The latest novel in this compelling urban fantasy series featuring Alex Verus, the Camden-based mage who just can't stay out of trouble despite his ability to see the future. Perfect for fans of Jim Butcher or Ben Aaronovitch
It was midwinter.
A cold wind blew down the street outside, beating at the houses and rattling the windows. The night was overcast, the air a few degrees above freezing. It was the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the clubs and bars had faded to a distant murmur until the loudest sound from the city around us was the whine of the wind.
Inside, the warmth of the living room held back the cold. Variam was sitting on the sofa with Anne tending to him. Luna was pacing back and forth beside the table, while I was leaning against the wall next to the mantelpiece, my arms folded and my head down. There was a tension in the air.
‘You should have got out earlier,’ Luna said, still pacing. Invisible to normal sight, the silver-grey mist of her curse swirled and snapped around her. Luna’s curse is tied to her emotions; being around her when she was angry used to be dangerous. She’s better now, but the movements of her curse still broadcast her emotional state to anyone with the skill to see it.
‘Didn’t have time,’ Variam said.
‘We said to evac when the alarm was raised.’
‘We needed a couple more minutes.’
‘You do this every time. I told you the militia were coming in—’
‘Well, they weren’t the problem, were they?’ Variam twisted around to face Luna. ‘If we’d—’
‘Vari,’ Anne said.
‘Fine, okay.’ Variam turned back to where he’d been before. Anne placed one hand on Variam’s left shoulder and the other on his wrist, and went back to studying the limb, eyes slightly narrowed.
My eyes rested on Variam’s arm. The sleeve of his coat was brittle and shredded from where the ice blast had hit, and the skin beneath was swollen and tinged an unnatural blueish-white. I wanted badly to ask Anne whether he’d be okay, but knew it’d only distract her. I’d never yet seen Anne run up against an injury she couldn’t heal, but there’s always a first time . . .
‘What the hell was Talisid thinking?’ Luna asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘There wasn’t supposed to be any magical security. He said—’
‘I know,’ I interrupted. ‘We’ll get into it when he picks up.’
Luna is my apprentice, half-English and half-Italian with wavy light brown hair. Although she’s an adept and only twenty-four, she’s got more battle experience than most mages ten years her senior. She’d been on backup duty for the mission this evening, and she’d done her job well, but from the look in her eyes I knew she wanted to take her frustrations out on someone. Still, she kept quiet.
Anne straightened slightly from where she was sitting. It was only a small movement, but both Luna and I turned towards her. ‘So?’ Luna asked before I could open my mouth.
‘He’ll be fine,’ Anne said in her soft voice.
I felt some of the tension go out of Luna, and to my eyes, the tendrils of mist around her slowed. ‘How bad is it?’ I asked Anne.
Anne and Variam make an odd pair. Anne is tall and slender while Variam is small; where Anne is soft-spoken and shy, Variam is confident and quick. When the two of them are together, it’s Variam who usually stands out in the conversation, while Anne’s content to stay in the background. Despite that, it’s Anne who might be the more powerful of the two. She’s a life mage, and due to various events that she doesn’t like to talk about, she was forced from a young age to become very good with her magic. It’s given her more than her share of issues, but it’s also made her the best healer I know.
‘The skin, nerves and blood vessels are frozen along the left side,’ Anne said. ‘But there’s no serious tendon damage and the muscles are okay. It’ll take me ten minutes or so.’
‘You’re getting slow,’ Variam said.
‘Regrowing nerves is slow. Unless you don’t want to be able to feel anything along your forearm—’
‘He’s just being a dick,’ Luna said. ‘Vari, shut up and let her work.’
Variam rolled his eyes. Green light began to glow around Anne’s hands, spreading into Variam’s arm as Anne’s healing magic took hold. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Anne heal Variam – or the fifth, for that matter – and the two of them made it look very ordinary. All the same, I couldn’t help but think of how close it had been. I’d shouted a warning, but if Variam had been just a little slower to get that shield up . . .
There was a chime from the mantelpiece. Luna’s head snapped up instantly, but I was already reaching for the item that had made the sound: a small blue-purple disc with serrated edges. I picked it up and channelled a thread of magic through its centre.
The edges of the disc lit up and a small figure materialised, twelve inches tall and sculpted from blue light. The shape was that of a man, middle-aged and straight-backed, with thinning hair. ‘Verus,’ the figure said. His voice was as clear as if he’d been standing in front of me. ‘How did it go?’
My name’s Alexander Verus. The ‘Verus’ part is my mage name, the ‘Alex’ part comes from my parents, and I go by either or both depending on which society I’m interacting with and how much I like the person I’m talking to. I’m a diviner, which means that I can perceive the sensory data of my short- to medium-term potential futures in the form of if–then conditionals.
I’ve also got some serious long-term problems, most of which stem from my history. Mages are split into two factions, and although I’m largely independent now, I was originally trained by a particularly notorious Dark mage named Richard Drakh. The mage I was talking to through the communication focus, Talisid, was from the other faction – the Light Council, the dominant power in magical society – and I’d been working for him on and off for several years. It had been a low-key, freelance relationship . . . at least until last April, when Anne was kidnapped and taken away into the shadow realm of her old master, Sagash.
I went after Anne and found her, and together we fought our way out. But despite all the battles and dangers we went through, it wouldn’t have been even a footnote in the records as far as any other mages were concerned, except for one thing. While I’d been in Sagash’s shadow realm, we’d run into my old master, Richard.
