Fallen Chapter 2

The countryside felt peaceful after the noise of London. We were in Devon, on a hillside in a part of the county that seemed to mostly contain fields, trees and sheep. The sun had set and the sky was lit only by stars and by the fuzzy yellow glow of towns to the south and east. Up on the hillside was a farmhouse.

         I like taking a little while to look over an area before an operation. I don’t mean planning or recon, though I do those too; I mean finding a place with a good vantage point, sitting there and waiting. No matter how many maps I’ve studied, or how many projections I’ve seen, I never feel happy about going into a place until I’ve watched it for a while.

         The farmhouse had peeling white paint, with widely spaced windows and slates missing from the roof, and it looked pretty much identical to any of a thousand other old farmhouses scattered around the British countryside. There was a disused yard and a couple of old barns, but according to our information, what we were interested in was underground. The buildings and landscape were clearer than they should have been: Anne had worked an effect to enhance my low-light vision.

         I heard a whisper of movement behind me; it was Vari. “Everyone ready?” I asked.

         “We’ve been ready for half an hour,” Variam said. “Are we going in or what? We’re not going to learn anything sitting around staring.”

         “Learning about things by sitting around and staring is pretty much what I do.”

         “I think you do a bit more than that these days.” Variam walked up beside me. “So it’s a go?”

         “Entrance is in the cellar behind a false wall. Lock’s a little tricky but I should be able to handle it.”

         “Enemies?”

         “Can’t tell,” I said. My path-walking lets me follow the futures in which I take a certain sequence of actions, discovering who or what I’ll meet on the way. But the lock was tricky enough that following the chain of futures all the way through the ones that’d open it and to what was inside would have been slow. I could have done it with more time, but the benefit was marginal and there was a small but definite chance that we were on a clock. We’d been working this lead for a while and I didn’t want to waste it.

         “Eh,” Variam said. “Anne’ll probably spot anyone.”

         “How’s Landis’s op going?”

         “He says boring. Bodyguarding Council members is a waste of bloody time. I dunno why they keep putting us on it.”

         “Just because Richard hasn’t tried assassinations yet doesn’t mean he won’t, but you’re right, it’s a waste of resources. Landis is too important to be doing that kind of work.”

         Landis is Variam’s master, or to be more accurate his ex-master – Variam became a journeyman a little while ago and a full member of the Keepers along with it. Up until a year or so ago, a mage as young as Variam would never have been sent on a combat assignment like this without his ex-master to supervise, but with the war manpower was tight.

         “Well, I doubt we’ll need him,” Variam said. “Aren’t going to be any mages, are there?”

         “Just traps and whatever’s left of their experiments,” I said. “Of course, if one of those traps is an alarm and they gate in some reinforcements, things are going to get interesting.”

         “That’s why we have you around, right?” Variam said. “I mean, they decide to gate in, you’ll be able to give us what? A whole minute’s warning? Now come on, the boys are getting bored.”

         I gave the farmhouse a last look and got to my feet.

         We moved up through the farmyard. I was at the front, my attention split between the house looming up in the present and the branching futures ahead. Vari took the right, his movements quick and sure, his turban making him easy to pick out even in the darkness. To the left was Ilmarin, an air mage I’d worked with a lot over the past year. Anne brought up the rear, a slim presence in the darkness, quiet and watchful.

         Behind us were the Council security: a detachment of ten led by Sergeant Little. I’d pulled Little out of a hot spot a few years back and it had turned into a good working relationship. Like his men, he wore body armour and carried a sub-machine-gun; to someone who didn’t know better, he and his squad would have seemed like the dangerous ones. They wouldn’t have been wrong, exactly, but it was the four of us on whom the mission would depend.

         The standard Keeper doctrine for combat ops is to send a minimum of six to eight mages, with at least three times as many security personnel. But I’d led a lot of these missions over the past year and a half, and I’d come to prefer the speed and responsiveness of a smaller team. Two elemental mages, one living mage and one universalist gave us the tools to handle most problems, and if things did go wrong then it’s a lot easier to evacuate fourteen than forty.

         “Building is dead,” Anne said quietly into my ear through the communication focus. No telepathy this time; everyone else needed to hear what she had to say. Little’s men were on the same circuit, which was another area in which I ran things differently. Normally Keepers have separate communication bands for Council security and for themselves. “Nothing alive on the ground floor.”

