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Drawing Lines in the Sand

Chapter Text

The back of my neck tingled, instinctively wanting to curve into a protective arc.  The atavistic urge to shelter this most vulnerable part of my body within my shoulders: a flimsy barrier to be sure, but one that felt more attractive with every subsequent step in my exposed position.

I relayed as much to Luna over my mobile, but she was somewhat less than sympathetic.

“I told you I could go.  I know how much you hate leaving London.”

Suburbia. I looked at the wide, open roadway beside me and resisted an urge to twitch.  “You have class.”

“Class I’ll be late for if I don’t go in the next few minutes.  Did you call for a specific reason or were you just looking for someone to listen to you complain?”

I raised an eyebrow.  On the whole I approved of Luna’s burgeoning confidence as she progressed through the Light Council’s apprenticeship program, but it had certainly uncovered a sassy streak.

“I wanted to confirm the house number.”

“35 Rosehip.  I left a note on top of the ledger at your desk.”

“I found it.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I’m on Rosehip, and there is no number 35.”

“Are you sure?”

I studied the stolid, marching pattern of houses opposite, each of brown stone with cheerful front gardens that showcased that inhabitant’s particular passion: roses, herbs and wild flowers, and—for one more daring resident—zucchini.

God, I hated the suburbs.

“I see number 33, which is adjoined to number 37 with nothing in between.”

I heard the sound of Luna rustling something on her end.  “Hang on.  Let me check my notebook.”  She returned a few moments later, which allowed me more than adequate time to confirm once again the lack of number 35.

The sense of being watched—which I admittedly always feel to some degree when I’m away from the city’s center and the tall buildings that hem in the horizon and shatter lines of sight—strengthened.  I turned to see the lace curtains of number 30 twitch back into place.

“Alex.”  Luna sounded embarrassed.

“Not number 35 after all?”

“Not Rosehip.  The address is number 35 Roselip.”

“Just in time.”  I pivoted back toward the high street.  “I think I was about to be reported for loitering.”

“What is a Roselip anyway?”

“An attempt at a portmanteau word for rosebud lips, I imagine.”

I heard the muddled sound of indistinct voices from the other end of the line.  “Alex, I’ve got to go.  Class is starting.  Are you going to be alright out there on your own?  I mean, it is…Chiswick.”  She dropped her voice dramatically.

“Just for that, you can catalogue this item when I get back to the shop tonight.”

She groaned.  Luna had been helping me with my magical item business for years, but it was only recently that I’d begun having her assist with the record keeping.  I’d tasked her with the idea that painstakingly researching and describing an object would be a good way to help her learn patience and attention to detail. 

And if I was now keeping more meticulously detailed records than I’d ever bothered with in the past, it was all part of her continued development.

We rang off, and after a brief stop at a shop to gather directions—I could have path walked, but I decided asking would be faster—I found Roselip Street.

The occupant of Number 35 was an avid gardener, which the towering chrysanthemums in her garden testified.  “The secret is egg shells, ground up in the soil,” she confided in me over lukewarm tea and pink iced biscuits before we got down to the business of bartering.  She was a kind old woman, thoughtful and lonely, and I didn’t have an opportunity to make my goodbyes until the early afternoon.

My stomach rumbled as I began my trek back to the Chiswick Park underground station.  The biscuits, while plentiful, hadn’t been filling, and I’d declined an offer of lunch with a plea of needing to catch the next train.  It was true, but I thought I might just have time to snag a sandwich, provided a shop was located relatively close to my route to the underground.  I was engaging in some gentle, minor path walking—more difficult than you might think when you’re in the process of moving physically as well as mentally—when the attack came.

It was the path walking that saved me.  My precognition warned me of danger just in the nick of time on more occasions than I was comfortable remembering, but in this instance, it wouldn’t have given me enough warning to make a difference.  The attack covered too large an area.

My future-self, one block ahead and half a block east in the search for a shop, saw something out of the corner of his eye as he passed an alley.  As I realized what it was he was looking at—who he saw standing there—I froze for a bare instant.  Then I was sprinting.

Ten seconds later, the pavement I’d been walking on was encased in a sickly grey-green light that radiated one hundred feet in each direction.  I dove as the light licked at my heels, rolled, came up on my feet, and then promptly sat down again as they refused to hold me.

I focused my magesight on the area as I slapped at my numbed feet to force them into waking from their magically induced slumber.  As I did the green glow intensified, as though I was looking at the scene through a filter.  The glow faded as the magic dissipated, and I released my magesight.  It hadn’t told me anything I didn’t already know.  My feet tingled with the metaphorical pins and needles of blood returning to a deprived limb, but they held my weight.  I lurched awkwardly into the garden of the nearest house and crouched.

Rachel, known currently and at the threat of bodily harm as Deleo, rounded the block. 

She was dressed with her usual attention to high drama—in this case a leather duster of supple, black leather and a matching fedora—but it was the items she held that caused a point deep in my stomach to turn to ice: black metal rods, spiked on one end and matte enough to swallow the weak spring sunlight.  Harvesting rods.

I stayed hidden for another moment, one eye watching Deleo stride to where I’d been standing before the numbing spell and one eye tracking the futures.  Then I stood and called to her.

“Should I take this to mean that any future alliances are off the table?”

She turned at my voice.  Her face registered no surprise—her affect since we’d reconnected in adulthood was nearly always eerily flat—but something dark and hungry flickered in her eyes.  “Alex.”

I pointed at the harvesting rods.  “I hope those aren’t for me.”

“This will go easier for you if you don’t fight me.”  She closed half the distance between us with long, purposeful strides, and then stopped.

“Somehow I doubt that.  Cinder not with you today?” I hadn’t seen any sign of him as I tore frantically through the futures, but no one has ever accused me of being an optimist.

“No.”

“What did your spell do?  There are people in these houses.”

Deleo walked another few feet in my direction, expression profoundly disinterested.  “Does it matter?”

“Seeing as it was intended for me, yes, it matters.”

“They’re sleeping.  They’ll wake up, none the wiser.”  She cocked her head, and the shadow cast by the fedora left only the brightness of her right eye and the curve of her cheekbone visible.  “You should be asleep too.  You can be, if you hold still.  I have another.”

“And I’ll wake up too, will I?  You’ll excuse me if I don’t trust you.”

She shrugged and progressed another step.  “It will make no difference either way.”

I held my ground in the garden.  “You don’t want to be diviner, Deleo.  Trust me on this one.  Not too long ago someone tried to steal my power.  He went mad.”

“It’s the only way.”

“The only way for what?”  She was almost at the gate now.  “Do you want me in your head too, then?  At least I’ll have Shireen for company.”

She froze.  “What did you say?”

“I said, at least I’ll have Shireen for company.  She was always good for a laugh, unlike the rest of us.  Though I can’t say I fancy the idea of seeing who else you might have in there.”

The rods shook as Deleo clenched her hands around them.  “How do you know that?  How do you know?”

I met her eyes and moved my right hand into my jacket pocket.  “Shireen told me.”

“Liar!”  Her voice was shrill.

“I’m not lying.  I met her.  In Elsewhere.  She showed me what happened.”

Deleo’s chest heaved up and down.  The rods shook harder.  “You can’t know.” 

“It was in the mansion, in the tunnels.  Richard was there.  He prodded you into it.”

I knew even as I said it that it was the wrong thing to say, but my focus on the future was tuned to combat, and I couldn’t spare the attention for navigating the conversation as well.  Besides, she was going to attack me regardless of what I said.  That I already knew.

“Richard,” Deleo breathed.  Her eyes—wide and almost rolling—sharpened on me anew with focus.  “Yes.  He showed me the way.”

“Deleo,” I broke in sharply.  “You don’t have to do this.”

