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Obscured Footprints and Uncertain Paths

Chapter Text

“Alex!” Luna shouted up the stairs to my secure store room. “There’s another letter in the box! What do you want me to do with it?”

My hands were full balancing the two halves of an extremely powerful, incredibly annoying magical scale. I cursed under my breath. “Same as the others,” I called back down.

“Okay. Where did you put the gloves and fishing pole?” Luna’s voice drifted up the landing this time, talking to herself rather than me. “Never mind. Found them.”

I forced my attention back to what I was doing, divination firmly focused on ensuring neither side of the scale superseded the other—that would be bad--rather than allowing myself to wonder about the letter. It wasn't as though it was anything new.

In five minutes I finished securing the object and trotted down the stairs to join Luna, locking the storeroom behind me. She had just hooked the envelope. Like the others, it had somehow managed to find its way through the shop's backdoor, the one without the letter slot.

“Caught it,” she said, grinning at me over her shoulder. “I think I'm getting pretty good at letter fishing.”

“It's good to cultivate new skills.” I squatted down as I focused my mage sight on the envelope. “Even random ones.” Like the two that had arrived before, it was clean, and my divination confirmed nothing would happen if we touched it. Despite that, I donned a pair of leather gloves before taking it in hand.

Luna came to stand at my side. “Do you think it's another invitation?”

“Safe bet.” Like the previous two, the envelope was thick and high quality with my mage name neatly printed on the front. There was no return address, but a small symbol--a dark bit of flame in a circle, I thought, though it was very stylized--adorned the top right corner where one would ordinarily be. I ran a future where I opened it and perused the contents.

“Are you going to open this one?” Luna asked when I turned to head back up the stairs to my flat.

“No, no need. It's the same as the others.”

Luna stayed put to mind the store while I took care of the letter, though I knew she was overflowing with curiosity about its contents despite my explanation. I sympathized. If I wasn't able to use my divination to look in the envelope without, well, looking in the envelope, I'd feel the same. Mages are insatiably curious creatures.

I carried the envelope into my kitchen and used the stove burner to set it alight before dropping it into a battered ceramic bowl that was still resting on my counter to burn. After a moment I turned on the fume hood to collect the smoke.

It was ridiculous to burn the invitations. I knew that. It wouldn't stop them from arriving, and it sure as hell wouldn't change my situation. By reducing them to ash, I was doing nothing more than indulging myself and fabricating a sense of control that I knew was both meaningless and false, no more substantial than the smoke curling from the bowl.

But I'd take what I could get, and we're all entitled to petty fancies on occasion.

Luna was wrapping a customer's purchase when I came back down, one of the larger crystal balls, I was satisfied to note. They looked dramatic and atmospheric in the shop’s window, but they were a pain to move as inventory.

She finished up, and the bell on the door jangled as the customer went on his way, new crystal ball cradled on his arms and a wide smile on his face that my apprentice returned when he waved goodbye.

When the door closed, she dropped the smile. “When is the meeting?”

“Thursday at eight in Fulham.”

She busied herself straightening up the leftover wrapping material on the counter. “Are you going to go this time?”

“Hell no.” I stopped her productive fidgeting with a hand on her shoulder. “It's alright. No one came after me for missing the others. No one is going to care this time either.”

Luna bit her lip. “They're Dark mages, Alex. I can't believe they're sending you invitations just to keep you in the loop. They expect you to come.”

“There isn't a name associated with the invitation.” Unless you counted my own and Richard's, both of which were stated in the politely worded request. “There's no specific party to offend.”

Luna gesticulated with every ounce of her Italian heritage. “Exactly! So instead you risk offending the entire Dark mage Shadow Cabinet.”

I winced. “You've got to stop calling them that. According to the invitation, they're a conclave.”

Luna raised an eyebrow at me, but we'd had this discussion before--nearly word for word--and I wasn't up for having it again. “I'm off to Brixton for that painting I told you about. I won't be back before closing, so lock up when you're ready.”

“You're going out again?” Luna pulled in breath for the second discussion I didn't want to repeat.

“Help yourself to anything in the refrigerator upstairs if you're hungry,” I said before she could start. “Anne left stew.”

“Alex, you have to stop ignor-,” she got off before I was through the door and on the street, safely buffered by the street sounds of my neighborhood and en route to the next procurement in my newly booming magical artifact trade. I found that I needed something to fill my days after getting booted from the Keepers, the day to day operations of my shop no longer a sufficient outlet for the restless sense of foreboding that plagued me since being officially named as Richard's Chosen two months ago.

Richard's Chosen.

The response hadn't been as dramatic as I feared when I first read the words, elegantly scrawled on high quality paper very much like the subsequent Dark Conclave missives. Richard hadn't come calling again--in fact, I hadn't heard from him at all--nor had the Keepers taken me into custody. Luna, Vari, and Anne still came round, and other than the recurring Conclave invitations, no Dark mages had visited with offers of alliance or threats of violence. Talisid made a couple of forays into the double agent scenario, but I'd shot them down with prejudice, and he seemed to have gotten the message.

What repercussions there were from my new status had been subtle and more insidious. I’d lost my status as an Auxiliary Keeper, something which made me more morose than I'd expected considering that I hadn’t wanted to join in the first place. Caldera initially agreed to meet for a drink that had never happened, and after several weeks of silence I didn’t know if she had changed her mind about staying in touch or was simply busy. I didn’t want to navigate through the hoops and landmines of calling her to confirm only to have her reschedule yet again, so I’d stopped reaching out.

My father had neither answered nor returned any of my phone calls, and I hadn’t been brave enough to visit his house.

Luna was right, I reflected as I reflexively kicked a can into the gutter. I was ignoring the problem, distracting myself by locating and securing increasingly dangerous and powerful magical objects without any particular goal in mind beyond the vague idea that having a well stocked armory could come in handy in the near future.

My business with the current owner of the painting, a twenty five year old adept who’d inherited the painting from his grandmother and felt immediately out of his depth when it began changing its scenes nightly, didn’t take long. He was happy to get rid of it, taking my assurance that I would both protect it and protect people from it at face value. We covered it in thick brown paper tied off with string, then wrapped it in an old coat for good measure. I was careful never to look at it directly and began my trek back to the shop early enough that I could probably catch Luna before the shop closed if I hurried.

Instead of retracing my steps to home and hearth, I found myself walking east.

My steps slowed when the bell tower at my father’s college became visible, and I walked progressively more slowly until I came to a stop by a lamppost just outside the central lawn where I’d waited to meet with him the last time I’d visited. It hadn’t been all that long ago, really, according to the calendar, but so much had changed.

Classes were over for the day, and other than a couple of hurrying silhouettes in the lengthening shadows, the lawn was empty. If I leaned against the lamppost, I could just see the windows of my father’s classroom, but I didn’t try to catch a glimpse. I already knew they would be dark.

I stayed there for a time, enjoying the cool evening air and the darkening sky and counting the handful of stars bright enough to overcome London’s night pollution. On a whim, and because I wasn’t quite ready to return to the shop and my circular thoughts, I strolled onto the wide trimmed lawn.

That was my first mistake.

My precognition saw it coming, and I had a surge of atavistic, adrenaline-inducing fear before my divination kicked in and I realized what was about to happen.

But even with the warning, there was nothing I could do.

Beneath my feet, the entirety of the lawn fell away into nothing, a portal that swallowed the grass, the dwindling light, and anyone unwise enough to be caught inside of it. I didn’t have time to move out of the portal’s boundary, as expansive as it was, and I couldn’t contain a shout of horror as I plummeted into space. There was a flash of light followed by a longer flash of darkness, my brain compensating for the sudden loss of standard physics by frantically signalling its distress.

