Cursed Chapter 1

The old factory was the kind of place you only find in the very worst parts of big cities.  Its bricks had once been red, but years of grime and pollution had darkened them to a brownish-grey.  The outer wall was topped with ragged coils of razor wire.  The wire was rusted and full of holes which hadn’t been repaired in years, as if the owners had decided that they couldn’t keep the burglars out but might at least be able to give them tetanus on the way in.

The rest of the dead-end street was dark, empty-looking buildings and shops hiding behind steel security gratings.  The gratings were covered in graffiti, and it was hard to tell whether the businesses locked behind them were still open or whether they’d been abandoned too.  The only shop that looked in good shape carried the triple sphere sign of a pawnbrokers.  Behind the shops and factory was the sort of council estate where the muggers use broken bottles because they can’t afford knives.

It was only eleven o’clock and the rest of London was filled with the sounds of the city, but on the street, nothing moved.  The road was empty except for parked cars.  Half the cars were missing wheels, windows, or both, and none would have looked out of place in a junkyard – except for the minivan parked at the top of the street.  Its polished black paint melted into the shadows, with the orange glow from the streetlights picking out the silver hubcaps and lights along with the Mercedes symbol mounted on the grill.  I rolled my eyes when I saw it.  My senses told me there was no immediate danger, but I stayed in the shadows of the alley and scanned the street for another minute before walking out towards the van.

Most of the streetlights were broken and the ones still working were patchy.  I walked the street’s length cloaked in darkness, with only the occasional circle of orange piercing the gloom.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see the pillars of light of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers, visible over the rooftops.  We were close to the river, even if I couldn’t see it, and as I walked I heard the mournful sound of a boat’s horn, echoing off the water.  Ragged clouds covered most of the sky, their cover blending with the glow of the streetlights to hide the stars.

As I reached the van, one of the front windows slid down, and the street was quiet enough that I could hear the purr of the motor.  I stopped by the door and looked at the man sitting inside.  “Could you possibly have made it any more obvious?”

My name is Alex Verus.  I’m a mage;  a diviner.  In mage terms I’m unaligned, which means I’m not affiliated with the Council (the main Light power block), but don’t count myself as a Dark mage either.  Although I’m not part of the Council I do freelance jobs for them, like this one.  The man in the passenger seat I was talking to was my contact with the Council, a mage named Talisid, and he gave me a patient nod.  “Verus.”

“Good to see you.”  I looked the van up and down.  “Seriously, a Mercedes?  Did you get it waxed, too?”

“If you’re concerned about stealth,” Talisid said, “perhaps we shouldn’t be talking in the open?”

Talisid is a man in his forties, shorter than average, with greying hair receding from a balding head.  He always seems to be wearing the same understated business suit, but with a sort of steadiness that suggests he might be more than meets the eye.  I’d met him in the spring, at a ball in Canary Wharf, where he’d offered me a job.  Things didn’t exactly go to plan, but Talisid held up his end of the bargain, and when he’d asked for my help tonight, I’d agreed.  I stepped back and watched as the passengers piled out of the van.  Talisid was first, and following him was a tall, thin man with a long face who looked a little like a greyhound, who gave me a nod.  His name was Ilmarin, an air mage.  I didn’t recognise the next three, but I hadn’t expected to;  their guns marked them as Council security.

“Still planning to take the lead?” Talisid asked me quietly as the security team went through their preparations, checking rifles and headsets.

“It’s what I’m here for.”

“It’s also what they’re here for,” Talisid pointed out.  “It’s their line of work.”

I almost smiled.  When Talisid had called me yesterday and given me the briefing, he’d assumed I’d be staying at the tail end of the formation, maybe all the way back in the van.  He was offering me another chance to back out.  But there was another message in there too, which wasn’t so funny;  the security men were expendable and I wasn’t.  “I’m not going to be much use from a hundred yards back,” I said.  “I’ll give you all the warning you need, but I need a good view.”

Talisid held up a hand in surrender.  “All right.  You’ll be on point with Garrick.  We’ll move on your signal.”