She grimaced, and the futures erupted in fury and pain.  “You don’t know anything.”

Before she finished what she was saying, I was moving, ducking further into the garden and activating the object I pulled from my pocket with a shouted command word.

Agnes Milifred, the woman from whom I’d purchased the item, loved her garden with a passion.  Over time, that love—and the magic that Agnes invested daily—was subsumed and concentrated in the focuses that Agnes strategically placed about the garden and then sold to enterprising mages such as myself.

The focus that I pulled from my pocket and hurled at Deleo, a stone smoothed by time and weather, was the most potent of the bunch.  As it landed at Deleo’s feet, a torrent of life and earth magic poured into the ground, and the ground answered.

A potted geranium grew until it was roughly the size of a saguaro cactus and burst its pot.  The rosemary bushes bookending the garden gate swelled into a fragrant, impenetrable mass, and the climbing roses on the fence climbed until they blocked the sun.

All of this I knew only due to my glimpses into the future, because before the stone landed I was vaulting the back garden fence and running.  Behind me, Deleo shouted.

I knew I had time to make it through the back gardens of three neighbors before she fought her way past the climbing roses.  Immediately after, I leapt into the back alley with the aid of a child’s trampoline.  There was a garage that’d been left open two houses further, and I slid into it, simultaneously pulling out my emergency gate stone.

I confirmed it was in fact the stone to return to my neighborhood—though at this point, I’d joyfully gate to Wales—and then I was pouring power into it as rapidly as I could.

I already knew Deleo wouldn’t reach me in time to stop me.  She would catch a final glimpse of the gate closing and melt the garage door, but that didn’t stop my heart from pounding or my adrenaline from surging as I heard the scuff of her knee-high boots drawing closer to my hiding place accompanied by the clang of metal on metal.  She was still holding the rods.

“You won’t get away, Alex,” she breathed, and then I was in the gate and through.

As it closed behind me, I collapsed against a convenient wall and tried not to shake badly enough to alarm anyone who may be in the vicinity.

What the hell?

Chapter Text

The gate stone I'd used was keyed to the basement of a security-lax print shop a block away from my shop. I used to key them all to the flat itself, but recent years had enforced my paranoia, and now I carried a set meant to bring me close to home without potentially dropping me into a trap.

The basement was dark, dusty, and smelled of moldering paper, but it was quiet. I tuned out the sound of the floorboards overhead as the clerk made rounds from copy machine to register and focused on determining the safety of my flat.

Fifteen minutes later I was sure there weren't any nasty surprises waiting for me at the back door. I was also hungry, the growl of my stomach upped to a disgruntled roar, which assured me I’d fully recovered from the shock of Deleo’s attack.

What had set her off? Deleo and I weren't friends—we were too aware of what the other was capable of for that…besides, she was off her head—but I thought we'd developed a somewhat cordial coexistence where we stayed out of each other’s way to the extent possible. We'd even allied on a couple of occasions. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't done anything recently that she would have an interest in, so why the attack?

The use of the harvesting rods was especially worrying. I’d known her and Cinder to attempt to use them in the past, but on magical creatures rather than mages. After the tragedy in the tunnels between Rachel and Shireen, I thought Deleo wouldn't be keen for another harvesting, but I'd clearly been wrong.

I called Keeper Headquarters on my way back to the flat.

“Order of the Star,” said the man who answered the phone.

“Sakrees, is that you?”

“Verus? What's up?”

“Why are you answering Caldera’s phone?”

“She's off the grid this afternoon. Very hush hush,” Sakrees said. He was an air mage, very cheerful, and unlike the majority of the official Keepers, he seemed to enjoy my company.

“Listen, I just got attacked by a Dark mage in Chiswick. It wasn't far off the High Street. I think you'll need to send the Order of the Cloak over for damage control.”

“That was you?”

“You already knew about it, huh?”

“Verus, a neighborhood the size of a football pitch was suddenly subsumed in grey light, and all the residents fell into their cornflakes. Three of them had traffic accidents, none fatal, thank goodness.”

“That wasn't me. I was the target of a mage who goes by Deleo. There should be a file on her.”

Sakrees rustled some paper. “Anyone else?”

“Not that I saw, but believe me, Deleo is more than enough on her own.”

“It’s just that there’s also the matter of a garden suddenly swelling up like the Incredible Hulk.”

“Ah. That was me.”

Sakrees sounded like he wanted to laugh. “I thought it might be.”

After one last check of the future I jogged up the back steps to my flat. “Was anyone hurt besides the three in the traffic accidents?”

“They're still assessing, but it doesn't look like it. Are you alright?”

Anne had been over the night before, and the fridge was blessedly full. “I'm fine. A little shaken, but that's all.”

“Good. The Cloak will probably want you to make a report.”

“Should I come down there?”

“No, no point yet seeing as they're all down in Chiswick. I'll leave your number with their lead officer.”

“Thank you, Sakrees. I appreciate it.”

“And I'll tell Caldera to call you when she gets in.”

“Can you make sure she knows this wasn’t my fault first?” I asked, and Sakrees laughed.

“You're considered pretty tough in certain circles, Verus. I'll leave the Caldera wrangling to you. She'd eat me alive.”

After ending the call I frowned down into the curry I’d pulled out, thinking.

I hadn't told Sakrees about the harvesting rods. As much as I liked the guy—and I truly did—the very existence of the rods was a sensitive subject and frankly taboo among Light mages. I'd been burned too many times, some of those times by Keepers, to be incautious in who I informed about their reappearance.

The last time I'd come up against harvesting rods a couple of years ago, I’d compiled a report. Leaving the curry on the counter, I jogged to the stairs leading to my shop to fetch it from the secure room I used to house my more powerful items and information. As I did, something in the futures caught my attention, a chime at the edge of my awareness from a future I’d been casually running about what would happen if I bypassed the vault and proceeded downstairs to my shop. I stopped cold.

I stood there, hearing nothing from below. I wouldn't expect to, but even so the silence rang in my ears, loud enough to drown out my breathing, which had accelerated noticeably.

I gave myself another minute in hopes of slowing my heartbeat—it didn't work—and then went downstairs.

“Alex, good. You're in.” Richard Drakh was looking at the shelves of mundane crystals in my closed and locked shop with an expression of polite interest.

My mouth was dry. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been wanting to see your shop for a while now. The formal tenets of tradition bring me, but I’m glad for the opportunity to drop by. You've done a good job with it.” He ran a finger over one of the more ostentatious gems, a hulking amethyst with jutting violet points. “For what it is.”

It was difficult to focus past the rush of adrenaline seeing him brought, but I forced my whirling thoughts to marshal themselves into coherence. It helped settle the ringing in my ears.  Somewhat. “Is this related to Deleo’s attack on me today?”

“It is. I informed her yesterday that she will not officially be named my chosen until she summarily defeats all other contenders.”

As someone who can see the future, I'm rarely caught completely and utterly by surprise. “Come again?”

His lips twitched with minor amusement. “Her attack on you is directly related to her bid to become my chosen. As you are the only other remaining competitor, she must defeat you.”

“I don't want to be your chosen.”

“That is immaterial.”

“I left! I'm no longer part of this insane contest.”

“The contest continues until all but one candidate remains. You know that.”

“How can having this farce continue possibly benefit you? You can't actually want me as your chosen. Is this some sort of test for her?”

Richard smiled. “I informed Deleo yesterday that the contest is ongoing. I’m here today to formally inform you as well.”

I stared at him. “You're a little late.”

“I assumed informing you second wouldn’t affect the outcome too badly given your divination. Things in life are rarely balanced with perfect equality, Alex,” he chided, for all the world sounding like a father gently correcting his offspring. The thought chilled me.

“The harvesting rods,” I asked, throat tight. “Did she get them from you?”