An instant later I came to rest on a plush and springy surface that, while narrow, did a more than passable job of absorbing the jolt of my landing. A couch, I realized, opening eyes that I hadn’t realized I’d closed and clenching my hands around the painting I'd somehow managed to hold onto. A couch in a study. A familiar study.

As I recognized where I was, I reverted to old habits, survival skills honed throughout my adolescence: stay still, assess, make no move that may draw attention until the danger of the situation has been sussed out. That was, I think, my second mistake.

“Good evening, Alex,” Richard said, leaning back in his armchair. “I’m so glad you could drop by.”

 

Chapter Text

I stared at him and didn't answer for a long moment, trying to prod my brain--which had gone silent and still at the sight of him--into moving. “Was that supposed to be a joke?”

Richard cocked his head. “Pardon?”

“What the hell was that?”

“Language. What was what, the portal? Surely you worked out its nature shortly after falling through it.”

“Yes, I got that bit,” I said, biting back the sarcastic edge that wanted to escape. “Why did you send the portal after me?”

“To engineer the opportunity to speak with you, obviously.”

“And you couldn't have called me because…?”

“You haven't given me your number, though if you're prepared to trade contact information, I will certainly oblige.” He turned toward his drinks cart, a metal and glass affair that I recognized from my years in his mansion. A carafe of water sat upon it, bookended by two crystal high ball glasses. “Perhaps a glass of water. It isn't like you to be so addled.” He sounded disapproving.

I pushed aside my growing sense of unreality and incredulity. This was neither the time nor the place to focus on anything other than getting out alive and as intact as possible.

“No water, thank you,” I said, and his forehead smoothed. He'd always shown appreciation for good manners. “Why did you want to speak with me?”

Richard took a moment to pour a glass for himself. The sound of the ice careening against the crystal was loud in the silence. “I want to put a proposition to you.”

“What sort of proposition?” I asked calmly, because I knew if I responded with the knee jerk denial my instincts were screaming at me to make, he wouldn't take it well. As though he'd read my thoughts, he looked at me knowingly, lips turned up ever so slightly at the corners.

“I've recently come into possession of a Precursor relic. A safe. I would like you to open it for me.”

My stomach sank and tightened simultaneously in a nauseating mix that I, per usual, swallowed down and compartmentalized. I was getting very good at that. “I'm not sure if you know, but I had a very unpleasant experience the last time I was requested to open a Precursor safe.”

“Yes, I heard. It's a shame the fate weaver was ultimately unusable, but by all accounts you did very well.”

“Okay,” I said after a beat, unsure how to take that. “Then you'll understand why I must decline.”

“You haven't heard the other half of the proposition.”

“I can't think of anything I want enough to have my identity forcibly suppressed by another ancient megalomaniac imprisoned by an imbued artifact.”

Richard leaned back in his chair and regarded me. “Really Alex, I taught you better than this. Neither accept nor reject an offer until you've fully explored it.” The tone was gently chiding, the way it had often been during my apprentice lessons, one on one with Richard in this very room. I wasn't in danger here, not of the physical variety anyway, and the realization made the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

Fully explore the offer. Right. “What's in the safe?” I'd be damned if I put another powerful item into the man's hands.

Richard sipped his water. “Nothing.”

“Come again?”

“The safe is empty.”

I blinked at him, quite aware I was missing something. “Then why do you want it opened?” He merely looked at me, and the answer came to me a moment later. “What do you have that's so valuable you want to protect it with a Precursor safe?”

“At the moment nothing, although I'm pursuing a number of side projects that, if they progress, may result in my acquisition of extraordinarily rare and valuable objects. I'd like to be prepared to store them.”

That didn't sound like anything I was prepared to support, but I knew what part I was playing that evening. “If I do open it, what will you give me in return?”

“I will grant you a favor of your choice, provided I agree it to be of equal value.”

I waited for additional stipulations, and when none were forthcoming, I was forced to ask. “That's it?”

“If you think on it, you'll find it to be a very generous offer.”

It was, unbelievably so. “I mean, there are no restrictions on this favor? No time frame or off limit activities?”

“No, though again, I do insist it being a reciprocal exchange. I'm aware of your habit of making dangerous enemies. I'm hardly going to target another Dark mage because you opened a safe for me.” My expression seemed to amuse him--gobsmacked, no doubt, as much as I tried to cover it--although I wasn't sure he recognized the source of my shock.

If he was willing to raise the possibility of a martial alliance, even to discard it, then the boundary set for my request was wide indeed.

“I need to think on it,” I told him, because that was always a safe answer.

“Of course. As I said, I don't need to make use of it this very moment, though depending on the amount of time you take for reflection, I may pursue alternative options.”

Alternative mages, I assumed he meant. I wanted to ask him why he hadn't gone that route to begin with. I knew for a fact I wasn't the only diviner he was acquainted with, and any number of mages--many of them Dark, but others of lighter persuasions as well--would jump at the offer of an open favor from Richard Drakh.

But I didn't ask, and the truth was, I already knew the answer. He wouldn't have made an offer with such generous terms to another mage.

“If that's all, I'd like to be going,” I said, standing as I tried to strike a balance between remaining polite and making it abundantly clear that I had no desire to linger.

“Yes, that's all. I assume you have a gate stone on you? Good. I'll leave you to find your own way out.”

I left the study after that, snagging the painting only as an afterthought, further testament of my unease. I moved quickly, afraid for a moment that Richard would do something truly stupefying, like wish me a good evening and invite me to come again soon.

But he didn't, and my feet traced the familiar path beyond the wards of the house without any conscious input from my whirling brain.

When I stepped through the gate into my living room, I propped the painting against the side of the couch and then collapsed face first onto the cushions, abruptly exhausted. My ears echoed with a clanging, ringing sound that at first I took for the giddy remnants of thwarted adrenaline before I realized that the noise was, in fact, coming from within the flat.

I looked up to see Luna come out of the kitchen, mixing bowl in one hand and large metal spoon in the other. She had a smear of chocolate batter on her chin and Vari at her heels.

“Hey,” Vari said.

Luna raised her eyebrows at my supine state. “Exciting outing?”

**

“I wanted to talk to you,” Luna told me an hour or so later, once I'd made coffee and explained my evening to the best of my ability. “That's why I stayed. I knew you'd be home in a couple of hours, and I didn't want to leave things the way they were earlier.”

When she'd rightfully chastened me regarding my lack of focus, I thought. “Luna, listen-”

“Vari came to keep me company. Then I thought, ‘hey, might as well be productive while you wait,’ and I remembered that you like brownies.” She gestured to the plate of said brownies on the table. “Tada?”

This wasn't an intervention after all, I realized. It was an apology. “Thank you, I appreciate the thought. They're really good.”

“I've been practicing with Anne.” She beamed before sobering. “Alex, what are you going to do?”

“Well, I'm not going to take him up on the offer, if that's what you mean. As for the rest of it…” I hoped my waving hand conveyed the vast morass of nebulous threats surrounding me. “I'm still working on it. You were right. I've been ignoring what it means that I'm Richard's Chosen.”

“To be fair, it's not like you can really do anything about it except maybe fake your death and move to Australia, and then I guess he'd just start over with a batch of new apprentices, so- Hey, what are you doing? I was kidding about faking your death. No need to be hasty.”