The man Talisid had nodded towards was the one who’d been in the driver’s seat, standing a little apart from the others.  He was tall, with short sandy hair and an athlete’s build, strong and fast.  He was wearing black body armour with a hi-tech look, along with dark combat fatigues, black gloves and boots, and a webbing belt that held a handgun, a machine pistol, a knife, and half a dozen metal cylinders that looked suspiciously like grenades.  A second pistol rested in an ankle holster and he carried a weapon in a sling that looked like a cross between a submachine gun and an assault rifle.  He watched me with calm blue eyes as I walked up.  “Garrick?” I asked.

Garrick nodded and spoke in a deep voice.  “What’s the layout?”

“I’ll tell you once we get inside.”

“Going with Talisid?”

“With you.”

Garrick raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down.  I was wearing combat trousers, black sneakers, a belt with a few things hooked into it, and a light fleece.  If Garrick looked like something out of a military thriller, I looked like an amateur camper.  “I’m flattered,” Garrick said, “but you’re not my type.”

“I’m your recon,” I said.

“That’s nice,” Garrick said.  “You can do it from the van.”

“I’m not going to be in the van.”

“This is a combat mission,” Garrick said patiently.  “We don’t have time to baby-sit.”

A lot of people think diviners are useless in a fight.  All in all it helps me more than it hurts me, but it’s still a bit of a nuisance when you want to be taken seriously.  “I’ll be the one doing the babysitting,” I said.  “Those guns won’t do much good if this thing takes your head off from behind.”

I expected Garrick to get annoyed, but he only gave me a look of mild inquiry.  “What are you going to do?  Punch it?”

“I’m going to tell you exactly where it is and what it’s doing,” I said.  “If you can’t figure out a way to beat this thing with that going for you, then you can back off and let us handle it.”

Garrick studied me a moment longer, then shrugged.  “Your funeral.”  He turned to the other men.  “Let’s move.”

The inside of the factory was pitch black.  The power had been turned off a long time ago, and the lights that hadn’t been smashed or lost their bulbs were dark.   Corridors were cluttered with old machinery and pieces of junk that had been piled up and left to decay, forcing us to pick a winding path through the obstacles and making it difficult to get a clear line of sight.  The air smelt of dust and rusted metal.

The creature we were hunting was called a barghest;  a shapeshifter that can take the form of either a human or a great wolflike dog.  They’ve got preternatural speed and strength, and they’re difficult to detect with normal or magical senses.  Or so the stories say;  I’ve never met one.  But all the sources agreed that the creatures killed with claws and teeth, making these sort of dark, cramped quarters the absolute worst place to fight one.  There were too many possible hiding places, too many ways the creature could lie in wait to attack from behind.

Of course, that was the reason Talisid had brought me along.

To my eyes, the factory existed on two levels.  There was the present, a world of darkness and shadow, broken only by the flashlights in my hand and on Garrick’s rifle, looming obstacles blocking our path and the threat of danger around every corner.  But overlaid upon that was a second world, a branching web of lines of glowing white light, the web branching over and over again through four dimensions, multiplying into thousands and millions of thinning wisps, every one a possible future.  The futures of the corridor and the objects within it were fixed and solid, while my and Garrick’s futures were a constantly shifting web, flickering and twisting with every moment.

Looking through the futures, I saw my possible actions, and the consequences.  I saw myself stepping on the loose piece of scrap metal in front of me, saw myself tripping and falling, and corrected my movements to avoid it.  As I did, the future in which I fell thinned to nothingness, never to exist, and the futures of me stepping around it brightened in its place.  By seeing the future, I decided;  as I decided, the future changed, and new futures replaced those never to happen.  To anyone watching it looks like pure fluke;  every step in the right place, every hazard avoided without seeming to notice.  But the obstacles were just a detail.  Most of my attention was on the near and middle future, watching for the flurry of movement and weapons fire that would signal an attack.  As long as I was paying attention, nothing in this factory could surprise us;  long before anything got into position for an ambush, I could see it and give warning.

This was why Talisid had wanted me along.  Just by being here, I could bring the chances of things going seriously wrong down to almost zero.  Knowledge can’t win a battle, but it’s one hell of a force multiplier.

Something caught my attention as we passed through a doorway and I signalled for Garrick to stop.  He gave me a look but held up his hand, and I heard the main body of the group halt behind us.  I crouched and brushed a hand across the dusty floor, feeling the chill of the concrete.

“What is it?” Garrick said at last.

“Someone forced this door,” I said, keeping my voice quiet.  “Not long ago, either.”