         “Basement?” Variam asked.

         “Not on the first level. Can’t see farther than that.”

         “Move up,” I said.

         Little’s men advanced, three moving to the door, two more sweeping around each side. The front door lock was dealt with and the security men entered.

         “Ground floor clear,” one of the men said.

         “First floor clear,” came a minute or two later.

         If there were anything alive in the house, Anne would have seen it, but there was no point taking chances. “Secure the basement.”

         The farmhouse felt abandoned, with that particular sense a place has when it hasn’t been lived in for a long while. Traces of dust rested on the furniture. I took the stairs down to the basement while Little gave orders for one of the men, Lisowski, to stay in the entrance hall and watch our backs. If trouble came from outside, we’d be counting on him to sound the alarm.

         The facility entrance was behind a wooden wall. Pulling out a hidden dowel allowed the wall to swing back, exposing a circular steel door. I stepped up and got to work. The basement was cramped with fourteen of us, but no one spoke – they’d all done this before and they knew I needed quiet. Diviners are good at breaking through security: when you can see the consequences of your actions, it’s easy to avoid most kinds of alarms or traps. In this case, the builders had opted to go with a technological approach rather than a magical one, using a simple access code. There are types of locks that divination doesn’t help with – a fingerprint or retinal scan, for instance – but this wasn’t one. (If it had been, Vari would have just melted the door to slag. Like I said, a team like this can handle most problems.)

         The door clicked and I pulled on the lever. It swung open with a creak, revealing stairs down into darkness. No breeze came out, but I thought that I could smell a faint scent in the air, something unpleasant and stale.

         Variam lifted a hand and light bloomed, flames that gave no heat. They flew away down the stairs, illuminating them in orange-red. In their glow I could see steps going down for maybe sixty feet before finishing in a landing.

         “Light switch,” Ilmarin noted, nodding to a small panel just inside the door.

         “Doesn’t work,” I said absently. I was following the paths in which I ran down the stairs, looking to see what would happen. “No power anywhere in the facility that I can see.”

         “So?” Variam said after another half minute.

         “I’m not picking up anything,” I said. “Lights are off, doors are shut. Doesn’t mean it’s safe, but it’s definitely not in active use.”

         “No Crystal?”

         “We weren’t really expecting to get that lucky.”

         Wars between mages are very different from wars between countries. When countries fight, if they want to attack into enemy territory, they have to go through the other army to do it. Mages don’t. Gate magic lets strike teams appear anywhere at any time, attacking and then disappearing back to the other side of the world. You never see mages fighting to take control of a bridge or a mountain pass, because holding those kinds of places doesn’t accomplish anything. When mages engage in combat, it’s for one of two reasons: either they’re fighting over something valuable, or one side is attacking the other’s base of operations. Otherwise, if one side doesn’t want to fight, they can just leave.

         When it came to bases of operations, Richard’s side had the advantage. The Council operates out of various facilities spread throughout Britain. They’re well-fortified, but there are a lot of them, and they’re valuable, public, and, most of all, stationarytargets. The Council couldn’t abandon them, which meant a massive commitment of men and resources to defend them all. By contrast, Richard’s side had no facilities left in Britain, or at least none that anyone knew about. The mansions of Richard and his supporters had all been attacked by Council forces in the first months of the war, and rather than stand and fight, the Dark mages had abandoned their homes and withdrawn, hiding away in shadow realms or far-distant corners of the world. And shadow realms are much harder to attack than mansions. The Council was currently working to locate Richard’s centre of operations, but if he had one, they hadn’t found it.

         But it’s not practical to put everything in a shadow realm. For one thing, shadow realms are limited in quantity, with demand exceeding supply. For another, there are some things that shadow realms are bad at. You can’t run modern communications, nor anything that requires a lot of external resources or utilities. And there are certain types of magical research that can’t be done in shadow realms, or can only be done in a specific type of shadow realm that the mage might not have access to. So if one of the mages on Richard’s team wanted to do some R&D, they’d often have to hide it in a place like this.

         There was a reason I was taking a special interest in this particular facility. Our source had claimed that this facility was being run by Crystal, a renegade Light mage who’d fled Britain years ago under sentence of death. This was the first time her name had been linked to Richard, but I had my own reasons for suspecting that there might be a connection between the two of them. And on top of that, I knew that she wanted Anne. Crystal was in possession of a flawed immortality ritual, and she believed Anne was the missing ingredient that would make it work. I didn’t know whether she was right or wrong, and given that Anne wouldn’t survive the process, I didn’t particularly care. Crystal had made several attempts on Anne’s life, and if I had the chance, I was going to kill her. The fact that she happened to be working for Richard was just a convenient excuse.