I'd pulled out my mobile while she'd been talking and was scrolling through my contacts. “It's not that. I just remembered something Richard said. Damn.” There it was on the display, name and phone number typed neatly and saved to the phone.

Vari craned his head to see. “What is it?”

“Richard's phone number.” I debated erasing the entry, knew it would only reappear if I did, and put my phone down without trying.

“Well, that's impressively sneaky of him,” Luna said. “Is technological magic a thing?”

I attempted to distill my thoughts into some type of strategic, actionable shape while Luna and Vari chattered on in the background. I'd have to assume Richard had my contact information as well and would call the next time he wanted to speak with me. There would be a next time, I knew, and I didn't need my magic to confirm it. I counted myself lucky that the overtures so far had been on the gentle side, but I couldn't expect that to last once Richard realized it wasn't working. He wasn't the type to continue using ineffective strategies. Luna was saying something. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I asked if I should make more coffee?” She bobbed her empty cup at me. “If you want to start strategizing into the night, we'll probably want more caffeine.”

“Yeah, that sounds go-” I stopped, internal alarm bells ringing. “Actually, no. No time.”

Luna and Vari exchanged a look. “Should I get my whip?” Luna asked.

“Yes, and call Anne. Tell her to gate over as fast as she can. We're about to need her.”

Luna pulled out her phone while I moved into my bedroom for supplies of my own: bandages, whatever one shots I could lay my hands on first, and my revolver. Vari followed me.

“Alex,” Luna called, “what's coming? Who's going to be hurt?”

“It's Caldera.” I peered out my bedroom window just in time to see a gate, rimmed in dark brown, take shape in the alley beside the shop. “And she's already hurt.”

Luna came up beside us, whip in hand. “Anne's on the way. Who hurt Caldera?”

“Don't know,” I said. Caldera’s broad frame staggered through the gate and fell onto the pavement. She wasn't moving, but a second gate was just beginning to lick the air around her, this one the steel grey of clouds in an electrical storm. “But the way things are looking, we'll get the chance to find out.”

I handed Luna my revolver. “Cover me from here. Vari, go out the front and come around behind them, then join me. I'll need a shield in about thirty seconds.” He nodded and took off.

Luna paled but took the gun. We hadn't spent a lot of time training on firearms, but she knew enough to handle it safely. “Alex, what-”

“No time,” I said, and then I opened the window and jumped out.

Chapter Text

My flat was on the second story, but it wasn't a straight shot to the ground. I wasn't suicidal. That being said, I didn't fancy a torn ligament either, and I had very little time to parse through what my divination was telling me about the safest path to the ground.

I leapt for the building opposite. I couldn't reach the roof, and I didn't try. Kicking off the wall with a parkour move I'd practiced on a handful of occasions with mixed success, I landed in the alley and rolled to reduce my momentum before coming onto my feet and sprinting for Caldera, reminding myself to be amazed that I hadn't broken an ankle once I had time for the luxury of reflection.

The gray-rimmed gate was almost fully formed, and without breaking pace, I threw the first of my one shots into it. It was a firebug, essentially compressed fire in a glass bulb with the destructive potential of a midsized bonfire. I knew it wouldn't stop whoever was on the other side from coming through, but the confusion of its sudden appearance would delay them a few precious seconds.

“Caldera. Caldera, can you hear me?” I shook her shoulder to no effect before turning her onto her back. As I did, the extent of her injury was painted across the alley in shades of grey that I knew in better light would be the bright red of rubies. She'd been sliced across the abdomen, deep and jagged, in an arc that stretched from her left hip to just below her right breast.

I jammed the bandages onto the wound and pushed with all my strength. She stirred and groaned, but did not wake. “You don't do things by halves, do you?” I asked her. The bandages were soaked immediately.

“Alex, they're coming,” Luna shouted from the window.

“Shoot,” I yelled back, and she did. It was hard to tell in the gloom, but a couple of the shots might have even hit the portal. It didn't matter. The point of the exercise was, again, to delay Caldera’s pursuers until I could get her out of the line of fire. The revolver was worked with spells to suppress the sound of the shots better than any silencer on the market, and the bullets impacted the alley accompanied by gentle, eerie puffs of air. I wished they were louder, the better to illustrate the point, but I assumed the attackers would get the idea.

Caldera wasn't as tall as I was, but she was heavier. I elected to grab her under the shoulders and pull, dragging her across the alley floor toward the back door to my flat. It had to hurt, but if I didn't make it, it wasn't like she'd be around to complain.

The methodical thwap thwap of bullets stopped. “I'm out of ammo!”

I'd known it was coming, and before she'd finished speaking I'd launched the condenser in my hand toward the portal where it shattered on the ground. Mist bloomed outward to envelope us and the alley. I kept dragging.

It was slow going, and it became readily apparent that I wasn't going to reach the door before the five people with balaclavas and assault rifles emerged from the portal. The mist had thinned enough to make out silhouettes, and there wasn't a convenient skip to duck behind. I crouched over Caldera and turned to face them as they stepped into the alley, barrels raised.

Luckily, that's when Vari arrived and opened up my options with extreme prejudice.

“Shit!” one of the attackers yelled as his trouser leg caught fire.

“Find the target!” ordered another, but by then Vari had launched a fireball at their feet, and they were too busy trying to put out the flames to pay attention to me.

One of the attackers had run several steps toward me when the flames began. I caught him under the chin with my elbow then behind the knee with my foot, pulling his gun--a L85A2, standard issue for many European armed forces--from his hands as he went down. A sharp hit with the butt of the gun to his temple, and he stayed there.

Vari’s internal clock wasn't perfect--it was closer to twenty seconds than thirty when he rejoined me at the back of the alley--but the fiery rush he made through the disoriented team was impressive. He even finished with a diving roll, coming up beside me with a pleased grin.

“Shield,” I told him, and he complied, directing his fire shield into a wide, shallow arc in front of us. “Is this thing one way?” He looked confused. “Can I shoot through it?”

“Uh…”

“Never mind.” Leaning left, I sighted around the edge of the shield and let off a burst. The four left standing scattered to shelter behind the edges of the alley and snipe back at us. I ducked back in before the tall, skinny one could get me between the eyes. He was a good shot.

“How long can you keep the shield up?” I asked Vari.

“Don't know,” he said. There was sweat beading his forehead. “A bit.”

About two more minutes, my divination confirmed. The police would arrive in five. “We need to get behind shelter and stop Caldera’s bleeding.”

“Let me help.” Anne came up behind us, Luna at her side, and crouched over Caldera, green light flickering across her hand.

“So long as you can do it moving. Luna, help me pull.” Together, in a halting, awkward, creature-with-three-heads sort of way, we moved Caldera the remaining distance to the alley’s end. Vari paced us, walking backwards with his shield. He dropped it with a sigh of relief when we turned the corner and sagged against the wall. I anchored myself against the bricks next to him and leaned around the corner to release another stream of bullets.

“Anne?” I asked, not looking back.

“She's lost a lot of blood. I need to get her somewhere quiet to work on her.”

“Yeah, working on it.”

“Alex, shouldn't we get inside?” Luna asked. “Take shelter?”

“They came with explosives, and they have backup gearing up to join the fun. We have maybe two minutes tops. Besides, I'd just as soon have them see us leave so they'll be less inclined to damage my flat.” I'd only just paid off the previous repairs.

“They're coming,” Anne said, not looking up from whatever she was doing with Caldera’s midsection. I made the mistake of looking down for a moment then tore my eyes away, feeling dizzy at the sheer amount of damage. Still, if anyone could save her, it was Anne.