“Could have been the barghest.”

I held up a broken link of chain.  The outside was rusted, but the edge where it had been broken glinted in Garrick’s flashlight.  “Not unless our barghest uses bolt cutters.”

Garrick raised an eyebrow and we moved on.  I didn’t mention the second thing that had been out of place.  The rest of the chain had been taken away.

We moved deeper into the factory.  Garrick and I were on point, with two of the security men ten paces behind.  Talisid and Ilmarin walked in the centre of the formation, the last of the Council security bringing up the rear.  When I sensed that the barghest was near, I was to withdraw and let the mages and soldiers move up into a combat formation, ready to take it by surprise.  At least, that was the plan.

Things weren’t going to plan.  By now I should have sensed where and how the fight was going to start.  Looking forward into the future, I could see us searching every room of the factory, yet there wasn’t any sign of combat.  In fact, I couldn’t see any future in which any of us got into combat.  I could feel the men behind us growing tense;  they knew something was wrong.  The only one who seemed unconcerned was Garrick, radiating relaxed confidence.  Had Talisid’s information been wrong?  He’d been certain this was the place . . .

Around the next corner was a bigger room with a high ceiling, and again I signalled for the others to stop.  I closed my eyes and concentrated.  Searching for combat wasn’t working.  Instead I started following the paths of our group through the timeline, looking to see what we would find.  Something in the next chamber would occupy everyone’s attention, and I looked more closely to see what it was . . .

And suddenly I knew why there wasn’t going to be any fighting tonight.  I straightened with a noise of disgust and called back to Talisid, no longer making any effort to keep my voice down.  “It’s a bust.”

There was a pause, then I heard Talisid answer.  “What’s wrong?”

“We came here for nothing,” I said.  “Somebody beat us to it.”  I walked around the corner and out onto the factory floor.

Most of the machinery on the floor looked to have been removed or cannibalised for parts long ago, but a few pieces were still rusting in the gloom, piles of rubbish in between.  My flashlight cast only a weak glow in the darkness, the beam of light disappearing up into the wide open ceiling, and my footsteps echoed in the silence as I picked my way through broken boards and half-full plastic bags.  The smell of dust and old metal was stronger here, this time with something underneath it that made my nose twitch.

The barghest was lying in the centre of the room, and it was dead.  With its life gone, it looked like a grey-brown dog, big but not unnaturally so.  It was lying on its side, eyes closed, with no blood or visible wounds.  There was no smell of decay;  it obviously hadn’t been there long.

The others moved up into the room, following me.  Garrick came up to my side.  Although his weapon was lowered, his eyes kept moving, checking the corners and upper levels of the room.  Only once he’d swept the area did he look down at the body.  “Doesn’t look like much,” he said at last.

“Not any more it’s not.”

The next two security men reached us, followed by Talisid and Ilmarin, forming a circle around the creature.  They made a lot more noise than Garrick, as if they didn’t know where to place their feet.  “Well,” Talisid said at last.

“It’s dead?” Ilmarin asked me.

“It’s not getting up any time in the next few years,” I said.  “Yeah, it’s dead.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Garrick said, “but I thought the mission was to kill this thing.”

“Looks like someone else had the same idea.”

“Can’t find any wounds,” Ilmarin said.  Air mages are great at sensing movement, but not so good with objects.  “Verus, any idea what killed it?”

I’d been looking through the futures of me searching the body of this thing, watching myself rolling it over and running my hands through its fur.  All I’d found was that it was heavy and smelt bad.  Actually, I didn’t need my magic to notice that it smelt bad.  “No wounds, no blood.  Looks like it just dropped dead.”

“Death magic?”

“Maybe.  Anything from the living family could do it.”

Talisid had been studying the body;  now he looked at me.  “Is there any danger in splitting up?”

I looked through the futures for a few seconds, then shook my head.  “This place is a graveyard.  The only way anyone’s going to get hurt is if they fall off the catwalks.”

Talisid nodded and turned to the others.  “Spread out and search in pairs.  Look for anything unusual.”  Although he didn’t raise his voice, there was a note of command that assumed he would be obeyed.  “Check in every ten minutes and we’ll meet back here in an hour.”

Somehow or other I ended up with Garrick.  We worked our way through the factory’s ground floor, searching methodically.