There had already been rumours of Richard’s return. When I told my story, it was treated with the same scepticism as the rumours. I’d only seen someone who looked like Richard – it could have been an illusion, or a construct, or some other trick. Richard had been gone for eleven years, and as far as many of the Light mages were concerned, this was probably just someone trying to trade on his old reputation. But I knew that it hadn’t been a trick. It had been Richard, returned after all this time . . . and worst of all, he hadn’t forgotten about me. He’d asked us to join him.
It didn’t matter that we’d said no. I never came to really know Richard back when I was his apprentice – I don’t think anyone did – but there were some things about him of which I was certain. One was that he was very, very patient. And another was that when he wanted something, he took it. In my mind, ever since that April, a clock had been ticking. I didn’t know how much time was left on it, but I knew that sooner or later it would run out.
One mage who hadn’t been sceptical was Talisid. He’d believed the rumours of Richard’s return even before I had, and in the months since then, he’d begun approaching me more often, asking for my help with operations. Surveillance, reconnaissance, even some covert insertions, all with the same ultimate goal: finding out what Richard was doing, and how to stop him.
Things were easy at first. We discovered that Richard had returned to his old base of operations, the mansion in Wales. Once he’d set up again, he started to receive visitors in increasing numbers. All were Dark mages. We couldn’t get close enough to risk actually eavesdropping on one of the meetings, but we were able to discover that Richard was trying to build a coalition, uniting as many Dark mages as he could. At the same time, another Dark mage named Morden was making a push to get Dark mages admitted to the Light Council. From several pieces of information that we’d uncovered, we were sure that the two of them were working together. Morden was the public face, dealing with the mages on the Light side of the fence, while Richard kept the Dark mages in line. A few Dark mages had spoken out against Morden’s proposal; all had disappeared without trace shortly afterwards.
But since October, our investigations had become harder. We’d taken all the low-hanging fruit, and the closer we drew to Richard’s real secrets, the more we risked revealing ourselves. Talisid started sending us further afield, chasing rumours with no guarantee of safety or success. Some of the leads we pursued turned out to have nothing to do with Richard at all, while others turned out to be dangerous.
The mission we’d just returned from had been the second kind. Talisid had sent us to Idlib, a contested city within Syria. He’d told us that there was a lightly guarded warehouse in the eastern district containing a shipment of goods intended for Richard’s mansion. Talisid had been right about where the goods were headed. He hadn’t been right about much else.
‘How did it go?’ I repeated. ‘Badly.’
‘Alive, yes,’ I said. ‘Healthy, no. We need to have a talk about your definition of “lightly guarded”.’
‘The militia weren’t the problem,’ I said. ‘Although there were a lot more of them than you said there would be. The problem was the ice elemental.’
‘The kind that’s seven feet tall, made of solid ice and can freeze things from thirty feet away. I didn’t stick around to classify it.’
‘You said there wasn’t going to be any magical security,’ Luna cut in.
‘Did you get a look at the shipment?’ Talisid asked.
‘Is that all you care about?’ Luna demanded. ‘What, it’s okay if we get killed, just as long as—’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘Well, that’s the way it sounded!’
I held up a hand. Luna’s gaze flicked to me, and she shut up. She still looked pissed off though, and I didn’t blame her. ‘Talisid,’ I said. ‘This is the second time in a row.’
‘I know. I’m sorry. All of the information we have indicated that this militia group was entirely mundane.’
‘And it didn’t occur to you to wonder how a mundane group would be selling—?’ I checked myself, took a breath. ‘Forget it.’
There was a moment’s pause. Over on the sofa, Variam was listening in. Anne was still working on his arm, the green light of her magic casting a soft glow. ‘You weren’t able to get close enough then,’ Talisid said.
‘Oh, we got close enough,’ I said. ‘To some empty crates. Whatever that shipment was, it’s gone. Your intel was wrong about that too.’
‘You’re sure they—?’
‘Yes, I’m sure they were empty, and no, they weren’t anywhere else in the warehouse. We checked. For as long as we could anyway, until that elemental pulled its Mr Freeze act. Whoever gave you those timings, they screwed up.’
‘I see. Would it be feasible for your team to go back and do another sweep?’
I stared at Talisid, then took a breath and counted to five in my head. ‘No,’ I said once I was sure I could keep my voice calm. ‘It would not.’
‘All right,’ Talisid said. ‘I’m going to need to make some calls. I’ll get in touch with you when I know more.’
‘Until then . . .’ Talisid paused. ‘I know there were setbacks, but well done on returning safely. We’ll talk tomorrow.’ Talisid’s image winked out and the lights around the edge of the communicator went dark.
‘Arsehole,’ Variam muttered.
‘There,’ Anne said. The green light around her hands faded and she let go of Variam’s arm. She hadn’t even glanced at Talisid throughout the whole conversation. ‘Try moving.’
Variam worked his arm, flexing his fingers, then nodded. ‘Feels good.’
‘Do we need to keep him warm?’ Luna asked.
Anne shook her head. ‘No, you could get it frozen again and it wouldn’t make any difference. Though I’d rather you didn’t.’ She glanced at me. ‘You didn’t tell him about the papers.’
‘No,’ I said. I walked to the armchair, then picked up some of the papers lying scattered over the table. There were a dozen or so sheets, grubby with dirt and damp and cracked at the edges from where the ice blast had grazed them. Variam had managed to keep hold of them during the fight.