“Other than informing you both of the contest’s stipulations, I am not involved.”

The knot of ice that had coalesced in my stomach the moment I realized who was waiting for me melted in a rush of anger at his words. Then it ignited. “The fact that you can stand here and say that to me is sickening. This is all down to you. Rachel harvested Shireen because you pushed her into it. You may not have put the rods in her hands this time, but don't you dare claim that you're not involved. Not to me.”

Richard’s gaze sharpened when I mentioned Shireen, something blood-thirsty and leashed looking back at me, and my fury squelched out of existence as quickly as it blossomed. I could see no violence in my immediate future, but I was too aware of Richard’s character and abilities to trust that meant my safety was assured.

“I meant to congratulate you on that incidentally: referencing the most tragic and yet triumphant moment in Deleo’s life during battle in order to throw her off balance. I’ve always appreciated your unflinching application of psychology.”

He paused, but I didn't respond. Didn’t ask the obvious question about how he knew the details of what had occurred in Chiswick a half hour before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, honestly.

“If you have no questions, then I need to be going.  I have business to attend to.”

“Aren't you going to wish me luck in the contest?” My voice was caustic, but for all that it was strangled as well.

“I could, but you don't need luck. You never have.  That’s the thing I like best about you, Alex. You’re a survivor. You purport to have lines, but you keep redrawing them. I never know how far you'll go.”  He paused at the door, pinning me in place with the clarity of his gaze and a small pleased smile that did nothing to lighten his eyes.  “And neither do you.”

Then he was through the shop door, the bell ringing in his wake, just another middle aged businessman in a suit strolling down the pavement of Camden.

After Richard left, I stared at nothing for a time, my mind—which had been locked with gravitational intensity on the conversation with my old master and the permutations it could have taken—skipped from one idea to another in dizzying hops.

I needed to plan, to strategize. More than that, I needed to warn those close to me that I was once again a target.

As futile a gesture as it was, I relocked my store before running upstairs for my phone.

**

Variam answered on the second ring. “Hey, Alex.”

“Vari, I've got a bit of a situation. Are you free to talk?”

“Yeah. I'll come over in a second.” He ended the call. It was abrupt, but I wasn’t offended. Vari epitomized abrupt.

I went to put the kettle on for tea, but the water had barely begun to heat when a gate spell, this one rimmed in bright orange and red flames, appeared in my den.

I’d specifically keyed the gate stones I gave my friends to allow them access through the defenses on my flat, but I'm not going to pretend I didn't relax somewhat when the gate opened far enough and Vari stepped through.

“Alex. Your timing is perfect.  Landis is running one of his experiments again.  Now,” he flopped down onto my couch and regarded me with an expectant expression, “what’s the situation?”

I explained.

“Let me get this straight,” he said when I finished.  “You’re still in the running to become Richard’s chosen.”

“Apparently.”

“And now Deleo is trying to kill you.”

“She’s trying to harvest me, which amounts to the same thing at the end, but it adds another layer to the situation.”

“What’s harvesting?”

Vari and Anne were so much a part of my life, I sometimes forgot they hadn’t been around all that long.  I outlined what I knew about harvesting and the events of a couple of years ago when Belthas had targeted Arachne.  When I finished, Vari looked thoughtful.

“Why is Deleo trying to harvest you?  Is that a requirement to become Richard’s chosen?”

“No.  All you have to do is kill your competition, but I imagine that Deleo feels that isn’t good enough now that she knows the contest is ongoing.  She wants to defeat me utterly, and I assume she feels harvesting my magic is the best way to do that and prove her superiority to Richard.”

“But you said it didn’t work out too well for her last time.”

“I don't think she's thinking that logically.” An image flashed in my mind of the girl Rachel had been so many years before. Before Richard got hold of us all. “She hasn't for a while.”

“So what's the plan?”

“That's what we're going to work through tonight. Luna is still in class.” I checked my watch. “She’ll be released shortly. I called Anne just before you, and she's going to meet Luna at the training site to tell her what's going on. I also would feel better knowing neither of them is traveling alone.”

“Do you really think Deleo would target one of them?”

“It’s not her usual style. I actually don't think she even knows about you and Anne, but it pays to be cautious. When they get here, we can discuss strategy.”

“Well, at the very least I'm glad you're not leaving us out this time.”

“Given that Richard is involved, even if just peripherally, I think more minds are better than one. I'm going to want to keep it low profile though, especially if he's watching somehow.” I again felt that crawling, uncomfortable sensation that goes part and parcel with being observed. I'd expected Richard was keeping tabs on me to some degree, but I never thought it would take the form of personal observation.

What was his end game?

“What about Caldera?” Vari asked, and I stifled a curse. I’d forgotten all about her. I reached for my phone.

“She was out earlier. She's supposed to give me a call when she gets in.”

“Are you going to tell her? You know, about being a candidate for Richard’s chosen?”

I didn't answer, caught instead by the future of the phone clutched in my hand. It was about to ring, but it wasn't Caldera. It was-

My mobile vibrated with an incoming call.

“Anne.” I answered the call with a sense of vertigo, the shock of what she was about to tell me already migrating through my nervous system.

“Alex, Luna isn't here! The instructor told me they took a break about an hour ago, and she never came back. What do you need me to do?”

My voice seemed to come from some place very far away and very cold. “Anne, come to my flat. Be careful. I have to hang up now. I'm about to get another call.”

I hung up before she could say anything further and held up a hand to hush Vari’s questions.

The phone rang.

“Deleo, so help me, if you hurt her I will see you dead.”

She gave no indication that she heard me. “I have your adept pet. If you want to see her alive again you will be in Hamden tonight at midnight. I’ll call you with the address twenty minutes before, and you will come alone.”

She disconnected the call. I held my mobile to my ear for another long moment, forcing myself to consider the possibility that Luna was already dead. The thought of it was like ashes piling up around me, smothering the air, choking me off from the light.  I wouldn’t let that happen.  I couldn’t.

Vari stirred. “I guess Deleo is using a new strategy this time.”

Chapter Text

Caldera called an hour or so later, and she was furious.

“Verus, what the hell is going on?”

I motioned to my guest to remain quiet.  “Caldera, listen-”

“No, you listen. I've gone to bat for you. Time and again I stick my neck out for you, and when you pull shite like this, it's me that it lands on.”

“If you'll just-”

She overrode me. “When Sonder filed that complaint and tried to get you dismissed as an axillary, who stepped in? Me. I did. And when you screwed up the Yanning investigation-”

“Caldera, Luna’s been kidnapped!” I shouted.

“Luna’s been- By Drakh?”

That caught me up short. “What? No, by Deleo. She’s wants to lure me to Hamden tonight and trade Luna’s life in exchange for me lying down peacefully and not fighting while she magically harvests me to death.”

Caldera took a deep breath. “Explain.”

“Deleo attacked me today in Chiswick with a stunning spell. She had harvesting rods with her. Why did you think Richard took Luna?”

Caldera didn’t reply, but then, she really didn't need to. “I'm being watched.”

“Verus, you’re a known associate of Drakh-”

My voice came out tight. “I'm no associate of his.”

“And today you were involved in the biggest Cloak shakeup this year. What did you expect to happen?”

I remembered the feeling I’d had all day of unseen eyes upon me. “But it started before that, didn’t it? How long have I had a tail?”

“Is today the first time you've seen Drakh since you left his apprenticeship?”

“Yes.” Excepting Sagash’s shadow realm, I added mentally. Talisid had asked me to keep my foray into the castle to myself, and I had.

“Are you working for him?”

“No! Did I not just say today was the first time I'd seen him?”

“I imagine his visit came as an unpleasant shock.”

“It did.”

“Then why was the first I heard of his visit through an intelligence report to Keepers of the Star? Why didn't you call me, Verus?”

