The gate stone I'd used was keyed to the basement of a security-lax print shop a block away from my shop. I used to key them all to the flat itself, but recent years had enforced my paranoia, and now I carried a set meant to bring me close to home without potentially dropping me into a trap.
The basement was dark, dusty, and smelled of moldering paper, but it was quiet. I tuned out the sound of the floorboards overhead as the clerk made rounds from copy machine to register and focused on determining the safety of my flat.
Fifteen minutes later I was sure there weren't any nasty surprises waiting for me at the back door. I was also hungry, the growl of my stomach upped to a disgruntled roar, which assured me I’d fully recovered from the shock of Deleo’s attack.
What had set her off? Deleo and I weren't friends—we were too aware of what the other was capable of for that…besides, she was off her head—but I thought we'd developed a somewhat cordial coexistence where we stayed out of each other’s way to the extent possible. We'd even allied on a couple of occasions. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn't done anything recently that she would have an interest in, so why the attack?
The use of the harvesting rods was especially worrying. I’d known her and Cinder to attempt to use them in the past, but on magical creatures rather than mages. After the tragedy in the tunnels between Rachel and Shireen, I thought Deleo wouldn't be keen for another harvesting, but I'd clearly been wrong.
I called Keeper Headquarters on my way back to the flat.
“Order of the Star,” said the man who answered the phone.
“Sakrees, is that you?”
“Verus? What's up?”
“Why are you answering Caldera’s phone?”
“She's off the grid this afternoon. Very hush hush,” Sakrees said. He was an air mage, very cheerful, and unlike the majority of the official Keepers, he seemed to enjoy my company.
“Listen, I just got attacked by a Dark mage in Chiswick. It wasn't far off the High Street. I think you'll need to send the Order of the Cloak over for damage control.”
“That was you?”
“You already knew about it, huh?”
“Verus, a neighborhood the size of a football pitch was suddenly subsumed in grey light, and all the residents fell into their cornflakes. Three of them had traffic accidents, none fatal, thank goodness.”
“That wasn't me. I was the target of a mage who goes by Deleo. There should be a file on her.”
Sakrees rustled some paper. “Anyone else?”
“Not that I saw, but believe me, Deleo is more than enough on her own.”
“It’s just that there’s also the matter of a garden suddenly swelling up like the Incredible Hulk.”
“Ah. That was me.”
Sakrees sounded like he wanted to laugh. “I thought it might be.”
After one last check of the future I jogged up the back steps to my flat. “Was anyone hurt besides the three in the traffic accidents?”
“They're still assessing, but it doesn't look like it. Are you alright?”
Anne had been over the night before, and the fridge was blessedly full. “I'm fine. A little shaken, but that's all.”
“Good. The Cloak will probably want you to make a report.”
“Should I come down there?”
“No, no point yet seeing as they're all down in Chiswick. I'll leave your number with their lead officer.”
“Thank you, Sakrees. I appreciate it.”
“And I'll tell Caldera to call you when she gets in.”
“Can you make sure she knows this wasn’t my fault first?” I asked, and Sakrees laughed.
“You're considered pretty tough in certain circles, Verus. I'll leave the Caldera wrangling to you. She'd eat me alive.”
After ending the call I frowned down into the curry I’d pulled out, thinking.
I hadn't told Sakrees about the harvesting rods. As much as I liked the guy—and I truly did—the very existence of the rods was a sensitive subject and frankly taboo among Light mages. I'd been burned too many times, some of those times by Keepers, to be incautious in who I informed about their reappearance.
The last time I'd come up against harvesting rods a couple of years ago, I’d compiled a report. Leaving the curry on the counter, I jogged to the stairs leading to my shop to fetch it from the secure room I used to house my more powerful items and information. As I did, something in the futures caught my attention, a chime at the edge of my awareness from a future I’d been casually running about what would happen if I bypassed the vault and proceeded downstairs to my shop. I stopped cold.
