With his talent for divining the future, Alex Verus should have foreseen his friends’ reactions to the revelations about his previous life. Anne Walker no longer trusts him—and has also cut all ties with the mage community after getting kicked out of the apprentice program. As a favor to Luna, Alex’s own apprentice and Anne’s best friend, he checks in on her only to be told to leave her alone.
Then Anne gets kidnapped. The Council Keepers of the Order of the Star believe Dark mages from her past may be involved. Working with the Keepers, Alex and Luna discover that Anne has been taken into the shadow realm of Sagash, her former Dark mage mentor, and they must find a way to rescue her.
But another shadow from the past has resurfaced—Alex’s former master may be back in London, and Alex has no idea what his agenda is...
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Benedict Jacka is half-Australian, half-Armenian, and grew up in London. He’s worked as a teacher, bouncer, and civil servant, and spends his spare time skating and playing tabletop games. He is the author of the Alex Verus Novels (Fated, Cursed, Taken, Chosen).Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Russell Square is one of the odder areas of London. Squeezed between Euston Road to the north and Holborn to the south, it doesn’t have enough shops to be commercial and it doesn’t have enough houses to be residential. Instead it has a mix of universities and hotels, rich tourists and poor students rubbing shoulders in the busy streets. It’s supposed to be “literary,” associations from the old Bloomsbury group, though given that you’d have to be a millionaire to own property there nowadays I doubt you’ll find many artists living in the place.
What Russell Square does have a lot of is education: English-language schools for the expats, colleges for the students, and the British Museum for everyone. It was one of the colleges I’d come for, a long hulking brown-and-beige cinderblock called the Institute of Education, and as I approached I reflexively scanned ahead, searching for danger. I didn’t find anything and I didn’t expect to, but for some reason I found myself hesitating as I drew level with the front doors. For a moment I thought about turning away, then shook my head in annoyance and headed inside.
My name’s Alex Verus and I’m a probability mage, aka a diviner. I train an apprentice, do contract work for other mages, and run a magic shop in Camden when I’m not otherwise occupied with personal problems or with people trying to hurt me, the second of which happens more often than I’d like. I’m good friends with a handful of mages and one giant spider, and less good friends with the magical government of Britain, otherwise known as the Light Council. The Council don’t like me for two reasons: first, they think I was originally taught by a particularly nasty Dark mage named Richard Drakh and did various unpleasant things while serving as his apprentice, and second, they suspect me of being responsible for the deaths of two Light mages on separate occasions a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, it just so happens that both of those suspicions are true.
That wasn’t the reason I was here today, though.
As with most British universities the security at the Institute of Education is nonexistent, and I walked past the reception desk and descended into a big square concrete well with big square concrete pillars and big square ugly paintings. A sign at the bottom said LOGAN HALL, but instead of going straight in I veered left. The entry area narrowed into a corridor with few doors or windows. To my right I could hear a voice echoing, but I kept working my way around the edge of the hall, climbing occasional small flights of steps. Only when I’d circled to the back of the hall did I look through one of the doors.
The hall was a huge auditorium, faded red seats in semicircular rows slanting down to a raised wooden stage. There were hundreds of people seated within, but the one I was interested in was the man on the stage. He was standing on the podium delivering a lecture, and behind him was a projection screen that read European Integration in Historical Perspective. It was his voice I’d heard from outside.
I hadn’t opened the door, but there were wired-glass windows set into the wood that gave a good view inside, and I stood quietly, watching the man. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a stooped posture and hair that had gone nearly but not quite all the way to silvery white. At a glance the two of us wouldn’t have looked much alike, but there was something in his features of my own, aged and tempered. He hadn’t seen me—the corridor was darker than the brightly lit hall and I knew the lights inside would reflect off the window glass. I could have opened the door to step inside, but I stayed where I was.
I’d been standing there for maybe five minutes when a soft noise caught my attention. Different movements make different sounds—the steady tread of someone walking, the scrape of shifting feet, the patter of someone in a hurry—and with practice you can learn to filter them, picking out the ones that don’t fit in. It’s nothing to do with magic, just simple awareness, a primal skill that anyone can learn but which most people in the modern age have forgotten. But anyone who lives as a predator or as prey learns it fast.
The sound I’d heard was the sound of someone trying to stay quiet and hidden, and I stepped quietly into the cover of the doorway, one hand moving to the hilt of the knife beneath my coat. The doorway blocked line of sight, hiding me from anyone behind or ahead. It blocked my view, too . . . but I don’t need a view to see.