“Because there wasn’t time! Deleo has Luna, or didn't you hear me the first time? She's going to kill her.”

“Be that as it may, it looks suspicious. Now they want to question you.”

I saw red.  “For what? For spending the last decade running from him? For working with the bloody Council on missions that directly target Dark mages at great risk of personal harm or death? Or is this about me having the temerity to serve as an auxiliary Keeper?”

“They think you know what he's planning.”

“I don't.”

“He's wanted for questioning in relation to several open cases, mostly disappearances. Now that he's resurfaced, the Keepers will find him, and they will bring him in.”  Caldera sounded very definite, and I could visualize matching expression on her face, including the stubborn thrust of her jaw.

“Good luck with that. In the interim what are you going to do about Luna?”

Caldera hesitated, and that was enough.

“She's a registered apprentice of the Council’s apprenticeship program!”

“I'll notify the team working Deleo and Cinder. They have good people there, Verus. They'll find her.”

“I already know where she is, Caldera. Deleo has her, and she wants a straight swap, my life for Luna’s.”

“Why is she so bent on killing you?”

My heart sank. I knew where this was going to go, saw the conversation like a pitiless and inevitable spiral into shadow and further suspicion, and I didn’t need divination. “Richard told her that she won't officially be his chosen until she defeats all other contenders, which means me.”

“Drakh’s hasn’t formally chosen his successor?”

“I was as surprised as you are.”

“And he still considers you in the running.”  It wasn’t a question.  Her tone didn't hold recrimination, but it was flat, monotone and even. And I'd worked with her enough to know it amounted to the same thing.

“I don't want anything to do with him,” I insisted. “I left him ten years ago, once I finally allowed myself see what kind of mage he was. I would have left earlier, but I was too busy being enslaved and tortured with his approval.” Behind me, I could feel the eyes of my guest boring into me.  I didn’t turn around. “I have no interest in this contest, and I told him so this afternoon.”

“Do you have a recording of the conversation?”

“What? No. I don't keep recording equipment in my magic shop.”

Caldera went on, businesslike and brusque. “What about the call from Deleo? Do you have a recording of that? Some proof that what you say is true?”

“No. What I have is my word and the information I'm giving you now. Deleo, probably with Cinder in tow, will be somewhere in Hamden this evening at midnight."

Caldera saw where I was headed at once, and she didn’t like it.  “Verus, if you're asking the Keepers to help you win this bloody contest-“

“No, I'm asking you to save Luna. I'm asking you to do your job. You don't trust me? Fine, that's nothing new for the course. I'll handle Deleo myself, just so the Keepers don't stress themselves with any moral ambiguity. But Cinder is a walking firebomb—quite literally—and if he attacks, he'll endanger countless lives. I can't take on both Deleo and Cinder alone. I need help.” When I'd interrupted Caldera I’d been shouting as my frustration and fear got the better of me, but by the time I came to my appeal for aid, my voice had dropped to almost a whisper.

“Verus…” Caldera huff of frustration echoed clearly over the line. “I'll have someone nearby. If they note a disturbance, they'll step in.”

“Thank you.”

“They'll be there to keep the peace. And by ‘they’ I mean me and whoever I can threaten or bribe into joining me,” she warned. “I can't requisition anything official, so we’ll only engage if there’s an endangerment of lives or property.” She suddenly held the phone mouthpiece away, her voice tinny and distant. “Lord, and now I'm giving him ideas.”

“You'll strictly be there for backup and the protection of civilians, not the first line of my defense,” I promised when she was back on the line.  “Thank you, Caldera.”

She grunted. “Don't thank me yet Verus. If this goes tits up, I'm taking it out on your arse.”

“Even so, I appreciate you trusting me, even if it's only halfway.”

“If you hadn't been observed, would you have told me about Drakh’s visit?” she asked me abruptly.

Having just thanked her for her trust, as tinged with lingering suspicion as it was, I couldn't bring myself to lie to her further. “I don't know. I haven't had time to think on it.”

Caldera was silent, only her rhythmic breathing audible. “But if I had thought on it and then ultimately chosen not to tell you,” I went on, “it would be because I didn’t want to draw his attention to anyone else.  Not unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“Damnit, Verus! What have I told you about trying to protect me?”

“It’s a moot point anyway seeing as I was being watched and reported upon. Is that entirely legal?” Something in the future tugged on my awareness. “I have to go. I'll be in touch tonight.  Keep your mobile with you.”

“Verus-” I heard before I ended the call and turned to the first line of my defense for Deleo.

Landis raised a bushy eyebrow. “Was it strictly necessary for you to inform the Keepers of our little operation?”

“You are the Keepers.”

“Yes, but this mission isn't a sanctioned one.”

“You said you were willing to help when Variam asked you.”

“And I still am, lad. Not all battles against darkness can take place in the light or be neatly detailed in triplicate for all and sundry to stamp approved. Still, it will make our job more difficult if we have to dodge Caldera as well as fireballs.”

“I know Caldera. She’ll keep her distance until there’s a legitimate cause to engage, and if all goes to plan, we won't give her one.”

“And if all doesn't go to plan?”

“That's why I want her there in the first place,” I admitted.  “It's like I told her: if Cinder goes on a rampage, she can minimize the damage.”

“If he goes on attack,” Landis said with gravity, “Vari and I will stop him.”

It didn't seem worth arguing the point or bringing up scenarios wherein Cinder wasn’t Deleo’s only backup, not at the moment anyway, so I changed the topic. “Where is Vari anyway?”

“Here,” Vari called as he and Anne came in the door to my flat, both with matching, small duffle bags. “Shouldn't you have known that we were back?”

“I did. How else do you think I timed that so well? Did you have any trouble?”

“If you mean trouble with Dark mages, no.” Vari swung his bag onto my table with a solid whap. “If you mean trouble with our shopping list, we got it all, but we had to use all of the money you gave us. He raised the price on us.”

I unzipped the duffle and assessed the contents. “He could probably tell you were nervous.”

“I wasn’t nervous.”

“I was,” Anne said as she set down her duffle with an action far gentler than Vari’s. He scowled at her.

“You were nervous? You're practically indestructible.”

“I've never bought anything illegal before.”

I interrupted before Vari could pick up steam.  “Strictly speaking, only some of this is illegal. I had you get it all from one seller to save time.”

“Yeah, one who operates from an alley,” Vari muttered.

I checked the second duffle and then zipped both back up. “Alright, there are a pair of Keepers who will be here in about five minutes to ask me about my visit from Richard. All things being equal, I don’t have time to spend a few hours sweating in an interrogation room, so we should go.”

“Where to?” Anne asked, even as she gathered her things and reclaimed the duffle.  Vari took hold of the other.

In cases like this—ones where I was being targeted by mages determined to end my life—I would usually hide out at Arachne’s.  Her lair was warded so completely I doubted even Richard could get through them.  I was certain Deleo couldn’t.

The problem was that despite trusting Landis to run interference with Cinder and whoever else Deleo brought to our rendezvous, that trust didn’t extend to introducing him to Arachne.  Besides, I had a few things to accomplish.

“I need to make it to the building permitting office.”  I looked at Landis and Vari.  “Can one of you gate us close?  It’s in Croyden.  I’d rather not travel on the street if we can avoid it.”

“Yes,” Landis said.  “I believe I know a location that will suffice.  There’s a copse of trees on the edge of the green I’m particularly fond of, out of sight of prying eyes.”

“Why the permitting office?” Anne asked as Landis began his gate spell.  “You don’t know where we’re going.”

“I know the neighborhood, and I know how Deleo thinks.”  I thought of Luna’s kidnapping and amended.  “Most of the time.  I should be able to pick out some possibilities.  She won’t be expecting us to know anything about the layout of the rendezvous point, so that will be to our advantage.  We have several hours left to kill anyway.”  I tried to sound confident, cavalier even, but I was acutely aware of the time.  It was just getting on to five o’clock, and the shadows were lengthening.