The bodies of the barghest’s victims were in a side room off from the factory floor.  There were seven, in varying states of decay.  I didn’t look too closely.

“Had an appetite,” Garrick remarked once we’d left the room and called it in.

“That’s why we came,” I said.  I was trying not to think about the corpses.

“Really?”  Garrick looked mildly interested.  “My contract was to make sure it was dead.”

“Looks like someone did your job for you.”

Garrick shrugged.  “I get paid the same either way.”  He gave me a glance.  “So how far into the future can you see?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”
I returned Garrick’s gaze.  “On who’s asking.”

Garrick looked back at me, then gave a very slight smile.  It made me think of an amused wolf.

I went back to the factory floor and found Talisid.  “The bodies are in the second room off the back corridor.  Nothing else worth checking.”

Talisid nodded.  “I’ve called in the cleanup crew.  You may as well take off.”

I looked at the barghest’s body, still undisturbed amidst the rubble.  “Sorry I couldn’t help more.”

Talisid shrugged.  “The problem’s been dealt with.”

“Even though we didn’t do anything?”

“Does it matter?” Talisid said.  “There’ll be no more killings, and we took no losses.”  He smiled slightly.  “I’d call this good enough.”

I sighed.  “I guess you’re right.  Did you find anything else?”

Talisid’s smile faded into a frown.  “Yes.  Scorch marks on the walls, and signs of weapons fire.  Several places.”

I looked at Talisid.  “A battle?”

“It seems that way.”

I nodded at the barghest.  “But that thing wasn’t burnt or shot.”

“Not as far as we can tell.”

“So what happened here?”

Talisid surveyed the dark room, sweeping his gaze over the rusting factory floor.  With everyone else gone the place looked like it had been abandoned for a hundred years, and once we left, there would be no trace of our visit but for footprints.  This was no place for living people, not anymore.  “We’ll probably never know,” Talisid said at last, and gave me a nod.  “Goodnight, Verus.”

I left the factory, passed Talisid’s new Mercedes, and turned right at the corner of the street.  I walked half a block, turned back towards the river again, then slipped down an alleyway next to a  dark, blocky building.  A fire escape took me up to the roof.

Stepping onto the roof felt like coming out of the woods.  The Thames was just a stone’s throw away, the vastness of the river winding past like an enormous serpent, forming a huge meander around the Isle of Dogs.  Surrounded by the Thames were the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, reaching up into the night, shining from a thousand points, the white double strobe of the central tower flashing regularly once a second.  The lights of the skyscrapers reflected off the black water, forming a second set of towers that seemed to reach down into the darkness.  Off to the west I could see the lights of Whitehall and the West End, and the landmarks of central London.  Here up amidst the rooftops I could still hear the sounds of the city, but this close to the Thames it was almost drowned out by the rhythmic shhhh of the water, the waves lapping against the banks as the water continued its steady flow out to sea.  The air carried the scent of the river, not pure, but not unpleasant either.

“It’s me,” I said into the darkness.

There was a moment’s pause, then a girl stepped out from the shadow of the building.  She was a touch below medium height, with wavy brown hair held up in two bunches, and had a careful, deliberate way of moving, always looking where she was going.  Her age would have been hard to guess – she looked perhaps twenty-one, but there was a distance in her manner that didn’t match her youth.  Her name was Luna Mancuso, and she was my apprentice.

“It’s cold,” Luna said with a shiver.  She was dressed warmly, in a green pullover and faded jeans, but it was September and there was a chill breeze blowing off the water.

“There’s a warmer spot down in the alley.”

Luna followed me quickly, leaving her corner perch.  The roof of the building had a clear view down onto the factory, which was why I’d picked it.  If anything had gone wrong, I’d told her to get out.  “Did you get a count?”

“You went in with six others.  That was it.”

“Did you see anyone else?”

“No.  Was there?”

“No.”

The alleyway bent through an S-shape at the bottom of the fire escape, leaving a corner sheltered from the wind, obscured by machinery and old boxes.  It was the kind of place that would make most people afraid of being mugged, but one of the fringe benefits of being a mage is that you don’t have to worry much about that kind of thing.  A pair of hot water pipes ran vertically into the concrete, raising the temperature a few degrees, and I let Luna huddle against them, keeping my distance.  There was space for me, but that would mean coming within arm’s reach of Luna.  “What was I watching for?”  Luna asked.