“Luna, get my go bag from the desk.” She sprinted up the stairs to do as I asked, and I spared Vari an inquiring glance.

He squared his shoulders with a huff. “I'm fine.”

“Good. I need you to keep them busy for a minute.”

He called flame to his fingers as we switched places. “Why, what will you be doing?”

“There were four guns being fired twenty seconds ago.”

“And?”

“And as of about fifteen seconds ago, there are three.”

The flames reflected is his wide eyes. “How the hell can you tell that?”

“Keep watch. They're trying to flank us.”

Sliding the strap of the assault rifle around my chest, I ran around the back of the shop, my trainers silent on the pavement. I stopped when I reached the alley running alongside the grocer’s, slipping into the shadows of a recessed doorway. A few seconds later the fourth gunman, a short, muscular woman moving quickly and soundlessly, approached from the street.

She didn't know I was there, but she was too well trained to pass by without checking potential hiding spots. Looking into the futures, I knew that if I tried to remain hidden she would find me.

When she was one step away from the doorway I lunged forward. My knee connected with her thigh, knocking her off balance. My left hand pushed her gun down while the right wielded my knife, pulled from the sheath on my forearm. These days, I figured it paid to keep one handy.

It was quick, and it was quiet. I relieved her of the L85A2 and a grenade (whose presence I found more than a little concerning) before returning to the others. Luna was back, and she handed me the duffel when I motioned for it. On the ground, Caldera was still and pale.

“Vari, time to trade again.” I pulled a gate stone from the bag and slapped it into his hand. “Open that as quick as you can. Luna, if any of them get close enough to use your whip, go for it. Vari needs thirty more seconds.” While speaking, I pulled a box of ammo from the bag and reloaded my revolver. I preferred it to the assault rifle, and I didn't want to kill anyone else if I could help it.

“Roger that, boss.”

I sighted down the barrel at the man I knew was about to rush for our position, used my divination to correct my aim, and fired when he started forward. He went down, clutching his knee. I moved as quickly as I could to intercept the second, but they'd timed their attack well, and my bullet only grazed his side. Luna’s whip snapped against his ankle, and he fell with a shout as he somehow managed to roll it in a pothole. She grinned.

By then Vari had the portal open, and I spared a moment to help Anne roll Caldera through before motioning Luna to follow. I got off two more shots before it was my turn. I thought I wounded one more of them, a bullet to the forearm, but I wasn't sure.

I dove through the gate, Vari at my heels, and rolled across the cool, sweet smelling grass of Hampstead Heath. Luna had already pressed on the knot to Arachne’s home, and the roots lifted in welcome.

Vari closed the gate. “Now, does someone want to tell me why I just fricasseed a small militia?”

I sat up and regarded Caldera. Anne was working on her again. I couldn't be sure, but I thought her color looked a little better. “That's what I plan on asking, assuming she wakes up.”

And with that, Caldera sat up with a gasp.

Chapter Text

It took a minute, but we persuaded Caldera that she was safe and that offensive magic of any type was currently unnecessary. As was an earth shield, I added, when the ground rippled around her in restless movements. Luckily, that's about when the confusion cleared from her eyes and a mask of control, albeit pained, reasserted itself.

Convincing her to let us carry her into Arachne’s home took a little longer, but to be fair, we were trying to take her into a long, dark tunnel descending into the earth. I explained I'd brought her to a friend's place, and though my friend's looks were on the unusual side, Caldera was in no danger from her.

Really though, I think it was the mention of nearly impenetrable wards on Arachne’s den that did it. That, and Caldera seemed to be fading in and out of consciousness. As it was, she did nothing more than blink once, slow and deliberate, when she laid eyes on Arachne for the first time. We laid her in one of the chambers off the central room and Anne continued healing her.

“Who do you think those people were?” Luna asked after the rest of us plopped ourselves on Arachne’s notably comfortable furniture.

“Mercenaries for hire,” Vari said.

“Council security,” I said at the same moment. He frowned at me. “Probably former Council security if it makes you feel better.”

“Like I care either way,” he muttered, but I could see the idea rattled him.

“Why do you think that, Alex?” Luna asked.

“Mostly because of the way they approached us. They were organized, methodical. Someone was coordinating them through those headsets.”

“That doesn't mean Council,” Vari argued. “They could be ex-military.”

“Possibly, but they seemed too comfortable with magic to be new to the game. And I'm guessing that if a group of heavily armed nonmages was running around the country for hire the Council would have stepped in before now.”

“Alex is right.” After seeing us settled, Arachne had picked up a half finished project of some kind, the fabric shimmering in the light like an oil sheen. “The Council is unlikely to allow a nonmage force of the level you described to function in the country for long.”

“Maybe they're not from here,” Vari suggested, but it was weak. We'd both heard the attackers speak, and fake London accents seemed unlikely.

“We're not suggesting this was a Council operation,” Arachne told him. “Merely that the team who attacked you all has an association with them.”

“You could say that.” We all looked over at the croaking voice. Caldera stood in the doorway, leaning heavily on Anne's shoulder.

I stood. “Hey. I didn't expect you to be on your feet so soon.”

Anne smiled, fatigue and a gentle exasperation readily apparent. “She really shouldn't be. She insisted.”

“Damn straight.” Caldera grunted when she stepped but was silent as we settled her into an armchair, face going white. “I don't have time to lie around."

“If that's true, you don't have time to bleed out either,” I said, and Caldera glared at me. “Your insides are still knitting together, woman.”

“Ma'am.” She inclined her head in Arachne’s direction. “Thank you for putting me up.”

“You are quite welcome, my dear.”

I watched the exchange with interest. Seeing how the people responded to Arachne was one of the best bellwether personality tests that I knew. Caldera was still pale, and she seemed to be studiously looking somewhat to the left of Arachne’s eight glossy eyes, but she was being very polite about it.

“Do you know who attacked you?” I asked her.

“Yeah.” Her face twisted with something I couldn't identify. “It was Keepers.”

We all stared at her, even me, who knew the answer was coming. “Wait, you mean the Keepers you work for Keepers?” Luna asked.

“Yeah, those. A couple of bad ones at any rate. At least, I hope it's only a couple.” Caldera nodded at me. “Thank you for getting me out, Verus.”

“I'm just glad I was home. What happened exactly?”

“Did you ever interact with Keynes or Matchier?” she asked. She didn't add ‘back when you used to be an Auxiliary’, but I heard it anyway.

“No.”

“Well, you probably never had reason to. They're both Order of the Cloak. A month or so ago, I noticed some irregularities.” She hesitated on the word. “I started looking into them on my own.”

“Irregular how, exactly?” I asked.

“Small things at first. Suspects that I would have expected to bring in easily going off grid, a couple of investigations wrapped up before they should have been. Things like that happen every so often, but it seemed like there was more all of a sudden.” Her brown eyes met mine. “Then you lost your Auxiliary status.”

“Yeah, I remember,” I said, trying to keep my feelings about it from leeching into my tone, but she shook her head.

“You don't get it, Verus. The investigating committee elected to keep you on.”

An electric tingle started in the base of my spine. “What?”

“They're closed proceedings,” she said, “so I'm not supposed to know how they voted, but one of the men who sat on it owed me a favor. They were mostly concerned about having a possible in with the Dark mages and whatever Drakh has brewing than anything, but they ultimately decided to maintain your position.”

“But I was dismissed.” An idiotic thing to say, I knew, since it was something we were all well aware of, but my mouth spoke without conscious effort of my brain, which was already trying to work through the ramifications. I forced it back to the here and now.