         “We’ll sweep the facility,” I said. “Search room by room, make sure it’s clear. Try not to damage anything you don’t have to. Assuming we don’t find anyone to question – which we probably won’t – we’re going to be combing through everything we find. Documents, computers, research. Anything that might give us a lead on where to go next.”

         “Don’t break the toys, we get it,” Little said. “You taking point again?”

         I nodded. “Follow my lead.”

         The facility was dark and silent, empty corridors and abandoned rooms. With no airflow or connection to the outside, it was hard to tell how long it had stood unused: it could have been weeks or only hours. There was an unpleasant metallic scent to the air that made me think of blood.

         “Well, they were definitely working on something,” Variam said. The two of us were in some kind of testing chamber, with workbenches and an open space at the far end. “Question is what.”

         “Not sure.” I was leafing through some notes that had been left on one of the benches, reading by the orange-red light of Variam’s magic. “But my guess is that it had combat applications.”

         “That what it says?”

         “No, this is nothing but numbers.” I pointed at the open part of the room. “But see the marks on the floor and against the wall? They look like the kind you’d use for target mounts.”

         “We sure it was Crystal running things?”

         “Can’t see her name, but she’s not exactly going to be signing timesheets. Hopefully once we’ve cleared this place out, we can call in a time mage.”

         Variam snorted. “Good luck. They have a waiting list a mile long these days.”

         My communicator pinged and a voice spoke into my ear. “Ilmarin to Verus.”

         I put the notes down. “Go ahead.”

         “West wing is clear,” Ilmarin said. “There are some living quarters and a kitchen; apparently this place was fitted for long-term use. All deserted, but Mage Walker believes she’s found something.”

         “What kind of something?”

         “There’s another vault door at the end of the wing. Airtight. Apparently there’s someone or something inside.”

         “We’re on our way.”

         The vault door that Ilmarin and Anne had found looked similar to the one at the entrance. It was at the end of a corridor; security men were waiting at the intersections, the torches on their weapons casting white beams that left their faces in shadow. I walked to the front, moving from darkness to light to darkness again. “What have we got?”

         “There’s someone on the other side,” Anne said. Like Ilmarin, she didn’t wear armour; unlike Ilmarin, she didn’t have a shield. Her clothes were reinforced, but not heavily; it was an argument I’d had with her many times and one that I was yet to win. “A boy, early twenties. He’s awake but he’s not moving.”

         “Only one?” Variam asked.

         “I think so.”

         “Human?” I asked. Given the sorts of things we’d found in Richard’s other research facilities, it was a very relevant question.

         Anne hesitated. “Probably.”

         “What do you mean, probably?” Variam said.

         “I can’t sense anything abnormal in his pattern,” Anne said. “No injuries, no signs of deprivation. He seems in perfect health.”

         “Okay?” I said.

         “So why is he in perfect health?” Anne asked. “The facility’s power is out. And from the look of it, he’s locked in. Either they only just left and he’s been in there a few hours at most, or . . .”

         “Or what?”

         “I don’t know, but something doesn’t feel right.”

         I thought about it for a second, then nodded. “We’ll assume he’s an enemy until proven otherwise. Give him a chance to come peacefully, but if he doesn’t, weapons free. Little, have your men behind us. Cover all angles.”

         “Understood.”

         “Looks like I’m not getting this one open,” I said. The door was equipped with a retinal scanner. In theory Anne might be able to trick it, but those kinds of changes aren’t her speciality and I didn’t want to waste time. “Vari, you’re up.”

         A blade of searing red ignited at Variam’s hand as everyone else stepped well back. Variam pushed the blade of fire into the door, leaning into it. The metal turned red, then yellow, then white. An unpleasant smell filled the air, something like burnt oil, along with an acrid vapour that stung the throat.

         Variam made a long curving cut along the left side, and a short one to the right where the lock was. By the time he was finished, the air in the corridor was hot and I was sweating in my armour. The gashes in the metal glowed red, slowly cooling. “That should be the hinges,” Variam said, stepping back.