‘Next time, leave the papers and just get out,’ Luna said.
‘Will you stop whining?’ Variam said. ‘We’re alive, aren’t we?’
Luna scowled. ‘Can you read them?’ Anne asked.
‘In Arabic?’ I said dryly. ‘No.’ The papers had notes scribbled across them in a right-to-left scrawl. It could be battle plans, shipping manifestos, a history of Richard’s dealings with the group . . . or someone’s laundry list for all we knew. But there was a reason we’d picked the things up: three of the pages were rubbings, not writings. They were crude and it was hard to figure out where they’d been taken from, but if I’d had to guess, I’d have said that the pictures and text they showed looked old. More like carvings.
‘Are they from what was in those crates?’ Luna asked.
‘Or from something else,’ I said. ‘We’re going to need a translator.’ Who not only spoke whichever dialect of Arabic this was written in, but also knew enough about Middle Eastern magical history to be able to identify the content. This wasn’t going to be quick.
‘Are you going to go back if Talisid asks?’ Anne asked. Despite her spell, she didn’t look tired. Life magic healing tends to drain the caster, but Anne’s very good at what she does.
‘No,’ I said.
‘What’s up with Talisid anyway?’ Luna asked. ‘When we did jobs for him before, this kind of thing didn’t . . .’
‘Well, it’s because of what Morden’s doing, isn’t it?’ Variam said. ‘Talisid wants us to dig up some dirt.’
Luna frowned. ‘I thought the Council didn’t buy that Morden’s working for Richard.’
‘They don’t,’ Variam said. ‘They’ve got him down as “potential associate” and that’s it. If Talisid could prove that Richard’s behind him though . . .’
‘I think you’re right,’ I said. ‘Talisid still won’t tell me exactly who he works for but I’m pretty sure he’s with the Guardian faction. And Richard’s reputation still carries. If they could link Richard with Morden, it’d scare a lot of people off.’
‘Yeah, well, he hasn’t done much of a job of it so far, has he?’ Variam said. ‘And doesn’t sound like his faction’s winning.’
‘Mm,’ I said. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
Politics in the Light Council are complicated. There are seven primary factions: Guardians, Crusaders, Isolationists, Directors, Centrists, Weissians and the Unity Bloc. They’re closer to social cliques than to the political parties of Westminster or Congress, but the stakes are just as high and the consequences for mistakes are a lot more deadly.
Most of the issues the Council argue over are transient, changing from month to month. But there are some questions that don’t go away, and one of the biggest is the issue of how to treat Dark mages. At one extreme are the Crusaders: they’re the most militant of all the factions and think the Light Council should be actively fighting against Dark mages, going to war if necessary. They hate Dark mages and anyone who’s associated with them, including me. Which is ironic, given that my feelings towards Dark mages aren’t any more positive than theirs, but the Crusaders don’t care. As far as they’re concerned, if you were trained by a Dark mage, you don’t get any second chances.
Less extreme than the Crusaders are the Guardians. Like the Crusaders, they’re opposed to Dark mages, but their philosophy is basically defensive rather than aggressive. While the Crusaders want to go out and take the fight to the Dark mages, the Guardians just want to hold things together. They’d rather do the minimum to prevent Dark mages from hurting other people, then leave them to fight among themselves (something Dark mages tend to do quite enthusiastically). And opposing both the Guardians and the Crusaders is the Unity Bloc. The Unitarians want the Light and Dark factions to unite, bringing Dark mages into the Council and involving them in the political process. It’s not a new idea, more of a cyclical one, and it’s been attempted and abandoned many times before.
If it had been just the Unity Bloc versus the Guardians and Crusaders, the Unity Bloc wouldn’t have a chance. But increasingly the Unity Bloc was coming into favour with the Centrists, and the Centrists had more members than the Guardians and the Crusaders put together. And now Morden was making a push not only to get Dark mages recognised, but to get a Dark seat on the Light Council itself. It hadn’t yet come to an open contest, but if things kept going the way they had been, that was where it was headed.
Morden’s actions had given Talisid a second reason to be interested in Richard. As far as most Light mages knew, Talisid was just a mid-level Council functionary, but for several years now I’d been pretty sure that he was one of the Guardian faction’s black-ops guys. The Guardians did not want Morden on the Council, and if Talisid could prove that Richard was up to something and link him to Morden, that would kill Morden’s proposal stone dead. Unfortunately for Talisid, he hadn’t found anything. Unfortunately for us, that had caused him to take increasing risks with our missions in the hope that we’d find him something he could use. But while we’d found out plenty about Richard’s activities, we hadn’t found anything much that we could do about it, to the point where it had become almost like checking the weather forecast. Yes, that tornado’s moving in your direction, and yes, it’s going to be a bad one, and isn’t it going to suck if it decides to hit your house?
‘Okay,’ Luna said. She’d had long enough to calm down now. ‘If no one else is going to say it, I will. Should we still be working for Talisid?’
‘He can still get us in with the Council,’ Variam said.
‘Not really,’ Luna said. ‘Hardly anyone knows about what we’re doing. It’s all under-the-table stuff.’
‘Yeah, and it’s going to stay that way,’ I said. ‘Talisid still hasn’t given up on getting me to go spy on Richard as a double agent.’
‘Which is frigging insane, by the way,’ Variam said.