“No idea,” I said.  “You don’t bring backup for the things you know about.  You bring backup for the things you don’t know about.”

Luna was silent for a moment, rubbing her hands together next to the heating pipes.  “I could have watched a lot better if I’d been closer.”

“Luna . . .”

“I know I can’t go inside,” Luna said.  “Not that close.  But can’t I meet them?”

“It’s dangerous.”

“You said the barghest was inside the factory.”

“I meant the mages.”

That made Luna look up in surprise.  “I thought you were working with them?”

“Today?” I said.  “Yes.  Tomorrow?”  I shrugged.

“Seriously?”

I sighed.  “Luna, if an order went out tomorrow to bring the two of us in, those guys would be first in line to do it.  I might not be on the Council’s hit list anymore, but that doesn’t mean they like me.  I don’t think they’re out to get me.  But if it ever became in their interests to get rid of me, I doubt they’d think twice.  And every bit of information they have on you makes you an easier target.”

Luna was silent.  I hoped she was listening, because I wasn’t exaggerating.  Tonight I’d worked with Garrick and Ilmarin and the security men, and we’d done a good, professional job.  But if one of those same men tried to threaten or kidnap or even kill me, a week or a month or a year from now, it really wouldn’t surprise me much.  “What about Talisid?”  Luna said at last.

“He doesn’t know everything that you can do, and the more time you spend with him, the harder it’ll be to keep that secret.”

“I don’t care about keeping everything a secret.  What’s the point in staying safe if I can’t do anything?”

I could hear the frustration in Luna’s voice, and I was about to reply, but stopped.  I could have told her she needed to be patient.  I could have told her mage society was a dangerous place, and that sometimes the best thing was to stay away from it.  I could have told her that her position as my apprentice wouldn’t do much to protect her if things went wrong.

All of those things would have been true, but they wouldn’t have helped.   Luna is an adept, not a mage.  An adept is like a mage with a much narrower focus;  they can use magic, but only in a very specific way.  In Luna’s case it’s chance magic, altering the flow of probability.  Chance magic can only affect things that are sufficiently random.  It can’t win you a chess match, or make money appear out of thin air, because there’s nothing for the magic to work on.  But it can send a breeze a different way;  make someone slip a fraction;  cause something to break at a certain point;  countless tiny changes that can make the difference between success and failure, danger and safety, life and death.  It’s not flashy, but it can be very powerful.

Unfortunately for Luna, her magic isn’t a gift;  it was laid upon her as a curse, passed down through the generations all the way from one of her ancestors in Sicily.  The curse twists bad luck away from Luna, and onto everyone nearby.  For Luna, it’s like she has a charmed life.  She doesn’t get sick, she doesn’t have accidents, and any bit of random ill-fortune will always hit someone else.  You’re probably thinking that doesn’t sound like much of a curse, and you’d be right . . . except that all that bad luck gets intensified and redirected to everyone nearby.  To my mage’s sight Luna’s curse looks like a cloud of silvery mist, flowing from Luna’s skin to surround her in a protective cloud.  To anyone who comes too close, that mist is poison.  Passing within arm’s reach is dangerous, and a touch can be fatal.  There’s no way to defend against it, because there’s no way to know what it’ll do – it might be a scraped knee, it might be a heart attack, and you’ll never know until it happens.  Luna knows, every minute of every day, that simply by being near anybody she’s making their life worse, and that the best thing she can do for them is to stay as far away as possible.

It adds up to a pretty horrible form of isolation, where every time the bearer lets herself get close to another living thing, something terrible happens.  From what I’ve learned, most victims go insane or kill themselves within a few years.  Luna grew up with it.  She survived . . . but not by much.  Luna told me once that the reason she started the search that eventually led her to me was because she realised that if she didn’t, there was going to come a day where she simply didn’t care enough to stay alive anymore.

And what all that meant was that warning Luna of the dangers of the mage world wasn’t going to work.  Not because she didn’t understand the danger, but because she’d quite cold-bloodedly decided a long time ago that any amount of danger was better than the life she’d had.  “All right,” I said at last.  “Next time, you can come along.”

Luna blinked and looked at me.  She didn’t smile, but she seemed to lift somehow, as if she’d grown a couple of inches.  With my mage’s sight, I felt the mist around her ripple and recede slightly.  I turned and started walking back towards the main road, and Luna followed at a safe distance.