If Anne noticed my worry, she was kind enough not to say so.  “That sounds like a good idea.”

Vari played his role as well, and I was struck anew with the gratitude I sometimes felt unexpectedly that these people were in my life and at my side.  “And now we get to do research.  Yay.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, snagging my backpack of equipment, which I’d packed before my call with Caldera.  “I have something more active in mind for you and Landis.”

“Coming from you, that doesn’t reassure me.”

Chapter Text

The next few hours went quickly.  Not knowing how Richard—and for that matter the Keepers—were watching me, I didn’t want to assume the answer stopped at a simple tail.  As such, though the strategist in me itched to travel to Hamden at once and begin to survey the likeliest meeting spots in person, I contented myself with paper records and massive amounts of Google Maps street view.  Given that Deleo's end goal was to harvest my magic, I assumed she’d want to remain undisturbed for as long as possible, which meant an enclosed, empty structure without a great deal of foot traffic or security.  I focused my search on empty warehouses.

By hour four, I’d narrowed it down to three potentials and developed ingress and egress routes for each.  I was helped by the fact that overall the roles of Anne, Vari, and Landis were relatively static, and once I was inside I would have my divination to help me map out what prior research was unable to tell me.

Of course, that was assuming one of the three I’d selected was Deleo’s choice.  There was a very good possibility that she’d pick another spot entirely.  Or that she’d give up on the idea of harvesting and just try to kill me outright.  That would send my contingency plan right off the rails.

Vari and Landis returned from their task a bit after 11:00.  I spent the remainder of the hour prepping our equipment, including the items I’d brought with me in my backpack.  My armor had taken up the bulk of the space, and after strapping it on, I surveyed the remaining equipment.

The revolver felt icy and weighted in my hand as I considered it.

As a rule I don't like guns. They make you cocky, and if an altercation wasn’t already to the death, the presence of a gun on the scene moved it there quickly. And they were difficult to explain if you were spotted holding one by an enterprising constable.

I’d done some work on this one with the assistance of Arachne to bring the violent energy of its presence down to something more subtle. The bespoke holster discouraged curious eyes from focusing on the gun until it was drawn, and there was a magical key on the trigger guard to keep anyone but me from firing it.

Still, I didn't believe in bringing a firearm to a fight without due consideration and unless it was necessary. In the case of my upcoming altercation with Deleo, I wanted something to give me the option of a ranged attack to counter her magic. I tucked the revolver into its holster on my belt, hoping I wouldn't have to use it, and hoping that if I did, it would be enough.

The rest of my newly purchased equipment was prepped and distributed when Deleo rang.

“Verus.”

“Let me talk to Luna.”

“The address is 459 Loyton. Be there at midnight alone if you don't want the girl harmed.” The address was one of the warehouses I'd planned for, an empty but maintained structure at the dock. That at least was in character, which heartened me somewhat.

“How do I know you haven't already killed her?”

“You don't,” Deleo said with cold derision before cutting the call.

I lowered the phone to face the curious and grave eyes of my team.

“We're a go for location 2.”

“We’ll get her back,” Anne told me in an undertone as Landis began another gate spell.

“I know we will,” I said, even though there was a place inside of me that had been wailing in grief and denial since I'd learned of Luna’s kidnapping.

“You look worried.”

“I'm worried about how this is all going to end. Not just today, though I'm certainly worried about that too, but about this entire contest. Deleo isn't going to give up. Not on this.”

“If she tries again, we'll stop her again.” Anne laid a warm hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get through this together.”

I forced a smile and thanked her, but I didn’t need divination to recognize that in this situation, there was unlikely to be an ending that we were all happy with.

All I could hope to do was minimize and direct the violence when it arrived.

**

We arrived at the warehouse fifteen minutes before midnight. I spent ten of those path walking and providing last minute instructions and reminders to my backup until Vari threatened to melt me and save Deleo the trouble.

“Have you spotted Caldera, Verus?” Landis asked. He'd pulled out a wickedly curved sword and was polishing it with a serene expression.

“She and another Keeper are two blocks east in a parked Honda. I think his name is Gregson, but I've never spoken to him.”

“Five minutes, Alex,” Anne murmured, and I nodded.

“I'm going to head in. Final comms check. Do you read me?”

“It’d be easier to test the comms if you'd actually leave the van,” Vari complained.

I'd chosen a hulking, olive green van for our base of operations. All of its tyres were flat, and it smelled of stale chips, but it was large enough to house us all, albeit snuggly, and it kept us out of view of any surveillance.

“Can you hear me through the speaker?” I asked patiently. “There’s enough of a difference in where my voice will be coming from that you should be able to tell if you hear me through the line in addition to the van.”

“I hear you, Verus,” Landis said.

Anne nodded. “I'm reading you.”

“Good. I'm picking you all up as well. My transmitter will be in my pocket. If it's damaged or falls out, I should be able to hear you, so assume I'm still alive until you learn otherwise.”

I slid from the van and pulled a dark beanie over my head, both to make me less visible in the dark and to further disguise the already low-profile Bluetooth speaker in my ear.  Vari and Landis followed me out.

“Good luck,” Anne said quietly.  She was kneeling in the center of the van as I quietly closed the door, a torch and her mobile clutched in her hands.  I’d tried to leave her with a weapon as well, but she’d refused to take one.

I motioned Landis and Vari to move to their assigned locations, and without a word they disappeared into the shadows.  The warehouse Deleo had chosen was in the center of a collection of like structures, all squatting by the Thames like a cluster of mushrooms.  Some distance away came the sound of a high-pitched motorcycle growl as its rider accelerated more than was prudent, but then it passed and the night was silent.  I thought I could almost hear the soft thrush of the river, but I may have imagined it from the sound of my blood echoing in my ears.

The van I’d chosen was two blocks away, and it took me only a few minutes to make my way to 459 Loyton.  It was currently locked in a prolonged legal battle, but in its previous existence it had been a shipping warehouse specializing in building materials, and there were still mounds of crumbling cinderblock and broken bricks, as though someone had begun to straighten up the area and then given it up for a lost cause.  The yard was also strewn with empty crisp bags and beer cans, though I didn’t see its appeal as a party spot.

The vast loading doors were tightly shut and locked, but there was a man-sized door halfway around on the east side that I knew from my path-walking would be open.  My footfall was silent as I stepped inside.

“Two life signatures just appeared inside,” Anne’s voice murmured in my ear.  “One of them is Luna.  They’re on the second level in the northwest corner near the stairwell.”  Good.

I could just make out the deeper shadow of the warehouse’s other stairwell in the southeast, directly catty-corner from Deleo’s position.  I moved toward it slowly, partially to give my allies time to get into position and partially because I was still path-walking.

The stairs were concrete and smelled of mold and urine, but they were sound, and I jogged up to the second level without any trouble.

“Alex, go,” Anne said.

That was my cue.  I allowed my steps to fall with more force as I walked out onto the second floor.  The ceiling was higher here, and the sound echoed hollowly in the wide space.  “Deleo!” I called.  “I know you’re in here. “

There were windows on the second level, but they were set high up in the wall and emitted only snatches of the city’s light pollution through their painted exteriors.  I navigated by divination, not wanting to turn on my torch quite yet.

“Alex.”  Her voice was sibilant, drawing the ‘x’ out with a hiss.

I stopped.  “No Cinder tonight?  I suppose he’s likely keeping watch somewhere nearby, perhaps on the roof of the warehouse just to the north of us.  That would give him a good vantage point to see any signal from you.”

Landis’s voice.  “We see him, Verus.  Target engagement in sixty seconds.”