‘No kidding,’ I said. Talisid hadn’t tried to sell it to me again, but I knew he hadn’t forgotten about it. ‘But as long as he thinks he can use us as plants, he’s not going to want us to get any recognition. He wants to stop Richard. Keeping us alive is an optional extra.’
‘But that’s going to screw us over, isn’t it?’ Luna said. ‘People are talking about Morden’s new proposal. I see it in my classes. All the Light mages who’ve got an axe to grind with the Dark ones, they’re all coming out of the woodwork. They’re going to be looking for someone to take it out on, and we’re right in the cross-hairs. Well, I guess Vari isn’t, but . . .’
‘Yeah, it’s not that easy, you know,’ Variam said. ‘Just because I’m a Keeper apprentice doesn’t mean they don’t give me shit over Sagash and Jagadev.’
‘They’re still not going to go after you. But they might go after Alex.’
‘The Council’s never liked me,’ I said. ‘That’s nothing new.’
‘We know Richard’s going to make a move sooner or later, right?’ Luna said. ‘If that happens and the Council are after us as well, we’re going to be totally and utterly screwed.’
‘Thanks, Luna, I figured that out already.’ I still had no idea how we were ever going to stand up to Richard. He was one of the most feared mages in the country. And the Council was the most powerful faction in the country. The thought of trying to fight either of them was insane. Fighting both at once . . .
‘Is there anything we could do to stop that?’ Anne said. Anne tends to be the quietest one in our discussions – quiet enough that it’s easy to forget she’s there – but she pays attention.
‘Okay, what if we just go public with the whole thing?’ Variam said. ‘We take everything we’ve figured out about Richard and shout it as loud as we can. People’ll listen.’
‘We’ll also be painting a giant target on our backs,’ I said. ‘You seriously think Richard and Morden are going to take that lying down?’
‘Um,’ Anne said. ‘I don’t really like that plan.’
‘Nobody likes that plan,’ Luna said.
‘I don’t mind a fight,’ Variam said.
‘That’s because you’re an idiot.’
‘Oh, stop being—’
‘Guys,’ I said. ‘Not helping.’
‘Fine,’ Variam said. ‘You just want to hurt Morden and Richard? We take what we’ve found and leak it anonymously.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘First, we haven’t found out anything important enough to make any real impact. Unless we have solid proof that Morden’s working with Richard, it’ll just be another rumour. Second, it won’t stay anonymous for long; they’ll figure out where it came from. And third, it doesn’t actually do anything to make it less likely that we’ll end up fighting both Richard and the Council.’
‘It’s not as though Richard can afford to focus on us either,’ Variam said. ‘His big problems are going to be other Dark mages. They’re not going to be happy taking orders from him.’
I nodded. ‘But he’s going to get around to us eventually.’
‘Okay,’ Luna said, ‘so if we can’t do anything about Richard, what about the Council?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, the reason they won’t go after Vari is that he joined the Keepers, right?’ Luna said. ‘Talisid can get us work but he won’t get us what Vari has. So why don’t you join the Keepers too?’
Anne, Variam and I are all quite different people from how we were three years ago, but out of the four of us, it’s probably Luna who’s changed the most. When I first met Luna she was lonely and depressed, smiling rarely and laughing not at all. Nowadays when you look at her the first thing you notice is her confidence. Being an adept in mage society isn’t easy, but Luna’s managed to take that and turn it into a strength: it gives her a different perspective and she’s often the one to come up with ideas that don’t occur to the rest of us.
Anne, Variam and I all turned to stare at Luna. ‘What?’ Luna said.
‘The Council are—’ Anne began, and stopped. She’d been about to say our enemies. The Council haven’t given me many reasons to like them; the treatment Anne’s received from them has been worse. ‘They’re not our friends.’
‘Yeah, no shit,’ Luna said. ‘I don’t like them either, but we might as well use them.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘Keepers recruit from apprentices or from Light mages. No way in hell they’d take me.’
‘Well . . .’ Variam said. ‘Kind of.’
Luna looked at him.
‘You couldn’t actually be a Keeper,’ Variam said. ‘Not without spending years and years. But you could be sanctioned.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Means you count as an auxiliary and they can recruit you for jobs. Some of those guys spend as much time in the station as the Keepers do . . . well, it’s halfway there, I guess. It doesn’t make you a member of the club, but it’s next best.’
‘Which order, though?’
‘Probably Order of the Star. Order of the Shield only takes battle mages and the Order of the Cloak spend all their time dealing with normals.’
‘I dunno, that could work if—’
‘Hey,’ I interrupted. ‘Can you two stop talking as though I’ve agreed to this?’
‘You’ve basically told us that sooner or later we’re going to be fighting Richard,’ Luna said. ‘If you’re tied in with the Council, that’ll make it harder for him, right?’
‘That doesn’t matter. The Council don’t like me either. Have you forgotten about Levistus?’
‘If Levistus wants to get us, then if we’re split off from the Council without any friends in the Keepers, that’ll make it easier,’ Luna said. ‘Not harder.’
I didn’t like the idea. It was true that what Luna and Variam were suggesting wasn’t actually all that big a step. I’d helped the Council out with investigations and police work before – if I was being honest, becoming a sanctioned auxiliary would just be a way of recognising what I’d effectively been doing anyway. But it did mean making the relationship official, and while it might not have been a big step in reality, it felt like one to me.
What it really came down to was the simple fact that I don’t like the Council. Maybe not all of them are bad – and I’ll admit, I know a lot more of the better ones than I used to – but I’ve got too many old grudges to forget easily. Every single time in my life that I’ve really needed help, the Council have left me in the lurch, and more than once they’ve been the reason I needed help in the first place.