         Ilmarin took his place. The air mage waited for Variam to get clear, then raised a hand. My hair fluttered as a breeze swept down the corridor, coalesced, then struck the vault door like a sledgehammer. With a screech of tortured metal, the door fell out of its frame, hitting the floor with a boom.

         Mage lights flew into the room, orange-red from Vari, silver-grey from Ilmarin. They illuminated a wide circular chamber, stairs running up to inset rooms on the left and right. The black screens of display monitors hung on the walls, but the only movement was the back-and-forth flicker of the lights.

         “Can’t see him,” Variam said. He was cooling off the door, spreading the heat out of the metal so that it would be safe to walk on, watching the room out of the corner of his eye.

         “No movement,” Ilmarin said.

         “He’s there,” Anne said. She pointed through the doorway towards the shadows to the right. “And he knows we’re here.”

         I walked into the room. In the light of the spells, I could see a table in one corner, chairs overturned and papers scattered on the floor. Variam and Ilmarin followed me through. Something made a soft scrape as I stepped on it, and I paused and crouched down. It was an empty cartridge.

         “Sarge,” one of the security men said quietly from behind me.

         “I see it,” Little said. “Verus?”

         I looked at where Little was pointing. Ilmarin had moved one of his floating lights over next to the right wall, and in the greyish glow I could see bullet marks. “Interesting,” Ilmarin said. “So those would have been made by . . . who? Facility security?”

         “Which raises the question of what they were firing at,” I said.

         “I’m going to take a wild guess and say it’s got something to do with the thing that may or may not be human,” Variam said.

         Anne spoke. “He’s moving.”

        Our eyes turned to the darkness at the top of the right staircase. A figure appeared, still hidden in the shadows. We could make out its shape, but no more.

         From behind I heard quiet movements as the security men readied their weapons. They weren’t pointing them at the figure . . . yet. I raised my voice, speaking clearly and loudly. “I am Mage Alex Verus of the Junior Council. If you are an enemy of Mage Drakh, Mage Crystal or the other Dark mages who operated this facility, we will assist you. If you side with them and against the Council, you will not be harmed should you come peacefully. Step into the light and make yourself known.”

         Silence. Seconds ticked away. Then the figure stepped forward.

         It was a boy in his twenties, as Anne said. He looked quite ordinary, but my hackles rose the instant I saw him. There was an aura around his form; it was faint and hard to see, but the shadows were clinging to him a little more than they should, hinting at something larger and darker behind. I recognised that pattern and I knew what it meant, and all of a sudden I wasn’t interested in talking any more. “All units,” I said quietly into my communicator. “Defensive formation. Prepare for enemy summons.”

         The boy swept his gaze over us, looking down from the top of the stairs. Futures flickered as he made his decision, but I didn’t need to scan them to know what was going to happen. “Why do you all keep coming?” he said to no one in particular. His voice sounded wrong, older than it should have been.

         “Fire,” I said into the communicator.

         Variam didn’t hesitate. A pillar of flame erupted on top of the gantry, casting the room in hellish light. From behind, the sub-machine-guns stuttered out three-round bursts.

         The fire receded to reveal the boy standing unharmed. A translucent black shield was flickering around him; bullets were still hitting it, their impacts marked by flashes of black. He spread his arms wide.

         “Hold fire, hold fire!” I called. “Cease fire on the primary target, watch the sides, we have summons. Four on the left, two on the right.”

         The darkness at the sides of the room seemed to writhe, figures stepping out of the shadows. They were man-sized, thin and spindly with arms too long for their bodies, and they darted forward along the walls. They were hard to see, the eye wanting to shift away, but unlike the boy they didn’t have shields. The nearest one fell as bullets tore into it; the one behind staggered into cover.

         From past experience, I knew that the things killed with their claws: as long as the men could hold them at range, they should be safe. Little was already directing his men into a defensive box, overlapping fields of fire holding the creatures at arm’s length. Two were down and the remainder were pinned, unable to advance. Something new showed itself in the futures and I turned.

         The boy was still holding off Variam’s attacks, but he was focusing on Little’s men. He raised one hand and a dark sphere soared high into the air, arcing downwards towards us.

         A shield of air appeared just as the spell was starting its descent, and it detonated in a silent black flash, wind ruffling my hair. Variam growled. Another pillar of flame exploded around the boy; this time Variam followed it up with a bolt of fire that flew out like a rocket. The black shield soaked it up without a ripple. “Fuck!” Variam shouted. “How is he stopping these?”