I stood there, hearing nothing from below. I wouldn't expect to, but even so the silence rang in my ears, loud enough to drown out my breathing, which had accelerated noticeably.
I gave myself another minute in hopes of slowing my heartbeat—it didn't work—and then went downstairs.
“Alex, good. You're in.” Richard Drakh was looking at the shelves of mundane crystals in my closed and locked shop with an expression of polite interest.
My mouth was dry. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been wanting to see your shop for a while now. The formal tenets of tradition bring me, but I’m glad for the opportunity to drop by. You've done a good job with it.” He ran a finger over one of the more ostentatious gems, a hulking amethyst with jutting violet points. “For what it is.”
It was difficult to focus past the rush of adrenaline seeing him brought, but I forced my whirling thoughts to marshal themselves into coherence. It helped settle the ringing in my ears. Somewhat. “Is this related to Deleo’s attack on me today?”
“It is. I informed her yesterday that she will not officially be named my chosen until she summarily defeats all other contenders.”
As someone who can see the future, I'm rarely caught completely and utterly by surprise. “Come again?”
His lips twitched with minor amusement. “Her attack on you is directly related to her bid to become my chosen. As you are the only other remaining competitor, she must defeat you.”
“I don't want to be your chosen.”
“That is immaterial.”
“I left! I'm no longer part of this insane contest.”
“The contest continues until all but one candidate remains. You know that.”
“How can having this farce continue possibly benefit you? You can't actually want me as your chosen. Is this some sort of test for her?”
Richard smiled. “I informed Deleo yesterday that the contest is ongoing. I’m here today to formally inform you as well.”
I stared at him. “You're a little late.”
“I assumed informing you second wouldn’t affect the outcome too badly given your divination. Things in life are rarely balanced with perfect equality, Alex,” he chided, for all the world sounding like a father gently correcting his offspring. The thought chilled me.
“The harvesting rods,” I asked, throat tight. “Did she get them from you?”
“Other than informing you both of the contest’s stipulations, I am not involved.”
The knot of ice that had coalesced in my stomach the moment I realized who was waiting for me melted in a rush of anger at his words. Then it ignited. “The fact that you can stand here and say that to me is sickening. This is all down to you. Rachel harvested Shireen because you pushed her into it. You may not have put the rods in her hands this time, but don't you dare claim that you're not involved. Not to me.”
Richard’s gaze sharpened when I mentioned Shireen, something blood-thirsty and leashed looking back at me, and my fury squelched out of existence as quickly as it blossomed. I could see no violence in my immediate future, but I was too aware of Richard’s character and abilities to trust that meant my safety was assured.
“I meant to congratulate you on that incidentally: referencing the most tragic and yet triumphant moment in Deleo’s life during battle in order to throw her off balance. I’ve always appreciated your unflinching application of psychology.”
He paused, but I didn't respond. Didn’t ask the obvious question about how he knew the details of what had occurred in Chiswick a half hour before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, honestly.
“If you have no questions, then I need to be going. I have business to attend to.”
“Aren't you going to wish me luck in the contest?” My voice was caustic, but for all that it was strangled as well.
“I could, but you don't need luck. You never have. That’s the thing I like best about you, Alex. You’re a survivor. You purport to have lines, but you keep redrawing them. I never know how far you'll go.” He paused at the door, pinning me in place with the clarity of his gaze and a small pleased smile that did nothing to lighten his eyes. “And neither do you.”
Then he was through the shop door, the bell ringing in his wake, just another middle aged businessman in a suit strolling down the pavement of Camden.
After Richard left, I stared at nothing for a time, my mind—which had been locked with gravitational intensity on the conversation with my old master and the permutations it could have taken—skipped from one idea to another in dizzying hops.
I needed to plan, to strategize. More than that, I needed to warn those close to me that I was once again a target.
As futile a gesture as it was, I relocked my store before running upstairs for my phone.
Variam answered on the second ring. “Hey, Alex.”