‘Look,’ Luna said when I didn’t answer. ‘We’ve been at this for how long now? Six months? Maybe a bit more. And all we’ve really been doing is just reacting to what Richard’s done. Okay, we’ve been finding out what we can, but basically he does stuff, and we spy on it. We’re not going to win anything this way.’
‘I know that,’ I said. ‘But we’re the underdogs here. You know the kind of resources Richard can draw on. We can’t move against him directly.’
‘So doesn’t that mean we need some more friends then?’ Variam said with a frown. ‘Otherwise, what happens when he gets around to us?’
‘I still don’t want to deal with the Keepers.’
‘That was what I said,’ Variam pointed out. ‘You told me to join them anyway. Remember?’
That brought me up short. When I’d first met Variam a couple of years back, he’d been just as hostile towards the Keepers as I was. More, actually. But I’d managed to persuade him otherwise with . . .
. . . with pretty much the same arguments Luna and Variam were using now.
Luna and Variam were looking at me. I looked at Anne. So did Luna and Vari.
‘Um,’ Anne said. She looked a little troubled. ‘It’s not really my decision.’
‘What do you think though?’ Luna said.
‘I . . .’ Anne looked at me, hesitated. I didn’t say anything. Somehow I was hoping Anne would give me a reason to say no.
‘I don’t trust the Keepers,’ Anne said at last. I felt my heart lift slightly, but Anne kept going. ‘Especially the Order of the Star. So I wouldn’t blame you if you said no. But . . . it’s worked for Vari. And they don’t hate you as badly as they do me. If it could keep you and Luna alive . . . maybe it’s worth it.’
‘We still don’t know that they’d say yes,’ I said.
‘So you’ll try it?’ Luna said.
‘I didn’t say that.’
‘You didn’t say you wouldn’t either.’
I rolled my eyes, then paused. All three of them were looking at me. ‘What?’
‘So?’ Luna said.
‘Slow down,’ I said. ‘Even if I did agree – which I haven’t – we’ve got no place to start. It’s not like I can show up and ask for an application form.’
‘That’s easy,’ Luna said. ‘Just go to Caldera. You’ve worked with her enough times already, right?’
‘We’re not exactly best friends.’
‘Yeah, but she doesn’t hate you or anything,’ Variam said. ‘Actually she kind of likes you.’
‘And all you have to do is ask,’ Luna said. ‘I mean, what do you lose if she says no?’
I tried to think of a good answer to that and didn’t have one. All of them were still watching me and I felt weirdly trapped.
‘So are you—?’ Luna began.
‘All right! I’ll ask.’
* * *
Which was how, one week later, I found myself standing outside Keeper headquarters in Westminster.
The main Keeper HQ for all of Britain is just south of Victoria Street, in one of the little off-roads. That particular area of London has always felt to me as though it’s so full of history that it becomes commonplace – you can’t cross the street without passing something historical or architecturally significant. The actual headquarters is one of those grand Victorian buildings, with pillars and carvings on the front as well as statues of some goddess or other and a few of the more photogenic predatory animals.
Like a lot of old London buildings, the inside of Keeper HQ is a lot less impressive than the outside. The walls are covered in flaking paint that’s a similar colour to coffee mould, and the stairs and floors use that particularly horrible type of linoleum that got popular in the mid-twentieth century and for some reason has never quite gone away. I checked in at reception and got told to wait. There were half a dozen other people sitting on the chairs against the wall, and none of them seemed especially happy to be there. I sat down and crossed my legs.
Now that I thought about it, this was probably the first time I’d been to a Keeper facility voluntarily. All the other times that I’d been here or to one of their other stations, it had been because I’d been forced to. I’ve never been officially arrested, but in practice there isn’t very much difference between ‘you’re under arrest’ and ‘you’re going to come here and answer our questions or we’ll make you’. It tends to colour one’s memories of a place. I didn’t have good associations with this building, and I wasn’t really looking forward to talking with Caldera. A small but definite part of me was hoping she’d say no and give me a reason to leave. After fifteen minutes an apprentice came and escorted me upstairs.
Once you get past reception, Keeper HQ gets a lot busier, filled with noise and people. The stairs and corridors are narrow and there are always people squeezing past, and there’s a clamour of typing and talking in the background. If you were dropped in the middle of it and didn’t know what to look for, you’d probably think it was a civil service building of some kind. Keepers don’t wear uniforms or carry weapons (they don’t need to), and to most people they just look like ordinary men and women. But if you do know what to look for, it’s not too hard to spot them. Keepers move differently from ordinary people; there’s a sort of unconscious power and arrogance in how they carry themselves. They have a different way of looking at you too – a quick once-over, sizing you up as a suspect. I didn’t let myself get visibly tense, but I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable. I might not be a suspect, but I didn’t belong here.
Caldera’s office was on the second floor. It was medium-sized, with two desks, two computers, some paperwork, Caldera and another Keeper I didn’t know. Caldera gave me a glance, held up a hand, then turned back to the other guy. ‘I know what it says,’ she was saying. ‘This isn’t a Section Three.’
‘So you want to do what?’ the other Keeper said. He was tall and athletic-looking, with blond hair. ‘Just let the guy go?’
‘There’s sod all we can charge him with.’
‘Karla’s not going to be happy.’