         “Okay.” I’d been carrying a short-sword sheathed at my hip; it came out with the sound of metal on leather. “Let’s try it up close and personal.”

         Variam glanced at me, then nodded. He took a step, his hand coming down to stretch out behind him, but before he could cast his spell I sensed something new. Without pause, I spun and dashed back towards the security men. “Little!” I shouted. “Behind!”

         I saw Sergeant Little look up, startled; as he did the shadows behind his squad moved and one of the creatures stepped out of the wall and ripped a man open in a spray of blood. He went down with a scream and the security men whirled, their formation breaking.

         Then Anne was there, running through their ranks. The shadow creature raised its claws and hesitated. Anne didn’t. Her fingers brushed its body and it collapsed, the life seeming to go out of it. Anne was already kneeling by the injured man, working to staunch the flow of blood.

         I didn’t have time to watch; that creature hadn’t been the only one to come out of nowhere. Another materialised out of the darkness right next to where I was standing. Or where I’d chosen to stand. I rammed my short-sword through its torso, twisted the blade, ripped it out. The weapon was a low-level focus imbued with a dispelling effect, designed to penetrate shields. The thing staggered and fell. One of the security men ran up next to me and emptied his magazine into it.

         Looking around, I could see that the battle had turned messy fast. The formation of Little’s men was disorganised; now instead of keeping the things pinned down, they were backing towards each other, guns sweeping from left to right as they tried to figure out if one would appear behind them. Anne,I called through the dreamstone. Keep the men alive. I’m going to take out the summoner.

         Got it.

         Ilmarin and Variam had pushed the boy back to the far side of the room. He was standing at the end of the gantry, face set in an expression of concentration, fighting with needle-thin wires of black energy that stabbed and struck. Variam was pressing him, fire blazing from one hand and a flaming sword in the other, trying to get close enough for a killing strike, while Ilmarin hovered in the air.

         I sprinted around towards the gantry. It was about ten feet off the floor, and there was no stairway from the angle I was approaching. “Ilmarin,” I called through the communicator. “Need a lift!”

         Ilmarin didn’t need to be asked twice. A roaring wind picked me up as I ran, throwing me into the air in an arc aimed precisely down and behind where the boy was standing.

         The boy sensed me, turned. Whip-like strands of energy lashed out, trying to cut me in half. In the instant before they struck, I found the futures I needed and twisted: one strand brushed my hair; the other glanced off my leg armour. The impact threw me off-balance and I landed awkwardly, my short-sword bouncing off the boy’s shield.

         The boy stared at me from only a few feet away. I was taller than he was, but somehow it felt the other way around: there was a presence behind him, like a shadow looming over his shoulders. There was a strange detached look to his eyes, as though something else was looking through them. Black energy snapped at his fingers, but he didn’t attack. “You will serve.” His voice was normal, weirdly out of place in these surroundings. “Both of you—”

         A narrow triangle of flame emerged from the boy’s chest. He stood still for a moment, then the light seemed to go out of his eyes, the black shield vanished, and he crumpled to the floor.

         Variam looked down at the body, his sword still burning in one hand. “He getting up?”

         I shook my head.

         “Rest are dissipating,” Ilmarin called down from above.

         I looked around to see that the battle was over. Little’s men had stopped firing and I could hear them calling out to one another, checking to see that the area was clear. “Verus to Little,” I said over the com. “That should be all of them, but sweep the area. Make sure we’re secure.”

         “Understood.”

         I took a last look down at the boy’s body and walked across the gantry and down the stairs to check on the wounded. I passed several of Little’s men as I did so, spreading out to search the corners of the room. Back at the entrance, two of the men were lying up against the wall, with Anne checking over them and two others standing by looking outwards on alert. There was a lot of blood, but both of the men had their eyes open and were obviously alive.

         “Nowy and Peterson, isn’t it?” I asked. “How are you holding up?”

         “Could be worse, sir,” Peterson said.

         “Skurwysyn,” Nowy said, and coughed. “I am good.”

         “He’ll be fine,” Anne said reassuringly. She was kneeling next to Nowy, fingers laid on his throat. Despite the blood spattered all over it and across his clothes, the skin beneath was whole and smooth. She gave the security man a smile. “Don’t worry, Nowy, it hasn’t spoiled your good looks.”