“Vari, I've got a bit of a situation. Are you free to talk?”
“Yeah. I'll come over in a second.” He ended the call. It was abrupt, but I wasn’t offended. Vari epitomized abrupt.
I went to put the kettle on for tea, but the water had barely begun to heat when a gate spell, this one rimmed in bright orange and red flames, appeared in my den.
I’d specifically keyed the gate stones I gave my friends to allow them access through the defenses on my flat, but I'm not going to pretend I didn't relax somewhat when the gate opened far enough and Vari stepped through.
“Alex. Your timing is perfect. Landis is running one of his experiments again. Now,” he flopped down onto my couch and regarded me with an expectant expression, “what’s the situation?”
“Let me get this straight,” he said when I finished. “You’re still in the running to become Richard’s chosen.”
“And now Deleo is trying to kill you.”
“She’s trying to harvest me, which amounts to the same thing at the end, but it adds another layer to the situation.”
Vari and Anne were so much a part of my life, I sometimes forgot they hadn’t been around all that long. I outlined what I knew about harvesting and the events of a couple of years ago when Belthas had targeted Arachne. When I finished, Vari looked thoughtful.
“Why is Deleo trying to harvest you? Is that a requirement to become Richard’s chosen?”
“No. All you have to do is kill your competition, but I imagine that Deleo feels that isn’t good enough now that she knows the contest is ongoing. She wants to defeat me utterly, and I assume she feels harvesting my magic is the best way to do that and prove her superiority to Richard.”
“But you said it didn’t work out too well for her last time.”
“I don't think she's thinking that logically.” An image flashed in my mind of the girl Rachel had been so many years before. Before Richard got hold of us all. “She hasn't for a while.”
“So what's the plan?”
“That's what we're going to work through tonight. Luna is still in class.” I checked my watch. “She’ll be released shortly. I called Anne just before you, and she's going to meet Luna at the training site to tell her what's going on. I also would feel better knowing neither of them is traveling alone.”
“Do you really think Deleo would target one of them?”
“It’s not her usual style. I actually don't think she even knows about you and Anne, but it pays to be cautious. When they get here, we can discuss strategy.”
“Well, at the very least I'm glad you're not leaving us out this time.”
“Given that Richard is involved, even if just peripherally, I think more minds are better than one. I'm going to want to keep it low profile though, especially if he's watching somehow.” I again felt that crawling, uncomfortable sensation that goes part and parcel with being observed. I'd expected Richard was keeping tabs on me to some degree, but I never thought it would take the form of personal observation.
What was his end game?
“What about Caldera?” Vari asked, and I stifled a curse. I’d forgotten all about her. I reached for my phone.
“She was out earlier. She's supposed to give me a call when she gets in.”
“Are you going to tell her? You know, about being a candidate for Richard’s chosen?”
I didn't answer, caught instead by the future of the phone clutched in my hand. It was about to ring, but it wasn't Caldera. It was-
My mobile vibrated with an incoming call.
“Anne.” I answered the call with a sense of vertigo, the shock of what she was about to tell me already migrating through my nervous system.
“Alex, Luna isn't here! The instructor told me they took a break about an hour ago, and she never came back. What do you need me to do?”
My voice seemed to come from some place very far away and very cold. “Anne, come to my flat. Be careful. I have to hang up now. I'm about to get another call.”
I hung up before she could say anything further and held up a hand to hush Vari’s questions.
The phone rang.
“Deleo, so help me, if you hurt her I will see you dead.”
She gave no indication that she heard me. “I have your adept pet. If you want to see her alive again you will be in Hamden tonight at midnight. I’ll call you with the address twenty minutes before, and you will come alone.”
She disconnected the call. I held my mobile to my ear for another long moment, forcing myself to consider the possibility that Luna was already dead. The thought of it was like ashes piling up around me, smothering the air, choking me off from the light. I wouldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t.
Vari stirred. “I guess Deleo is using a new strategy this time.”