‘Fuck Karla,’ Caldera said. ‘She wants this guy so badly, she can do it herself.’
‘Or she’ll just take it out on us,’ the man said, then held up his hands to forestall Caldera’s answer. ‘All right, all right. I’ll try and sell her.’ He walked out, giving me a curious glance as he passed by.
‘Hey, Verus.’ Caldera typed something into her computer and blanked the screen, then waved me over. ‘Grab a seat.’
Caldera is a member of the Order of the Star, the division of the Keepers that enforces the Concord and national laws among adepts and mages. She’s an Englishwoman of thirty or so, shorter than me and a fair bit heavier, broad and stocky.
I first met Caldera about a year and a half ago. I was being chased around London by a bunch of adepts who wanted to kill me for something I’d done while still an apprentice, and Caldera had become involved because of the Richard connection. The whole thing ended badly for pretty much everyone concerned, but if there’d been one silver lining from my point of view, it had been the working relationship I’d developed with Caldera. I’d seen her a few more times since then, usually under similar (if slightly less dangerous) circumstances – I’d want some favour or a bit of information, she’d want something I could find out with my divination magic, and we’d figure out some sort of deal that gave us both what we wanted. We’d even had a couple of drinks together from time to time. But we’d never quite made the jump from acquaintances to friends, and to be honest that was probably because of me – I could never quite forget the organisation she worked for.
If I was going to do this, that was probably something I’d have to get over.
‘Right,’ Caldera said after we’d exchanged the how-are-you-how-have-you-beens. ‘So you want to be a sanctioned auxiliary.’
‘That’s the idea.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s not a difficult question,’ Caldera said. ‘Why do you want to join?’
‘Excitement and glamour?’
Caldera gave me a look.
‘Well, we’ve worked together a few times before and it’s more or less worked out, right? I just thought it was worth giving it a try.’
‘Uh, yeah,’ Caldera said. ‘The times we’ve worked together, you only did it because you needed the help.’
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘What about last April? Anne was the one in trouble, not me.’
‘And you disobeyed every single order I gave you.’
‘There were extenuating circumstances?’
Caldera gave me a flat look.
‘Okay, okay,’ I said, ‘I know there’s been some friction, but I was hoping to mend fences with the Council and this seemed like a place to start. Besides, I’m a good diviner and I know you guys are short-handed.’
‘It’s not about whether you’re a good diviner,’ Caldera said. ‘Working as a sanctioned auxiliary is different from being a freelancer. You need to pass a security screening.’
‘Okay, how do I do that?’
‘You don’t. They investigate you.’
‘How long does it take?’
‘Yours is finished.’
‘That was fast.’
‘I don’t think you quite understand,’ Caldera said. ‘Council security screenings are current for two years. They didn’t do a security screening because you called me. They’d already screened you because they’d investigated you anyway.’
‘Do you really need me to answer that?’
‘I’m just curious about what I was being charged with.’
‘Well, first on the list, you’re one of three people listed as being responsible for the destruction of the Nightstalker group the summer before last.’
That wiped the smile off my face. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘As far as I know, it was the Nightstalkers who broke the law that time, not me.’
‘And you and your associates were involved in the apprentice disappearances around the White Stone.’
‘Oh, come on. I was working for the Council that time. It’s on file. And I was the one who found out what happened to those apprentices.’
‘Then there was the break-in at—’
‘Okay, look, I already explained how that one wasn’t my fault. And I offered to help; it wasn’t as though you were—’
‘And,’ Caldera continued, ‘the deaths of the mages Griff and Belthas three years ago.’
I shut up.
‘Not going to justify yourself?’ Caldera said.
‘I didn’t kill either of them,’ I said. I kept my voice level.
Caldera was watching me, apparently casually, and I noticed that her eyes stayed on me as I spoke. Cops tend to be very good at picking up on when people are lying to them, and I had the feeling Caldera had been paying close attention to how I answered that question. I hadn’t quite been lying. Technically I hadn’t killed either of them, in the same way that if someone comes after you and you lead them into a tiger pit, then from a certain point of view the ones who actually killed them were the tigers.
Unfortunately for me, both Griff and Belthas had been Light mages in good standing with the Council. The Council may turn a blind eye to infighting among Dark mages, and they really don’t care very much about what happens to adepts or Orphans, but that definitely does not apply when the victims are Council mages themselves. To make matters worse, Griff and Belthas had also been working for a Junior Council member named Levistus. Offing them (and messing up his plans in the process) had placed me firmly on his shit list. Levistus didn’t come after me personally – that’s not his style – but since then he’d taken the opportunity to bureaucratically screw me over in several ways, some of them quite lethal.
My history with Levistus was one of the other reasons I wasn’t comfortable here. Logically, I knew that staying away from the Keepers wouldn’t actually make it any harder for Levistus to mess with me – if he really wanted to nail me, he could do it no matter where I was – but I still didn’t like the idea of being any closer to him than I had to.
But at the same time, I knew that Luna was right. For too long now we’d been just reacting to Richard, gathering up scraps of information and waiting for him to make a move. I didn’t know how we were going to beat him, but I knew we had to do something. Trying to make more friends among the Keepers was at least a place to start.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Cards on the table. Are you saying you don’t want me?’
‘No,’ Caldera said.
I paused. ‘No, you don’t want me, or no, you don’t not want me?’
‘Do you know who makes the final decision on security screenings?’ Caldera asked.
I shook my head.