Somehow, as of a little while ago, Luna’s started to learn to control her curse.  I still don’t know exactly how she managed it, partly because I don’t really understand how her curse works in the first place and partly because it happened in the middle of a rather eventful few days during which I was trying to keep myself from being killed, possessed, or recruited.  Since then Luna’s been training to master it, under what guidance I can give her.  “Next session is Sunday morning,” I said.  “Make sure you’re at Arachne’s for ten.”

Luna nodded.  “I will.”  We’d reached the railings where Luna had locked her bike – she can’t take public transport without killing whoever sits next to her, so a bike is about the only way she can get around.  No-one had tried to steal it, luckily.  I watched as Luna unlocked her bike, but instead of getting on, she hesitated.  “Um . . .”

“What’s up?”

“You’re at the shop tomorrow, right?”

I nodded.  “Coming in?”

“Yes.  Well . . . Could I bring someone?”

I blinked at that.  “Who?”

“A friend.”

I almost said but you don’t have any friends.  Even I’m not usually that clumsy, which should tell you how surprised I was.  Luna’s company is lethal to anyone who doesn’t know to stay clear.  How did . . . ?

It must have shown on my face, because Luna ducked her head with an expression that didn’t look happy.  “I know,” she said at the pavement.  “I won’t go near him.  I just . . . he was interested.  In your shop.  He wanted to see.”

I looked at Luna;  she didn’t meet my eyes.  Again I wanted to warn Luna, and again I held back.  God knows I don’t need to remind Luna of how bad her curse is.  But if she was just setting herself up for something worse . . .

“What’s his name?”  I said at last.

Luna looked up with a quick flash of gratitude.  “Martin.”

I nodded.  “I’ll be in all day.  Drop by whenever you like.”

“Thanks!” Luna climbed onto her bicycle.  “Bye!”

I watched Luna as she cycled out of sight, checking quickly through the futures to make sure she’d be safe.  Her curse protects her from accidents, but not from things done on purpose;  it wouldn’t stop a gang from deciding to pick on her, though it’d mess them up pretty badly if they were stupid enough to go through with it.  But that wouldn’t be much consolation to Luna, so I watched until I was satisfied she’d make it out of Deptford safely before turning to leave myself.

I’d been planning to go home to bed, but instead found myself taking the trains past Camden to Hampstead Heath.  Once there, I got out and walked, passing Parliament Hill and carrying on, heading in deeper.  Within a few minutes the lights and sounds of the city had been left far behind, and I was alone in the vastness and silence of the park.

Not many people go into Hampstead Heath by night.  Partly it’s because of crime, but there’s something else as well, something deeper and more primal;  the ancient fear of the woods.  The Heath is the wildest of London’s parks.  During the day it’s easy not to notice, but at night, when the rolling hills blot out the lights of the city, leaving the park in utter darkness, when the branches and undergrowth rustle and whisper in the silence, when the forest itself seems to be watching and waiting . . .

Most people would admit it’s scary.  But not many would admit why.  Deep down, in the corners of their mind, the reason people don’t go into dark forests at night isn’t because they’re afraid there might be people.  It’s because they’re afraid there might be things.

And it doesn’t help that they just so happen to be absolutely right.

The little earthen ravine was tucked away behind a ridge, concealed by the lay of the land and by thick bushes and trees.  None of the footpaths came near, and even during the daylight hours it was deserted.  But for the distant sounds of the city, I could have been alone in the world.  I found the overhanging oak, then felt around its roots embedded into the bank until I found the right one, and pressed two fingers into it in a certain way.  “Arachne?”  I said into the darkness.  “It’s Alex.”

There was a moment’s pause before a clear female voice spoke out of nowhere.  If you listened closely, you might hear a faint clicking rustle under the words, but only if you knew it was there.  “Oh, hello, Alex, I wasn’t expecting you.  Come right in.”

With a rumble the roots unwove themselves, earth trickling away as the bank gaped wide to reveal a tunnel, sloping gently down.  I stepped inside and the hillside closed up behind me, sealing me into the earth.