“The decision was overridden by the Star internal operations section chief, Anderose.”

I'd never heard of him. “Never heard of him.”

“He's new. Promoted from the Order of the Cloak a month ago.”

“That's hardly standard practice, promoting across sections like that, not to mention that as far as I know two months ago there wasn't a section concerned with internal operations.” My gaze locked with Caldera’s. “What aren't you telling me?”

She looked away, glancing at Vari of all things, before meeting my eyes again with a walled off expression. “The position was the result of an internal review. Six weeks ago Deleo’s body was taken from the morgue. At the same time, the Harvesting rods went missing from the evidence locker.”

A high pitched humming seemed to start up somewhere over my left shoulder, an eerie almost lullaby that echoed and reverberated in my ears. I ruthlessly squashed a childish, panicked urge to look behind me for my old teammate. “Deleo’s body is missing?”

“The investigating team concluded that it was taken at the same time as the Harvesting rods, but they were unable to determine how it was done. There are no leads, no suspects. Everyone who may have been involved, even tangentially, was reshuffled, and a new section was created to investigate the possibility of an inside connection.”

I remembered her glance at Vari a moment ago. Now it was my turn to look at him. “You knew.”

Luna hadn't worked it out the way I had, and at my words her eyes widened. “Why didn't you say anything?”

Vari shifted uncomfortably. “The information was classified. I wasn't allowed to go talking out of turn.” Despite his words, he seemed unable to look any of us in the eye.

“You still should have told Alex,” Luna said.

“I told you I couldn't. Besides, what good would it have done, really?”

“You should have told him anyway. And you know why.”

“Okay, enough,” I said, and Luna settled back on the sofa with arms crossed about her middle, her expression not so much angry as bewildered and betrayed. Vari looked at the floor. “None of it matters now regardless. I assume from what you said before that the Keepers are still looking for the rods and Deleo’s body?” I asked Caldera. She nodded. “Do you think that what happened tonight has any relation to that investigation?”

She chewed it over but shook her head. “Only indirectly.”

“Then please go on with your story.” With that I sat back down in the armchair (When had I stood up?), and we all looked at Caldera expectantly. All except Anne at any rate. I could feel her gaze on me, but I didn't turn to meet it.

“Anyway,” Caldera said, “there were a couple of big things along with enough little things that I decided to look into it, and I came across Keynes and Matchier. That's who I was following tonight. I had a suspicion they were meeting with a group of Dark mages, and I was right, only they had a better surveillance system in place than I expected, and they made me.”

“Where was this meeting?” I asked.

“At the Pile Driver. It's a dance club at the edge of Soho,” she expounded at our blank expressions. “Tatty place with sticky floors and weak drinks that go for ten quid, but they have private rooms on the top floor for the more exclusive crowd. That's where Keynes and Matchier were meeting.”

“Who did they meet with? Did you get a good look at them?”

“I got a great look at the one that gutted me. It was the Somack brothers, Essen and Laurif.”

Them I'd heard of. “They're not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. Essen is a force mage, isn't he, and Laurif specializes in death magic?”

“He did, yeah.” Caldera shifted and clenched her teeth. “I got Laurif, then Essen got me. He had a team of security types with him, and I knew I couldn't take them all with the state I was in. That's when I gated to your shop.”

“If those security types you saw were carrying assault rifles, they followed you tonight via gate. There wasn't any other sign of a mage though, Essen or otherwise.” I recalled the gate that had brought the gunmen to my shop, the flickering grey light. “Why did you come to me? Why not another Keeper?”

Caldera shifted. “You know why,” she said roughly. “I don't know how wide this web stretches, Verus. I had to go to someone I knew wouldn't alert the Keepers.”

Something in the futures chimed for my attention. “Well, you were right about that. I definitely didn't call them, unless you count Vari here. I want to be very clear on that point.”

Caldera had worked with me enough to know when I was leading up to something. She tried to twist in her chair to look behind her and grunted at the effort. “Please don't tell me I have to get up.”

“No, no need for a fight. At least, not a physical one,” I said right before Sonder strode through the tunnel entrance.

“What the hell is going on here?”

**

Two months ago Sonder came to my aid. Well to be more accurate, he came to Luna’s aid, but he followed my instructions readily enough. At the time I was both surprised at and thankful for his easy acceptance and wondered if time and distance truly were providing a balm on the wound that had once been our friendship. If that was the case, our interaction saving Luna from Deleo, as brief as it was, had done that wound no favors.

“What did you do, Verus?” I'd never found Sonder’s glare all that threatening, and I still didn't, but the tone he paired it with along with the preemptive use of my mage name was new.

“What makes you think Alex did anything?” Luna scowled. She'd softened toward Sonder after he come to her aid, and as far as I knew they'd even gone to the movies a couple of times, though not in recent weeks. Vari was scowling too, set close beside Luna on the sofa, and I wondered if that had anything to do with it.

“Sonder,” Caldera started, “you don't-”

“Who did it, Verus?” Sonder cut her off with a slash of his hand. “Was it Drakh? I guess if I'm thinking about it, he isn't the type to get his hands dirty, is he? Is that where you learned it from- your master? Was it one of the other dark mages you like to pal around with, or did you do it yourself? God knows you have it in you.”

“Sonder, calm down,” Caldera ordered, sounding testy, but he didn't calm down and knowing what he was about to say, I didn't actually blame him.

“Who did it, Alex?” Sonder asked, eyes red rimmed. “Who killed Sakrees?” Then the tears threatening to fall followed through, and he turned from us to dash them away. The room was silent.

“Sakrees is dead?” Caldera asked. She looked stunned.

Sonder nodded before turning back to face the rest of us. “They found-” he cleared his throat, calmer if still distraught. “They found his body in Soho at one of the clubs there.”

“The Pile Driver,” I said, and it wasn't really a guess. Sonder’s glare returned.

“So help me, Alex, if you had something to do with this-”

“Sonder, shut up,” Caldera bellowed, and this time Sonder did. “I was attacked tonight at the Pile Driver. I never saw Sakrees, but there were two other Keepers there, dirty ones, along with some of those dark mages you're so concerned about. I gated to Verus’s shop with a slice two feet long in my chest and half a dozen men armed with assault rifles on my heels. Alex had no warning and no reason to get involved, but he stepped up and pulled my arse out of the fire like good police even after getting run out of the department on a rail. He saved me, so if you want to accuse him of something you'd better be damned certain and ready to go through me to do it!” Caldera had stood up during this little speech, and even though she was clutching her abdomen, her eyes were blazing. I didn't doubt for a moment that she meant it.

Gratitude washed over me in a wave at the unexpected show of faith, and as it receded I became aware of another emotion, one that ran deep and still and felt very much like grief. How long could I keep Caldera in my life, I wondered. How long could I keep them all?

“I'm sorry,” Sonder said, directing it to Caldera rather than me. “Are you alright? Dirst found your communicator at the scene along with more blood than I ever want to see again. I thought the worst.”

Caldera nodded in Anne's direction. “Walker here has been seeing to me.”

“How did you know you'd find us here?” I asked him. As a friend, Sonder had been introduced to Arachne and was familiar with her home, but as far as I knew he hadn't been back to visit since we'd fallen out.

“I guessed. We got word about the shootout at your shop just after Sakrees was found, and it seemed too much to hope for it to be unrelated.”

I kept my tone bland in the hopes he would find no possible subtext. “You didn't tell anyone that you were coming here?”