‘After that call last week, I wrote up your submission for auxiliary status and sent it off to personnel,’ Caldera said. ‘They sent it to the Keepers in charge of your cases. Those Keepers have a dozen active cases already and didn’t have the time to go reopening yours, so they passed it to Rain. And Rain passed it down to me.’
I tried to follow all that. ‘So . . . ?’
Caldera looked at me. ‘So right now, there is exactly one person who’s been given the job of deciding whether to take you on or not. Me.’
‘Oh. So is that a yes or a no?’
* * *
‘So was that a yes or a no?’ Luna asked.
We were in the Islington gym that we use for training. Luna was in her exercise clothes, white T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, with a book balanced on her head. My clothes were similar to Luna’s, but instead of a book, I was holding a weapon: a simple but functional-looking katana.
‘She didn’t say no,’ I said. I stepped forward and aimed a two-handed blow at Luna’s head. The swing was at seventy per cent speed, and my grip was angled so that the impact would be with the flat of the blade, not the edge. It wouldn’t break the skin, but it would hurt. Luna stepped back, spine straight and movements smooth to keep the book from falling, and I followed up, continuing to threaten her.
‘So she said yes?’ Luna asked. She adjusted her position on the mats slightly, keeping just enough distance that I had to move to come within strike range.
I made a couple more head-level strikes; Luna stayed out of range. ‘She didn’t actually say that either.’
‘So what did she say?’
I began another step, then changed it into a low glide, striking at waist level. Luna was caught within the sweep and had to block cross-hand, the flat of the blade meeting her palm with a slap. The movement left me within striking distance and she had to block twice more before she could open the range again. ‘Making it on to the sanctioned list is out,’ I said, glancing at the blade. The colour hadn’t changed. ‘At least right now.’
‘That sounds like a no.’
‘Kind of.’ I closed into range again and began a series of attacks, measured and steady, switching targets from waist to shoulder to thigh, each strike flowing into the next one. Luna had to keep blocking, catching the blade against her hand each time. She couldn’t move too abruptly without making the book fall. ‘The deal she offered was a probationary membership. It means I’m not an auxiliary, but I’m allowed to be treated as one for a trial period, so long as she’s the one supervising.’
‘So it’s what, a trial?’
‘Pretty much. I’m still doing exactly what a Keeper auxiliary would be doing; it’s just not official.’
I broke my pattern, sending the sword flashing up at Luna’s face. Luna had to jump back, both hands coming up instinctively to block the blade with a smack. The book wobbled and she had to catch it with one hand as she backpedalled. I paused to examine the blade. Where Luna had touched it, there was a pale patch on the metal. ‘You let a bit through.’
‘Oh, come on,’ Luna said. ‘That wouldn’t even give you a nosebleed.’
The mist that swirls around Luna is the manifestation of her curse, a spell of chance magic, and the fact that Luna’s spells are applications of her curse rather than effects she produces herself is the reason that she gets classified as an adept rather than a mage. Luna’s curse is very hard to spot, invisible to normal vision and difficult to see even with magesight, and it brings good luck to her and bad luck to everything that mist touches. ‘Bad luck’ at low concentrations of that mist means stuff like tripping or breaking a nail, but at high concentrations it can do anything from making a building fall on your head to directing a serial killer into your neighbourhood to say hi. It’s also cumulative, and the more of it you get, the worse it’ll be.
The exercise was a simple one: Luna had to avoid the sword without letting her curse touch it. The sword is a simple focus, designed to react visibly to magic. Once upon a time just having Luna touch it would have turned the whole blade white in seconds, but Luna’s put a lot of time and effort into learning to control her curse, and nowadays she can touch something for a second or so without letting any of that deadly mist stick – which is long enough to push that something away. We’d been playing this particular game for six months or so and Luna’s become very good at it, which was the reason for the conversation and for the book on her head – I’d had to keep upping the difficulty.
In this case I’d managed to shake her concentration, although not by much. ‘Keep talking,’ I said, moving in to threaten her again. ‘And take your hand off the book.’
Luna rolled her eyes and obeyed, retreating to a safe distance. ‘So how long does the probationary thing last?’
‘Caldera didn’t say.’ I aimed at Luna’s eyes again, but this time she was ready for it. The blade slapped into her palm less than twelve inches from her face. ‘But I’m guessing it’s going to be until she makes her mind up.’
‘So what, you have to not piss her off for however many weeks it takes until she decides she can trust you?’
‘Let’s not expect miracles.’
We kept going for another five minutes but I didn’t manage to break Luna’s concentration again. ‘All right,’ I said at last, lowering the sword. ‘Free sparring.’
Luna perked up instantly, letting the book slide off into one hand as she headed for her bag. When she came back she was holding a short-sword in one hand and an ivory-coloured wand in the other. ‘Ready?’
Luna took a stance. ‘Ready.’
I attacked, slashing down at an angle, and I wasn’t using the flat of the blade this time. Luna stepped back and I followed.
This particular part of our training sessions is the reason we use an empty gym. Last year someone saw one of my bouts with Luna and thought I was trying to murder her, which led to an extremely awkward conversation with a pair of police officers. Luna found the whole thing absolutely hilarious, but it’s the reason that these days I take the trouble to schedule our training sessions in a Council-owned gym.