“Do you really think you’ll need him to rescue you?” I asked Deleo.  “I’m flattered.”

As I hoped, I heard the measured sound of footsteps from the northwest corner moving toward my location.  “I don’t need help to destroy you.”

I stayed put.  “But you brought him along anyway.  That’s sweet.”

“You brought people along as well.”  My eyes had adjusted to the blackness, and I thought I could just make out her silhouette, still some fifty feet away.  “I should have known you wouldn’t face me honorably.”

I barked a laugh.  “Honor?  Since when do you care about honor?”

She was thirty feet away now, close enough for me to make out her shrug.  “I don’t, really. I was just trying to do this properly.”

I saw the disintegration beam a second before she launched it and threw myself out of the way.

“Decide not to harvest me after all?”

“I knew you’d dodge.  You always do.  But as much as I’d love to watch you jump while I hunt you down, I already told you my terms.  Your life for hers.  Do you accept, or do you have another cowardly trick to try and save your worthless life?”

“Vari, there are three more life signatures making their way to the building you and Landis are in from the south,” Anne said through the speaker.  “They’ll be there in twenty seconds.  It’s not Caldera.”  

“We’re about to engage,” Landis said.  He sounded tense and excited.  “That should bring the Keepers into the fight and even the odds.  Ready, lad?”

“Wait,” Vari said.  “I think there’s someone else-”

Deleo hurled a water bolt at me, then another immediately after.  I hopped out of their path and realized I had let it go too long without answering.

“You know me,” I called, reaching into my pocket.  “I’m all about tricks.”  I pulled the pin from the tear gas canister I’d bought as I threw it directly toward her.

I saw her silhouette duck, but it made no difference as the caustic smoke funneled up around her and swallowed her form.  She staggered.

I turned and ran a wide parabola around her in an attempt to get between her and Luna’s location.  The amount of tear gas in the canister wasn’t large enough to fill the warehouse and would dissipate quickly, but there was still enough in the air that my eyes watered.  A burning sensation began in my throat.

On the other end of the earpiece I could hear Landis and Vari shouting, but it was muddled and incomprehensible.  Deleo dove out of the cloud of gas and rolled, coming up on her feet almost immediately.  I pulled another of the items I’d purchased from one of my less legal human contacts and threw it, ducking and covering my ears as I did so.

The flashbang went off with a furious roar, and a supernova of light erupted behind my closed eyelids.  Even with my eyes closed, the light destroyed whatever night vision I’d managed to cultivate, and it was only through divination that I was able to sprint unhindered toward the northwest corner of the warehouse.

I didn’t make it.

My precognition screamed, and I threw myself to the ground as Deleo triggered a wave of acid-green light that emanated out from her body in a ring waist-high.  An acrid scent followed the wave as it passed over my head to impact the walls.  The warehouse shuddered, and for a moment my heart stopped.  Luna.

A green light—icy and unnerving—flared behind me, lighting the warehouse.

The northwest corner, the corner where Luna had been kept, was empty but for a set of harvesting rods.

I turned to see Deleo’s face turn blank with confusion.  Then it screwed with rage.

“Where is she?” she shouted, hurling disintegration beams with anger and disregard for where they impacted.  A couple of them came close to hitting me, but I jumped to my feet and moved as my magic dictated.  “What have you done?”

“Me?” I asked, a little breathless from the acrobatics.  “I’ve been right here with you all the time.”

“But, who?  The life mage?  She couldn’t have.  I-” Deleo began and then cut herself off.

“You set traps, I imagine, just in case I brought a friend or two along?  That doesn’t surprise me.  Funny, though.  Traps don’t work so well when you’re able to look back into the past and see them being set.”

“Alex, Sonder has Luna, and they’re back at the van,” came Anne’s welcome report in my earpiece.  “She’s drugged but alive.  I’m working on her now.”

Deleo still look flummoxed, wrong-footed and wide-eyed in the verdant light, but I could see focus returning.  I needed to go.  “But he’s not your friend.  He hates you.”

That she knew about both Anne and Sonder was worrying, but I had no time to think on it. “He doesn’t have to be my friend to be Luna’s.  You screwed up thinking I’d be the only one trying to rescue her.”

Deleo gave me a look of disgust.  “I tried.  I tried to think as you do, to be devious and underhanded.  I wanted to show Richard I could be as good as you.  That I’m better than you.”  I saw her intent before she raised her hand to unleash another spell.  “I am his chosen.  Not you.”

I pulled my final item from my jacket as I dodged left, and smoke billowed up behind me as I ran for the northwest stairwell ahead.  It was a standard condenser like I preferred to use, but Deleo hesitated before giving chase, wary of more tear gas.

I’d hoped to make it to the stairs before she recovered, but as I looked at the futures I knew I would not be fast enough. I ducked just as a massive bolt of water shot above my head and torpedoed into the wall ahead of me, destroying it. The warehouse moaned ominously, and--as if in slow motion--chunks of masonry began to fall.

I pivoted left. The building plans detailed a freight elevator in the middle of the northern wall, and I ran toward it.  The doors were closed, but a well-thrown rock from my pocket (one of my more random but still useful divination skills) triggered them to open.  I ran inside them and slammed my hand against the button to close the doors, pressing myself against the wall to avoid another of Deleo’s beams.

“No!” she yelled.  “Not again.  You won’t beat me again.”

Suddenly the volley of water bolts stopped and the light Deleo emitted began to change, bleeding an unsettling purple shade as it morphed from an emerald green to something dark and sullen.  It was the signal, I realized after a moment.  Cinder’s signal.

The doors to the lift were almost shut, and I knew from views into the future of what would happen if I remained inside that Deleo wouldn’t be able to force her way through the thick, metal doors before I was on the ground level.  I could escape, though she would certainly follow me, potentially with Cinder in pursuit as well.

Something else in the futures caught my attention, something I would see through the doors of the lift.  Cinder was going to gate into the room with something thrown over his shoulder…

My blood turned to ice.

On cue, the warehouse lit up with the red-orange of a raging forest fire, and Cinder stepped through the gate.  His skin was singed with soot, and his eyes were narrowed in annoyance.

“Keepers,” he informed Deleo, depositing his burden on the ground.

“Go,” she said, and he gated back to continue his battle with Vari and Landis, a battle which I knew from the increasingly urgent shouts through my earpiece was becoming more complex and dangerous as additional players joined the melee.  Cinder and Deleo hadn’t come alone.

But I didn’t think on that.  Didn’t think through the possibilities of what was occurring outside the walls of the warehouse.  My attention was on what Cinder had dropped at Deleo’s feet, a crumpled, unmoving form.

The doors to the elevator were about to close in three, two,-

I stepped back out onto the floor and let them close behind me, my gaze fixed on Deleo.  And on my father, the hostage at her feet.

She smiled.  “So glad you decided to stay and play, Alex.”

Chapter Text

“You seemed so anxious to relive the past earlier,” Deleo said, “mentioning Shireen.” Her voice caught for a moment on the name, a piece of silk catching on a nail, and then it was gone. “It got me thinking. I was never all that interested in the rest of you, but Shireen was. She was so curious, about you especially. Where you came from. Your real name...” 

“Let him go.”  My voice was ice.  “I mean it, Deleo.  If you hurt him, I will end you.”

“Oh,” she breathed.  Her lips parted in a smile of delight.  “I do love it when you drop your masks.”

“He has no part in this.”

“His part will end the moment you are gone and I take my rightful place as Richard’s chosen.  Don’t fight the inevitable, Verus.  We both knew where this is going to lead.”

My father was gagged and bound, but he was awake, his eyes fixed on me in the dirty grey light.  I needed to get Deleo’s attention away from him and onto me.  Force her to the point where she was no longer able to focus on more than one target at a time.