         Nowy tried to laugh, but he was obviously shaken. From the looks of it, his artery had been opened; if Anne hadn’t been there, he would have been dead within a minute. Instead, there wasn’t even a scar, and with a few days’ rest he’d be as good as new.

         “Room’s clear,” Little said, walking back to me. “That should be the whole facility.”

         I nodded, but Little didn’t leave. “Something else?” I asked.

         “Wouldn’t mind knowing what those things were.”

         “Now?”

         “Intel briefing was to expect Dark mages, adepts and armed security.” Little shifted his stance, feet shoulder widthand hands behind his back. “Nothing about summoned monsters. With respect to Mage Walker –” he nodded to Anne. “– we were pretty close to losing men on this. Would appreciate knowing how likely this is to happen again.”

         I became aware that a lot of the security contingent were close by, hanging around the general area. Not all were looking at me, but they were clearly listening. Variam and Ilmarin were out of earshot in the corner of the room, looking through the notes on the table. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Little was asking this now, and I’d also noticed that he wasn’t calling me ‘sir’. Council security tend not to get told much, and he was asking me to give him something.

         “All right,” I said. “Be aware that some of this is going to be guesswork. Also, while none of it is technically classified, you might want to avoid repeating it around.”

         There were several nods, including from Little. “That boy we just fought was possessed by a creature called a jinn. Otherwise known as genies. Wishes out of a lamp and stuff like that. The stories are true but they leave out a lot. For one thing, jinn didn’t used to be bound inside lamps. Mages did that. So like a lot of magical creatures, they’ve got good reason to dislike humans.”

         “So where’s the lamp?” one of the security men said.

         “Jinn don’t have to possess lamps. People work too, though the jinn normally have to be invited in first. Either way, if they’ve got a human to work through, they can use their powers. As for what they’re doing here . . .” I looked around, feeling Anne’s presence behind me. She was still tending to Nowy, but I knew she was listening very closely. “We’ve known for a while that Richard Drakh has taken a particular interest in jinn. They have an enormous amount of power, but there are two problems. First problem is that the power they can use is limited by the relationship they have with the human that’s directing them. Being bound into an item cuts down on that power a lot. Probably Drakh’s cabal were trying to access a jinn’s full power by binding it directly into a host. Unfortunately for them, it looks like in doing so they ran into the second problem, which is that jinn hate humans. If they’re granting wishes, they’ll try to make sure they turn out as badly for the wisher as possible. If they’re freed from their binding item and allowed to possess a human directly, they can cut out the middle man. My best guess is that they tried to keep control of the jinn, failed and after seeing how it turned out, they decided to cut their losses.”

         “What about the bloody teleporters?” one of the other men asked.

         “There were several orders of jinn,” I said. “The one possessing the boy was probably middle-rank. The lesser ones were called jann. They weren’t bound into items in the way that the greater ones were – not powerful enough. Somehow the greater jinn seem to be able to call them up.”

         “That balls-up at San Vittore last year,” another man said. “Were those the things that attacked the place?”

         “Yes,” I said carefully. Now we were getting into really dangerous territory. “I haven’t run into any more since then.”

         “Can we expect to run into more?” Little asked.

         “That depends on whether Drakh’s cabal are still going ahead with their jinn project,” I said. “Maybe what happened here was enough to set them back. Otherwise . . .” I shrugged.

         There were a few mutters, but no one asked any more questions. There was the sound of movement, and looking up, I saw Ilmarin and Variam walking over. Little turned to one side and started talking into his com, and the other security men began to drift away.

         It was just as well that Little’s men had stopped asking questions. As I’d said, the attack on San Vittore last summer had been carried out by jinn – lots of weak ones and one very powerful one. What I hadn’t said was that the bearer of that very powerful jinn had been Anne. If anyone on the Council ever found that out, Anne and I would be sentenced to death in a heartbeat, and that possibility had hung over us both like a shadow for the past year.

         “It was her,” Variam said as he reached me.

         “Crystal?” I asked.

         “Not in so many words,” Ilmarin said. “But several of the notes make reference to a ‘Dr Marianne’, an alias of hers. There are also references to ‘conditioning’ that sound very much like applications of mind magic.”

         “So she’s promoted herself to doctor now,” I said. “Any clearer idea as to what happened here?”