Right now we were alone, which was just as well. My arms are longer than Luna’s, and coupled with the longer reach of my weapon I was able to pressure her, driving her back. Luna’s face was set in concentration as she defended against my attacks, stepping away from most, occasionally parrying off-hand with a clash of metal. To anyone watching, it probably looked as though Luna’s life was at stake . . . but when it comes to magic, appearances are deceptive. Luna wasn’t in any serious danger. Her curse makes her hard to hurt at the best of times, and while I was trying to get through her defences, I wasn’t trying to cut her. With my divination, it’s easy to see if an attack has a chance of landing, and the half-second’s warning is more than enough to pull a blow.
The one who was really in danger was me. Luna’s curse is tied heavily to her feelings and instincts. She’s learned to bring it under conscious control most of the time, but if she ever feels genuinely threatened, all bets are off. But by that same token, if I didn’t threaten her, force her to struggle, then she wouldn’t gain the practice she needed to keep her curse under control when she really needed it. It was a game of brinkmanship, trying to push Luna just far enough to make her work for it, but not so far as to trigger a backlash.
The only sounds in the empty gym were the clash of metal on metal and the thud of our bare feet on the mats. Usually Luna has trouble holding me off in these matches, but this time to my surprise I realised she was holding her own. She couldn’t really strike back, but as long as she kept giving ground she was managing to hold off my attacks. All the duelling she’d done had made a difference.
Of course, I wasn’t really trying to hit her. There’s a big gap between a sparring match and a combat, and I didn’t want to push it too far.
But then, if I didn’t push her in training, I wasn’t really doing her any favours.
I went up to full speed, and for the first time I moved with real killing intent. Instead of picking out futures where I nearly got through Luna’s defences, I searched for ones where the blade landed. Luna’s eyes went wide as the first stroke hissed by, and she jumped back. The second stroke she parried, the third she dodged – and stumbled. In the instant she was off-balance I reversed the swing, striking down at her neck.
In my mage’s sight, the wand at Luna’s hand flared to life. A whip of silver mist leaped out, and for just an instant, all the visions I had of the future were of that silver mist surging into my body as the sword cut through Luna’s skin.
I dropped the sword, turning the attack into a dive and roll. As I hit the mat I heard a gasp and a thud – then silence.
I came up, suddenly sick with the conviction that I’d just made a really horrible mistake. Luna had dropped her own sword and her hand was pressed to the side of her neck, and for a moment my stomach lurched . . . and then she took her hand away. The skin was reddened but unbroken.
I closed my eyes for a second, taking a breath. Too close.
‘Wow,’ Luna said. Her eyes were a little wide. ‘That was intense.’
I didn’t answer. Checking, I couldn’t see any of that lethal grey aura clinging to me; we’d both pulled our attacks at the very last instant. ‘We’re done for today. Meet me up on the roof.’
* * *
‘This isn’t working,’ I told Luna twenty minutes later.
The roof of the gym was cold but not freezing, the air carrying just enough of a chill to numb the tips of your ears and nose. The gym was set a little back from the street, meaning that while we couldn’t see any cars or roads, we did get an interesting view of the buildings around us. TV aerials and chimneys rose from the gravelled roofs like some weird kind of urban forest, and a couple of roof gardens sprouted up to our left, greenery against brick and concrete. A hundred feet away, a couple of young men in suits were talking animatedly on a balcony, and off to the other side a cat was washing itself on a balustrade. The breeze ruffled my hair, carrying with it the scent of car exhaust; over the buildings to the south the afternoon sun glanced off the skyscrapers of the inner city, and high above, wispy clouds hung in a clear blue sky. Just another London winter day.
‘Wait a sec,’ Luna said. ‘We’re not going to have the “this is why it’s dangerous for you to learn martial arts” conversation again, are we? Because you agreed—’
‘It’s not that. I don’t think these lessons I’m giving you are doing enough.’
That made Luna pause. The breeze blew her hair across her face and she brushed it back absently. ‘But I like them.’
‘You like the parts that are dangerous,’ I said dryly. ‘That was about a tenth of a second away from being a really nasty accident.’
‘I can control it better—’
I shook my head. ‘Your control’s good. Not perfect, but good. The problem’s me, not you. For a while now all of the exercises I’ve been giving you have been hands-off. I’m not teaching you how to use your magic; I’m just sticking you with some sort of problem and making you figure out a solution.’
‘I thought that was the only way we could do it?’ Luna said. ‘It’s not like you can learn to use chance magic.’
‘And that’s the issue. You’ve gotten good at directing your curse, but it’s been a long time now since we’ve made any real breakthroughs. If chance magic were an academic subject, I’d be qualified to teach it up to high school. You need a professor.’
Luna hesitated. ‘So am I still your apprentice?’
I looked at her in surprise. ‘Of course.’
‘Oh.’ Luna relaxed a little. ‘Okay.’
‘Wait, was that what you thought this was about?’
‘Well, I was wondering . . .’
‘I’m not kicking you out or anything. We just have to find you a part-time teacher, is all. You’re still my apprentice, and you’ll stay that way until you decide to leave or until you pass your journeyman tests. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ Luna said with a smile. ‘So are you going to find a chance mage?’
‘Try to, anyway. But we can ask.’
We started walking back towards the stairs. ‘This isn’t going to be like when you were trying to find Anne and Vari a master, is it?’ Luna asked.
‘Let’s hope things go a little more smoothly this time.’
‘So you’re getting a new job and I’m getting a new teacher.’
‘Pretty much.’ I pulled the door open for Luna, then followed her through. ‘Should be an interesting few weeks.’