Although it doesn’t look it, Arachne’s lair is one of the best-protected places in London.  Tracking spells can’t find the lair or anyone inside, and gate magic can’t transport in or out.  The only way to get in is for Arachne to open the door.  An elemental mage could probably smash his way in, but by the time he did Arachne would have more than enough time to prepare some surprises.  It’s not as unlikely as you might think, either.  While Arachne doesn’t get many visitors, mages know she exists – and generally, mages and creatures like Arachne don’t get on too well.

Arachne is a ten-foot-tall spider, her body covered with dark hair highlighted in cobalt-blue.  Eight thick legs hold her body well off the ground, and eight jet black eyes look out from over a pair of mandibles that do little to conceal her fangs.  She’d weigh somewhere over a ton, but for all her bulk, she can move with the speed and grace of a predator.  She looks like a living nightmare, and a glance would be enough to make most people run screaming.

She was also on a sofa sewing a dress, which made her a bit less intimidating.  Not that I was paying attention anyway.  Arachne looks like a horror out of darkness, but you don’t last long in the mage world if you put too much stock in appearances and I don’t even notice her looks anymore unless someone points it out.  “You’re up late,” I said.

“So are you,” Arachne said.  The dress was some sort of green one-piece thing that shimmered slightly, and Arachne was working on it with all four front limbs at once, moving in a blur of motion.  Arachne’s legs are covered with hairs, becoming gradually finer and finer the further down you go, and she can use the tips better than I can use my fingers.  I’ve always suspected she uses magic in her weaving, but there’s no way to tell;  for a magical creature like Arachne, everything they do is tied in with their magic one way or another.  “Something wrong?”

Arachne’s main chamber is so covered in brilliant-coloured clothing it’s hard to see the stone.  There are sofas and tables scattered around, and every one of them is draped with dresses, coats, skirts, jumpers, shirts, scarves, shawls, tops, gloves, belts – you name it.  They’re red, blue, green, yellow, and every colour in between, and the whole room looks like a clothes shop with so much stock there’s no room for customers.  “No,” I said.

Arachne rubbed her mandibles together with a clicking, rustling sound.  “Hm.  Just move that pile over there.  No, the other one.”

I did as Arachne said, shifting a double handful of jackets over to a nearby table before settling down on the sofa with a sigh.  It was pretty comfortable.  “Sewed any good clothes lately?”

“All the clothes I make are good.”

“Yeah, I was just making conversation.”

“You’re terrible at making conversation.  Why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?”

I sat on the sofa in silence for a few moments, listening to the quick ftt-ftt-ftt of Arachne’s sewing.  I wasn’t thinking about what to say;  I was trying to work up the courage to say it.

I’ve known Arachne for ten years.  For me that’s a long time;  for her, not so much.  When I first met Arachne I was still apprentice to the Dark mage Richard Drakh.  She didn’t trust me at first, and with hindsight, I can’t really blame her.  But if it hadn’t been for her I doubt I’d have survived, and over the years she’s become probably my closest friend, funny as it sounds.  “Do you think I’m doing the right thing teaching Luna?”

“What an odd question.” Arachne didn’t look up from her work.  “You’re hardly going to turn her out on her own.”

“Of course not.  It’s . . .”  I hesitated.  “Am I teaching her right?  She’s still pushing to get involved with other mages.  I though she’d ease off on that.  I mean, she gets to meet people at the shop.”

“Not very often, from what you tell me.”

“She can’t afford to do it very often.  With her curse . . .”

“Is that the real reason?”

I sighed and let my shoulders slump.  “No.  It’s that I don’t want her around other mages more than I can help it.”  Even as I said it, I knew it was true, and it shocked me a little.  The whole reason Luna had come to me in the first place was out of a hope that she could become part of the mage world.  And yet I’d been trying to avoid it . . .

Arachne only nodded.  “And she can tell.  And you feel guilty for keeping her away.”

“I’d feel more guilty if I got her into trouble.”  I looked up at Arachne.  “I still don’t think she understands how dangerous mage politics are.  I was out tonight on a hunting mission.  But tomorrow or next week or next year those same men might be my enemies.  And if she’d been there . . .”

Arachne didn’t answer.  “You think I’m trying too hard to protect her,” I said at last.

“I think what you’re really afraid of is that you’ll introduce her to something that’ll get her hurt or killed.”

I sometimes wonder whether Arachne can weave more than threads;  whether she can see the connections between people, as well.  She can seem to pay no attention, and yet strike right to the mark.  “I’ve done it before,” I said.

