it smelled.
‘Yeah,’ I said between mouthfuls. ‘Turned out she was working for a guy who wanted to kill us. She helped catch me and Luna so he could have a try at murdering us both. Was one of my more spectacularly dysfunctional break-ups.’
Anne paused and looked at me. ‘You’re not joking, are you?’
‘I’ll tell you the story sometime,’ I said. ‘Vari gone out?’
‘He went for a run.’ Anne took the remainder of the sausages, hash browns and bacon from the pan and divided them in two. Half went on her plate and the other half in another pan which she closed carefully.
I nodded at the pan. ‘For Vari?’
‘Mm-hm.’ Anne took her plate over and sat opposite me. She had just as much food as I did. Anne might be thin but she eats a lot.
‘It really annoys Luna that you’re always so nice to him.’
‘I know,’ Anne said with a rueful look. ‘I keep telling her I don’t mind.’
I laughed. ‘You never mind being nice to people.’
‘Well . . . maybe sometimes,’ Anne said with a quick smile. ‘Vari can be bad-tempered but he’s not a bully. He never tries to control anyone. And . . . he’s a little nervous at the moment.’
I looked at Anne in surprise. ‘Why now?’
‘He’s worried we’ve been looking for a master for too long,’ Anne said. ‘We’re not really supposed to be in the apprentice programme, are we? Vari thinks that the longer this goes on, the more chance someone will start paying attention to us.’
Well, that spoiled the fun a bit. I didn’t answer but Anne was watching me and I knew she could already tell from my reaction that Vari was right.
One of the reasons I’d invited Anne and Variam to stay with me last winter had been for their protection. They’re not recognised members of magical society but I am (just about) and the idea had been that I’d try to find them a master. Unfortunately that had proved a lot harder than I’d expected. It turns out that if you add up the number of novice mages in Britain looking for a master and the number of qualified and respected Light or independent master mages looking for an apprentice, there are way more applicants than places. And Anne and Variam’s record only made things worse – to most Light and independent mages, being associated with a Dark mage, a rakshasa and a murder investigation is sort of the equivalent of being a terrorist, an illegal immigrant and a registered sex offender all at once. By this point I’d been at it for more than half a year and it was starting to feel depressingly like job-hunting, right down to the ‘we regret to inform you’ rejection letters and the creeping sense of futility.
The one bit of good news was that Anne and Variam were still enrolled in the Light apprentice programme, a kind of university structure where apprentices are taught in small classes, meaning that even if they don’t have a master they still have opportunities for study. Problem is, you’re not supposed to be allowed into the programme unless you’re sponsored. Jagadev had arranged for Anne and Variam’s entry, and when the two of them had moved into my flat people had assumed I’d taken over their sponsorship, even though officially I hadn’t. If I petitioned I might be able to manage it . . . but then again I might not, and whether or not it worked it would draw all the wrong kinds of attention. ‘Do you want to push harder?’ I asked Anne.
‘You know why you’ve been turned down so much,’ I said. ‘It’s the whole history with Sagash and Jagadev.’ I hesitated, choosing my words carefully. ‘There are mages who’d be less concerned by that.’
‘Dark mages?’ Anne said quietly.
‘Not all of them,’ I said. ‘It’s just . . . Look, so far I’ve been pretty picky about the mages I’ve approached. If anything’s made me even a little bit twitchy, I’ve steered clear. I could change that. It’s not something I want to do, but . . . as things stand right now you and Vari have absolutely no rights under mage law. Living with me gives you a little protection but not much, and it’s not like I’m exactly short on enemies. I don’t like the idea of you guys signing up with a mage I don’t trust but in the long run it might actually make you both safer.’
Anne had listened quietly as I spoke, watching me closely. As I finished my food she thought for a second and shook her head. ‘No.’
‘Not all of them are going to be bad. They’re just ones I’m not sure about.’
‘Then I don’t want to go near them. I don’t want to be apprenticed to a mage I don’t trust. I’d rather have no master than a bad one.’
‘It might take a while . . .’
‘Then I’ll wait,’ Anne said. ‘I don’t care how long it takes. I was Sagash’s apprentice once and I’m not doing that again, not ever.’ Her eyes were set and there was an anger there that brought me up short. ‘As long as there’s any chance they could be like that I’m never going with them.’
I leant back in surprise. ‘Okay. I guess we’ll cross off that plan.’
Anne stared right through me, and for just a moment I wondered where I’d seen that expression of hers before. A memory flickered through my head: green light flashing off bones, a body falling . . .
Then Anne seemed to realise what she was doing and the moment was gone. ‘Um . . .’ She brushed her hair back, turning her face away, suddenly embarrassed. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean . . . Is it okay us still staying here? I don’t want to . . .’
‘Oh, it’s fine,’ I said, though inwardly I was curious. What had triggered that? ‘Look, you guys have been here long enough to see how active a social life I usually have. It’s nice having people to talk to.’
‘You don’t mind being so crowded?’ Anne asked. ‘I mean, this flat’s not that big.’
I shrugged. ‘I’m kind of the self-contained type. As long as you guys don’t start sleeping in my bedroom I’m fine.’ Though come to think of it, I always used to have trouble sleeping if anyone else was in the flat. For some reason Anne and Variam didn’t trigger that reflex.
Anne smiled but it faded quickly. She looked like she was working her way up to asking something. ‘What is it?’ I said.
‘Um . . .’ Anne said. ‘It’s just . . . You don’t get uncomfortable when I’m near you, do you?’
I looked at her in surprise. ‘That’s a weird question. No, why?’
Anne looked away. ‘Mages . . . usually don’t like it if I’m close to them.’
‘You know . . .’ Anne stopped and started again. ‘People show their feelings in their bodies. The tension, the way they move . . . If they’re afraid or uncomfortable I can see it.’
I looked at Anne, puzzled. ‘Okay.’ I had the feeling she was trying to tell me something but I wasn’t sure what.
I heard the sound of the back door from below. ‘Vari’s back,’ Anne said before I could check. She got up, taking the plates to the sink. I thought about asking more but I could already hear Variam running up the stairs and decided to leave it for another time. A second later Variam came in and by the time we’d sorted out who would get to use the shower first I’d forgotten about it.