Sonder flushed. “I wouldn't do that to Arachne,” he said defensively. “Besides, I figured if you were here and plotting against Caldera, I could handle you long enough to get away.”

I raised an inward eyebrow but let that go unchallenged. Despite his demeanor upon entering the room, it was clear to me that Sonder didn't truly think I was directly responsible for Sakrees’s death. Whether or not he thought me involved tangentially was a different story.

“How was Sakrees killed?” I asked rather than get into it.

“He was beaten to death.” There was pain in Sonder’s expression but nothing that looked like horror, and I inferred that he hadn't seen the body.

“Did he have any reason to be at the club that you're aware of?”

“No, as far as Rain knew he was off that night, but he wasn't the clubbing type. I would have him expected to be home in bed at that hour.”

Sakrees was a good man and a good Keeper. We'd worked together once or twice while I was an Auxiliary, and for whatever reason he'd always seemed to genuinely like me. I pushed aside the roiling black ball of anger and sadness that tried to intrude on my thoughts and focused on what I knew about the man rather than how I felt about his death. “He wasn't married, and I don't remember him having a girlfriend. Did he live with anyone?”

“No, he was a loner.” This time Caldera answered. “Only ones who'd be able to vouch he was home are a couple of goldfish and his ficus.” She was opening and closing her fists in slow precise movements, face set in a mask of obstinate aggression I'd come to know well during our partnership. Her eyes remained pained, but her mouth was set with rage.

“Do you think he-?” I began to ask Caldera, but she cut me off.

“Not a chance. Sakrees was at clean as they come.” Her thrusting chin thrust further. “I would have known.”

I didn't really think Sakrees was dirty either, but I thought the possibility bore mentioning. “What cases were you two working on?”

“Nothing of consequence. A mage plying chance magic with the tourists, a suspicious death in a drifter that may or may not have been magically induced. Little stuff.”

“Did Sakrees know about your suspicions?”

“What suspicions?” Sonder blurted, and Caldera spent several minutes bringing him up to speed.

“Can you think of anyone that would have wanted Sakrees dead?” I asked Caldera when she'd finished. “Anyone that could have killed him?”

“No. He was a good bloke. Good police.”

“Do the Keepers have any suspects?” I asked Sonder, and that's when he began to look a little awkward.

“Er, well,” he stammered, “I thought you knew.”

“Spit it out, Sonder,” Caldera said.

I saw the words coming and suppressed a curse. Something must have shown on my face, because Anne and Luna began to look concerned even before Sonder answered the question.

“They think Caldera did it. There's a full manhunt on to bring her in.”

Chapter Text

“But, that's-” Luna looked around with a flummoxed expression. “That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Caldera, a murderer? What are they thinking?”

“She was seen at the club,” Sonder explained. “Multiple witnesses reported her fighting with someone, and now she's disappeared.”

“Still…”

“It's connected to whatever Keynes and Matchier are up to,” I told her. I was sure of it. “The question is whether Sakrees was there of his own volition or they lured him there to use his murder as a distraction for the Keepers.” I nodded at Caldera. “They're looking for you, and they're using the Keepers to do it.”

“Yeah.” There was a strange look on her face, one I'd never seen before. It had appeared when Sonder told her she was the lead suspect in her partner's murder and hadn't dissipated.

“It's still ridiculous,” Vari said. “I can't believe anyone who's worked with Caldera could believe her capable of anything like this.”

I agreed, but, “Don't forget, Anderose will be overseeing this investigation, and Caldera already found a connection between him and one of the irregularities she mentioned.”

“Do you think he's involved?”

“I think we should bear the possibility strongly in mind.”

“So what do we do?” Luna asked. “I suppose telling the Keepers they have it wrong is out, given that you suspect there's a corrupt element.”

“What about your direct supervisor Rain?” Anne asked. “From what Vari has said, he is both competent and trustworthy.”

“It might be a good idea to get a message to him to warn him about our suspicions,” I said, “assuming we can do it in a way that's untraceable. But I'd rather keep him and the other Keepers as our reserve force. They can be the calvary if we get in over our heads. Rain can investigate on his side as well, but I'd rather not have Caldera turn herself in. Once she does that, whoever is behind this will only have one play, and we don't know enough about their reach for that to be a safe play.” I realized a bit belatedly that one of the pieces I was moving about in the board in my mind may have an opinion on the matter. I looked at Caldera. “Though it's up to you, of course. If you'd rather go to Rain with what you have now and trust in Keeper protection, we can support you through unofficial channels.”

Caldera snorted. “Yeah, I'm too well acquainted with those unofficial channels of yours to trust you won't somehow manage to destroy half of London. No, Verus, I'd rather keep you where I can see you. Besides,” something raw and painful crossed her face, “I'm not sure who in the Keepers to trust, really. I've always known Rain to be on the up and up, but I never suspected there was enough of a rogue element for bodies and critical evidence to go missing. Obviously I've been naive.”

I was conflicted, because I hated to see the shine of the Keeper badge tarnish in her eyes, but a larger part of me recognized what she was saying for the truth: blind trust in an institution never ends well.

“Well,” I said, a mite lamely, “I’m sure not all of the Keepers are dirty. You’re not, right Vari?”

“No.”

“How about you, Sonder? You ever tempted to misplace evidence for financial gain?”

“No,” he said, giving me a queer look.

“And I know you're clean, Caldera, so that's at least three trustworthy Keepers. I'm sure there are probably more.” She stared at me. “I mean, statistically speaking.”

She let out a laugh. There was the faintest fatalistic note, but for all that it was a laugh of real amusement. “Verus,” she said, and I could swear she almost said it affectionately. “You’re the most paranoid son of a bitch I've ever met.”

“So it's settled,” Luna said. “We'll try to get a message to Rain and warn him to be on the lookout, and in the meantime we'll get evidence to clear Caldera’s name. Where do we start?”

Luna, Anne, and Vari all looked at me at the question, which was gratifying, and even Caldera seemed content to follow my lead. As it happened, I did have an an idea regarding our first step.

“As luck would have it, the most helpful person to have in this situation tumbled into our little conclave.” I hadn't intended my words to carry a double meaning, but out of the corner of my eye I caught Luna’s wince.

Sonder took a moment, but he got it after I looked at him. “Me?”

“Yes you. Our first step is to figure out who actually did kill Sakrees. We'll go to the Pile Driver and have a look around.” The rest of the team, judging by their faces, were unconvinced.

“Sonder’s power will only be useful if Keynes and Matchier neglected to set a veil,” Caldera said. “Seems a bit optimistic.”

“And how will you even get there?” Luna added. “Given it's a crime scene, I assume the Keepers would have left guards.”

I held up my hand to forestall any more objections. “First off, I don't plan on circumventing the Keepers, especially seeing as I'll be escorted by one.” I nodded to Sonder. “And secondly, even if there is a veil on the club itself, which, granted, is possible, there's a chance we can at least pick up the movement of people coming and going. Caldera, how did Keynes and Matchier get to the club? Gate or walk?”

"Gated," she said after considering it.

"Well, hopefully we'll get lucky with Sakrees then. If he wasn't involved in whatever Keynes and Matchier have brewing, he probably walked." Everyone still looked doubtful, which was fair. If Keynes and Matchier had been careful, Sonder wasn't likely to find anything. But even that would tell us something. "Besides, I plan on doing some digging the old fashioned way as well.”

“I want to go along,” Caldera said suddenly.

I stared at her, at the mullish set of her jaw. “I don't need to tell you why that's a horrifically bad idea.”