Richard’s words flashed in my mind.  ‘Unflinching application of psychology.’ 

So be it.

I laughed.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Rachel.  You know you were never Richard’s favorite.  I’m sure it was a surprise to you when you realized I was still in the competition for chosen, but was it really such a shock?  Of the four of us, you were never at the top of anyone’s list.  Certainly not Richard’s.”

Her hands clenched into fists.  “Don’t call me Rachel.”

“Shireen was the strongest.  Tobruk was the cruelest.  I was the cleverest.  But you?  You were the one most desperate for Richard’s attention.”

“Be quiet.”

“Richard’s validation.”

“I said be quiet!”

“And even after you did exactly what you thought he wanted, even after you murdered your best friend, that still wasn’t enough, was it?  Because he didn’t declare you his chosen.  He left, disappeared for ten years, and when he came back he told you that you still weren’t qualified.  That he still wasn’t certain whether you or I was the better choice.  Me, the one who ran.  The weakest of all of us in power, maybe, but looking at the four of us, am I really the weakest?  Or is it you, the one who followed her friend into a living hell because she couldn’t even make a decision on her own and then destroyed that same friend when-“

“Shut up!”  Lances of poison green light shot from Deleo’s hands, aimed directly at my head.  “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

I dodged and kept dodging, maneuvering myself away from the elevator and back toward the northwest corner and its blocked stairwell.  I didn’t have a plan beyond moving her away from my father and hoping that Anne or someone on the other end of the transmitter would hear me and give me some leverage I could use.  

She launched a volley of water blades in my direction—small, wickedly pointed things—and I wasn’t able to move far enough to escape.  Two impact the chest guard of my armor, spinning me in place, and a third sliced into my upper arm.  I clutched it and rolled away from another disintegration beam.

There was no time to think, no time to plan.  All I could do was react, sifting desperately through the futures of the battle, here, in the cavernous space of the warehouse and try to pluck out the one that ended with me alive.

Then I saw something as I was frantically flicking from one possibility to another, and it was like everything around me came into focus.

“Rachel,” I said firmly over the sound of her ragged breathing.  “Rachel, listen to me.”

She hurled another disintegration bolt at my head, which I ducked, and then followed up with a water blade to my knee that I just managed to dodge. My arm ached, and I could feel blood running down to drip from my fingers, but I could still move, and that was good enough.

“Rachel,” I shouted.  “If you keep this up, Cinder will die.  Do you understand me?  Cinder will die unless you help him.”

“You’re lying!” Deleo flung spell after spell in my direction.  Her aim was deteriorating along with her mental state, but I was running out of room to dodge just a quickly.  My back was almost to the caved in stairwell.

“I’m not lying,” I yelled back, darting to the left of the stairwell.  Deleo moved to cover me, closing the distance between us.  “You have to make a choice!  Me or him.  You can choose, Rachel!  You can save him, but only if you stop right now!”

“Why won’t you just die?!” Her eyes were wild, her mouth slack, and I felt a sinking sensation as I recognized that she wasn’t hearing me.

“I’m sorry,” I told her just before the western end of the northern wall fragmented into a pile of rubble as Cinder—hurled with magical force by Caldera from the neighboring roof—impacted the already damaged wall in the corner and rammed through it.

Deleo, her spell already primed and her emotions surging from our fight and my goading words, didn’t hesitate.  Spinning, she fired off a disintegration beam at the object flying toward her from the left.  She had a moment to see Cinder, to recognize him, and then he was gone, swallowed by the green light of her magic.

She screamed, eyes fixed on the pile of ash where Cinder had once been.  “Nooooo!”  She fell to her knees, her expression one of abject horror and desolation.

Before she could recover, I hit her with a harvesting rod, and she crumpled silently.

“Dad.”  I ran toward him and removed his gag, refusing to look at the tableaux behind me.  Trying not to think of what I’d just orchestrated.  Nausea welled up inside me, but I forced it down.

“Alex,” my father gasped.  He was very pale as he blinked up at me.  “What’s-, what’s going on?  Who is that woman?” 

I used my knife to cut the ropes binding his arms and legs.  “Later.  We have to get out of here.  Right now.”

“But she-, she was-. And that other man-“

“Dad, we have to go.”

Deleo stirred behind me, and I whirled to see her crouched, glowing arm outstretched toward us.  Her face was twisted into a mask of bestial rage, and blood ran from a cut in her forehead where I’d hit her.

“Verus,” she said, and her voice was filled with such loathing, it caused something in me to break loose.

I saw what she intended, and I didn’t hesitate.

The bullet took her in the forehead.  For a moment, surprise crossed her features, and then she was falling to the floor, limbs lax and eyes falling shut.

She looked very small lying there, and very young.

A small voice came from behind me, and I was abruptly aware of the weight of the revolver in my hand.  “What did you do?”

I turned.  “Dad…”

“What did you do, Alex?”

I tried to explain, knew even as I did that there was no explanation, nothing that would satisfy him.  “She was going to kill you.  Just now.  She wasn’t going to aim for me.”

His expression when he looked at me… I couldn’t stand to see him seeing me.  I looked down at the floor.

“You’re a murderer.”

I flinched.  “Dad, please, listen-”

“My own son, a murderer.”  He sounded as though he was talking to himself, absent and remote.  I looked back at him, worried he might be going into shock.  He met my gaze.

“I can’t even stand to look at you,” he told me, and then he walked away.

I made no move to stop him.  When Anne ran up the southwest stairwell to find me, I was still standing there, gun loose in my grip, surrounded by those dead at my hand.

Chapter Text

The others got me home.  After Anne healed my shoulder, they prodded me out of my armor and into the shower.  There was little by way of blood for me to wash away, only masonry dust and grime, but I stood there until the water ran cold anyway.

The police came for me the next morning.

“What do you want me to do?” Luna asked me, expression one of upmost seriousness when I told her the police would arrive.  She’d been unconscious for the majority of her time in Deleo’s hands, and she’d come out of the entire experience none the worse for wear.  The only truly notable difference I’d seen so far was another layer in her expression when she talked about Sonder.  I’d sent Vari and Landis together to fetch him, thinking that he’d be more apt to trust a pair of Keepers, but once he’d heard Luna was in danger, he’d been onboard at once.  He hadn’t even glared at me when he realized we would be working together for her rescue. 

“Nothing,” I told her.

Nothing?  Alex, I can’t be your apprentice if you’re in prison.”

“They’re just following up on my father’s report.”  I looked out the shop window and could just see the pair of inspectors a block away.  They were both in ill-fitting navy suits.  “They won’t be able to charge me without the bodies.”

After the chaos of the night before, Caldera had called in the Order to sanitize the scene.  As Deleo was a high-profile Dark mage with a full team tracking her movements, the Keepers had claimed her body along with the harvesting rods to ensure there were no curses, resurrection spells, or other magics associated with it.  I’d told Caldera I’d handle the mundane investigation.

“Damn right you will,” she’d growled at me, glaring at my right shoulder.  Since I’d recounted the events of the evening and the actions that had led to the death of Deleo and Cinder, she hadn’t looked me in the eye.  The three individuals who’d joined the battle the night before were mundane, paid mercenaries with guns and grenades presumably hired by Deleo and Cinder.  They hadn’t been a serious threat to the Keepers, but they had muddied the water enough—and thrown enough explosives—to trump the attack in Chiswick as the biggest Cloak shakeup of the year.  My status as an auxiliary Keeper was under review.

“But what if they arrest you anyway?” Luna asked.

“They might,” I allowed.  “They can hold me for a while if they decide to go that route, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make anything stick.”

“Do you have a solicitor?”

“No.  I’ll call around once I figure out what their plan is.”

Luna bit her lip.  “Alex, you don’t want to be arrested, do you?”