The corridor was empty and ordinary, pale walls and faded blue carpet. But to my sight, it was a branching spread of possible futures, lines of light forking and multiplying in the darkness. In each possible future I took a different action, moved a different way, and in every one of them my future self changed to match it: thousands of futures, branching into millions and billions. I picked out two of the delicate strands of light and focused on them, letting them strengthen and grow. In one I stepped out of hiding and turned left; in the other I moved right. My future selves walked away from me and as they did I watched, guiding the possible futures to keep myself walking down the corridor, seeing what my future eyes would see. The right-hand self found nothing. The left-hand self heard a scuffle of movement. The left-hand branches multiplied, dividing, and I guided my future self down the path, where he chased after the sound. More futures branched out, and as they did I recognised a familiar element, a signature. I moved closer to look—
—and suddenly I knew who was following me. The instant that I did, the future wavered and faded into nothingness; now that I knew who it was, I had no reason to walk down there to find out. Physically carrying out all the possible actions I’d just run through would have taken the best part of a minute, but divination works at the speed of thought and the only limit on what you can do is how clearly and quickly you can focus. From beginning to end the whole thing had taken me less than a second.
From down the corridor I heard another stealthy movement. I’d kept quite still as I’d used my magic, and my pursuer had no way to know that I was there. Cautious footsteps advanced up the corridor. I waited, letting them approach, then stepped out into view, the fingers of my right hand flicking forward.
The girl who’d been following me jumped back. She was wearing jeans and a light green top and as soon as she saw me she started moving, but the metal disc I’d thrown bounced off her stomach before she could get out of the way. She began to drop into a stance, her right hand going to the small of her back.
“No use going for a weapon,” I told her. “You’re dead.”
With a sigh Luna dropped her arm and straightened. “How long did you know I was there?”
Luna is half English and half Italian, with fair skin, wavy light brown hair, and a lot more confidence than she used to have. She’s an adept rather than a mage, the bearer of an ancient family curse which protects her at the expense of killing anyone who gets too close, and she’s been my apprentice for around two years. Nowadays her control’s developed to the point where being around her is almost safe, as long as you don’t touch her. “If you’re going to make a habit of shadowing mages,” I said, “you’ll have to get better at dodging.”
“Yes, oh master,” Luna said resignedly, bending to pick up the thing I’d thrown at her. It had been a one-pound coin, and as her fingers touched it I saw the silver-grey mist of her curse engulf it. As she did, she shot a quick glance at the door behind me, trying to see what was inside.
I rolled my eyes inwardly. “Come on, upstairs,” I said, starting back towards the stairwell. The voice of the lecturer continued from behind me, but I didn’t look back.
| | | | | | | | |
“I thought I told you to mind the shop,” I told Luna.
The inner courtyard of the Institute of Education was stone with scattered trees. A faculty building that looked like a giant concrete staircase loomed over us, and high in the sky above, the thin grey cylinder of the BT tower loomed over the faculty building. The sky beyond the tower was grey; it was an overcast day. Students walked and cycled past in ones and twos, and a cool wind gusted across the stone.
“It’s not like the world’s going to end if it’s not open for a few hours,” Luna said. “You close it up all the time.”
“I close it up. Operative word: I.”
“I’m supposed to be your apprentice,” Luna complained. “It’s not like you’re paying me to be shop assistant.”
Luna used to work for me part-time finding and buying magic items, but when I took her on as an apprentice I started paying her a stipend; mage training takes as much time as a full-time job and I wanted her focused on her lessons. “Actually, your apprentice duties are whatever I say they are,” I said. “So in fact, right now, shop assistant is exactly what I’m paying you to be. Besides, you need the practice.”
“Shadowing you seems like practice.”
I gave Luna a look.
Luna put her hands up. “Okay, okay. Look, I’m bored. Nothing’s happening at class, there aren’t any tournaments so no one wants to practice, and I hardly ever see Anne and Vari these days. Even Sonder’s stopped showing up. And you haven’t exactly been Mr. Sociable.”
I didn’t answer. I don’t know what my expression was like, but Luna drew back slightly. “Well, you haven’t,” she said defensively.
We walked a little way in silence. A pair of girls came towards us, talking, and we split to let them pass between us. “What were you doing there?” Luna asked.
“Looking for someone.”