“Yes,” Arachne said.  “But it was her choice too.”  She set down the dress and turned her eight eyes on me.  “Alex, the trouble with you is that you’ve spent so long on your own you’ve forgotten how to live with someone else.  The only way she’ll learn these things is by experience.”

“Yeah, well, I guess she’s getting that one way or another.  She’s bringing some guy to the shop tomorrow.”

“Jealous?”

“No,” I said automatically.

Arachne just went back to her sewing.  She doesn’t have any eyebrows to raise, but somehow she conveyed exactly what she thought of that.

I sat grumpily for a minute before remembering the other reason I’d come.  “Oh.  Something weird happened tonight.”  I put Luna out of my mind and leant forward.  “Talisid tracked down the barghest in Deptford and he called me in to help.  I met up with his team outside the lair and we made it all the way in.  But here’s the thing, it was dead.  Someone had taken it out before we got there.”

“Strange.”  Arachne picked up the dress she was working on in her front two legs and examined it, turning it around.  It was turning into a narrow, vaguely Chinese-looking gown that reflected the light and sent it back with a pale green shimmer.  She put the dress down at a different angle and returned to work.  “Have you any idea who it was?”

I frowned.  “No.  And it’s a bit weird.  I mean, sure, that creature was preying on people, but it’s not as if most mages would care.  Not enough to risk a fight, anyway.  I mean, barghests have a pretty scary reputation.  Why would anyone go after one when they could just wait and have the Council take care of it?”

“Was it an escapee?”

I nodded.  “Yeah, Talisid and I were wondering that.  If it was some mage’s fault that the thing was there, then it makes sense they’d want to clean it up quietly.  But we couldn’t find any trace that it used to be someone’s property.  Besides, if they really wanted to keep it quiet, they would have gated away the body – oh.  And another thing.  There were signs of a battle at the lair – fire and ice magic – but no freeze or scorch marks on the barghest.”

“What killed it, then?”

“Nothing.  At least, nothing I could see.”

The ftt-ftt-ftt stopped.  I looked up to see that Arachne was watching me, her needles still.  “Elaborate.”

“Um . . .” I tried to think of what to say.  “It was just . . . dead.  Wolf form.  No marks.  I thought it might have been death magic, but . . .”

Arachne didn’t answer.  “Arachne?”  I asked.

Arachne seemed to twitch, and returned to her sewing, the ftt-ftt starting up again.  “I see.”

“Something wrong?”

“Perhaps.”  Arachne paused.  “If you could establish the cause of death, I would appreciate knowing.”

I hesitated a second before nodding.  “Okay.  I’ll see what I can dig up.”

Arachne went back to her work.  She didn’t say anything further, and I didn’t ask.  “How many of them do you think there are?”  I said after a pause.

“Of which?”

“Magical creatures, like that barghest.  Living here in our world.”

“Few.  Fewer each year.”  Arachne continued to work, but there was something a little distant about her voice.  “So many have been killed or enslaved.  The survivors have hidden themselves in remote places, or in other worlds.  Perhaps what you saw today was the body of the last barghest.”

An hour later, walking back home through the darkness of the heath, I found my thoughts going back to Arachne’s words.  I’m so comfortable with Arachne that I forget other mages think of creatures like her as aliens at best and monsters at worst.  This was the first time I’d gone on this sort of hunt, and I’d had a good reason – but that didn’t change the fact that the creature I’d been intending to kill was basically not that different from Arachne.

For the first time I wondered exactly how long magical creatures would still be around.  As far back as mage histories go, they’ve always been there, but for a long time the number’s been decreasing, and it was mostly because of expeditions like the one I’d been on today.  Usually it’s only the dangerous ones that mages go after . . . but not always, and ‘dangerous’ is pretty subjective.  Now that I thought about it, the only magical creatures I’d seen over the past few months had been either working with mages, or under their control.  I hadn’t come across one in the wild for a long time.  If things kept going the way they had been, then the only creatures left would be property, or powerful enough to hide themselves, or dead.  It would mean no more killings like the ones the barghest had been responsible for . . . but it would mean none of the gentler or wondrous creatures, either.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked the idea, and I wasn’t so sure any more that I’d done the right thing by agreeing to help Talisid.  I headed home to sleep and to see what the next day would bring.

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