I opened my mouth to reply, but Luna didn’t let me speak.

“I understand if you feel guilty, but you told me what happened, and I really don’t see anything else you could have done.”

Shot to wound rather than kill, I thought, even though I knew nothing else would have stopped her, had seen the futures of the moment and known there was only one recourse left to me.  Put myself in front of the beam and hoped Deleo would allow my father to leave after I was dead.

“I know,” I told Luna at last.  “I knew Rachel a long time, and I even liked Cinder in a way.  I just need some time to come to terms with it all.”

She smiled, but I could see I hadn’t convinced her.  That seemed legitimate seeing as I hadn’t convinced myself either.  “Okay, I won’t interfere.  But if you’re not back by dinnertime, I’m calling Talisid and ordering him to send someone down to fetch you from the cells.”

“I’m sure that will go over well.”  The bell chimed and the inspectors walked inside the shop.  “Sit tight, and try not to worry,” I told her before I went to meet them.

Despite what I’d told Luna, I knew they were going to arrest me, and they did.  Then they set me in an interrogation room and left me alone for an hour.  Then for two hours.  Then for three.  I was halfway to hour four when I snapped.

“Hey,” I asked the two-way glass.  “If you’re not going to ask me anything, could I at least have a glass of water or something?”

There was no answer, but five minutes later the door to the interrogation room opened and a man in a slick suit with equally slick hair walked into the room.

“Mage Verus?” he asked, holding out a hand for me to shake.  “I’m Edmund Carrs, your solicitor.”

I ignored the hand.  “I haven’t called for legal representation.”

“A benefactor called on your behalf.”

“And the police aren’t holding me under the name ‘Verus,’ particularly not ‘Mage Verus,’ so I have to wonder what you’re doing here.”

“A benefactor called on your behalf,” Carrs repeated.  He sat across from me and unlocked his briefcase but didn’t open it.  “I’ve been speaking with the inspectors handling this investigation, and they’re going to release you.  To be honest, it was bollocks for them to arrest you to begin with, given that they don’t even have a body to prove a murder took place.  What physical evidence was present at the scene is suspect enough that they’ve realized it would be unwise to pursue you any further.”

“Unwise meaning?”

He flashed me a shark’s grin.  “Unwise meaning legally unwise.  They’re processing you now.  You should be free to go shortly.”

I didn’t think Luna would have actually followed through on her threat to call Talisid, and if she had, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine him sending this guy.  “What do I owe you for this?” I asked warily.

“It’s been taken care of.”  Carrs reached into his briefcase.  “I’m supposed to give you this as well.”

He held out a small envelope of thick, cream-colored paper.  My mage name was printed on the front in even copperplate letters.

I looked at the future and flinched.  “I don’t want it.”

Carrs’s eyes were almost sympathetic.  “I don’t think that matters, son.”  He stood, leaving the envelope on the table.  “Try to stay out of trouble for the time being.  Good evening.”  He left, and as he said, shortly after a constable led me from the station.

It was a couple of miles, but I walked home.  I wanted the time to think, but my brain felt clouded and thick, and all I managed to elicit by the time I arrived back at the shop was a crushing wave of mental exhaustion.  Luna took one look at me and ordered me to take a nap.

When I woke, it was to the sound of Vari and Luna arguing.

“We can’t tell Talisid,” Luna said.  “He’s been wanting an excuse to use Alex as a double agent, and this is pretty much serving that possibility up on a silver platter.”

“But he needs to know!  This could be related to whatever the fu-”

“Vari, please,” Anne objected. 

“Sorry.  This could be related to whatever the hell he’s planning.  What will keeping it secret gain us?  It’s going to come out eventually, and if he learns that we didn’t tell him, he’s going to suspect we’re working with our own agenda.”

Their voices were coming from the kitchen.  I pulled on a sweatshirt as I moved to join them.

Luna snorted.  “Since when are you in favor of cozying up to authority?”

“Since Alex became the chosen of the darkest of Dark mages!”  Vari threw up his hands then saw me and grimaced, guiltily glancing at the envelope Carrs gave me, which I’d left on the kitchen table.  “Er, hi Alex.”  He glared at Anne.  “You could have told us he was awake.” 

She blinked back at him, unaffected, and took a sip from the teacup beside her.  “I knew you were about to figure it out.”

“It’s alright,” I told them, picking up the envelope and removing its contents.  Like the envelope itself, the paper inside was of high-quality and the calligraphy was impeccable.  It read like a form letter, formally naming me as the chosen of Mage Drakh and congratulating me on overcoming my trials to this point.

I set it back down, sick to my stomach.

“What do you think we should do, Alex?” Luna asked.  “About Talisid?”

The kettle was still hot, and I moved to pour myself a cup of tea.  “Tell him.  Vari’s right.  He’s going to learn about it anyway if he hasn’t already.”

“But what if he forces you to go back?”

“I’m never going back.”  Luna stiffened at my cold tone, and I modulated it as best I could.  “I told him that already.”

“But what if-”

“We’ll handle it,” I interrupted gently, leaning against the kitchen counter.  “What I don’t understand is, what’s his end game?”

“Talisid’s?”

“Richard’s.  The contest for chosen was over years ago, and Deleo won.  There was no reason for him to revive it.  What could he possibly stand to gain?  I can’t figure it out.”

“Well,” Vari began, sounding hesitant.  “It could be exactly as it appears.”

I stared at him.  “What do you mean?”

He winced apologetically.  “I mean that if I was a Dark mage—any kind of mage, really—if I was a power player, I’d want you as my chosen.  So maybe that’s what he’s after.  Just you.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, and my friends could tell that despite voicing the question, I wasn’t quite ready to talk about it all objectively.  They left me in peace, and I escaped to the roof with my tea for some solitude.

The sun was below the purple horizon when Anne joined me.

“I’ve brought you more tea.”  She settled herself beside me and joined me in looking up at the few bright stars and satellites that penetrated the haze of light that was London at night.

“Thank you.”

She didn’t try to force me to talk, and I appreciated her quiet presence, the aura of support and camaraderie having her at my side evoked.

“When Richard came to the shop yesterday,” I began, “he said something to me.  He said that I claim to have lines, but that I keep redrawing them.  That he never knows how far I’ll go, and neither do I.”  I stared up at one particularly bright body in the deep purple sky—Saturn, I thought it was.  “I’m afraid he’s right.”

“He’s not.”

“If you’d asked me yesterday morning, I would have told you there was almost no way I would kill Deleo.  Rachel.”  I scoffed at my own words and rubbed my face.  “’Almost no way.’  What kind of person does that make me?”

“You’re a good person, Alex.”

“I shot her in the head, Anne.”

“You did what you had to do to save your father.”

“And now he’ll never speak to me again.”

“Have you called him?”  I didn’t answer.  “Give it time.”

“You don’t know my father,” I told her.  “He’s a pacifist.  Time isn’t going to make this better.”

Anne kept her gaze on the horizon and moved her shoulder, a lopsided shrug.  “But he’s alive.  You had a choice, his life or Deleo’s, and you made it.  But Alex, she had a choice too.  You gave her an opportunity to save herself and Cinder both, and she didn’t take it.”

“She didn’t believe me.”

“That was a choice too.  Richard’s wrong about you.” She turned to face me fully.  “You do have lines, and they’re set.  It’s only that they’re not around vague, moral concepts.  They’re around the people you care about.”

I eyed her.  “You’ve gotten very philosophical.”

“Hazard of being a life mage.”  She stood and dusted off her slacks.  “Are you ready to go back inside?” She extended a hand toward me.

I looked at her and thought about the lines we draw and where we draw them.  What we truly mean by ‘this far and no further.’

I took her hand and stood.  “Yeah,” I told her.  “Let’s go.”

[End]