“Is it something to do with Richard?”
“I was just wondering—”
“It’s nothing to do with Richard.”
“I was thinking of talking to the guy giving that lecture.”
I gave Luna a sharp look. She had a carefully neutral look, which made me suspicious. “So who was he?” Luna asked after a pause.
“Who was who?”
“The lecture guy.”
I very nearly told Luna to get lost. It wasn’t a nice way to treat her, but I’ve got a knee-jerk reaction to talking about anything really personal. My instinct with anything like this is to keep it to myself.
Up until last summer, my life had been going pretty well. I’d taken in a pair of young mages named Anne and Variam, and between them, Luna, and a Light mage named Sonder, I’d had something close to a real social life for the first time in ten years. I’d started to believe that I might have finally gotten away from my past.
I was wrong. In August, a group of adepts calling themselves the Nightstalkers showed up, looking for revenge for one of the uglier things I’d done while I’d been Richard’s apprentice. They couldn’t find Richard, but they found me all right and would have killed me if my friends hadn’t come to help. In the aftermath I’d told Luna, Sonder, Anne, and Variam why the Nightstalkers were after me and what I’d done for them to hate me so much.
Luna had taken it surprisingly well. She’d read between the lines and figured out most of the story before I’d even told it to her, and had decided that her loyalties lay with me. Variam, prickly but fiercely honourable, had chosen the same way. But Anne and Sonder had been less sure, and while they were still making up their minds I’d led the Nightstalkers, young and inexperienced and painfully idealistic, into a trap in which nearly all of them had been killed. I hadn’t had much choice, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Both Anne and Sonder cut off contact with me when they found out. I’d had a short and painful conversation with Anne in which she’d made it clear that she thought what I’d done was unforgivable, and from the brief attempts I’d made since then to talk to Sonder I was pretty sure he felt the same way. A part of me agreed with them.
Keeping my past a secret hadn’t done me any favours that time. In fact, it had probably made things worse.
“He’s my father,” I told Luna.
“What’s with that tone of voice? I do have parents.”
“Uh . . . you never talk about them.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason for that. After they split up I didn’t see my dad for a long time, and when I did it was after my time with Richard.” I hadn’t been in good shape back then. I’d spent most of the previous year as a prisoner in Richard’s mansion, getting periodic visits from one of Richard’s other apprentices. “I told him bits of the story, skipped over the magic parts, but I did tell him what I did to Tobruk.” Namely, that I’d killed the evil little bastard.
“My dad’s a pacifist,” I said. “He doesn’t believe in violence.”
“Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, you’re, um . . .”
I gave Luna a narrow look. “What?”
“. . . I’m not finishing that sentence. So the conversation didn’t go well?”
“My dad’s a political science professor who thinks violence is a sign of barbarism. I told him to his face that I’d committed premeditated murder and didn’t regret it.” With hindsight that had been a spectacularly bad idea, but I hadn’t been in much of a condition to think it through. “How do you think the conversation went?”
We’d made our way off the university campus and back out onto the London streets, heading north towards Euston Road. “Do you talk to him much?” Luna asked.
“Last time was a couple of years ago.”
“Does he know that you’re . . . ?”
“A mage? No. He thinks I got involved with criminals and that Richard was some sort of mob boss. I suppose if I worked at it I might be able to convince him that Richard was a Dark mage, but I don’t think that’d be much of an improvement.” And if I told him what I’d done to those adepts last year . . .
“How about if I went and talked to him?” Luna suggested.
“No. This is one area I do not want you messing around in.” I looked at her. “Clear?”
I saw Luna’s eyebrows go up and she shot me a quick glance. “Clear,” she said after a moment.
We walked in silence for a few minutes. I waited to see if Luna would push her luck, but she stayed quiet. We worked our way through the London back streets, the traffic a steady noise in the background. “So,” I said at last. “How about you tell me why you’re really here?”
“You’re working up to asking me for something.”
Luna made a face. “Yes, it’s that obvious,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”
“If it’s a bad time—”
“Luna . . .”
“Okay, okay,” Luna said. “Have you heard anything from Anne? As in lately.”
I looked at her curiously. “No.”
“You sent her that message.”
“And I got a very polite nonanswer.” It had been my third try. Give Anne credit, she does at least answer her mail. “Would have thought you’d be in closer touch than me.”
Luna sounded like she was choosing her words carefully. “Do you think you could invite her to...
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