         “Not many specifics, but we can guess,” Ilmarin said. “There are mentions of a subject who I suspect is the boy we just fought. Given those holding cells at the back, he probably wasn’t here voluntarily. Presumably Crystal was there to attempt to maintain control of him after they bonded him to a jinn. It seems they succeeded at the second part but not the first.”

         “Doesn’t say what happened,” Variam said.

       “Yeah, I imagine that by that point they weren’t really in a position to sit around and take notes,” I said. “But from the sound of it, Crystal’s long gone.”

         Ilmarin nodded. “The last date I can find on the notes is eight days ago. If they haven’t returned since then, I suspect they’re not going to.”

         Which meant that we were no closer to catching Crystal than before. Damn.

         “Stakeout?” Variam asked. He didn’t sound hopeful.

         “Crystal hasn’t stayed hidden from the Council for this long by being stupid,” I said. “We can place a remote sensor, but I’m not expecting much.”

         Ilmarin stretched, looking around. “And so ends another raid, I suppose. At least we didn’t lose anyone.” He glanced around. “I wonder how many other facilities Drakh has hidden away.”

         “Well, there’s one less now,” I said. I didn’t show it, but I was worried. This experiment of Richard’s had been a failure. What would happen if he succeeded?

         It was an hour and a half later. The security men, along with my team of mages, had pulled back to a perimeter around the farmhouse. Although we were technically still on watch, the mood was more relaxed now, and several of the men were smoking. Our job was to guard the investigation team, but if anything was going to happen, I should be able to spot it well in advance.

         “So how was the family visit?” Variam asked. The two of us were standing under a tree, a little way out of earshot. Up ahead, Ilmarin and Sergeant Little were in the farmyard supervising as the Council investigative team carried plastic boxes in through the front door. The contents of the facility would be packed into those boxes, then taken away and processed as evidence.

         “It was . . . interesting,” I said. I glanced to the side, where Anne was talking with the two injured men, Peterson and Nowy. “I can see why Anne doesn’t go home often.”

         Variam snorted. “If I was her, I wouldn’t either.”

         “You met them back when you were in school together, didn’t you?” I said. “What did you think of that couple?”

         “Father’s a wimp, mother’s a bitch,” Variam said. “She wouldn’t even let me in the house most of the time. Acted like I was going to steal her silverware.”

         I laughed. “Apparently I get higher-class treatment. I just got snubbed over the dinner table.” I thought for a moment. “When Sagash kidnapped her, what happened? I mean, they must have noticed.”

         “Oh, they noticed,” Variam said. “Biggest thing they were worried about was that it might hurt their daughter’schances of getting into a good uni. Pissed me off so badly. Was actually what made me decide to find her myself.”

         “And I used to think my parents were bad.” I looked across at Anne and wondered what it would be like growing up in a house like that. A couple of years ago Anne had told me that she liked the fact that when she was with me and Luna, she wasn’t expected to look after us. It had seemed a strange comment at the time. “That was when you ended up going to that dragon, wasn’t it?”

         “Yeah.”

         Variam had called the creature he’d met the Fire Dragon, and it had given him a warning: that if Variam wasn’t able to get Anne away from Sagash, she’d fall into darkness. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only other person Variam had ever told that to. Vari’s always kept an eye on Anne, ever since I’ve known them. Everyone else assumes that he’s trying to protect her; some assume he’s got a crush. I’ve come to realise that it’s for quite a different reason.

         But Vari had been able to get Anne away from Sagash, and it had been years since we’d seen or heard anything from the Dark mage. “You think that prophecy’s done? I mean, Sagash hasn’t shown up for a long time.”

         Variam was silent for a moment. “That jinn,” he said. “Before I killed it. What did it say?”

         “Something about how we both would serve.”

         “Mm,” Variam said. He turned and walked away.

         Anne walked over just as Variam disappeared into the shadows. “Is Vari okay?”

         “Not sure,” I said, looking after him. I couldn’t help noticing that Variam hadn’t answered my question. “I think he’s worried about something.”

         “He does that a lot,” Anne said, and leant against me with a sigh. “I’m glad it’s over.”

         I looked down at Anne with a smile and put my arm around her; she rested her head on my shoulder. “You did well back there.”

         “I’m glad everyone’s safe,” Anne said. “One more day without a disaster.”

         “There’s always tomorrow.”

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