“I know it is. I still want to go.”

“You still need to heal.”

“And you need someone to watch your back.”

We glared at each other, and it was so much like our arguments during my time as her partner that a place deep in my chest twinged.

“I'll take Vari,” I said.

“Vari doesn't know where the fight took place last night. I do.” Caldera’s glare sharpened, a sure sign that she was about to launch her coup de gras. “It's a three story club, Verus.”

“And how exactly do you propose remaining undetected? Sonder won't be much good to us if he's in prison as your accomplice.”

“Umm.” Sonder looked nervous.

“Actually,” Arachne said, stopping the gentle clicking of her needles and unfurling the sheened fabric, “I may be able to help with that.”

**

“You're sure this will work?” Sonder asked me for the third time.

“Can you tell that's Caldera?”

“No, but-”

“It will work.” Sonder glared at me doubtfully, and I relented. “I know she'll get past the Keepers watching the door without a problem. There's too much noise to say with certainty what will happen inside, but I can't see anything too alarming.”

“That's not as reassuring as you seem to think it is.”

“If there is a problem we'll handle it. Have a little confidence, Sonder.” I caught sight of Caldera as she turned the corner. “Here she comes.”

The garment Arachne made was reminiscent of a burqa that had been combined with a cloak, the long drape of shimmering fabric covering Caldera from head to toe. Standing in Arachne’s living room she'd looked silly, like a child wrapped in a sheet to play ghost, but after Arachne explained the trick of the fabric, we could all see the utility.

“Do you think the illusion is slipping? At the knees?” Sonder asked.

I kept my eyes on the Keepers watching the Pile Driver, a man and a woman. “It's fine.”

When activated, the imbued fabric held and projected the image of whoever the wearer concentrated upon, an instant and realistic costume courtesy of Arachne’s fine magical crafting. After a bit of practice we'd discovered that Caldera wasn't an especially detailed visualizer, so we'd decided her disguise should be someone most people wouldn't look twice at and would forget almost at once.

Sonder and I watched as Caldera as a meter inspector, a middle aged man with an orange safety vest and a bland, forgettable face, made entry to the club. The Keepers never stirred.

“Now you,” I told Sonder. “Remember, don't volunteer extra information. Just say that you've been asked to look around while the club is mostly empty. Once you're inside confirm there's no one watching, then join us at the back door.” Our plan wasn't a fancy one. It basically amounted to sneaking Caldera and me inside while Sonder used his Keeper credentials to encourage the lookouts to avoid the interior while we were present.

“I know,” Sonder said, sounding annoyed. “Hard as it may be for you to believe, I'm not naive, and I'm not an idiot.”

This was neither the time nor the place to unleash our simmering argument, and anyway, I wasn't in the mood. “I know you're not an idiot, Sonder. See you inside.” I left before he could call me on the evasion and strolled around to the back.

Caldera was waiting for me, door into the alley already propped open, and her face was falling off.

“Gah.” I stepped back. “I think you need to shore up your concentration again.”

With a huff, Caldera pulled the illusory fabric from her face and balled it up. Uncovered, her face was flushed. “Ugh, I hate imbued items, and this one is impossible. How are you supposed to do anything if the whole while you're picturing an ugly bloke’s face?”

“You can do it. You just need to clear your mind.”

She thrust the ball of fabric into my arms and stepped into the club. “My mind is clear, Verus, and it's focused on finding Sakrees’s killer. Get your skinny arse in here.”

I stuffed the fabric into the backpack I’d brought along and followed her inside. I'd expected a loud metallic clang as we swung the door to the alley shut, but the well balanced hinges settled the door into its frame with a whisper, leaving us neatly enclosed in the dim glow of the burned out utility lights.

“The front door is that way?” I pointed to my left.

“Yeah. It's dead in there right now. They're open, but I only saw a couple of geezers at the bar.”

“That'll most likely change once the sun goes down.” I consulted my watch. “We'd better get a move on.”

Right on cue, Sonder came around the corner. “Any trouble?” I asked, and he glared at me.

“They weren't suspicious.” He looked as though he was going to add more, but Caldera intervened by taking charge.

“Good, let's get started. I showed up around ten last night and entered through the front. The hostess there now isn't the same one from last night, but I think I saw her working the tables. She may have seen something.”

“Lead on.”

The interior was how I had pictured it based on Caldera’s description and personal experience in other venues of its ilk, almost entirely mage related. Clubs like this weren't to my taste. When I did choose to lose myself, which was rare, seizure-inducing lights and at a volume that vibrated my internal organs wasn't how I went about it.

The concrete floor running the expanse of the ground floor was painted black, as were the walls and ceiling, though a glance at the ceiling past the flashing light arrays revealed that the painters had become increasingly slapdash as they climbed. Despite a sign behind the bar prohibiting smoking, the air scent of cigarettes had seeped into the walls.

The wall opposite the front entrance was dominated by a towering bar with mirrored shelves running all the way up to the ceiling. I looked. Most of the bottles above the fourth level were empty and needed a dusting. As Caldera had said, the crowd was very sparse, a handful of kids in their twenties clustered around the pool tables and one or two older men sitting a deliberate five stools apart. Electronic music with a thumping bass line that reverberated through the walls and floor boomed from speakers set high in the ceiling.

“Anything?” I leaned in and asked Sonder as we walked inside. No one looked up or otherwise seemed concerned that we'd entered from the back.

“Yeah,” he said over the music, then paused. “I mean no.”

“Which is it?”

“I mean there's not a veil, at least not on this room, but if you want me to take a look I'll need some time. There's a lot to see.”

I glanced at Caldera in inquiry.

She shrugged. “The fight didn't happen here, but I came in through the front entrance. Sakrees probably did too. Might be worth confirming.”

“What time?” Sonder asked.

“I was inside the club until about eleven and never saw Sakrees. Try eleven on and focus on the entrance.”

“I’ll need to stand by the door.”

“Get a drink first,” I suggested. “We can be three colleagues jetting off early for a pint.”

Caldera checked her watch. “Very early.”

The bartender was a young man with gaunt cheeks and coin-sized rubber gauges in his earlobes, ribbed black shirt hugging his torso. He looked at us without expression when we approached.

“Three pints,” Caldera told him, and he pointed to the mini-fridge behind him.

“Bottles only.”

“Three bottles then.”

“Which ones?”

“Is anything on special?”

He shrugged, and Caldera’s mouth compressed. “Those.” She pointed to a popular, mass produced brand that ran on the cheaper end of the spectrum and tasted like water. When it came time to pay, she looked at me. I looked at Sonder.

“Fine.” He pulled out his wallet. “But Alex is paying me back.”

Bottles in hand, we set up at one of the high, bistro style tables that peppered the edge of what in busier hours would be a dance floor. There were no chairs, so I went to lean against the wall and then thought better off it.

“What can you tell us about the layout?” I asked, though by ‘us’ I actually meant me, as Sonder had already adopted the wide eyed, vacant stare that indicated he was no longer viewing the here and now.

“Three floors as I said. Top floor has the private rooms.”

“Is that where the fight was?”

“No, roof. I was up there trying to find a good vantage point to watch for Keynes and Matchier’s exit when they made me.”

“How do you access the roof?”

“I went up the fire escape and climbed the last bit, but there's a stairwell. I saw the door when I was up there.”

“Fire escape, hm?”

“It's accessible from the ladies.”

Sonder didn't know where in the club Sakrees had been killed, but to me the roof sounded like a good bet, or maybe one of the private rooms. I'd looked, but there were no reports of violence in Soho the night before let alone a murder.

