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Obscured Footprints and Uncertain Paths

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“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I forced my attention back to what I was doing, divination firmly focused on ensuring neither side of the scale superseded the other—that would be bad--rather than allowing myself to wonder about the letter.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.”