“Is that the hostess?” I asked, indicating a woman dressed all in black who was walking away from the table of pool players. She was carrying a tray swung down by her hip, and even from here I could see the bags under her eyes.

“Yeah, that's her,” Caldera confirmed. “She was working by the door last night, saw me when I came in.”

“Do you think she'll recognize you?”

“Doubt it. She seemed pretty distracted and there were loads of people here last night. Besides,” she gestured at the dim confines of the club with its spasmodic, colorful lights “how much of me could she possibly have seen?”

“How do we get to the other floors?”

“There's a stairway behind that wall there.” The wall, also painted a matte black, blended well enough into the space around it that the doorway was almost invisible. “Second floor is another dance floor with a bar like this one. The third floor has the private rooms.”

“I’m going to question the waitress, maybe the bartender too if I can get him to respond audibly to anything. Will you two be alright for a bit?” I asked Caldera.

She scoffed, face creasing with genuine humor. “Once Sonder is done here, we’ll start upstairs. Just scream if you need a rescue. If you’re high-pitched enough, I should be able to hear you over the music.”

Up close, the waitress’s eyes were blue and very pretty despite the dark circles that she'd hidden beneath what looked to be a good amount of concealer.

“Hi,” I said, leaning against the edge of the bar to talk with her while she busied herself with disposing of the empty bottles that littered the back of the bar. It didn't look as though the taciturn bartender was all that concerned with maintaining an uncluttered work space.

She looked over her shoulder at me. “Hi.” Stephany, her name tag read.

“May I ask you something? It's a little strange.”

“Of course.” She smiled, but the blue eyes went a little wary.

“Some friends of mine said that this place has a lot of fights. You know, people getting pissed and posturing over one thing or another, girls mostly.”

She turned to face me more fully. At the other end of the bar, the bartender stared out at the empty dance floor with his arms crossed and ignored us. “We get fights now and again, yeah.”

“Ever been the cause of any?”

She arched an eyebrow. It was darkened and defined by a colored liner that matched the roots of her hair. “Excuse me?”

“You know, drunk men, pretty waitress…” I let my voice trail off, and as I'd seen when I'd looked into the future of approaching the interview this way, she sidled closer, a pleased, half suppressed smile on her lips.

“Maybe a few,” she confided. “Nothing too rough, you understand, but, well, we have regulars and sometimes they misinterpret a smile, you know what I mean?”

“I do,” I said, smiling back. “Any recently?”

“Over-attached customers?”

“Fights. My friend said there was some trouble last night. He's one of your regulars,” I added for verisimilitude and because I could see she'd respond positively. “He told me to be on the lookout for you.”

“For me specifically?”

“He told me his favorite waitress had bright blue eyes. I can only imagine he meant you.”

Her skin tinted pink beneath the powder and liberal bronzer. “As it happens, there was a little trouble last night. Not about me, though.”

“What happened?”

She shrugged. “I don't know the particulars. Apparently someone tried to bust into one of our private rooms upstairs, and the blokes inside didn't take kindly to it. The police had to be called.”

“Anyone injured?”

“Nothing too bad,” Stephany said, confirming that whatever story the Keepers had spun about Sakrees’s death, it hadn't included a body.

“Who was in the private room? Rent to criminal types, do you?”

She laughed, tossing her hair. “No, although if you want to spread the rumor that we do, feel free. It’ll only help the club’s reputation. I think it was some executives from a furnace company. That’s what Linda said.”

“Steph,” the bartender called. When she looked over he jerked his head to indicate a new set of customers coming through the door.

“Sorry, gotta go. What did you say your name was?”

I almost gave her Sonder’s name and then thought better of it. “Mark Walker.”

“Well, Mark, if you want to stick around for a bit, I may be able to sneak away. My break’s coming up here in another hour.” I made a sound of acknowledgment that could be read as agreement, and she gave a coquettish thrust to her hips as she walked away.

“Hey,” I said, sidling up to the bartender. He glanced my way briefly before returning his gaze to some vague middle distance halfway between the bar and the door. “Were you working last night?”

He shrugged, aggressively unengaged. Unlike Stephany, he didn’t wear a name tag. “What’s it to you?”

“I heard there was a fight here last night. Know anything about it?”

“Why, you a cop?”

“Nope.” I pulled out my wallet and fiddled with it. His dark eyes followed it.

“Well-” he started, before I slid the wallet back into my pocket. He frowned, confused.

“Excuse me. I need to find my colleagues.” With a nod that wasn’t returned, I started back toward the table where I’d left Sonder and Caldera. It was empty, so I veered toward the stairwell Caldera had pointed out.
When I'd pulled out my wallet the bartender--Gavin, as he was going to introduce himself--had committed to telling me about his observation of the events of night before. He didn't know much more than Stephany with one key exception: he had a name to go along with the reservation of the private room, apparently uncovered by reviewing the manager's scheduling book.

The floor above was a clone of the room I'd just left: same expansive dimensions and black paint, same towering bar and thumping music. There were perhaps a few more tables in evidence-- heavy, utilitarian things of bent metal--a few of which sported chairs. Colored lights of red and green spun across the floor and walls, but there wasn't a soul present, not even behind the bar. It looked like a dance party after the apocalypse.

Sonder and Caldera were in the far corner pacing a slow circuit. I started toward them and suppressed a grimace when my shoes made a sucking sound against the floor.

“Anything?” I asked when I got closer.

“Bupkis,” Caldera said. “However Sakrees came, he didn't use the front door, at least not between eleven and one. Sonder here has been looking for some sign of him inside, but it's been slow going.”

Sonder was squinting into the air, looking a little green around the gills for reasons that went beyond the light show. “You alright, Sonder?”

“I'm fine. There's just a lot to look at.” His squint took on an overlay of pain. “Did you know they use this room for foam parties?”

Well that explained the sticky floor. “Ah.”

“The hell is a foam party?” Caldera asked.

“We'll tell you later. Does the name Jon Antiguay mean anything to you?”

Caldera blinked as a red snowflake of light streaked across her face. “The Jon part doesn't, but I know an Antiquay.”

“Who is he?”

“Pissant little fixer who specializes in setting up accounts for mages looking to avoid uncomfortable questions from the police about the source of their money.”

“Apparently the room Keynes and Matchier met in was rented under that name.”

“Could the same guy. He snitches for us sometimes when he feels the need to grease the wheels a bit.”

“The kind of guy who will do anything for anybody if the price is right?”

“Got it in one, Verus.”

At that moment the futures trembled, a brief shudder that rocked almost all of the threads at once. “We need to find cover.”

Caldera didn't waste time arguing, grabbing Sonder by the shoulder and halting his progress about the room. He blinked owlishly at her. “What's happening?”

“Five mages,” I told them. “Or possibly three mages and two adepts. They're on the stairs and are about to come in firing.”

“We have time to make it to the roof?” Caldera asked.

I looked at the hallway past the bar that led to the wash rooms and fire escape. “Nope.”

“Fine.” With a grunt, Caldera flipped the heavy metal table beside us onto its side and pushed Sonder behind it. I followed.

“Who are they?” Sonder asked.

“I don't recognize them, but whoever they are, they- Caldera, duck.”

Caldera ducked behind the table with us as a torrent of air screamed into the room from the stairwell door and swept the room. It carried shards of glass that pinged and shattered as they impacted the table. Five shadowed forms darted inside and fanned out across the room.

Whoever they are, I didn't get to say, they also want Caldera dead.